Chapter 4: The Advance to Florence
I: A Change in Plan
THE capture of Arezzo by 13 Corps on 16 July was followed by other successes: 2 Polish Corps broke through to Ancona on the Adriatic coast on the 18th and 4 United States Corps entered Leghorn on the Ligurian coast next day. These advances gave the Allied armies possession of two vital ports of supply – both of which had to be cleared of extensive demolitions before they could be used – and in Arezzo an administrative base for the planned offensive against the Gothic Line. The next objective was Florence, which was wanted as an operational base for such an offensive.
Thirteenth Corps’ sector offered the easiest terrain for an advance to Florence – north-westwards from Arezzo down the valley of the Arno River. This valley, however, was dominated from the east by the rugged and almost unroaded Pratomagno massif and from the west by the comparatively gentle ridges of the Monti del Chianti. The corps advanced on a front of three divisions, with 6 British Armoured Division in the Arno valley, 6 South African Armoured Division on the western side of the Chianti mountains, and 4 British Infantry Division keeping contact between them. It soon became apparent that the enemy was determined to resist strongly in the Arno valley, where he had concentrated some of his best troops.
The widening of Eighth Army’s front, when the French Expeditionary Corps of Fifth Army departed to prepare for the anvil expedition, gave another possible approach to Florence: west of the Chianti mountains. Thirteenth Corps, extending westwards, took over the French Corps’ sector on Fifth Army’s right flank, astride Route 2, which led northwards from Siena through Poggibonsi
(captured by the French on 14 July) and San Casciano to the city. It was a region of rolling hills and many secondary roads and tracks, and according to Intelligence reports and the experiences of the French, was not as strongly defended as the Arno valley.
To take advantage of the expected lighter resistance in this sector, therefore, General Kirkman moved the weight of 13 Corps’ attack westward. On the corps’ right flank 6 Armoured Division was to continue its thrust down the eastern side of the Arno valley and 4 Division was to push down the western side of the lower slopes of the Chianti mountains; these two divisions were to contain the enemy facing them, maintain constant pressure and be prepared to take advantage of any opportunities. The 6th South African Armoured Division, which earlier had the subsidiary role of making down the valley of the River Greve (a tributary of the Arno), an outflanking move to assist the attack down the Arno, was now to take part in the major assault, with the Arno west of Florence for its objective. After the New Zealand Division and 8 Indian Division had relieved the French Expeditionary Corps, the New Zealanders were to share with the South Africans in this assault, and the Indians were to conform with the advance and cover the left flank.
The New Zealand Division was to relieve 2 Moroccan Division and pass through the leading troops as early as possible after dawn on 22 July; it was intended to thrust northwards from Castellina in Chianti (east of Poggibonsi), cut across Route 2 by San Casciano and occupy the Arno crossings at Signa, six or seven miles west of Florence. The Division’s sector was only about three miles wide; it led north-north-westwards and included the secondary road running in that direction from Castellina, a short stretch of Route 2 and a network of minor roads and tracks beyond San Casciano.
In instructions issued on 21 July to the five divisions of 13 Corps General Kirkman directed that every effort should be made, with the help of Italian partisans where available, to secure bridges intact over the Arno, form bridgeheads north of the river, and even take advantage of any opportunity given by the enemy’s weaknesses or disorganisation to penetrate the Gothic Line. He thought it more likely, however, that the enemy would withdraw in orderly bounds and be found firmly deployed in prepared defences in the Gothic Line. The corps commander also said that it was not his intention to become involved in serious street fighting in Florence, but to bypass the city if necessary. Florence was not to be shelled without sanction from Corps Headquarters.
General Kirkman informed General Freyberg in the afternoon of 20 July that the New Zealand Division would be called on for the assault on Florence. Orders were given and preparations made for the move of the Division’s 4855 vehicles to Castellina, a distance of about 60 miles. The Division was divided into 14 convoys which, with the exception of 150 tracked vehicles of 4 Armoured Brigade, went by a route from Castiglion Fiorentino past Siena to Castellina; the tracked vehicles’ route was from Castiglione del Lago past Sinalunga and Siena. The first convoys left on 21 July and the last two days later; they completed the journey with few mishaps. The usual security precautions were taken of not displaying New Zealand badges, titles and fernleaf signs, and wireless silence was enforced.
It was mid-summer. During the journey a man who had served in North Africa declared that ‘never before in all my life have I travelled over such a dusty road. The endless stream of vehicles had ground the surface into a light feathery dust which was six inches deep in places. There was little wind, and although the road wound up and down over broken hills and was only visible at scattered points, its whole length could be traced by the pall of dust hanging over it. Vehicles and occupants were covered with a chalky grey powder which gave them a ghastly unnatural appearance. Occasionally we had to drop to crawling speed because the swirling clouds limited visibility to the end of the bonnet. The route took us through the foothills of the Chianti mountains which were thickly wooded at first, later becoming barren and wind eroded as we made towards Siena.’ The convoys drove round the high, massive brick wall of the town, ‘but over the top we could see several domes and spires and some large buildings. A little further on we turned off the main route ... down a side road to our new bivvy area, on the estate of some Italian count. ...
‘We have the trucks parked along a line of white mulberries bordering a lucerne paddock in the characteristic setting of wheat and maize patches crisscrossed by grapevines supported on topped maples. ... A very striking thousand yard avenue of upright Italian cypresses runs from the main gates up to the residence. ... The long line of sombre dark green spires forms a striking contrast with the yellow brown background of rolling hills. The final two hundred yards leading to the house is flanked on either side by groves of fine old ashes, beeches and maritime pines. ... The place has been very pretty but is now in a state of neglect.’1
Divisional Headquarters issued an operation order in the evening of the 21st which said the intention was to advance and capture crossings over the River Arno at Signa. Fifth Brigade was to relieve 2 Moroccan Division and then advance against the enemy as early as possible next day. The remainder of the Division was to remain south of Castellina on three hours’ notice until called forward. Three Royal Artillery regiments came under the Division’s command – 70 and 75 Medium Regiments and 142 Army Field Regiment2 (self-propelled) – and in support was B Flight of 655 Air Observation Post Squadron. The Division also took over temporarily some armoured and artillery units which had been supporting 2 Moroccan Division.
On the night of 21–22 July 5 Brigade relieved two battalions of 2 Moroccan Division five or six miles north-west of Castellina, with 23 Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas3) on the right at San Donato in Poggio and 28 (Maori) Battalion (Lieutenant- Colonel Young) on the left between the Castellina – San Donato road and Route 2. Each battalion was supported by two platoons of medium tanks and one of light tanks from 757 US Tank Battalion; in addition, 23 Battalion had two troops of A Squadron, Divisional Cavalry, and a platoon of 7 Field Company under command, and 28 Battalion had one troop of A Squadron, Divisional Cavalry, a platoon of 7 Field Company and 5 Brigade Heavy Mortar Platoon. The 5th Field Regiment was deployed two and a half miles north-west of Castellina.
The 23rd Battalion completed the relief of 2 Battalion, 8 Moroccan Infantry Regiment, before midnight and sent out patrols, one of which met opposition on a ridge (Point 337) a mile and a half to the north along the road to Sambuca. The Maori Battalion, whose sector was farther from the road, took until dawn to complete the relief of 2 Battalion, 5 Moroccan Infantry Regiment.
The codeword (Skegness) for the start of 5 Brigade’s advance was circulated by Divisional Headquarters by a signal timed 1.30 p.m. on 22 July; this allowed units operationally engaged to use their wireless sets, and also permitted the display again of New Zealand titles, badges and fernleaf signs.
When the New Zealand Division went into the line for the assault on Florence, the Polish Corps, in the Adriatic coastal sector, had crossed the Esino River, between Ancona and Senigallia, and was steadily pushing the enemy back towards the main defences of the Gothic Line, the eastern flank of which rested on Pesaro. In 10 Corps’ mountainous sector armoured car patrols were operating on a wide front east of 10 Indian Division, which was working its way northward along the Tiber valley, and 4 Indian Division was in the rugged country north-east of Arezzo.
On 13 Corps’ right flank 6 British Armoured Division, advancing in a north-westerly direction from Arezzo to clear the eastern side of the Arno valley, had not progressed far beyond the southern end of the Pratomagno massif, and 4 British Division, on a narrow front extending into the foothills of the Monti del Chianti, was less than half-way along Route 69 (the road from Arezzo to Florence).4 Farther west 6 South African Armoured Division was clearing the defences on the main features of the Monti del Chianti to permit an advance along a secondary road to Greve, south of Florence. Thirteenth Corps’ front continued westward through the New Zealand Division’s sector to where 8 Indian Division relieved 4 Moroccan Mountain Division, which had reached a line stretching north-westwards along the Elsa River to Castelfiorentino. The command of the part of the front taken over by the New Zealand and Indian divisions passed from the French Expeditionary Corps of Fifth Army to 13 Corps of Eighth Army at midnight on 22–23 July.
Fifth Army, reduced to a front of four divisions to release troops for the landing in southern France, penetrated over Route 67 (the road from Florence to Pisa and Leghorn), entered the southern part of Pisa on 23 July, and began to regroup along the Arno.
The enemy held a line across the peninsula south of the Gothic Line defences, with Fourteenth Army (comprising 75 Corps, 14 Panzer Corps and 1 Parachute Corps) on the right (west) and Tenth Army (76 Panzer Corps and 51 Mountain Corps) on the left. Seventy-fifth Corps disposed one division around the mouth of the Arno River and on the Ligurian coast to the north, and another in the Pisa area; 14 Panzer Corps was along the Arno to the confluence with its tributary, the Elsa, with two divisions
forward and one in reserve; from Castelfiorentino on the Elsa eastwards across the hills south of Florence to the Monti del Chianti – the part of the front to which the New Zealand and Indian divisions were transferred, alongside the South Africans – was 1 Parachute Corps with three divisions, 29 Panzer Grenadier on the right, 4 Parachute in the centre and 356 Infantry on the left.
East of the boundary between the two German armies, 76 Panzer Corps held the line from the Monti del Chianti across the Arno valley between Florence and Arezzo with seven divisions, one of which was in the process of relieving the Hermann Goering Division, destined to leave the Italian front, and another (1 Parachute Division) was to be withdrawn to Rimini on the Adriatic coast. The line from the Tiber valley through the mountains to the coast was held by 51 Mountain Corps with four divisions.
The enemy had few reserves behind the front line he could call upon if necessary. North of Pisa two German Air Force divisions were being converted into one formation. Spezia, on the Ligurian coast, was garrisoned by a fortress brigade; the coast east and west of Genoa was covered by a German division, and another was guarding the Franco-Italian frontier with the Italian Army Liguria. Tenth Army had one division in reserve at Bologna. A Turcoman division of doubtful reliability was watching the Adriatic coast south of Ravenna, and 1 Parachute Division, as it was withdrawn from the Arno valley, went into position south of Rimini, in rear of the Adriatic flank of the Gothic Line. The German High Command was still apprehensive of seaborne landings behind the front.
Field Marshal Kesselring knew from experience that the mobility of the Allied armies enabled them to attack with little warning at widely separated parts of the front. His own Army Group C, on the other hand, was handicapped by its lack of transport and the continual interruption of communications by the almost unopposed Allied bombing, and therefore had difficulty in transferring formations rapidly from one sector to another. To guard against a breakthrough which might cut in behind and encircle part of his forces, he had to cover as wide a front as possible and fall back evenly across that front. As he could not expect to receive sufficient reinforcements for use as a mobile reserve or as a counter-attack force, his tactics could be only a step-by-step withdrawal under pressure to keep his line intact.
Hitler had given orders to hold the line south of Florence as long as possible. The placing of Tenth Army’s main strength across the Arno valley south-east of the city had influenced 13 British Corps in its decision to change its line of assault to a sector farther
west. Fourteenth Army intended to hold the Heinrich-Paula5 line, which ran along the lower Arno River from the coast to Montelupo and then eastwards through the hills about five miles south of Florence. In Army Group’s opinion this line was too close to the city, and orders were given, therefore, that a line farther south should be reconnoitred and prepared.
II: The Pesa Valley
The New Zealand Division was now in the Chianti country, famous for its wine, a closely settled region of undulating ridges, slopes and gullies, where thickly wooded land alternated with olive groves, vineyards, crops of wheat and cereals, and where innumerable stone-built farmhouses and hamlets were interspersed with handsome villas. Many of these buildings were to become strongpoints for defence and targets for attack.
This became known as the ‘Tiger country’ because of the many German Tiger (Mark VI) 60-ton tanks encountered there. The Sherman was considered no match for the Tiger.6 ‘From the moment the Tiger appeared it became a kind of bogey, and the air was full of rumours of more and more Tigers lying in wait just ahead; just as in the desert every German gun was an “eighty-eight”, so here every tracked vehicle heard over in German territory was a Tiger. The natural result was that, quite suddenly, the New Zealand tanks became more cautious than they had ever been before. ... The high mutual regard of New Zealand tanks and infantry was in danger.’7 The Chianti country appeared to offer no advantages for the attacking armour: it was intersected by shallow watercourses and narrow roads which could be obstructed by mines and demolitions. Much of the advance would have to be made across country, where the tanks would have to grope almost blindly among the trees and vines.
Fifth Infantry Brigade was to start the New Zealand Division’s advance towards the Arno. The intention was that on the right 23 Battalion was to follow the axis of the secondary road leading north-west from San Donato in Poggio into Route 2, and from Sambuca was to continue on the eastern side of the Pesa River; on the left 28 (Maori) Battalion was to take the side road which turned off westward just south of San Donato and swung north-westward to join Route 2 by Tavarnelle in Val di Pesa, and was to follow Route 2 as far as Strada and then turn left on to the side road which ran north-westwards along the west of the Pesa valley.
The first objective (codename BUFFALO) was about three miles north of San Donato, the second (MONTREAL) another mile and a half, and the third (QUEBEC) a further mile and a half.8 These were phase lines rather than objectives; they were intended to indicate the rate and extent of the advance. Both battalions were to keep in contact with the enemy and force him to continue withdrawing; until they met a strong defence needing a set-piece attack, they were to conduct their own advances, with Brigade Headquarters co-ordinating times and objectives. Until relieved by 18 NZ Armoured Regiment, the tanks of 757 US Tank Battalion were to stay in support of 23 and 28 Battalions. Provision was made for the field and medium artillery to move forward as required in support.
At daybreak on the 22nd troops of 23 Battalion prepared to advance against the enemy posts identified by patrols the previous night, and the artillery was asked to fire on Point 337, a mile and a half beyond San Donato, and to harass all likely defences on the route to Sambuca. The 5th Field Regiment began firing at 6.20 a.m.
C Company pushed westward along a ridge towards Point 357, which a platoon quickly occupied, and took a few prisoners from 4 Parachute Division. B Company had a more difficult task. About a mile north of San Donato a side road led off to the north-west towards Morocco and Tavarnelle, and near the road fork the settlement of San Martino a Cozzi would have to be occupied before the battalion could advance up either the road to Sambuca or the road to Morocco. Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas therefore ordered B Company to capture San Martino.
Attacking without tank support, B Company’s men were caught at close range by devastating fire and had to retire when their
ammunition ran low. About midday the company commander (Major Worsnop9) arranged a stronger assault, supported by artillery and mortar fire, and with covering small-arms fire from Divisional
Cavalry armoured cars. San Martino was captured, but by this time B Company’s casualties were nearly 30 (including five men taken prisoner).
This action was considered invaluable in permitting the later advances on 23 Battalion’s front, but it had not been intended that the infantry should attack without tank support.10 Several American Sherman tanks were in harbour close to San Donato, but their commander had been unwilling to become involved in 23 Battalion’s attack as he was waiting for the New Zealand tanks to take over. He said his instructions had been ‘not to lose a tank or risk one.’11 Later, however, the Americans ignored these instructions.
While B Company was dealing with San Martino, A Company did not go beyond the road fork. Its objectives were Point 337 and the settlement of Ginestra, farther along the road to Sambuca. A Company, also without tank support, captured Point 337, but was counter-attacked and forced to withdraw. Thomas ordered the company commander (Major Hoseit12) to regain the point. Some of the American tanks, a troop of New Zealand tanks and two troops of A Squadron, Divisional Cavalry, went forward to assist, and 5 Field Regiment gave supporting fire. By dusk A Company had retaken Point 337 and occupied some of the houses at Ginestra.
When D Company, accompanied by two troops of A Squadron, 18 Armoured Regiment, started an advance to Morocco, the leading troop of tanks, either by mistake or through receiving a request to help A Company, continued along the Sambuca road instead of turning on to the Morocco road and took part in the counter-attack which regained Point 337. These tanks then wheeled left across country to join the other troop of tanks with D Company on the Morocco road.
D Company and the tanks spread across the fields bordering the Morocco road and made excellent progress. ‘The country was gently undulating and we went sweeping forward beneath the scattered olive trees, with farmhouses showing up here and there at the end of lanes running in from the main road. ... When a house, appearing through the trees, looked to house the enemy, the tanks blazed away with their 75s as they advanced. The enemy was on the run. Without the armour I don’t expect we should have got very far,’ says one of the platoon commanders.13
Fire was exchanged with the enemy in Morocco, and on request 5 Field Regiment laid down a ‘murder’14 on the centres of resistance.
