By PSS | Posted: Friday June 8, 2018
After two years and 245 days away from New Zealand, Alex McBurney returned from WWII not much older than 23, but having seen things most wouldn’t in an entire lifetime. He speaks of the horrors of those trenches, the endless boredom and monotony, and of burying men while they were still warm – experiences he shares very rarely.
“I was conscripted when I was 19 years old. A boy who hadn’t been past gore in his lifetime.” Two months after his 21st birthday he was serving in Monte Cassino. McBurney was a truck driver. “Our job was to take the ammunition into the guns. At Cassino, we were night and day. The shells were heavy. It took two of us to lift a box onto the back of the truck,” he says. “I didn’t have a driver's licence. I was just a boy.”
The Battles of Cassino were among the most savage of WWII. It took four assaults to capture Monte Cassino, and drive back German troops. When Cassino finally fell in May 1944 the losses were severe with over 55,000 Allied casualties. A total of 343 New Zealanders were killed.
“I can remember our Padre telling us, “Don’t bury anybody, unless I’m there.” It made no difference to us. They were still warm. But we knew they were dead. And we buried them.”
“I was wounded at Cassino.” Alex says. “It was cold, wet and miserable. I was lying flat on the ground. And this bit of shrapnel went right across my bum.” He crawled to the closest trench. A bombardier was at the bottom, lying in water. Alex lay on top of him. “When it was over, the bombardier was covered in my blood.”
Away from the front line, the soldiers faced different day-to-day struggles. “We ate Bully Beef every day. Fried, stewed.” Alex explains watching the cook cut maggots from a block of beef. “I was only seven stone when I came home.” The soldiers always slept on the ground, “If we could get a stone wall on one side and a truck wheel on the other, we were reasonably safe.”
When Alex talks of climbing the pyramids, it’s clear the soldiers were just boys. “I climbed up the one that was smooth up the top,” he recalls. He went into the Colosseum in Rome, and down the canals of Venice. His division joined a swimming relay competition with other soldiers while based in Egypt. “We represented New Zealand in the final in the Gezira sporting complex in the middle of the Nile. We won.”
Alex was engaged to Elma in 1942 while on his final leave. “The next day I left her and I didn’t see her for three and a half years.” The two kept in touch over a series of letters, Alex writing when he could, Elma sending often and as much as she could. “They were books,” chuckles Alex.
Alex talks of the day he heard the war ended. “It was at night time. It was dark and we heard it over the radio that the war had finished.” His platoon drove into Venice the following day. “We got in the gondolas. They took us up the Grand Canal, under the Rialto bridge and into St Mark’s Square. The gerrys didn’t know the war was over. We didn’t have our rifles with us, we’d left them back with our trucks. They were firing, and we were running for our lives, but we got out.”
Alex arrived home on January 3rd. “We must have been about ten miles out, we could see the land. But boy, we could smell it. Home. ”
“On the railway platforms, there were great tables of scones. With butter on them. With cream, and jam on them. Oh, I was sick the next day.”
Anzac Day pays tribute to the Kiwi and Australian soldiers who fought in the great wars and honours the fallen. It’s a day of remembrance. “Elma and I always went to the dawn service in Invercargill,” Alex says, but when the couple moved to Queenstown thirty years ago there was no official service. “I assume there is one now, but no. I’ll go to golf.” Alex McBurney, a resident now of Frankton Court, is 98 years young, and plays golf four times a week. “If you asked any returned service man, they’d say yes, have a day of remembrance. But whatever you want to do, go and do it.”