The infantry and tanks closed in on the village and, although some Germans were seen in retreat, the houses had to be cleared one by one. A Sherman tank was set alight by a tank or self-propelled gun which subsequently managed to withdraw. D Company collected about 60 prisoners, but owing to a misunderstanding, one of the supporting tanks opened fire on the house where the prisoners were held under guard, and most of them escaped in the confusion.
When Thomas heard of D Company’s success, he changed the plan he had made for C Company with tanks and engineers to attack up the Sambuca road through A Company next morning, and ordered C with all available support to go immediately to Morocco. C Company was relieved at Point 357 by a platoon from 28 Battalion and, travelling on seven of A Squadron’s tanks and other vehicles, set off to join D Company. The combined force advanced to a road junction a short way beyond Morocco and laagered overnight. The engineers cleared the road through Morocco, which had been partially blocked by demolitions.
Meanwhile, during the morning of 22 July, 28 (Maori) Battalion concentrated on the road which led westwards from just south of San Donato and then north-westwards towards Tavarnelle. In the afternoon patrols, reconnoitring the ground over which the battalion was to advance, exchanged fire with parties of the enemy, took a few prisoners, and reported that the enemy was occupying the village of Tignano, less than two miles from Tavarnelle, but apparently not in any strength. Before the advance began 5 Field Regiment laid down fire on positions where the enemy had been observed.
The Maoris set off shortly after 7 p.m. with B Company covering the right flank east of the road, C in the centre, D west of the road, and A in reserve. Half of B Squadron, 18 Armoured Regiment, joined C Company; the other half was in reserve. Machine-gun and mortar fire was met on rising ground leading to Tignano, but under cover of fire from the tanks and mortars, C Company converged on the village, overcame the opposition and took a few more prisoners. B and D Companies passed on each side of Tignano and converged on Spicciano, farther along the road, where they stopped after dislodging small groups of the enemy. The sappers of 7 Field Company cleared a passage for the tanks past demolitions and mines.
The Germans had observed on 21 July that the Allies were bringing up reinforcements on 1 Parachute Corps’ front, particularly in the area south of Tavarnelle, and next day that the Allied
preparations had increased still further. Guns and many vehicles could be seen, especially in the area east of the Poggibonsi-Florence road. Statements by prisoners of war indicated that a new formation, ‘presumably 2 NZ Div’,15 had come into the line. Fourteenth Army ordered 1 Parachute Corps to hold the Nora Line (Strada–Fabbrica) until at least the evening of 23 July.
On the 22nd 4 Parachute Division extended its front eastwards by taking over part of 356 Division’s sector, an alteration which brought the New Zealand Division’s line of assault exclusively against the parachute division. Fourteenth Army reports describe the attacks on 1 Parachute Corps’ front, including those south and south-east of Tavarnelle, where ‘after fierce fighting our battle outposts withdrew to the FDLs.’16 The 23rd Battalion of the New Zealand Division was identified by the capture of five men from B Company.
C Company of 23 Battalion, accompanied by half of A Squadron, 18 Regiment, left the road junction near Morocco at 4.30 a.m. on 23 July and within an hour and a half had occupied the hamlet of La Rocca. Beyond La Rocca the enemy withdrew behind demolitions, one of which he blew little more than 100 yards in front of the leading tank. C Company crossed Route 2 to the village of Strada, on a secondary road leading to the north-west. There the defence included spandau, mortar and ofenrohr fire, but the tanks ‘hammered the buildings with all their weapons while the infantry moved in, and Jerry fled, abandoning one of his bazookas.’17 C Company was in possession of Strada by 7.15 a.m., and another group of buildings called Case Poggio Petroio about midday.
The artillery engaged a German tank reported at Point 322, by Villa Strada, a large house (known to the New Zealanders as the Castle) not far to the north of Strada. One of A Squadron’s tanks was hit by an anti-tank shell from somewhere near Villa Strada, and burst into flames before the crew could get clear. Early in the afternoon C Company was directed on Point 322, but was forced to fall back. So intense was the fire from this locality that it was decided not to renew the attack that afternoon.
The Maori Battalion resumed the advance from the Tignano area at 5 a.m. on the 23rd and in a little over two hours entered Tavarnelle without opposition. It was then learnt that 23 Battalion, by attacking Strada, had crossed 28 Battalion’s axis of advance (Route 2). Brigadier Stewart therefore directed the Maori Battalion to take a road north of Tavarnelle instead of Route 2, with Villa Bonazza as its immediate objective. After some delay caused by machine-gun fire and mines, C Company moved up this road, followed by half of B Squadron, 18 Regiment, with B Company keeping level on the right. Both companies were fired on by guns and mortars located mostly in the Villa Strada area, where tanks were also seen.
From the direction of Villa Bonazza ‘fast tank shells came whistling down the road. ... [B Squadron’s tanks] began to shoot up the villa and its grounds, but this brought on a savage reaction from Jerry, and a Tiger tank beside a little cemetery on the right flank hit and burnt two Shermans in quick succession.’18 A third troop of B Squadron came up to join in the battle with the Tiger, which left the cemetery and, while heading across a gully towards Route 2, was damaged beyond repair and finally blown up by its crew. This was the first Tiger tank claimed by the New Zealand Shermans.
During the day 18 Regiment’s padre (Captain Gourdie19) pulled the men out of two burning tanks, and repeatedly exposed himself to shell and machine-gun fire to take carrier loads of wounded men back to the RAP.
On 28 Battalion’s left flank D Company advanced up the road through the village of Noce, which was across a gully from Villa Bonazza. The hostile fire increased beyond Noce, and by 6 p.m. D Company, as well as B and C, had come to a halt. Later, however, the Maoris charged Villa Bonazza. Sergeant Patrick,20 of D Company, says ‘a spandau was firing from one of the windows and there was a fair amount of activity in the trees. ... We fixed bayonets and went down the gully and up the other side pretty well worked up too.’ But the enemy must have seen the Maoris coming, ‘for they left their defences and scampered back to the building. The trees seemed alive with running men, and the yelling of the Maoris added to the din created by the shouting of the Jerries. We killed a few but the rest disappeared and we presumed they had entered the casa. We searched but found no one
in it. It was a tremendous building and I remember a beautiful piano. ...’21
Brigadier Stewart gave 23 Battalion orders in the morning of 23 July to occupy Sambuca, but not to continue beyond the bound MONTREAL (the junction of the Sambuca road and Route 2). Also, Divisional Cavalry’s armoured cars were to establish contact with 6 South African Division’s troops on the right flank. Lieutenant- Colonel Thomas therefore instructed A Company to continue to Sambuca and Fabbrica with supporting arms and an additional troop of A Squadron of Divisional Cavalry under command.
This force came under increasing shell and mortar fire as it approached the western bank of the Pesa; it found that the bridge had been destroyed at Sambuca, but took the village, crossed the river, and continued towards Fabbrica, a village on a hillside more than a mile to the north. The impression was gained from Italians that the enemy had left Fabbrica,22 and this seemed to be confirmed when no fire came from the village.
The vehicles were held up at a demolition where the road crossed a stream, but about 7.30 p.m. the infantry continued to the foot of the hill on which Fabbrica stood, where they were within easy range of the buildings overlooking them. At this point mortars and machine guns opened fire on the men in the open, who went to ground, and artillery fire was directed on the road around Company Headquarters. A request was sent back for a stonk on Fabbrica, but some of the artillery fire fell short. The house in which Company Headquarters had been set up received a direct hit by an enemy shell, which killed Major Hoseit and wounded several of his men. Orders were given for the company to withdraw, which it did with the assistance of covering fire from the Staghounds.
Field Marshal Kesselring expressed the opinion to General Joachim Lemelsen23 on 23 July that a major Allied attack was imminent, with its main weight on Fourteenth Army’s left flank and possibly to a less extent on Tenth Army’s right flank. It appeared to him
that there was evidence that the Allies had decided against a landing in southern France so as to add all possible weight to the attack in Italy, perhaps supported by a landing on the Ligurian coast or in the Adriatic. The immediate objective would be Florence.
Late on 23 July Fourteenth Army issued orders that 1 Parachute Corps was to delay the Allies as long as possible after they had launched their expected attack on Florence. To enable the Paula Line south of the city to be prepared for a prolonged defence, 1 Parachute Corps was to hold another line (the Olga Line) several miles farther south until the evening of 25 July at the earliest.
Fourteenth Army’s evening report on 23 July states that the New Zealand and South African divisions had attacked the centre and left of 1 Parachute Corps in strength. ‘Very hard fighting took place, in which 4 Para Div particularly distinguished itself. Both sides lost heavily. All attacks were beaten off, and a decisive success was gained. ...’ In a discussion with Lemelsen, General Alfred Schlemm (commander of 1 Parachute Corps) reported that ‘Terrible fighting was in progress on 4 Para Div’s front; the division had New Zealanders opposite it.’24
On the morning of 23 July General Freyberg was so satisfied with the way the advance was developing that he anticipated a speedy collapse of the German defences. He therefore decided not to bring 6 Brigade into the attack at that stage, but instead to send Divisional Cavalry through 5 Brigade when it had reached the bound QUEBEC (about 12 miles in a straight line from Florence) with the intention of driving to the Arno to try to save some of the bridges. Later in the day the reports of the opposition on 5 Brigade’s front indicated that there was no immediate prospect of Divisional Cavalry accomplishing this task.
Nevertheless the GOC continued to be hopeful of the enemy’s early withdrawal behind the Arno, and he wished to be fully prepared to follow up such a withdrawal as closely as possible. He considered bringing up 22 (Motor) Battalion and an armoured regiment with Headquarters 4 Armoured Brigade on the right, but it was felt that until 5 Brigade got further ahead there would not be enough room.
It could be seen that the right flank would present many obstacles. Route 2, being a main road, was likely to be well covered with fire; the many ditches and streams which passed under it to drain into the Pesa River gave the enemy ample scope for
demolitions, and the river itself would hinder lateral communications across the front. On the other hand, the road running to the north-west from Strada, mostly along the higher ground of the divide between the Pesa and the Virginio stream, might give greater opportunity for deployment and outflanking movements. It was decided, therefore, to exploit 23 Battalion’s success.
In the evening of 23 July Stewart arranged with Thomas that 23 Battalion’s D Company at Strada should send a patrol at 3 a.m. to Point 322 (near Villa Strada), where the enemy had resisted most strongly, to discover if he was still there. If he appeared to be thinning out, D Company was to stage an attack. If not, 21 Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Thodey25) was to pass through the 23rd with fresh tanks and take up the advance.
D Company’s patrol reported that enemy troops were still around Point 322 but vehicles and tanks had been heard withdrawing. Thomas called for artillery fire on the objective, and about 6 a.m. sent D Company forward. The infantry infiltrated across country under cover of a heavy mist, and tanks of A Squadron, 18 Armoured Regiment, followed along the road. When the mist lifted the company came under machine-gun fire. The tanks encountered demolitions, and two were blown up on mines. Mortar and artillery fire swept the road. The attack was called off, and arrangements were put in hand for 21 Battalion to relieve the 23rd, which was to go back to the vicinity of Morocco to rest. This relief was completed late in the evening of the 24th.26
Meanwhile a patrol from B Company, 23 Battalion, reconnoitred along Route 2 from Strada to the Pesa River and found that the highway had been much damaged by demolitions. As might be expected, the bridge over the river had been blown.
The Maori Battalion, having gained the bound MONTREAL, resumed the advance north of Villa Bonazza on the morning of 24 July, with C Company on the right, D on the left and B in reserve, and with two troops of B Squadron, 18 Regiment, in close support. A platoon from A Company (which was at Tavarnelle), two Staghounds and some Bren carriers worked along the road north of Noce to protect the left flank, where 8 Indian Division had not yet drawn level.
The Maori Battalion made better progress on the left than on
the right. Early in the afternoon, when Brigadier Stewart learnt that D Company had reached the line of the bound QUEBEC, he instructed Lieutenant-Colonel Young to halt his men and wait until 21 Battalion was ready to support a further advance on the right. D Company was about two miles beyond Villa Bonazza, but C Company was well back, and B farther back still. The Shermans with C Company clashed with a Panther,27 ‘which blazed defiantly away from the Strada road and effectively scotched the advance on the Maoris’ right.’28 But the enemy, after some ‘nasty persistent shellfire’, withdrew during the night, and C Company advanced before dawn on the 25th to secure the crossroads on the Strada – San Pancrazio road about two miles from Strada. The Maori Battalion then took the route north-westward towards San Pancrazio.
A Company of 21 Battalion, having relieved D Company, 23 Battalion, after dusk on the 24th, set off along the road from Strada, supported by two troops of C Squadron, 18 Regiment (which had replaced A Squadron), and with C Company following in a reserve role. The leading infantry was reported on the line of the bound QUEBEC about 2 a.m. As 28 Battalion was cutting in ahead on the Strada – San Pancrazio road, 21 Battalion was directed on to the road leading off to the north from the crossroads secured by the Maoris. A Company followed this road down a long spur towards the Pesa River. Mines and demolitions had to be cleared to allow the tanks through, and in the afternoon the company was brought to a halt by enemy in buildings near the end of the ridge, from which the road descended to a bridge, already demolished, on the Pesa. Route 2, on the other side of the river, turned at right angles not far from the wrecked bridge to climb a spur to San Casciano.
A Company laid on an attack which at first went well, but as the infantry and tanks approached the river they came under mortar and artillery fire, mostly from the San Casciano spur. A Sherman was knocked out. The infantry took up positions along the road leading to the demolished bridge, and stayed there next day.
The Maori Battalion continued its advance north-westward on the road along the ridge between the Pesa and the Virginio on the morning of 25 July. D Company and tanks of B Squadron, 18 Regiment, were held up about midday at San Pancrazio by a mined demolition covered by anti-tank fire. Staghounds of A Squadron, Divisional Cavalry, which had joined the battalion, and others of B Squadron, which had taken over the task of protecting the
left flank by driving along the road from Noce to San Pancrazio, assisted in clearing the village, where 13 prisoners were collected. Beyond San Pancrazio many mines, real and dummy, were lifted, and D Company took 23 prisoners in a sharp fight near Lucignano.
Meanwhile changes took place on the Division’s right flank, east of the Pesa River. A Company of 23 Battalion, after being repulsed at Fabbrica, was replaced on the night of 23–24 July by B Company, 21 Battalion, which in turn was withdrawn next night when 21 Battalion relieved the 23rd at Strada. The front east of the Pesa was then taken over by a composite force called Armcav, under the command of Major H. A. Robinson29 and comprising A Squadron of 19 Regiment, C Squadron of Divisional Cavalry, 2 Company and a section of carriers from 22 (Motor) Battalion, a troop of M10s, detachments of engineers, machine-gunners and signalmen, a bridge-layer tank and a bulldozer.
Armcav, under 5 Brigade’s command, was to follow up the enemy’s withdrawal on Route 2 and maintain contact with the South Africans on the right. It was hoped that, with 5 Brigade advancing fast on the western side of the Pesa and the South Africans pressing forward on the east, the enemy holding across Route 2 would fall back under the threat of encirclement.
Early on the morning of 25 July Armcav occupied a deserted Fabbrica and reached the road junction near the Route 2 crossing of the Pesa without opposition. While the main part of Armcav continued northward along Route 2, a detachment including armoured cars took a more easterly route through the hills from Fabbrica. The main part of the force entered Bargino on Route 2 about midday, but was delayed in the afternoon by demolitions and mines and came under long-range shellfire. The bridge over the Terzona stream (which flowed into the Pesa) had been blown, and movement in the vicinity before nightfall brought shell and mortar fire from German positions at San Casciano.
The 1st Parachute Corps had withdrawn during the night of 23–24 July to an intermediate line south of the Olga Line, and had been ‘followed up sharply’ by forces which at daybreak were already close to the forward German positions. ‘Throughout the day the enemy continued his attacks in strength against 4 Para
Div, with heavy artillery and tank support. He made several local penetrations, all of which were sealed off. ...’30 On the night of 24–25 July 4 Parachute Division and 356 Division, holding the centre and left wing of 1 Parachute Corps’ sector, withdrew to the Olga Line, and the following night 29 Panzer Grenadier Division, on the corps’ right wing, also went back to this line. Fourteenth Army then held the Heinrich Line from the west coast to Empoli (on the southern bank of the Arno River about 15 miles west of Florence) and from there the Olga Line eastwards through Montespertoli (on 8 Indian Division’s front), San Casciano (on the New Zealand Division’s front) and Mercatale (on 6 South African Armoured Division’s front). Heavy attacks, ‘as expected’,31 were launched in 1 Parachute Corps’ sector on 25 July. By the end of the day 6 South African Armoured Division and 2 NZ Division were facing squarely up to the Olga Line.
Sixth New Zealand Infantry Brigade, having fought in the Arezzo sector, had been held in reserve during the initial stages of the advance to Florence, but had been kept well forward so that, when required, it could pass through 5 Brigade and maintain the impetus of the advance. Divisional Headquarters issued orders at 7 p.m. on the 25th that 5 Brigade was to continue the advance during the night to a line running through Montagnana to a bridge over the Pesa west of Cerbaia. When this objective had been secured, and at a time to be decided by the two brigade commanders, 6 Brigade was to pass through the 5th, establish a bridgehead over the Pesa in the vicinity of Cerbaia and advance northwards to a line west of the Pian dei Cerri hills32 and about half-way to Signa. On the same night Armcav was to capture San Casciano and remain responsible for the protection of the Division’s right flank. Next day (the 26th) 5 Brigade was to patrol to the north-west and 4 Armoured Brigade was to be prepared to operate to the east and north-east of 6 Brigade’s objective.
When the GOC told the corps commander, during a telephone conversation in the evening of the 25th, that the Division was putting through another brigade to attack in the direction of Signa, General Kirkman wondered whether it would not be better for the Division to direct its attack on to a bridge in Florence as he appreciated that it would be less likely to capture the Signa
bridge intact. Next morning Divisional Headquarters issued fresh orders which provided for the possibility of capturing both the Signa bridge and a bridge in Florence. After passing through 5 Brigade, 6 Brigade was to form a bridgehead over the Pesa between San Casciano and Cerbaia and advance north-eastward on to the Pian dei Cerri hills. Armcav was to capture San Casciano, if the opposition was not too strong, and protect 6 Brigade’s right flank. If San Casciano was not captured, Armcav was to continue to threaten the town from the south and south-east. Divisional Cavalry was to advance on the left of 6 Brigade to the Arno River eastward from and including the Signa bridge. Fourth Brigade was to be prepared to pass through 6 Brigade’s objective on the Pian dei Cerri hills, and taking Armcav under command, advance to the Arno westward from and including the westernmost bridge (Ponte della Vittoria) in Florence.
As 5 Brigade’s front was gradually narrowing between the Pesa River and the Division’s western boundary, Brigadier Stewart decided to let 21 Battalion alone continue the advance while 28 Battalion protected the axis road from the west until 8 Indian Division drew level on the flank.
Shortly after midnight on 25–26 July B and D Companies of 21 Battalion were sent up (on foot, because 6 Brigade’s transport, now on the way forward, had priority on the road) to relieve the leading troops of 28 Battalion. The enemy counter-attacked the Maoris that night, and Major Awatere33 therefore decided to leave his men forward with 21 Battalion’s. A platoon from the 21st and one of C Squadron’s tanks went along the road to the north-west and soon met strong opposition. Three enemy machine-gun posts were silenced, but fire from mortars and what was claimed to be a Tiger tank forced the party to retire with half a dozen casualties.
The GOC gave orders that there was to be no infantry attack in daylight on the 26th. The forward positions were shelled and mortared throughout the day. A Company, 21 Battalion, still near the demolished Pesa bridge, was under fire from the San Casciano spur. This slackened towards evening, but when three of C Squadron’s tanks attempted to reconnoitre a possible ford, they were caught in a fresh outburst of shelling; all three were hit and one was set alight.
The fire from San Casciano was sufficient to prevent Armcav from making any progress beyond the Terzona stream, about a mile and a half south of the town. Reports were received that Tiger tanks and anti-tank guns were defending San Casciano, which was shelled and twice raided spectacularly by fighter-bombers. Patrols sent out eastward in the afternoon met South African patrols and learnt that the enemy was still holding strongly in the Mercatale area.
General Freyberg, feeling that he should not leave the Division at this time, deputed Brigadier Inglis on 26 July to receive His Majesty the King when he passed through the New Zealand sector while visiting the troops in Italy. Only men from the units not in action, which included part of 4 Brigade and 23 Battalion, were available to line a road about 20 miles from Florence to cheer King George, who sent the General a message that he was sorry he had not been able to see him but quite understood.
Fifth Brigade’s plan for the night of 26–27 July was for 21 Battalion to continue the advance north-westwards to the village of Montagnana, while 28 (Maori) Battalion guarded the western flank until 8 Indian Division drew level.
With strong artillery support, D Company of 21 Battalion, accompanied by some 17-pounder guns and sappers with a bulldozer, and joined later by tanks of C Squadron, 18 Regiment, led the advance along the road past San Quirico to where it forked about a mile and a half from Montagnana. B Company, without support, went along tracks and across rough country to the nearby village of La Ripa, which it reached unopposed. Word was sent back immediately that the way was clear for 6 Brigade.
When troops of 26 Battalion, coming up for the attack across the Pesa River, reached La Ripa, it was decided to pass B Company, 21 Battalion, through D Company to continue the advance to Montagnana. B Company was joined by a party of tanks, 17-pounders and engineers, and set off before dawn on the 27th. The enemy offered little resistance, but left freshly-blown demolitions and mines, which kept the sappers busy clearing a passage. As the light improved the company found that it was following a road along a spur in full view of the enemy on the high ground across the Pesa. Although several salvoes of shells were directed on the road, the German gunners appeared to be more concerned with the 6 Brigade troops gathering near the river. A report that Tiger tanks were in Montagnana was found to be incorrect, and B Company entered the village without opposition.
The havoc in a large mansion in Montagnana suggested that its owner might have incurred reprisal for pro-Allied sentiment, ‘for everything possible, furniture, glass, earthenware and oil paintings had been destroyed, presumably by the enemy. Even the wine casks in the cellar had been broached.’34 In the neighbouring village of Montegufoni, however, a property owned by the English family of Sitwell happily had escaped this fate. None of the family was in residence and the house had been taken over by the Italians to store a priceless collection of paintings. Apart from being structurally suitable for storage, it was situated in a hollow unlikely to be a defended position, which no doubt helped to preserve its treasures.
Two Divisional Cavalry men discovered that the only occupant of the Sitwell’s house ‘seemed to be a gentle old Italian with the air of a Major Domo. We felt rather like Barbarians in this house with its aristocratic atmosphere and we in our common army boots. Stacked around the walls were dozens of pictures and the largest of all was leaning against a table. This huge dark canvas commanded our attention. ... I’m no art connoisseur, but I knew that this was Botticelli’s Primavera. We were rather awestruck. Naturally we didn’t know that UNRRA35 were waiting to take care of the place, but we knew it should be reported immediately.’36
The occupation of Montagnana brought 5 Brigade to its final objective, the bound OMAHA.37 The Maori Battalion occupied positions along the open western flank. Because 6 South African Armoured Division had been unable to keep pace on 5 Brigade’s other (eastern) flank, it was necessary for the New Zealand Division to clear Route 2 and make a frontal assault on San Casciano while 6 Brigade exploited 5 Brigade’s success and crossed the Pesa to make a left hook round the north-west of the town. The enemy was expected to resist stubbornly at San Casciano, which was a centre of communications on commanding ground.
Armcav, driving up Route 2, had been held up on 26 July at the Terzona stream. Early next morning an armoured car patrol managed to cross farther upstream and reach a road junction near Mercatale, but was halted by mines on the Mercatale – San Casciano road. The main body of Armcav also crossed the Terzona and advanced along Route 2. The tanks and other vehicles were delayed
by demolitions, but shortly before 10 a.m. infantry of 22 Battalion entered San Casciano unopposed except by some sniper fire.
The town, at the junction of several roads, had been abundantly mined and booby-trapped, and the roads badly blocked by a combination of British bombing and shelling and German demolitions. When one of 22 Battalion’s carriers following the infantry struck a mine, two men were killed and three wounded. A house-to-house search by infantry and tanks cleared the town of snipers. The engineer detachment from 6 Field Company, with a bulldozer, worked hard to make the road passable up to and through the town, but this work became extremely hazardous about midday, when the enemy laid shell and mortar fire on the roads and their junction in the town. Much of this fire came from the east.
On the occupation of San Casciano Armcav passed from 5 Brigade’s command to 4 Armoured Brigade, which was to take over this sector and continue the advance. When tanks of 20 Armoured Regiment and the rest of 22 Battalion reached San Casciano, Armcav was disbanded.
Fourth Brigade sent out strong patrols, including armoured cars or tanks (or both), to reconnoitre the roads radiating from San Casciano. They found that movement north of the town was hindered by shelling and numerous demolitions and mines. B Squadron of 20 Regiment and 3 Company, 22 Battalion, attempted to go along the road leading north-westward through Talente to Cerbaia, but were halted by a bad demolition about a mile from San Casciano. One of B Squadron’s tanks was set alight by shellfire, another damaged on a mine, and a third halted by mechanical trouble.
Florence, about 10 miles to the north, was visible from a tower in San Casciano.
Sixth Brigade had received orders on 26 July to pass through 5 Brigade with the task of forming a bridgehead over the Pesa between San Casciano and Cerbaia and continuing the advance. After 5 Brigade had occupied La Ripa, 26 Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Fountaine) was to advance to the Pesa and establish a bridgehead as close to Cerbaia as 5 Brigade’s advance would allow. After crossing the Pesa this battalion was to attack objectives on the high ground to the north. It was to have under command C Squadron (less a troop) of 19 Armoured Regiment, a platoon of machine guns, a troop of six-pounder anti-tank guns, a section of 17-pounders, and a detachment of engineers. The 24th Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Hutchens), with a similar supporting force,
was to follow hard on the heels of the 26th into the bridgehead and was to attack on its left. The 25th Battalion (Lieutenant- Colonel Norman), in reserve, was to form a firm base in the bridgehead.
The three battalions had been brought up to positions along the road south of San Pancrazio. A Company of 26 Battalion took over La Ripa from 21 Battalion at 3 a.m. on the 27th.
At the start of 26 Battalion’s advance the artillery, which had been firing on targets ahead of 21 Battalion, turned its attention to previously selected targets in the area of the proposed bridgehead and eastwards from Cerbaia to La Romola. The tanks and other supporting vehicles were unable to get past a mined demolition on the edge of La Ripa until a way had been cleared by the sappers of 8 Field Company. As dawn began to break the infantry and tanks came under shell and mortar fire from across the Pesa. The infantry reached the bank of the river about 7 a.m. and soon discovered that a heavy explosion heard earlier had been the demolition of the bridge.
No enemy was found on the western side of the river, so the tanks were called forward to assist the infantry to cross and attack Cerbaia, from which machine-gun fire was being directed at the men on the bank. A small bridge over a stream collapsed under the weight of the leading tank, which rolled over into the stream, but a bulldozer made a crossing for the other tanks, which engaged in a duel with enemy guns on the high ground behind Cerbaia.
A patrol investigated the demolished bridge, which had so dammed the Pesa that the fording of it appeared feasible. A Company’s commander (Major McKinlay38) decided about 8 a.m. to attack across the river. C Squadron’s leading tanks tried to cross where the slope of the bank offered a route, but two ran on to mines, and the others temporarily withdrew to cover while the sappers bulldozed a track in an unmined area. Meanwhile the infantry crossed and found that the enemy had gone from Cerbaia.
The remainder of 26 Battalion came forward on the western side of the Pesa, as also did 24 Battalion, which was intended to move across the rear of the 26th to a base at the nearby village of Castellare, also vacated by the enemy; there the 24th was to take over the left-hand sector of a two-battalion attack by 6 Brigade against the Pian dei Cerri hills. The tanks of B Squadron, 19 Armoured Regiment, under 24 Battalion’s command, crossed the Pesa at a shallow place discovered east of La Ripa and advanced to Talente, where they engaged enemy gun positions, but apparently
did not make contact with the 4 Brigade patrol attempting to reach Talente from San Casciano.
The New Zealand Division had been able to occupy San Casciano and Cerbaia without opposition and reach its final objectives west of the Pesa on 27 July because 1 Parachute Corps had withdrawn the previous night, as planned, to the Paula Line. The Division now was about to embark upon the final and hardest-fought stage of its advance to Florence.
III: The Pian dei Cerri Hills
The Paula Line, the last of the enemy’s planned delaying positions south of Florence, followed an eastward course from Montelupo, at the confluence of the Arno and Pesa rivers, across Route 2 towards the Arno valley between Florence and Arezzo. When 1 Parachute Corps withdrew to the Paula Line on the night of 26–27 July, the adjacent left wing of 14 Panzer Corps went back to the same line, and the point of contact between the two corps was moved eastward (to about two miles west of Cerbaia) to give 1 Parachute Corps a smaller sector, which enabled the enemy to thicken the concentration of armour, artillery and infantry opposing the two divisions – the New Zealand and South African – most closely approaching Florence.
As a result of this contraction of 1 Parachute Corps’ front the New Zealand Division, which had been opposed from the start of the advance by 4 Parachute Division, now faced its western neighbour, 29 Panzer Grenadier Division, whose sector included the high ground of the Pian dei Cerri. From the crest of these rolling wooded hills, rising in places over 1000 feet, both the Pesa valley to the south and the Arno valley and Florence to the north could be dominated by fire.
The New Zealand Division’s front had widened sufficiently to permit a two-brigade attack against this high ground. General Freyberg was confident early on 27 July that an advance over the Pian dei Cerri would drive the enemy back and clear the way to Florence. He discussed plans for the opening of a New Zealand club in the city. By the evening, however, it was obvious that the Division had run up against more determined opposition than it had yet encountered in the campaign, and that something more in the nature of a set-piece attack would have to take the place of the probing advances by single companies which had succeeded up to this stage. The plan for that night, states the GOC’s diary, was ‘modified and qualified and modified again in the usual
manner.’ Finally it was decided that 4 and 6 Brigades should make independent attacks with limited objectives.
On the left of the New Zealand sector 8 Indian Division had entered Montespertoli unopposed on the morning of 27 July and, before the day ended, had drawn level with 5 NZ Brigade, whose role of protecting the New Zealand Division’s left flank therefore was no longer necessary. On the right of the New Zealand sector 6 South African Armoured Division had found Mercatale, south-east of San Casciano, vacated by the enemy, but had been able to advance only a short distance beyond the village against stiffening resistance and under fire from guns on the high ground around Impruneta, and also had come up against strong enemy positions on Poggio Mandorli, south of Strada. Thus, until such time as the South Africans should draw level, 4 NZ Armoured Brigade, which was proposing to push north from San Casciano, had an unprotected right flank and was exposed to counter-attack and to fire from the guns around Impruneta.
The plan on which 2 NZ Division acted on the night of 27–28 July evolved from the earlier orders, which had given less importance to the occupation of San Casciano than to the formation of the bridgehead over the Pesa by 6 Brigade. After establishing the bridgehead 6 Brigade was to have occupied the line La Romola–San Michele (this bound being given the codename ATLANTA) and then the crest of the Pian dei Cerri hills (BROOKLYN).39 As San Casciano would have been untenable by the enemy once 6 Brigade was on these heights, the capture of the town had been left to Armcav. Fourth Brigade’s original role had been to pass through 6 Brigade on the capture of BROOKLYN and make a dash to the Arno in three bounds, while Divisional Cavalry made a similar advance on the left flank. Because all three brigades of the Division would have had to use the single route gained by 5 Brigade’s advances west of the Pesa, precise priorities had been allotted for the movement of fighting and maintenance vehicles.
The enemy’s early and scarcely expected withdrawal from San Casciano40 caused a change in plan. The advantages of occupying the town were recognised before Armcav had entered it. Instructions issued at 9.30 a.m. on the 27th gave 4 Brigade a new thrust line, northwards from San Casciano to Giogoli and then by the three
bounds to the Arno. This would ease the Division’s supply lines by widening the front and using Route 2 to San Casciano and the roads to Giogoli, and also would allow 4 Brigade’s tanks to avoid the more formidable of the Pian dei Cerri hills.
When it was realised that the South Africans were unlikely to keep pace with the New Zealand advance the scope of the plan was modified by a message sent by Divisional Headquarters at 7.35 p.m., by which time 4 Brigade had absorbed Armcav and 6 Brigade had tested the opposition on its front. Fourth Brigade now was given the task of attacking the eastern portion of the objective BROOKLYN, from a road fork south of Poggio delle Monache to La Poggiona, and 6 Brigade the crest of the Pian dei Cerri, which it was to gain in three stages.41 The two brigades were to attack independently. A further modification, issued at 10.40 p.m., limited 4 Brigade’s objective to the high ground from north of Faltignano to La Romola, and 6 Brigade to its first objective (Poggio Cigoli to Torri). Divisional Cavalry was made responsible for the road leading north-east from Geppetto, on the left flank.
Sixth Brigade, in a message issued at 11.30 p.m. on the 27th, instructed its units42 that the ‘intermediate objectives’ were to be attacked that night, Poggio Cigoli (Point 281) by 26 Battalion and La Liona (Point 261) by 24 Battalion; the advance to the ‘final objectives’, Poggio Valicaia (Point 382) and La Sughera (Point 395), would not be carried out until 4 Brigade had ‘completed tasks on right flank’.43 This second phase was expected to take place on 28 July. The 25th Battalion was to remain in reserve and protect the bridgehead over the Pesa River and the left flank.
Several roads led into the hills from the vicinity of Cerbaia, one north-eastward along a ridge to La Romola and beyond to join the San Casciano–Giogoli road; another from Castellare up a ridge to San Michele and over the Pian dei Cerri; and another, also from Castellare, up a ridge between La Romola and San Michele. Sixth Brigade’s first objectives (Points 281 and 261) were on this middle ridge.
C Company, which was to take 26 Battalion’s first objective (Point 281), crossed the Pesa, passed through A Company at Cerbaia before midnight, and was joined by two troops of C Squadron,
19 Regiment. A section (two Vickers guns) of 6 MG Platoon was loaded on to the tanks, and anti-tank guns were hitched on behind some of them. Just before 1 a.m. C Company reached its start line on a side-track (from Cerbaia di sopra44) linking the Cerbaia – La Romola road with the road on the middle ridge. B Company followed C into Cerbaia, while D waited west of the Pesa until called forward; B and D were to occupy the second objective (Point 382).
A Company, which was to take 24 Battalion’s first objective (Point 261), crossed the Pesa after dark; B and D, which were to occupy the second objective (Point 395), waited on the other side. C Company covered Battalion Headquarters, which was set up in Castellare. A Company was delayed by shellfire while crossing the
river and, instead of passing through Castellare as it should have done, eventually found itself in Cerbaia; it then followed the route taken earlier by C Company, 26 Battalion, to the start line, and was at least an hour and a half late in starting.
The tanks of B Squadron which were to support 24 Battalion did not arrive until much later. As soon as dusk obscured enemy observation, they left the Talente area (south-east of Cerbaia), where they had arrived earlier in the day, but could make only slow progress because of demolitions, mines, scattered fire and mechanical troubles. About 10 completed the journey, the leaders reaching Castellare not long before dawn on the 28th.
C Company, 26 Battalion, advanced up the road from Castellare on the middle ridge (between La Romola and San Michele), but owing to the difficulties of the going and the need to sweep for mines, the infantry soon outdistanced the tanks. As early as 2 a.m. the company reported back that it had covered the two miles to Poggio Cigoli (Point 281) and was beyond that point, but had not been able to make contact with 24 Battalion on its left flank. Brigade Headquarters learnt at 3.30 a.m. that C Company’s leading men were on the road some 500 yards north of Point 281, but the tanks, having been held up by a demolition, were well to the rear.
The Vickers guns were unloaded and the anti-tank guns unhitched, and while two tanks returned to bring up more guns, five managed to get past the demolition and push on to join the infantry. They overtook part of the reserve platoon (14 Platoon), which had been given the task of covering the sappers and guiding the tanks, and about daybreak were in a position from which they could cover the infantry ahead.
As the light improved, C Company, which had dug in hastily on both sides of the road, came under mortar and shell fire, and by the time the tanks arrived the whole area was under constant fire from almost all quarters. Obviously the company had penetrated well into the enemy’s lines. Anti-tank guns were firing from the La Romola ridge, almost due south, and other fire came from the north-west, west and south-west along the San Michele ridge.
In fact C Company had gone farther than had been intended,45 probably because it had appeared at that stage that the enemy had
either withdrawn or was withdrawing. The OC (Major Kain46) apparently had felt at liberty to exploit as far forward of the first objective as he could get. It had been demonstrated during 5 Brigade’s advance west of the Pesa that single companies forging ahead almost independently had made great gains on the heels of a retreating enemy, and it was not yet fully understood that the Division had come up against the Paula Line, which was to be stubbornly defended. The thought of being the first into Florence was in everyone’s mind.
A detachment from B Company of platoon strength followed in C Company’s tracks but did not get as far as Point 281; it met men of 24 Battalion about dawn and remained with them. Meanwhile A and B Companies of 25 Battalion joined the 26 Battalion troops at Cerbaia.
A Company, 24 Battalion, after getting away to a late start along the route on the ridge taken by C Company of the 26th, found a house occupied by five Germans, who were taken prisoner, and released two men of 26 Battalion who had been captured by this party. Continuing its advance, A Company met men at the tail of C Company who had just overcome a German machine-gun post near the road, and also stopped and captured an enemy truck which had driven through C Company. As dawn approached, A Company was well short of its objective, Point 261, which was separated from the road by a wooded gully. The OC (Major Howden47) then gave orders for a defensive position to be taken up with two platoons covering the road and the third with Company Headquarters in a house. The company made contact with C Squadrons tanks and was joined by the machine-gun section which had been carried on them. Three of B Squadron’s tanks reached A Company’s house just as day was breaking; others took up positions farther back to cover the San Michele and Geppetto roads.
Evidently 6 Brigade’s advance had penetrated into a thinly held sector of the German defences between the strongpoints at La Romola and San Michele. Shortly after dawn on the 28th the enemy, who appeared to have a large concentration of guns and heavy mortars on the Pian dei Cerri hills, brought down heavy fire on the salient and the roads to the rear. He had often used shellfire to cover his withdrawal, and as he had not seriously counter-attacked for some time, the New Zealand commanders apparently were expecting him to fall back, as he had been doing during the last few days. They therefore took little immediate action to ease the isolation of the two companies in the salient.
There were signs, however, that the enemy was preparing to counter-attack from the high ground to the north, where movement was observed and on which the fire of the New Zealand guns was directed. The tanks of B Squadron in the salient were finding it difficult to avoid the fire of enemy self-propelled guns or tanks on the San Michele ridge, while those of C Squadron were exposed to fire from tanks and anti-tank guns on the La Romola ridge. Of the seven C Squadron tanks supporting C Company, 26 Battalion (the original five plus the two which had gone back to bring up more anti-tank guns), two were knocked out and four damaged. Those mobile enough to avoid the fire from La Romola withdrew down the road past Point 281, which left C Company without support.
Under fire from three sides, C Company’s men gathered in the house north of Point 281 where Company Headquarters had been set up. A Company of 24 Battalion also drew in its platoons and concentrated around a house south of Point 281. About 10 a.m. German infantry began to close in on C Company’s house. Kain ordered his men to drop back by sections, well dispersed, which they did, taking their wounded with them. On the way they were joined by some men of C Squadron whose tanks had been immobilised. At A Company’s house the combined group (which also included the platoon from B Company, 26 Battalion) took up positions.
Having forced C Company to withdraw, the enemy seemed to pause in his counter-attack, but maintained steady fire across the whole front. The three tanks of B Squadron which had gone to the support of A Company, 24 Battalion, were knocked out or badly damaged, and one or two more of the same squadron were put out of action on the left flank. Late in the morning the tanks of B and C Squadrons still in running order retired down the ridge to refuel and replenish, evacuate the wounded and reorganise their crews. All the surviving tanks of the two squadrons were then placed under the command of B Squadron, and went back up the road.
Early in the afternoon the enemy appeared to be renewing the counter-attack from the north under shell, mortar, anti-tank and machine-gun fire, but was held off by 6 Brigade’s infantry, artillery, tank and heavy-mortar fire. The tanks engaged in duels with enemy tanks. The artillery shelled Points 281 and 261 and San Michele, as well as targets in the La Romola area, where the enemy appeared to be forming up as if he intended to counter-attack from that direction.
The German activity steadily increased towards evening, and
about 7 p.m. A Company, 24 Battalion, was attacked from the north and north-west. The enemy came close to the road (he may have crossed it) south-west of A Company, but did not threaten C Company and the platoon of B Company, 26 Battalion, on the eastern slope of the ridge. A Company reported at 7.15 p.m. that it was ‘completely surrounded’, and two minutes later that it was ‘in good strategical position. We will do our best. ...’ At 7.50 p.m. the company was ‘still fighting hard, posn a little easier, tanks engaging SP gun and MG posts.’48
Other enemy troops probed westward from the Tattoli area (about midway between La Romola and Cerbaia), and in an encounter with a platoon of A Company, 26 Battalion, which had taken up a position near Cerbaia di sopra covering the road to La Romola, captured two New Zealanders and wounded three.
Headquarters 24 Battalion received a message from A Company at 10.10 p.m. that the position was ‘still grim’49 but by that time other troops of 6 Brigade were on their way forward to renew the advance.
Whatever success 6 Brigade might gain, it was unlikely that resistance on the Division’s right flank would lessen until the South Africans assaulted Impruneta. A long exposed flank would be too much of an imposition on 4 Armoured Brigade’s only infantry, 22 (Motor) Battalion, which would have to carry out both an assaulting and a protective role, even if the armoured regiments managed to break through the Paula Line. Brigadier Inglis therefore had asked for a battalion from 5 Brigade to guard this flank, and 23 Battalion, which the GOC agreed should be on temporary loan for the task, was waiting south of San Casciano early in the morning of 28 July.
Fourth Brigade’s role was to maintain pressure on the right flank to assist 6 Brigade’s assault on the left. After the various modifications of the Division’s plans on the evening of the 27th, 4 Brigade’s objective was an east-west line about two and a half miles north of San Casciano and, at its western end, some 300 yards south of La Romola; an intermediate objective was just over half-way to this line.50
The attack began at 1 a.m. on the 28th, with 2 Company of 22 Battalion and A Squadron, 19 Regiment, taking the road to
the north past Casa Vecchia, and 3 Company, 22 Battalion, and B Squadron, 20 Regiment, the Pisignano road to the north-west – towards La Romola.
The force advancing northward met no direct opposition, but came under machine-gun, mortar and shell fire in the vicinity of Casa Vecchia. The infantry reached the intermediate objective near Spedaletto well ahead of the tanks, which had to contend with demolitions. Although the leading infantrymen were reported at one stage to have penetrated much farther to the north, 2 Company’s ultimate positions were not beyond Spedaletto.
The force on the left also was delayed by demolitions. The infantry, going on ahead of the tanks, met opposition beyond Pisignano and withdrew about 400 yards to rejoin the tanks near the village, which was on a ridge overlooking the deep valley of the Sugana stream, on the far side of which was the La Romola ridge.
Before daybreak 4 Brigade was under the impression – as was 6 Brigade – that the enemy was withdrawing. On hearing about 5.30 a.m. of 26 Battalion’s almost unopposed advance up the Poggio Cigoli road, 4 Brigade instructed 3 Company and B Squadron to push on in an attempt to draw level with 6 Brigade’s right flank. At the same time orders were given for the formation of two parties, each of a troop of A Squadron, 20 Regiment, and a platoon of 1 Company, 22 Battalion, to search and mop up areas missed in the advance.
To investigate the route beyond Pisignano a troop of B Squadron and a section of infantry descended a steep track into the Sugana valley directly below La Romola and stopped short of a huge hole in the road which ran along the valley. About 7 a.m. all three tanks were set alight by shells thought to come from a self-propelled gun or Tiger tank. ‘Suddenly like a broadside from a huge battleship, the whole hillside opened fire simultaneously – 88 mms, mortars, spandaus, small-arms fire – everything seemed to come out at once from the whole area of the hill opposite.’51 The hostile fire continued ‘intermittently heavy or light almost without let-up’ all that day and night and the next.
Meanwhile, early on the morning of the 28th, the mopping-up parties entered the area between Spedaletto and Pisignano without opposition; one drove up the road through Cigliano to the crossing of the Borro Suganella, a creek which flowed into the Sugana stream below La Romola, but as it was then daylight and the tanks were exposed to fire coming along the valley from the direction of La Romola, they withdrew to cover.
The enemy did not counter-attack immediately – as he did on 6 Brigade’s front – perhaps because 22 Battalion actually had not penetrated the main positions of the Paula Line, but during the day he shelled, mortared and machine-gunned the forward positions, and heavily shelled San Casciano and the roads north of the town. Counter-battery fire, directed on the sources of this fire when they could be located, ‘occasionally caused diminution’.52 Nearly a dozen ‘murders’ or ‘stonks’ were laid on La Romola and its immediate approaches by 4 and 142 Regiments, which also engaged targets elsewhere on the front and east of the Greve River.
In mid-afternoon 2 Company asked for defensive fire to the north-east because of the likelihood of a counter-attack. Such an attack, supported by a self-propelled gun, appeared to be in progress at 3.45 p.m., but ‘the situation was well in hand’53 after some well-directed defensive fire by 4 and 142 Regiments and the engaging of the self-propelled gun by tanks of A Squadron, 19 Regiment.
The enemy undoubtedly was pleased with the performance of 29 Panzer Grenadier Division on 28 July. Fourteenth Army reported in the evening: ‘Fighting was extremely hard and confused, particularly on 29 Pz Gren Div’s front, where the enemy forced a penetration this morning at Cerbaia. All further attacks ... were beaten off with heavy casualties to the enemy. We committed our last reserves. This evening the FDLs were still in our hands all along 1 Para Corps’ front. ...’54
At 10 a.m. 15 Panzer Grenadier Regiment (on 29 Division’s right facing 6 NZ Infantry Brigade) counter-attacked north of Cerbaia and ‘came up against fierce defence by the New Zealanders and extremely heavy shellfire,55 but attacked again and again and pushed the enemy back with very heavy casualties and equipment losses. After 8 hours of fighting in tropical heat the FDLs were completely in our hands once more. ...’ In the sector where 71 Panzer Grenadier Regiment faced 4 NZ Armoured Brigade, attacks ‘were beaten off after stubborn fighting ... with heavy casualties to the enemy.’
The claim was made that 29 Division ‘has thus gained a complete defensive success against an enemy much superior in numbers. Its
artillery and tanks (129 and 508 Pz Bns) gave it excellent support in the actions. ...’ The division was commended for ‘the staunchness and fanatical stubbornness of every man.’56
Nevertheless the commander of Fourteenth Army (General Lemelsen) reported to Army Group C that, despite the successful defence, 1 Parachute Corps ‘could not continue to hold its present line unless it received fresh reserves, which Army did not have. ... The high ammunition expenditure of the last few days was also causing ammunition to run out, as petrol was so scarce that ammunition could not be brought up in adequate quantities.’57
IV: San Michele
Neither 4 nor 6 Brigade had fully gained the first objectives of the New Zealand Division’s plan for capturing the high ground of the Pian dei Cerri, and much of the armour, instead of being kept in reserve for exploitation when the high ground had been secured, had joined in the battle. For the New Zealand commanders 28 July was a day of conferences and the issuing of fresh directives, mostly verbal, for continuing the offensive.
General Freyberg, having earlier given permission for 23 Battalion to provide flank protection for 4 Brigade, agreed to Brigadier Inglis’s proposal that this battalion should hold on the right of the brigade’s sector while 22 Battalion closed to the left, with the purpose of thickening up the infantry screen on the brigade’s front so that much needed armoured reliefs could be carried out. The General, who visited both 4 and 6 Brigades in the afternoon, approved plans for limited attempts to gain the first objectives that night. Fourth Brigade was to get into La Romola if possible, and 6 Brigade was to attack San Michele.
Sixth Brigade’s advance to San Michele was to be made by a company of 24 Battalion in two stages, the first to a German strongpoint at Mezzocolle, about half-way along the Castellare–San Michele road, and the second to the straggling village of San Michele itself. The artillery was to support this advance with timed concentrations from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. on 29 July.
That night 6 Brigade relieved some of the troops in the salient, and strengthened its right flank. A Company, 24 Battalion, stayed forward, about half-way along the road between Castellare and Poggio Cigoli (Point 281), but the survivors of C Company, 26 Battalion, were relieved by B Company of the same unit and withdrew across the river. D Company, 26 Battalion, with mortars and anti-tank guns in support, took up a position astride the La Romola road less than a mile from Cerbaia, and D Company of 25 Battalion set up a strongpoint with a platoon each of infantry, machine guns, 4·2-inch mortars and carriers in the Montepaldi area (farther to the south-east than was intended). About midnight C Squadron of 18 Armoured Regiment arrived at Talente and came under the command of 19 Regiment for operations in 6 Brigade’s sector.
Headquarters 24 Battalion moved back across the Pesa to the vicinity of the headquarters of 25 and 26 Battalions south of Montagnana, but left a tactical headquarters under Major E. W. Aked at Castellare to keep in close touch with the advance to San Michele. D Company (Major Macdonald58) was given the task of capturing the village, and 12 Platoon (Lieutenant Rawley59) of B Company came under Macdonald’s command to take the intermediate objective.
Rawley’s men had little difficulty in occupying Mezzocolle; they killed two Germans and captured five. D Company passed on the right of Mezzocolle, and at some houses (Poggetto di sotto) well forward of San Michele 16 Platoon (Lieutenant Lea60) took the enemy by surprise and in a brief struggle killed six and captured six for the loss of three men wounded. The company entered San Michele without opposition, capturing one or two more Germans, and completed its occupation about 3.15 a.m. Lea’s platoon made strongpoints in three houses at the southern end of the village; two sections of 17 Platoon (Sergeant Dynes61) held a three-storied building known as the school in the centre, and Company Headquarters and 18 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant R. N. Smith62) a church at the northern end. The third section of 17 Platoon had been left at Poggetto di sotto to guard prisoners and care for the wounded.
When D Company was reported on its objective, Major Aked sent 7 Troop of B Squadron, 19 Regiment, up the road with a
party of sappers, followed by a section of 4 MG Platoon, four six-pounder anti-tank guns and two 3-inch mortars. One of the tanks was disabled on the way; one went into position behind the church and one farther back in the village. Two anti-tank guns were sited near the church, one near the school, and one with 16 Platoon. The two Vickers guns joined 17 Platoon at the school, and the two mortars 12 Platoon at Mezzocolle.
The occupation of San Michele had been accomplished with surprisingly few casualties, but two men from D Company, the driver and the five prisoners taken by 12 Platoon were all killed and an officer wounded when their grossly overcrowded jeep ran over a mine on the way back to Castellare. This happened after the road had been searched for mines.
As dawn broke on 29 July activity began across the whole front. Shortly after 7 a.m. D Company of 26 Battalion called urgently for fire on Il Monte, a small hillock on the northern side of the Cerbaia – La Romola road, where, it was later realised, the enemy had set up a strongpoint which included mortars and machine guns and probably dug-in tanks or self-propelled guns. Although the New Zealand artillery was asked repeatedly to fire on this point, and several of the concentrations were observed to fall right on the target, Il Monte remained a troublesome spot throughout the next two days.
San Michele was heavily shelled and mortared, and movement on the roads and tracks north of the village warned that a counter-attack was impending. D Company, 24 Battalion, called for defensive fire, which was directed on tanks, self-propelled guns, mortar positions and vehicles. At first the Shermans in the village and the artillery discouraged the approach of the German tanks, which probably numbered no more than three or four. The mortars at Mezzocolle, although under fire themselves, helped to thicken up the defensive fire, while A Company, 24 Battalion, and the section of 6 MG Platoon across the gully to the east assisted with fire and with observation of the enemy.
As the church commanded the northern entrance to San Michele, the enemy concentrated much of his fire on it and launched infantry and tank attacks against it. The German infantry came right up to the building, but were repelled by 18 Platoon and the crews of the two anti-tank guns. By mid-morning at least one German tank had worked its way very close to the northern edge of the village and infantry had infiltrated into the southern part. Much of the hostile fire came from the ridge to the west of San Michele, where the enemy appeared to have self-propelled guns or tanks. The German effort began to weaken, however, and by 10.45 a.m.
D Company could report that ‘We are quite happy at the moment.’63
The enemy became more aggressive again about midday, and at 12.30 p.m. 5 Field Regiment, firing on the directions of one of the tanks in San Michele, was laying its shells in the northern end of the street. By this time there were so many gaps in the walls of the church that ‘the only method of defence left was to build a parapet from the rubble at the rear of the long chapel and cover the gaps with brens and rifles. This effectively stopped the Germans from entering the church.’64 The wounded were placed with Company Headquarters in the crypt, which was ‘practically 100 per cent safe’.
Another troop (No. 5) of B Squadron, 19 Regiment, was ordered from 26 Battalion’s sector to reinforce the two tanks of 7 Troop in San Michele. Two tanks of 5 Troop arrived in the southern part of the village in time to assist 16 Platoon, some of whose men had been pinned in a barn by German infantry who were occupying the loft above them. One of the tanks overturned down a bank while manoeuvring into position to engage the loft. Nevertheless Lea’s men got clear of the barn, and the whole platoon set up a strongpoint in one house. The other tank blasted the loft off the barn. Lea sent a patrol to clear another building so that the tank could take up a position there to support his platoon. The patrol overcame slight opposition and took three prisoners, but as soon as the tank arrived at the building it was knocked out by a self-propelled gun.
The fire from German self-propelled guns, tank guns and mortars, and shells from the New Zealand guns which fell short, were gradually reducing buildings in San Michele to rubble. The anti-tank guns were disabled, and the vehicles parked in the street were either destroyed or immobilised. Late in the afternoon the hostile fire died down, but shortly after 5 p.m. much movement was observed to the north and north-west, and a renewal of the attack was anticipated. The artillery and heavy mortars fired on numerous targets, and fighter-bombers twice attacked the Santa Maria area, over a mile to the north. By 7.20 p.m. the enemy had approached so close that D Company called for artillery fire on the northern edge of the village.
In the school building 17 Platoon’s strongpoint ‘was engaged by self-propelled guns and tanks from almost point blank range. During this attack enemy infantry were moving towards the village from the West and attempted to cross the road by the school and gain entrance to the building. For two and a half hours the platoon
and attached personnel engaged the enemy with Tommy, Bren, Vickers guns and grenades. ...’65 The Germans were unable to reach the school.
The only two Sherman tanks in the village still in running order, having sustained damage which rendered their guns useless, withdrew to the rear. Two German tanks entered the village, and when one of them came to the rear of the church, 18 Platoon took cover in the crypt. D Company’s three strongpoints were no longer in touch with each other. When Lea saw the two Shermans retreating past 16 Platoon’s house, he decided to make his way to Company Headquarters and find out what was happening. ‘As the position looked hopeless at this moment,’ says Macdonald, ‘I decided to withdraw the company from the village and instructed Mr LEA to rejoin his platoon and get them away to safety.’66
Lea managed to leave the church, but could not reach the house occupied by 16 Platoon because it was covered by a German tank. He therefore continued on to a rendezvous at Poggetto di sotto, where the section of 17 Platoon had remained, and where he expected to find the rest of the company. Smith had started to lead 18 Platoon out of the church, but only he and one other man got away; the third man to emerge was hit and captured, and the remainder stayed in the building. Smith and his companion also reached the rendezvous, and after waiting there for a while, returned with Lea and the section of 17 Platoon to Tactical Headquarters at Castellare.
Macdonald realised that it was impossible to get the remainder of his men out of the church and ‘decided to fight it out to the end, ordering everyone back to their posts both in the crypt and on the first floor.’67 The German tank had moved off into the village. German infantry made another attempt to get into the church, but were beaten back with the assistance of machine-gun fire from 17 Platoon’s strongpoint. Again the tank came in close to the church. Private Swann,68 although suffering from the effects of concussion, took a Piat69 gun within a few yards of the tank and fired four shots, which forced it to withdraw. Nevertheless the tank continued to fire at the church, and the German infantry made two more attempts to enter. Eventually the front of the building collapsed and barricaded the entrance.
The enemy must have decided about this time to abandon further
attempts to drive the New Zealanders out of San Michele.70 His tanks and infantry withdrew, and after 11 p.m. the tanks could be heard moving around north of the village. About the same time 16 Platoon, believing that D Company’s other positions had been overrun, pulled out from the southern part of the village.
Meanwhile plans were being prepared for the relief of D Company. B Company, 25 Battalion (Major Finlay71), placed under 24 Battalion’s command for the purpose, assembled near Castellare with a supporting force including nine tanks (one troop each from B and C Squadrons of 19 Regiment and A Squadron of 18 Regiment), and began to advance shortly before the artillery and heavy mortars opened fire at 1 a.m. on 30 July.
The artillery’s target for the first half hour was just north of the church, and for the next half hour the road north-west of the village. As the guns were shooting from ground lower than the village, many of their shells either skimmed the buildings or exploded among them. Headquarters D Company and 18 Platoon were given some protection from shells falling short by the ruins of the church above the crypt, but 17 Platoon’s building, ‘after about ten minutes of almost continual pounding ... commenced to collapse. For the next fifty minutes we were kept busy extricating men from the fallen debris. ...’72 Two men died before they could be released from the rubble.
B Company, 25 Battalion, reached the southern edge of San Michele about 1.30 a.m., and during the next hour or so searched the village and its immediate environs without finding the enemy. The tanks and several anti-tank guns took up positions for defence, and the infantry covered the northern entrance to the village. Macdonald withdrew with the survivors of D Company of the 24th, and their place in the village was taken by 10 and 11 Platoons of B Company, 24 Battalion. Later in the morning two more troops of A Squadron, 18 Regiment, replaced the two troops of 19 Regiment, which was relieved by the 18th under 6 Brigade’s command and withdrew to rest and refit.
The New Zealand casualties in the fighting for San Michele on 29 July may have been about 30, and the enemy losses greater.73
Throughout the day of 29 July A Company, 24 Battalion, had remained well forward on the Castellare – Poggio Cigoli road, with B Company, 26 Battalion, to its right rear; they had assisted in the defence of San Michele and had come under much fire themselves, but had not been directly threatened by the enemy. D Company, 26 Battalion, on the Cerbaia – La Romola road, had been kept constantly alert by enemy activity to the east and also at the Il Monte strongpoint. To replace the tanks which had gone to San Michele from the right flank, extra anti-tank guns were sent to B and D Companies of 26 Battalion. Mines were laid across the road on D Company’s front and also across the Castellare – Poggio Cigoli road, where B Company of the 26th relieved A Company of the 24th in the evening of 30 July.
The two B Companies, of 24 and 25 Battalions, were firmly established in San Michele on the morning of the 30th. When HQ 24 Battalion asked, ‘Can you give any indication that yesterday’s programme is likely to be repeated’, B Company of that battalion replied ‘Not likely.’74 This surmise proved correct. Although San Michele continued to be the target for the enemy’s guns and mortars, he did not counter-attack the village again.
Several times during the day British fighter-bombers strafed the high ground to the north of San Michele. Anti-tank mines were laid on the village’s northern approaches. At 6 p.m. B Company, 25 Battalion, reported two German tanks about half a mile to the north. Artillery fire directed on this target fell short, and many rounds landed in the company’s positions. The range was lifted and further concentrations landed in the right place. One of the tanks was set alight either by shellfire or by fighter-bomber attack. B Company again reported enemy tanks – a false alarm, it was discovered afterwards – and again the requested artillery fire fell on the company’s positions. Later in the night B Company, 25 Battalion, was relieved by C Company, 24 Battalion.
Patrols of armoured cars and tanks probed on 6 Brigade’s western flank without much success. No suitable places to cross the Pesa – except by bulldozing, which would have been impossible because of the shellfire such activity would attract – could be found between Cerbaia and Geppetto, about two miles downstream. West of the river B Squadron, Divisional Cavalry, kept in touch with 8 Indian Division; on the other side A Squadron of the Cavalry and half
of C Squadron, 18 Regiment,75 were impeded by machine-gun posts and infantry who took advantage of the excellent cover among the rows of grape vines by holding their fire until the last possible moment. At such close range the lobbing of hand-grenades from the turrets of the armoured cars was an effective form of attack.
A demolition prevented progress beyond the junction of the road to Geppetto and the road which led up the ridge west of San Michele. A German strongpoint on this ridge at Point 136, about 1000 yards to the left rear of San Michele, was a constant source of trouble. Fire from self-propelled or tank guns in this locality knocked out or disabled several of the New Zealand tanks on the San Michele ridge. On the morning of 30 July a patrol of armoured cars and tanks tried to work across country towards the road leading to Point 136, but a Staghound was hit by a shell which killed two and wounded two of its crew, and two of the Shermans ran on to mines. Before the tanks could be recovered, one of them was set alight by an armour-piercing shell. The patrol then withdrew.
Probably because of the tenacity of the defence and the lack of infantry to hold any ground gained, the patrols made no further attempts to advance on the left flank that day or the next. C Squadron of the Divisional Cavalry relieved A Squadron, and the half-squadron of 18 Regiment went back across the Pesa to harass the enemy from the far side, where on 31 July it ‘had a good view over the valley, and at first had a wonderful time, but this was no healthy spot, for soon Jerry opened up with everything he could muster.’76 Two tanks were ‘sitting shots’ at a crossroads where one of them had run on to a mine, and both were knocked out by anti-tank shells.
The German strongpoint at Point 136 was still active at dusk on 31 July, having survived heavy shell and mortar fire. It was proposed that B Company, 24 Battalion, should send a patrol to investigate the locality after dark, but before the patrol set out, a man from 17 Platoon who had been cut off in enemy-held territory since D Company’s attack on San Michele, rejoined the battalion with information about the strongpoint. From a close hiding place he had observed a self-propelled gun, three tanks, three mortars and two machine-gun posts in action, and had seen one of the tanks set on fire by a direct hit. Later that night a patrol saw the self-propelled gun withdrawing in the moonlight. Next day (1 August) Point 136 was found to be clear of the enemy.
V: La Romola
At the end of July 6 Brigade was still hemmed in in its bridgehead across the Pesa River. No longer was the enemy fighting rearguard actions and falling back as he had done previously when the main body of the attackers approached his positions; he seemed prepared to stand on the Paula Line and fight it out for some time. His counter-attacks, first down the Poggio Cigoli road and then against San Michele, were the first real counter-attacks met by the New Zealand Division in the advance on Florence. It looked as if further progress in this sector could be achieved only by a set-piece attack.
Nevertheless, with the forces of 13 Corps arrayed in such strength against him, the enemy was bound to withdraw. With British, South African, New Zealand and Indian divisions ranged side by side, there was a spirit of competition in the drive to the Arno and Florence. The 6th South African Armoured Division was not yet ready to make a concerted thrust with the New Zealand Division, but General Freyberg apparently was reluctant to mark time – or to lose the lead in the race to Florence – and already had decided to keep up the pressure on the New Zealand front by switching the weight of the attack to the right flank, the direct route to the city and the flank on which the two divisions could best assist each other.
The new plan envisaged 6 Brigade containing the enemy in its sector and exploiting if and when possible, while the rest of the Division advanced on the left of Route 2, across the eastern edge of the Pian dei Cerri and then direct on Florence. It had been intended that 5 Brigade, having led from the start of the advance until 6 Brigade passed through on 27 July, should have a spell for rest and reorganisation while carrying out a protective role on the western flank, but now that 8 Indian Division had made this role unnecessary, it was logical to transfer 5 Brigade to the other flank, where it would be in a better position to join in a major advance. The lack of protection on the eastern flank until the South Africans drew level, the increased resistance and the threat of counter-attack on 22 Battalion gave urgency to this redeployment.
The 23rd Battalion, which had been placed at 4 Brigade’s disposal to guard this flank, was warned on the morning of 28 July that it might have to take over part of 22 Battalion’s front. At midday 4 Brigade was advised that the GOC had decided to bring the whole of 5 Brigade to this flank and that 23 Battalion would then revert to 5 Brigade’s command. Later in the day,
however, permission was given for 23 Battalion to be brought forward to reinforce 4 Brigade, on condition that it was not to be used by that brigade in an assault.
After nightfall 23 Battalion moved north through San Casciano to take over from 2 Company the right-hand half of 22 Battalion’s front, with A Company on the right, B on the left, C in right rear protecting the open flank, and D in reserve, and with A Squadron, 20 Armoured Regiment (which relieved A Squadron, 19 Regiment) in support. The 22nd Battalion reorganised its sector south of La Romola with 1 Company on the right, 3 on the left and 2 in reserve, and with C Squadron of 20 Regiment (having relieved B Squadron) in support. Anti-tank and Vickers guns were sited with both battalions.
During the night patrols and listening posts reported the presence of tracked vehicles in and about La Romola and (on 23 Battalion’s front) troop and vehicle activity along the road through Sant’ Andrea. A stonk was called for on the latter locality, and this immediately brought enemy retaliation with shell and mortar fire.
The enemy continued to harass 4 Brigade’s salient. He obviously enjoyed good observation in daylight from the high ground to the east across the River Greve. He shelled and mortared buildings and roads, and laid concentrations on any movement in the forward areas and occasionally in the rear, chiefly on the roads around San Casciano. Movement along the San Casciano–Casa Vecchia–Spedaletto road drew shell, mortar and machine-gun fire. Positions in the Pisignano area, facing the La Romola ridge across the valley of the Sugana stream, were continually and accurately bombarded. A request was made for an air strike on La Romola when 22 Battalion reported increasing movement there. The village was bombed and strafed with ‘good results ... though the number of planes (6) was disappointingly small. ...’77
A liaison officer from 6 South African Armoured Division arrived in 23 Battalion’s lines and reported that the nearest South African troops, apart from patrols, were to the south-east, held up by enemy fire and the difficult going caused by a number of streams that ran into the Greve. Later 23 Battalion’s outposts made contact with South African patrols.
Early on 29 July General Freyberg discussed the situation with Brigadier Inglis, who advised against an attack on 23 Battalion’s sector because he considered heavy casualties would result. The enemy there could be covered by fire from the east until the high ground on the South African front was taken. The GOC said the attack would have to be at night. He planned with the CRA
(Brigadier Parkinson) for mortars and ammunition to be brought well forward for use when the high ground north of 23 Battalion could be occupied. His idea was to bring in 5 Brigade on the right to gain a firm hold of this high ground, which would provide a base for a further advance and would give observation to ‘paste the other side of Route 2’ (which ran alongside the Greve) and, together with 6 Brigade’s operations farther west, ‘pinch out La Romola. ... I cannot see any way of getting him out except by a series of night attacks along that ridge.’78 The same morning the GOC discussed the plan with the commanders of 4 and 5 Brigades at Divisional Headquarters. The commander of 6 Brigade was absent because the situation at San Michele demanded his attention.
A divisional operation instruction issued later that day set out the plan. At first it directed that on the night of 30–31 July 5 Brigade would begin the operation supported by feint attacks by both 4 and 6 Brigades, and next night 4 and 6 Brigades were to make a combined attack; but this was quickly changed to a combined 4 and 5 Brigade operation on the first night, followed by 6 Brigade attacking alone on the second night. Fourth Brigade was then to drop back for reorganisation while 5 and 6 Brigades made the final assault to break the Paula Line on the night of 1–2 August. Both 4 Brigade and Divisional Cavalry were to be ready ‘to debouch at first light’79 on 2 August.
Fifth Brigade assumed responsibility for the Division’s right flank in the evening of 29 July, when 23 Battalion and 20 Armoured Regiment (less C Squadron, with 22 Battalion) came under its command, and the transfer of 21 and 28 Battalions from the left flank was well on the way. The 21st, in reserve, took up a position on the right flank near San Casciano; the Maori Battalion moved into the line between 23 and 22 Battalions south of Faltignano, where C Company on the right and A on the left completed the relief of B Company, 23 Battalion, about midnight; the other two companies of 28 Battalion and B Company of the 23rd were in reserve.
Patrols sent out by 5 Brigade’s three battalions – 23, 28 and 22 – during the night confirmed the enemy’s presence at various points on the front. A platoon from A Company, 23 Battalion, went along the road from Spedaletto to see whether the enemy had withdrawn
from Sant’ Andrea, which was less than 600 yards from the company’s foremost positions. The platoon crossed a small gully, and as it topped the rise before reaching the village, ‘came under concentrated fire at short range from several automatics and retired hurriedly and in some confusion. ...’80
It was proposed that A Company should put in a dawn attack on Sant’ Andrea. A few of the men apparently ‘felt that the limit of their physical and nervous reserves or of what should be asked of them had been reached’81 and refused to go. The CO (Lieutenant- Colonel Thomas) personally led the way ‘to show the men he would not ask them to do anything he was not prepared to do himself.’82
The artillery fired a stonk on the village, and A Company attacked with a troop (three Shermans) of A Squadron, 20 Armoured Regiment, in support. A blown culvert over a ditch blocked the road in the gully, but a way across for the tanks was found and improved by men working with shovels. A few prisoners from 10 Parachute Regiment83 were taken on the other side of the gully, and the tanks and infantry went on to the village. Thomas returned to Battalion Headquarters while the company commander (Captain Duncan84) and his men continued with the occupation of the village, from which about 50 or 60 Germans had withdrawn only a few minutes earlier.
The enemy, however, was still in the proximity of Sant’ Andrea, and from Villa Mazzei, about 300 yards to the north-west, commanded its southern access. He shelled and mortared the village, and it was anticipated that he would counter-attack. Strenuous efforts were made to get support weapons to A Company, but wheeled vehicles could not pass the demolition on the road from Spedaletto, which the engineers were unable to repair because all movement on the road in daylight drew fire; their bulldozer had to be driven hastily into cover. When a Tiger tank was observed working its way towards Sant’ Andrea, two M10s were despatched to support A Company, but were halted by the state of the road. Mortars, sited well forward, were directed on Villa Mazzei and other targets considered too close for the artillery.
The enemy counter-attacked about 1.30 p.m. His infantry infiltrated through corn and olive trees while the Tiger came along
the road from the north. The tanks with A Company, commanded by Lieutenant Colmore-Williams,85 raked the olives with their machine guns and 75-millimetre guns, firing into the trees for air-burst effect. A bazooka team was wiped out within a few yards of the troop commander’s tank, and afterwards 15 German dead were counted in the vicinity. The Shermans also kept the Tiger at bay. A bend in the road allowed it to approach within 100 yards before it came into view, but each time it ventured round the bend ‘it was blinded by a round or two of smoke and chased back into cover, tail first, with six or seven armour-piercing and high-explosive shells buzzing around its ears.’86 Finally it withdrew altogether.
Late in the afternoon enemy infantry attacked again, but did not dislodge A Company. ‘My blokes shot about 12 counted Jerries from the top windows and really had quite a good time,’ says Duncan.87 The New Zealand casualties at Sant’ Andrea that day were very few and included only one killed.
The Division’s officers, down to CO level, assembled at Divisional Headquarters in the morning of 30 July to hear the situation and new plans explained. General Freyberg told them that he intended to mount three attacks, the first that night, the second next night and the third when certain factors, including the ammunition supply, were favourable. He explained that the Division could either continue operations on the left or transfer its strength to the right flank, which offered the shortest route to Florence and the opportunity of assisting the South Africans, who had been held up by strong enemy positions covering the line of the Greve River. He had chosen the second alternative and ‘in the normal way one would feel inclined to advance in one [bound] but for the fact that he [the enemy] is putting tiger tanks in his objectives. We have therefore to clear up the road and get M.10’s forward or 17-pounders. This being so the only way is to do limited objective attacks which we dislike because they don’t displace the enemy trench mortars.’88
The commanders of 4 and 5 Brigades gave outlines of their plans, Brigadier Inglis stating that at this stage his ‘was somewhat nebulous’.89 That night 5 Brigade was to advance with two
battalions: 28 Battalion was to occupy the high ground to its immediate north, and 23 Battalion to conform on the right flank; 4 Brigade was to attack La Romola with 22 Battalion. Sixth Brigade was to advance next night, and then the situation was to be reviewed. The GOC stressed the need for getting 17-pounder guns in behind La Romola and 5 Brigade’s objective for defence against counter-attacks supported by Tiger tanks.
Fifth Brigade’s first objective was on the high ground north of Sant’ Andrea and Faltignano, its second on the ridge about a mile north-east of La Romola, and its third bestride the valley between Poggio delle Monache and La Poggiona. Fourth Brigade’s objective was just beyond La Romola. Sixth Brigade’s first objective took in Poggio Cigoli, La Liona and the ridge north of San Michele; its second was about midway between Poggio Cigoli and Poggio Valicaia, and its third on the northern side of Poggio Valicaia.
Fifth Brigade’s advance to its first objective was to start at 10 p.m. on 30 July, and 4 Brigade’s advance to La Romola three hours later. Fifth Brigade instructed 28 Battalion to send a small force, supported by artillery concentrations, to capture Casa del Carpione (midway between Spedaletto and Faltignano) before the start of the main attack, in which 23 and 28 Battalions were to be supported by a barrage creeping in 100-yard lifts every four minutes; this was to be fired by the three New Zealand field regiments and 57 Field Regiment, RA (from 6 British Armoured Division), and in addition 70 and 75 Medium Regiments were to lay concentrations on observed and suspected enemy positions. Each battalion was to have half of A Squadron, 20 Armoured Regiment, and a platoon of 1 MG Company under command; the 23rd also was to have two M10s of 31 Anti-Tank Battery. Two troops (eight 4·2-inch mortars) of 39 Heavy Mortar Battery were given tasks in direct support of both battalions. For protection against enemy tanks on the objective, 32 Anti-Tank Battery was to provide a troop (four 17-pounders) for 28 Battalion and two troops (eight six-pounders) for the 23rd; these guns and two six-pounders of each battalion’s anti-tank platoon were to follow the tanks in the advance. The sappers of 7 Field Company (a detachment with a bulldozer accompanying each battalion) were to open the routes forward immediately for the support weapons and were to be ready to lay mines in front of the newly won positions.
The plan for 23 Battalion, finalised early in the evening of the 30th, was to secure a line from Sant’ Andrea through Villa Mazzei to Point 246 (Palastra), about 1000 yards north-west of Sant’
Andrea. C Company was to relieve A at Sant’ Andrea, and D was to advance to Villa Mazzei and Palastra. For this purpose the OC D Company (Major Grant90), assisted by Captain Donnelly91 of 20 Regiment, organised his force in several groups: a platoon each of infantry and engineers and a troop of tanks were to go direct to Villa Mazzei and another platoon of infantry and troop of tanks to Palastra; the headquarters group, the third platoon of infantry, the rest of the engineers and the anti-tank guns were to follow.
C Company completed the relief of A at Sant’ Andrea after midnight. Meanwhile Grant’s force passed through Spedaletto and followed the barrage. The opposition was slight, but the tanks had difficulty in keeping up with the infantry and on the way ‘flushed two Tigers’ which fired their machine guns ‘but for some reason or other – including the obvious one that they may have run out of ammunition – did not follow up their tracer with armour-piercing shells.’92 By 2 a.m. both Villa Mazzei and Palastra had been occupied, and seven prisoners taken from 10 Parachute Regiment.
No contact had been made with 28 Battalion on the left, and enemy fire was coming from the direction of Il Pino, to the left rear of D Company, which was reinforced by a platoon from B and protected by 10 six-pounder anti-tank guns towed forward by tanks or jeeps. As the light improved it became evident that Palastra was dominated by higher ground on at least three sides. When further information was gathered of the limits reached by 28 Battalion – still south of Il Pino – and of the presence of Tiger tanks, it was decided to make D Company’s main position a bend in the road east of Il Pino, where there was better cover and observation.
Much hostile fire and activity on the eastern flank gave warning that the enemy might counter-attack down the road to Sant’ Andrea, but apparently he was deterred by defensive fire from the tanks and the artillery.
The Maori Battalion’s objectives were on the high ground north of the Borro Suganella. Half an hour before the start of the attack a platoon of C Company crossed the Suganella and, meeting little opposition, occupied Casa del Carpione. This had the undesirable effect of bringing the enemy farther north to the alert with
mortars and machine guns. The other two platoons of C Company advanced about 10 p.m. with a troop of A Squadron, 20 Regiment, whose tanks were halted by an impassable stretch of the Suganella. Some men were left with the tanks while the rest carried on and were rejoined by the platoon from Casa del Carpione. By this time they were well behind the barrage, and the enemy’s fire was causing casualties. They entered the village of Faltignano about midnight and also occupied Villa Zaira on the right flank, but could make no further progress without their support weapons. There were enemy tanks, possibly two or three Tigers, on the immediate front.
On the left A Company and a troop of A Squadron took the Cigliano–Faltignano track, but ran into fire as they approached the Borro Suganella, where a demolition proved impassable for the tanks and no alternative crossing could be found. One platoon was left with the tanks while the engineers began work on the demolition; the rest of the company went on beyond the Suganella, but had lost the barrage and encountered mortar and machine-gun fire, and for some time had no communication with Battalion Headquarters because of radio interference.
As it was impossible to get tanks across the Borro Suganella – the sappers estimated that it would take six hours to complete the crossing on the Cigliano–Faltignano track – Brigadier Stewart directed that A Squadron’s tanks should withdraw and take the roundabout route through Spedaletto in 23 Battalion’s sector, and arranged for a troop from B Squadron to go along this route at once to join C Company. He also instructed 28 Battalion to send a reserve company forward to thicken its front.
The support weapons were brought back with the tanks, except one 17-pounder left to cover the demolition, where work was to continue as fast as possible. The three tanks of 5 Troop, B Squadron, reached C Company, and together they pushed forward in daylight. As soon as they moved on to the stretch of road between Il Pino and a cemetery just beyond Faltignano, they were met by machine-gun fire and armour-piercing shot from a tank or self-propelled gun, and one of the Shermans was set alight. Artillery support was called for, and the medium guns laid fire on the area from which the enemy was shooting. A 17-pounder in 23 Battalion’s sector assisted, at a range of 2400 yards, by scoring three direct hits out of six shots fired at what was thought to be a Tiger,93 which was also treated to smoke and armour-piercing shot from the two surviving tanks of 5 Troop. The German tank withdrew and the defensive fire diminished, which allowed C Company to resume
its northward progress before midday.
In an exhilarating advance C Company, ably led by Captain Baker,94 and supported by the two Shermans, killed at least 20 of the enemy, captured a German RAP and several prisoners, and by 1.30 p.m. was at Point 250 (Torrebianca), about 1000 yards north of Faltignano, where it was joined later by tanks of A Squadron which had passed through 23 Battalion’s sector.
For most of the day the situation of A Company, 28 Battalion, was obscure. It was without tank support, anti-tank guns and observers for the artillery, and was understood to be pinned down for some hours by a suspected Tiger in the vicinity of its objective, Point 204 (Casa Ralli), about 1000 yards north-west of Faltignano. This tank probably had retired by midday, when it appeared that the enemy was moving back from 5 Brigade’s front. Late in the afternoon it was confirmed that A Company was close to Casa Ralli.
Meanwhile a fresh plan had been prepared for 28 Battalion: it was to continue to push for its original objectives during the day and the night of 31 July – 1 August and if practicable carry on further to a line from Point 250 (Torrebianca) on the right to Point 227 (almost due east of La Romola across the valley of the Sugana stream) on the left. By the time this plan was issued in printed form (at 2.35 p.m.), part of it had been completed: C Company had reached Point 250 (Torrebianca), which the battalion had understood to have been its original objective.95
Assisted by artillery, mortar and machine-gun fire, A Company began a northward advance at 7 p.m. and gained Point 227 within the hour. C Company also pushed farther north, beyond its intended objective, and by 9.30 p.m. was at Villa Balbani, about a mile from Faltignano. A troop of tanks from A Squadron, 20 Regiment, was with each company, and anti-tank guns moved up in support. C Company placed a standing patrol on Poggio Montauto, on the eastern flank, and A Company sent a patrol northward along the road and creek (a tributary of the Sugana stream).
On hearing of these successes General Freyberg told Stewart, ‘You must push on’, but the Brigadier felt that the two companies of 28 Battalion might be ‘caught bending’96 unless they were given an opportunity to reorganise and get the anti-tank guns and other
weapons in position to withstand a possible counter-attack. He said he would get on at dawn. He therefore warned Lieutenant-Colonel Awatere that his reserve companies (B and D), which were waiting near Faltignano, should be sent through C and A as soon as possible to carry the advance to the main heights ahead, Poggio delle Monache and La Poggiona; he also ordered 21 Battalion to concentrate near Il Pino as soon as possible after dawn, ready to pass through the Maoris on these two objectives.
To reach its objective, a line cutting the ridge just beyond La Romola, 4 Brigade faced the formidable task of crossing the steep-sided valley of the Sugana stream, into which the enemy had observation and could direct the fire of his artillery, tanks, self-propelled guns, mortars and machine guns from the front and both flanks.
The plan for the attack, which was to start at 1 a.m. on 31 July, was that 22 Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Donald97) was to advance under a series of timed artillery concentrations fired by 4 and 6 Field Regiments and 70 and 75 Medium Regiments, and was to have the support of C Squadron of 20 Regiment, 31 Anti-Tank Battery (minus all except one section of its M10s and one troop of its six-pounders, but with a troop of 17-pounders from 34 Battery), 3 MG Company (whose 12 Vickers were to ‘thicken’98 the artillery barrage) and detachments of 6 Field Company. The attack was to be made by 1 Company on the right, 3 on the left and 2 in close support, each with a troop of tanks and a party of sappers.
Reconnaissance the previous night below La Romola had found the stream and the sunken lateral road obstacles for tanks, but just before the attack began a report was received that the ‘river crossing was OK’99 for tanks. Patrols had been sent out in daylight and at night to investigate reports from civilians that the enemy had evacuated La Romola. These reports were proved false, at the cost of casualties to both patrols.
The enemy, brought to the alert by 5 Brigade’s attack on the flank, filled the Sugana valley with defensive fire. ‘The noise, dust and smoke was terrific and hardly seemed to increase when our own barrage opened up since it had already about reached the ultimate limit.’100 The shell or mortar fire caused casualties and some confusion
at the start.101 The poor visibility of a dark night was reduced almost to nil by the fog of smoke and dust. Communications failed, mostly because of wireless interference, between Battalion Headquarters and the companies and between company headquarters and the platoons, some of which broke up into small isolated groups of men. The tanks were parted from the infantry early in the advance. ‘The wonder is how the attack succeeded at all, and how La Romola fell...’102
The officer commanding 1 Company (Major O’Reilly103) was wounded in the head near the start line, and Captain Turner104 was given command of the three platoons (6, 7 and 8) which made straight for La Romola. O’Reilly, after regaining consciousness, refused to go back to the dressing station but joined 5 Platoon, which was to accompany the tanks to the village.
No. 3 Company (Major Sainsbury105) was hard hit before it left the start line: 14 Platoon was reduced to a handful of men, and the reserve platoon (No. 16) was brought in to fill the gap but had not gone far before its commander (Lieutenant McNeil106) was killed. Sergeant Eades,107 who then took control of 16 Platoon, won the DCM and an immediate commission in the field in recognition of his courage and leadership in the next few days.
First to reach La Romola was 15 Platoon (Lieutenant Thomas108) of 3 Company. This platoon broke contact in the middle but somehow managed to link up again in the darkness and, after destroying at least two machine-gun posts, occupied a two-storied building on the fringe of the village, where it was joined about 3 a.m. by 13 Platoon (Lieutenant Paterson109), which had been severely shelled and was only 11 strong. A small group of 14 Platoon also arrived and took charge of some prisoners. At dawn 3 Company penetrated the village.
On the way up to La Romola the platoons of 1 Company under Turner’s command had to force their way through thickly planted grape vines on tightly strung wires. Veering a little to the left, 6 Platoon lost contact with 7 and 8, which entered the eastern outskirts of the village about dawn and were joined by 5 Platoon and
the wounded O’Reilly; later 6 Platoon ‘drifted in by sections.’110
While searching some houses Second-Lieutenant Woolcott111 and a small party from 5 Platoon unexpectedly came upon a Tiger tank which appeared to be abandoned. Lance-Corporal Dillon112 began climbing on to it, ‘when up comes the lid. Before I could surrender, the German did, with three or four others. ...’113 Later the tank, in perfect order, was driven towards the rear, where its unheralded approach caused alarm.
Meanwhile 2 Company (Major Hutcheson114), after being severely mortared in the Sugana valley, advanced on to the ridge farther west to cover the left flank and the La Romola – Cerbaia road. Company Headquarters was established at a ‘sort of palace [Tattoli] ... full of terrified civilians,’115 and the platoons went on to their objective on top of the ridge about half a mile from La Romola.
Because of the extremely bad going the supporting tanks had been unable to keep up with the infantry. One of 12 Troop’s tanks (with 1 Company) dropped out with mechanical trouble early in the advance, another got stuck on a narrow track, and only one reached La Romola. All three tanks of 9 Troop (following 3 Company) got through to the village shortly after daybreak, and one of them was transferred to 12 Troop so that both 1 and 3 Companies would have two in support. On the way to 2 Company’s positions 11 Troop had to wait for several hours while a bulldozer made a deviation past a large demolition on the road in the valley, and one of its tanks shed a track. The crippled tanks were repaired and on the road again by afternoon.
Strenuous efforts, including the repairing of two large demolitions by the engineers under fire, were made to get anti-tank guns up to La Romola, in case the enemy should counter-attack with Tiger tanks in support. No such attack developed, although the enemy shelled and mortared the forward positions throughout the day. One M10 was sited to cover the northern approaches to the village, and three 17-pounders were disposed in or near the village. When one of the 17-pounder gun positions came under fire, the crew retired into nearby houses, which permitted an audacious German patrol to render the gun useless and drive away the gun-tower.
The reserve troop (No. 10) of C Squadron, 20 Regiment, ‘did
one good shoot’ on positions suspected of harbouring enemy observation posts and ‘got a proper plaster’116 in return. In the afternoon this troop reinforced the two at La Romola. Allied aircraft strafed two groups of 22 Battalion’s carriers and an artillery observation post south of the village, fortunately without doing any serious damage.
By evening on 31 July 22 Battalion was firmly established in La Romola with two companies of infantry closely supported by three troops of tanks, and was in contact with 6 Brigade on the left flank. The battalion reported that its casualties in the attack on the village were eight killed, 22 wounded and two missing; it had taken 21 prisoners and killed an estimated 40–50 of the enemy.
The night in La Romola was eventful. A stray shell set off some engineers’ explosives in a house, and caused several casualties in 6 Field Company. Later a more severe explosion brought down a house in rubble which blocked the main street. This building had been occupied by gunners of 7 Anti-Tank Regiment, 10 of whom were killed and others wounded by the explosion and falling masonry. The house was so badly wrecked that the engineers had to use a bulldozer for ‘corpse extrication’117 – to clear the rubble and recover the bodies. The explosion was thought to have been caused either by a delayed-action demolition or by a shell detonating a heap of enemy explosive stacked in the house. An immediate search of other houses revealed a heavy demolition charge with a time fuse, which was disarmed, and subsequently the sappers removed several charges from culverts in or near the village and disarmed three booby traps in houses.
VI: Breaking the Paula Line
‘Terrific fighting took place,’ the German Fourteenth Army reported on 29 July. ‘The enemy ... was stopped at the village of S. Michele by a series of counter attacks by our last local reserves. ... Army advised Army Gp that the days of hard fighting, the heavy casualties and extreme exhaustion of the troops had considerably decreased the fighting value of 1 Para Corps, particularly 29 Pz Gren Div. The Army was not in a position to give the Corps any more relief by narrowing down its sector any more, as 14 Pz Corps’ sector was now so thinly held that any attack there could not be held without help from Army Gp or ... 10 Army.’118
Army Group C therefore gave orders for the transfer of a sector on Fourteenth Army’s eastern flank to Tenth Army, which was to take over about three kilometres from 1 Parachute Corps. While the Germans were making this boundary alteration on the night of 29–30 July, 4 British Division, advancing on the east of 6 South African Armoured Division, fought its way to the crest of the 2500-foot Monte Scalari, which it held against counter-attack. This caused Fourteenth Army to pull back its left wing ‘a few kilometres’ and to instruct 1 Parachute Corps, ‘without prejudicing the orders to hold the Paula Line,’119 to reconnoitre a support line about five kilometres behind the present point of contact with Tenth Army.
During the night of 30–31 July ‘the enemy fired a very heavy preliminary barrage’ on 1 Parachute Corps’ positions. ‘Before and during the attack about 50,000 rounds were counted in 29 Pz Gren Div’s and 4 Para Div’s sectors. This even surpassed the weight of the fire during the heaviest days of the Cassino fighting. Very early this morning the enemy attacked 29 Pz Gren Div and the right wing of 4 Para Div, supported by tanks. The attacks came in waves, and were beaten off for the most part, but the enemy took the village of La Romola and gained some ground at S. Andrea. ...
‘A large-scale battle of attrition was inevitable if our troops held on any longer in their present positions, and so during the night 31 Jul – 1 Aug the left wing of 14 Pz Corps and the whole of 1 Para Corps withdrew to a new line between the old one and the Florence bridgehead position. At the same time 14 Pz Corps took over about 1 km from the western flank of 1 Para Corps. ...’120
After this withdrawal 1 Parachute Corps still held the dominating heights of the Pian dei Cerri hills on the New Zealand Division’s front and at Impruneta on 6 South African Armoured Division’s front. The main task specified by Fourteenth Army was to prevent a breakthrough to Florence, although orders already had been given to prepare the bridges in the city for demolition. The Ponte Vecchio alone was to be spared ‘for its artistic value’,121 but houses were to be blown up at each end to block its approaches.
General Freyberg decided against a major assault on the night of 31 July – 1 August, chiefly to permit the accumulation of an adequate supply of ammunition for the artillery. His decision may
have been influenced by the uncertainty over 28 Battalion’s position early on the 31st, but in any case he told 13 Corps in the afternoon, ‘No ammunition, no attack.’122
The expenditure of ammunition was very high. In three days, 29–31 July, the New Zealand ammunition point at Strada (on Route 2, five or six miles south of San Casciano) issued more than 100,000 rounds for the 25-pounder guns, as well as the requirements of all other weapons. As 13 Corps’ normal ammunition supply system would not be able to keep the New Zealand guns fed and also bring up a reserve of 600 rounds for each gun demanded by the CRA (Brigadier Parkinson), arrangements were made for New Zealand transport to assist. All the vehicles that could be spared – 210 3-ton trucks from NZASC,123 artillery and other units – were despatched on 31 July to a corps dump east of Lake Trasimene, over 100 miles away, and returned next day with 38,640 rounds of 25-pounder ammunition. This, in addition to the loads hauled daily by NZASC convoys, provided the Division with a more than sufficient reserve.
Meanwhile, on the night of 31 July – 1 August, a South African battalion group (The First City/The Cape Town Highlanders, with a Sherman squadron of the Prince Alfred’s Guards, a machine-gun platoon of the Royal Durban Light Infantry and a troop of M10s) came temporarily under New Zealand command to guard the right flank until such time as the South African division should have advanced sufficiently to make flank protection unnecessary. By midnight the South Africans had relieved 23 Battalion, which retired to the Casa Vecchia area.
When he heard shortly after midnight that 28 Battalion had a standing patrol on a road junction about half a mile beyond Villa Balbani, General Freyberg said, ‘He [the enemy] has hooked it. Get bulldozers up.’124 He told the AA & QMG (Colonel B. Barrington) to organise provost control for the bridges over the Arno. The South Africans were to go through Florence and the New Zealanders round it.
At dawn Brigadier Stewart set out to visit his forward troops. As his own car was under repair, he used a scout car borrowed from 20 Regiment and driven by Trooper Dickie.125 He went up the road past the turn-off to Villa Balbani (on a short side road) without seeing any sign of 28 Battalion, and apparently continued past
the point where the standing patrol was reported to have been. He realised he had gone too far, and was about to turn back when he noticed some high ground from which he decided to reconnoitre. There he was held up at short range by Germans with a bazooka, and as there were no weapons in the car, he and his driver surrendered. Some time later the German wireless announced that Stewart was a prisoner. He had been unable to prevent some information from falling into German hands. The commander of 1 Parachute Corps (General Schlemm) told the commander of Fourteenth Army (General Lemelsen) that ‘a marked map had been captured with the commander of 5 NZ Bde, showing the directions of the enemy thrusts. The Corps had formed main points of resistance to meet these.’126
Fifth Brigade’s intention was that D and B Companies of 28 Battalion were to pass through A and C at dawn on 1 August and advance to Poggio delle Monache and La Poggiona, on the line of the brigade’s final objective; 21 Battalion was to be ready to pass through the Maoris on this objective, which it was hoped they would have reached by midday.
D and B Companies, supported by two troops of A Squadron, 20 Regiment, began to advance after 8 a.m. and soon met stiff resistance. A detour was found for the tanks around a demolition and trees which had been felled across the road, and D Company continued towards Villa Treggiaia, about 500 yards from the objective. A Tiger tank – there probably were at least two Tigers and one or two other tanks on the battalion’s front – set fire to one of the Shermans, whose crew took shelter with some Maoris in a house near Villa Treggiaia.
B Company cut north-westward across country towards La Poggiona, and was counter-attacked about 1000 yards from this objective. The artillery helped to beat off the enemy, but the company was unable to make any further progress. Colonel Pleasants127 (who was given command of 5 Brigade when no trace could be found of Brigadier Stewart) told 28 Battalion to halt B Company until further orders and to get D Company on to Poggio Issi (Point 243, alongside Poggio delle Monache) if possible. Later, at 3.50 p.m., he ordered the battalion to consolidate on a line approximately 300 yards short of Villa Treggiaia. About this time D Company was counter-attacked; some men in a house were surrounded but managed to get away. The artillery brought down
fire in support of the company, whose ammunition was running low, and tanks and carriers went to its assistance. Soon the position was reported to have been restored.
Before nightfall fighter-bombers strafed and bombed the Poggio delle Monache – La Poggiona line in front of 28 Battalion.
General Freyberg asked to be kept closely in touch with developments on 1 August as he had set 6 p.m. as the deadline when he would have to make his decisions for the final breakthrough plans. When encouraging reports were received of the Maoris’ progress, it seemed that it might not be necessary to make a set-piece attack, or that in any case heavy artillery concentrations instead of a barrage would be sufficient to support the advance. Later, however, it was obvious that the enemy intended to hold the high ground still ahead of the Division.
At a conference at Divisional Headquarters at 6 p.m. plans were co-ordinated ‘for a rather complicated series of attacks... a sort of three-brigade attack on a three-battalion front at different times with different artillery programmes.’128 The plan for 5 and 6 Brigades to converge on the Pian dei Cerri ridge and squeeze out 4 Armoured Brigade in the centre was replaced by what was to be in effect a partial right-wheel for the Division, pivoting on 5 Brigade on the eastern flank, to bring the front to face north along the line Poggio delle Monache – La Poggiona – Poggio Valicaia, the three eastern crests of the hills, possession of which would open a short and indefensible route to Florence.
Fifth Brigade on the right would need to advance slightly over 1000 yards, 4 Brigade in the centre 2000 yards, and 6 Brigade on the left nearly 3000 yards. The method outlined in the divisional operation order was for 6 Brigade, joined shortly afterwards by 4 Brigade, to advance to the first objectives and after a short pause continue to the second objectives; after another pause all three brigades were to advance side by side to the final objectives. This operation was given the codename plonk.
From standing artillery fire just ahead of each start line all phases of the advance were to be supported by creeping barrages, lifting 100 yards every five minutes, and a heavy defensive-fire programme was to cover consolidation on the final objectives. These tasks called for continuous fire from 11 p.m. to 3.45 a.m. on the night of 1–2 August. The three New Zealand field regiments, each
assisted by a battery of 57 Field Regiment, RA, were responsible for the barrages, and 70 and 75 Medium Regiments were to fire concentrations on selected targets in or near the line of advance. At the same time an extensive counter-battery programme was to be fired by other guns in 13 Corps under the direction of 1 Army Group Royal Artillery.
Although the divisional operation order was signed at 4.45 p.m. on 1 August, and divisional and brigade conferences revealed to commanding officers the general outline of the plan, the really important details – the traces showing the areas and timings of the artillery barrages, the preparation of which was a complicated, lengthy task – did not reach the battalions until after 8 p.m., when copies had to be sent hurriedly to companies. The fire plan was one of the most complicated devised by the New Zealand Artillery. The constant changes in the reported locations of friendly and enemy troops caused many alterations in the plan, some of them after it began.
Sixth Brigade, which was to be the first to advance, listed its objectives in an operation order signed at 8 p.m.: the first objective was to be the Points 281, 282 and 261 (Poggio Cigoli–La Liona), the second Point 337 (about half-way between Poggio Cigoli and Poggio Valicaia), and the third Point 382 (Poggio Valicaia). The first step of the advance was to made by 25 Battalion on the right (Points 281 and 282) and 26 Battalion on the left (Point 261), while 24 Battalion guarded the left flank; 25 Battalion alone was to go on to the second and third objectives.
C Company, 26 Battalion, had relieved B Company during the previous night (31 July – 1 August) in positions along the Castellare–Poggio Cigoli road, and subsequently had occupied houses farther along the road, after artillery fire had been brought down on them, and had taken 19 prisoners. Plans to capture another group of buildings still farther along the road were cancelled when preparations were begun for the attack that night. The artillery traces showed that C Company’s foremost positions were over the opening line for the barrage and would have to be evacuated.
The guns opened fire at 11 p.m. and on their first lift 20 minutes later 25 Battalion sent off its companies in line along the road. Shortly after midnight, when A Company, in the lead, was closing on Point 281 (Poggio Cigoli), the supporting tanks of B Squadron,
18 Armoured Regiment,129 were halted by a minefield on the road. While the sappers were clearing the mines, the tanks fired on a house at Point 282 (just to the north-west of 281) and other posts which were preventing the infantry from occupying the first objective. D Company of 26 Battalion, advancing on the left against slight opposition, occupied Point 261 (La Liona).
C Company of 25 Battalion passed through A (which soon reported Points 281 and 282 clear), occupied the second objective (Point 337) and captured about 30 prisoners;130 D and B Companies, carrying on towards the third objective, met vigorous resistance from a house close by the road. The enemy withdrew under fire from the tanks, and the two companies moved on to the slopes of Poggio Valicaia, where they met little opposition. One post holding out in a building withdrew when the tanks approached. By 5.30 a.m. D Company on the right and B on the left were in possession of the final objective with a troop of tanks in support; C Company and another troop were at Point 337, A Company and a third troop at Point 282, and a reserve troop on the road south of Point 281 (which was occupied next night by A Company, 26 Battalion).
There had been a sharp earthquake during the advance, at 2.33 a.m. As the light improved on the morning of 2 August the men digging in on the objective came under fire, mostly from mortars; this was especially annoying on Poggio Valicaia, where it seemed to come from La Sughera and Poggio al Pino, to the north-west. When the artillery laid concentrations of smoke on these two hilltops, the accuracy and volume of the mortaring diminished, which permitted the anti-tank guns to be sited. An M10, a 17- pounder and four six-pounder guns were placed well forward, the Vickers guns and 4.2-inch mortars some distance to the rear.
Signs of enemy activity presaged a counter-attack. When a German tank approached, the 17-pounder sited to cover the road near Point 337 was quickly manned by two of its crew who had been sheltering from the mortar fire in a nearby building. Their first shot ‘hit just below the turret which was thrown about 6 feet in the air and the tank split open, then a sheet of flame enveloped the lot, followed by the explosion of the ammunition.’131 German infantry
observed near Santa Maria, farther west, were dispersed by small-arms and artillery fire.
During the day (2 August) the artillery harassed all observed enemy movement, and 25 Battalion received similar attention from German guns and mortars. Allied fighter-bombers attacked targets at Santa Maria and Pian dei Cerri. The hostile fire increased in the evening (the 17-pounder anti-tank gun was knocked out by mortar fire) and then gradually died away.
While 6 Brigade, on the Division’s left flank, gained its objectives with unexpected ease,132 the assaulting troops of 4 and 5 Brigades were surprised by the determined resistance they encountered, and took longer to gain their objectives. Sixth Brigade, therefore, was directed by Divisional Headquarters to hold its positions during the night of 2–3 August and until such time as the centre and right brigades should reach a line from which the final breakthrough could be staged.
On the night of 31 July – 1 August 22 Battalion, in the centre, sent a patrol to search the road leading along the ridge from La Romola, with orders to occupy Point 305, about 1200 yards to the north-east, if not too strongly defended. The patrol, 29 men altogether, was met by machine-gun and mortar fire when close to Point 305 and was ordered to return. The following afternoon a section of carriers led an infantry platoon and two tanks along the road, while other tanks of C Squadron, 20 Regiment, and Vickers guns of 3 MG Company gave supporting fire, but this party also came under fire and withdrew. Plans to make a third attempt on Point 305 during the night of 1–2 August were amended to fit in with the divisional plan for Operation plonk.
Fourth Brigade’s start line was just north of La Romola, its first objective short of Point 305 and the next just beyond; the attacking troops then had to swing to the left to face up to the final objective, La Poggiona. The artillery barrage was to open at 11.35 p.m. and stand for 20 minutes about 300 yards ahead of the infantry start line before creeping forward; it was to stand for an hour from 1.55 a.m. just beyond the second objective and then lift again and finish beyond the infantry’s final objective at 3.45 a.m.
The 22nd Battalion advanced with 1 Company and a troop of C Squadron, 20 Regiment, on the right, 3 Company and a troop on the left, and 2 Company and the rest of the squadron in reserve.
While 1 Company headed across country east of the road to Point 305, 3 Company kept to the road as far as Podere Tavernaccia (north of Point 305) to continue northward through La Querciola to La Poggiona. Wireless communication was poor, and the little information that reached Battalion Headquarters came through the tanks. The night was dark and visual contact almost impossible; woods, patches of scrub and many ridges and steep-sided gullies made the going difficult.
At the start 1 Company suffered casualties from what were thought to be shells falling short from the supporting artillery, but which might have been the result of overrunning the barrage. ‘Though scattered and dazed and also hampered by wire – grapevines strung across the line of attack – the survivors pushed on’133 to Villa Tavernaccia on Point 305, cleared the building on the hill, and were joined there by 2 Company.
After advancing in good order about half a mile along the road from La Romola, 3 Company was on a small ridge north of Point 305, where the shells from the supporting guns seemed to be hitting the treetops and bursting. The company halted to allow the barrage to lift clear of the trees, but after resuming the advance was held up by fire from a group of houses. These were captured, with assistance from 10 Troop of C Squadron, and a few prisoners taken. By this time dawn was approaching, the barrage had stopped, and La Poggiona, across about 400 yards of open ground, was still in enemy hands.
Nevertheless two platoons (16 and 13), accompanied by the tanks, which kept up a continual fire against many targets (including a nest of four spandaus, which were silenced), advanced in an extended line across the open ground. Half-way, as arranged, the tanks stopped and laid down a barrage under which the infantry continued through La Querciola and up the steep slope, shooting as they went, to the top of La Poggiona and some distance down the other side, where the Germans were called on to surrender and began to do so. One of them started to walk towards the New Zealanders with his hands up, when ‘unfortunately a youngster who had not long before joined the company lost his head and fired a burst of tommy-gun through the German’s stomach at short range. The rest turned and ran down the hill while we in turn ran back to the top of the hill and started digging.’134 The enemy swiftly rallied and assaulted the hill. He was twice repulsed but in the third attempt threatened to surround 3 Company, which was
running out of ammunition and therefore withdrew.135
The GOC approved a plan to renew the attack on La Poggiona at 6 p.m. on 2 August by 2 Company under a short but heavy concentration of fire from the artillery, tanks, Vickers guns and mortars. To give the infantry close support, 9 Troop of C Squadron was to take over from 10 Troop; 11 and 12 Troops also were to assist the attack and protect the right flank.
When two platoons of 2 Company were assembling on the start line, ‘we were subject to one of the bitterest shellings I have ever experienced,’ wrote Major Hutcheson. ‘Someone said they were our own shells and indeed it seemed to be true. ... my two platoons came staggering back, shocked and disorganised, and with heavy casualties. ...’136 The men may have arrived on the barrage line as the guns opened fire, or may have been shelled by German artillery. On the right flank some 12 Platoon men, under Corporal Tsukigawa,137 not knowing that the others had retired, set out across a gully towards the objective, came under spandau fire and pulled back into cover in the gully while Allied aircraft attacked the ridge in front.
Encouraged by the news of the advance by Tsukigawa’s section, other 2 Company men were gathered together by Hutcheson and led towards the objective. At the foot of the hill they met Tsukigawa, who said La Poggiona was clear of the enemy. By this time, however, the barrage had stopped, and apparently the enemy had returned. Hutcheson’s men climbed the hill under machine-gun fire, and were mortared when they probed over the top; they dug in, 24-strong, just behind the crest. When it was learnt some time later that La Poggiona had been captured, two platoons of 3 Company were rushed up to reinforce Hutcheson’s party, followed by tanks of 9 Troop. The enemy still held posts on the northern side of the hill, and a counter-attack at dawn was thought possible.
When daylight arrived on 3 August and the morning mists dispersed, almost all local firing ceased, and the men on La Poggiona found themselves looking down on a magnificent view of Florence.
On the Division’s right 28 Battalion had been brought to a halt on 1 August while attempting to drive to Poggio delle Monache and La Poggiona, and it therefore fell to 21 Battalion, which already had received orders to pass through the 28th, to carry out 5 Brigade’s share of Operation plonk.
Fifth Brigade’s barrage was to begin at 2.15 a.m. with a 20- minute concentration on the start line, then creep forward and finish with a 15-minute concentration to cover consolidation on Poggio delle Monache. After dark on 1 August 28 Battalion withdrew its men clear of both 4 and 5 Brigades’ barrage areas. A platoon (No. 16) was sent forward from D Company, 21 Battalion, to cover the start line, astride the road by the junction near Podere Nidiaci. After the advance began this platoon occupied houses at Massanera, on the right flank, and subsequently was replaced by a platoon from 28 Battalion, whose role it was to guard this flank (north of the positions held by The First City/The Cape Town Highlanders) until progress by the South Africans made this no longer necessary.
The 21st Battalion attacked with two companies: A Company’s objective, Poggio Issi (Point 243), was just to the south-east of C Company’s objective, Poggio delle Monache. The troops of B Squadron, 20 Regiment, were in support.
The attack, like 28 Battalion’s the previous day, did not succeed. There were several reasons.138 The late arrival of the plan and artillery task traces and the movement of 28 Battalion’s men and tanks to the rear delayed the arrival of 21 Battalion’s troops on the start line, where the two companies did not assemble until 2.40 a.m., 25 minutes after the artillery fire began. They began to advance 10 minutes later. The artillery and infantry start lines did not coincide: the right-hand end of the infantry’s line was set only 100 yards behind the artillery opening line, but the left-hand end was some 500 yards short. The late arrival of the artillery traces apparently did not allow time for this variation to be noted and corrected by moving C Company closer to the opening concentration. This prevented the infantry from being close enough behind the barrage to catch the enemy disorganised; the short time lag of a few minutes permitted him to get into action. Moreover, ground on both flanks, including Poggio Montanino on the right, was missed by the barrage.
Undoubtedly the enemy – even if he had not seen the marked map captured with Brigadier Stewart – was bound to fight a strong delaying action on the twin hills which were 21 Battalion’s objective, for these were the last hills covering one of the principal roads on which he could withdraw his tanks and transport. Beyond Poggio delle Monache the road led through Giogoli, across the River Greve at Gora, and joined Route 2 about two miles from Florence.
In a divisional plan arranged so that all three brigades should start together on the last leg of the advance (when 5 Brigade began its attack), it probably was unavoidable that some hours should elapse between the time when 28 Battalion began to call in its men and when 21 Battalion advanced to the area where the Maoris’ leading posts had been. The enemy must have been aware of the Maoris’ withdrawal and had time to occupy the positions they vacated.
A Company, 21 Battalion, advanced in extended order about 10 minutes behind the lifts of the barrage until its right flank came up against the creek bed of the Borro di Tramonti, which curved around the southern side of Poggio Montanino. The company closed up to the left to avoid this obstacle and continued on a narrow front until forced to ground by fire from the lateral road leading eastward from just short of Villa Treggiaia to Villa Benvenuti. To avoid this fire the company drew farther to the left and on to the main north-south road, where the men encountered machine-gun and shell fire from a tank shooting straight down the road.
On the left of the north-south road C Company advanced well behind the barrage but met only scattered fire until the leading men approached the road to Podere Tavernaccia, where they came under fire from the front, the left (western) flank and the left rear.
By dawn on 2 August most of A and C Companies had fallen back to defensive positions in the vicinity of the start line. With the half squadron of tanks and anti-tank guns in support, they spent the rest of the day under light but consistent shell, mortar and machine-gun fire. A Tiger tank was seen on the road in front of Poggio delle Monache. A concentration from the medium guns forced the crew to leave it, but they returned and drove it into cover. Later this or another tank appeared at the same place and was attacked by fighter-bombers.
Thus, on 2 August, 6 Brigade had gained its objective, Poggio Valicaia, but its sector was not considered suitable for a major breakout, and opposition still came from the north-western hills
of the Pian dei Cerri; 4 Brigade had reached its objective, La Poggiona, but had been forced off it and intended to make another attempt that night; 5 Brigade had failed to take Poggio delle Monache. Methods of continuing the advance were considered, and the plan finally chosen was for 22 Battalion to complete the occupation of La Poggiona (which it did), and for 21 Battalion to advance at 10.30 p.m. on Poggio delle Monache; this would secure the final objectives of Operation plonk. Then 28 Battalion was to pass through 21 Battalion and carry on to vino, a line running north-westwards from Giogoli to a road junction a mile and a half north of Poggio delle Monache. When vino had been secured, it was intended that 23 Battalion, under 4 Brigade’s command, should pass through the 28th. As the advance progressed the FC/CTH was to move up and continue its role of guarding the right flank.
The two reserve companies of 21 Battalion (B and D) passed through A and C and advanced under a modified repeat of the previous night’s barrage. B Company cautiously negotiated the narrow strip between Borro di Tramonti and the road (down which a tank or 88-millimetre gun was firing) without meeting opposition, and waited south of Villa Treggiaia until D Company, which had been delayed at the start by mortar fire, drew level. The two companies then advanced in extended order on both sides of the road and, meeting little resistance (a small enemy party was overcome at Villa Treggiaia), reached the objective close behind the barrage. B Company occupied Poggio Issi and D Company Poggio delle Monache. The two hills had been prepared for defence with numerous weapon pits and sites for dug-in tanks and guns. Enemy dead, casualties of the barrage, were lying among the pits.139 Fresh tank tracks were observed, and the sound of a tank or tanks withdrawing had been heard. The general impression was that the enemy had been caught by the barrage and the rapid advance of the infantry and had left hurriedly. By 2 a.m. on 3 August the two companies had consolidated on the objective with tank and anti-tank support.
The New Zealand Division’s capture of the eastern crests of the Pian dei Cerri hills ‘was the turning point of the battle’140 for Florence.
On 2 August 1 Parachute Corps told Fourteenth Army that it would have to withdraw that night. ‘The terrific shellfire during the attacks of the last few days had caused heavy casualties. ... Some of the battalions had only 10 or 15 men per company. ... No more counter attacks could be mounted to clear the penetrations, because of the casualties they would cause. ...’141 After consulting Army Group C, Fourteenth Army gave orders for 1 Parachute Corps to withdraw to a small bridgehead south of Florence, and for the left wing of 14 Panzer Corps to withdraw in conformity. Strong rearguards were to be left behind, and the left wing of 14 Panzer Corps was also to hold a bridgehead south of the Arno as long as possible.
East of Route 2 the South Africans crossed the River Greve and entered Impruneta without opposition. By the morning of 3 August the Germans were in retreat on almost the whole of 13 Corps’ front: the New Zealanders and South Africans were driving towards Florence on the heels of the enemy; on the right flank 4 British Division, and on the left 8 Indian Division, were also advancing.
VII: Down to the Arno
The capture of Poggio delle Monache by 21 Battalion and the occupation of Poggio Montanino on the right flank by the First City/Cape Town Highlanders permitted 5 Brigade to continue the advance towards Florence on the morning of 3 August.
General Freyberg told the corps commander by telephone at 6.37 a.m.: ‘We pushed him off the top of the hill last night and we are now pushing through into the valley. In an hour’s time I will tell you whether he has gone.’142 Both generals were of the opinion that the enemy had gone. Already the GOC had given orders for Divisional Cavalry to be ready to move forward at 7 a.m. and the reserve armour of 4 Brigade an hour later; troops of 6 Brigade were to follow on wheels through La Romola. At 6.45 a.m., however, a message was received from 5 Brigade saying that it would have to fight for its bridgehead.
The Maori Battalion passed through 21 Battalion with C and A Companies in the lead, each supported by a troop of B Squadron, 20 Regiment. From Poggio delle Monache the tree-lined road
to Giogoli, a small village about a mile distant, and thickly wooded valleys descended to the flat country along the Arno River. Lieutenant-Colonel Awatere gave the two companies Point 205 (by Villa Bombicci) as their intermediate objective, and vino (the line from Giogoli to the road junction about 2000 yards north-west143) as their final objective.
They made steady progress against only light opposition, mostly from the right flank, where the tanks dealt with machine-gun posts. The leading tanks and infantry were at Villa Bombicci by 8 a.m., and as they went on ahead, Tactical Headquarters was set up there and B and D Companies took up positions forward of this point. C Company swung to the right on the road to Giogoli, and A took a track leading towards the north-western end of vino.
The GOC was eager for information about the advance. When Brigadier Pleasants gave him the latest known situation at 9.15 a.m., he asked, ‘Why are they not getting on?’ Pleasants said the country was not easy, and was urged, ‘You have to push on.’ He replied, ‘I am pushing Sir. I am going as fast as I possibly can.144
As they approached Giogoli C Company and the tanks of 6 Troop came under strong fire from the ridge at Villa Capponi, about half a mile farther to the north-east, where the enemy had tanks, anti-tank guns, mortars and machine guns. The attacking force went beyond Giogoli to a place where there was better cover and where fire could be brought to bear on the enemy. When his tank was hit, the troop commander (Lieutenant Heptinstall145) alone managed to get clear; his crew of four were killed. Later, armed with a tommy gun, he took prisoner two Germans manning a light machine gun by the side of the road.
C Company made no further progress that day, although the tanks, the artillery and other weapons engaged the enemy pocket. Heptinstall’s troop was reinforced by two more tanks from B Squadron, followed by two M10s, one of which was soon knocked out; two of its crew were killed and two injured. The other M10, because of the crew’s inexperience, was ordered to the rear. Subsequently it was found that two Tiger tanks had been destroyed, probably by the artillery.
A Company and 7 Troop’s tanks made slow progress in very difficult country. By mid-afternoon the infantry was on the objective, but the tanks were held up short of it by fire from what was believed to be an 88-millimetre gun. The infantry occupied
buildings at i Cipressi, just beyond the north-western end of vino. As a wide gap had developed between A and C Companies, Awatere ordered his reserve companies forward. Before nightfall B Company had reached the road north-west of Giogoli and occupied two villas without opposition.
By this time both 28 Battalion and Divisional Cavalry had been instructed to attempt to cross the Vingone stream north-west of Giogoli and move on Florence through Scandicci and a bridge over the Greve River about two miles north of Giogoli. D Company of 28 Battalion, with tanks of A Squadron, 20 Regiment, was directed to advance between B and A Companies. The infantry made good time and by 6.30 p.m. were passing A Company’s position at i Cipressi, but the tanks were held up in a traffic tangle with armoured cars of B Squadron, Divisional Cavalry.
Fifth Brigade had directed the armoured cars to go through on the left and reconnoitre the route through Scandicci to see if the Capponi ‘pocket’ could be outflanked. Given priority over the tanks, they overtook D Company and searched for a crossing over the Vingone. A shell, probably from an anti-tank gun, set fire to a car, killing two and gravely wounding two of the crew. This blocked the withdrawal of five cars which had gone ahead, but apparently the enemy gun could be depressed only far enough to fire a shot which damaged the top of another car. The crews baled out and were pinned to the ground by machine-gun fire until D Company came through and overran the enemy position.
D Company then occupied Villa Franceschi, between the Vingone stream and Scandicci.
News of 6 South African Armoured Division’s progress on 2 August indicated it would soon draw level with 2 NZ Division’s front, in which case protection of the Division’s right flank was no longer needed. The First City/Cape Town Highlanders group, therefore, was ordered to return to its parent command; it crossed the Greve River and joined up with other South African forces on Route 2 next day.
In the evening of the 2nd 23 Battalion had been informed that, if 21 Battalion’s attack that night broke the enemy’s line and he fell back on Florence, it (the 23rd) was to embus and give chase. As 28 Battalion already had been given the role of passing through 21 Battalion, this task of exploitation by 23 Battalion was additional, apparently based on the assumption – or wishful thinking – that the enemy might disappear across the Arno and abandon Florence overnight. But if 21 Battalion’s attack should fail to
induce the enemy to do this, 23 Battalion was to replace the 22nd under 4 Brigade’s command.
Early on 3 August it was understood that 23 Battalion was to pass to 4 Brigade when 28 Battalion reached vino (the Giogoli line). Later in the morning, however, Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas was called urgently to join Brigadier Pleasants at Poggio delle Monache and was instructed to move his battalion on the right flank. By that time 28 Battalion had come up against the Germans at Villa Capponi. The 23rd, with A Squadron, 19 Regiment, under command, was to go to San Cristofano (east of Giogoli) and then to Point 122 (nearer the Greve), where it was to ‘hold fast. Deny the right flank, bring pressure and fire to the front’146 (the Villa Capponi ridge).
Thomas directed B Company, with half a squadron of tanks, to lead the advance, take both objectives and consolidate at Point 122, and C Company to follow with the other half-squadron and consolidate in San Cristofano. B Company left Poggio delle Monache about 2 p.m., and after some delay caused by taking a wrong turning, occupied the crossroads at Cristofano without opposition. The tanks were held up by breakdowns in the leading troop, which blocked the road. The infantry carried on unsupported towards Point 122, but after going only a few hundred yards were pinned down in the open on a forward slope by machine-gun, mortar and tank-gun fire, mostly from the Villa Capponi ridge, across a gully to the north. Among about 20 casualties were all three platoon commanders, who were wounded. The tanks found a way around the road blockage, but were halted again by a mined demolition. Meanwhile C Company and the other half of A Squadron arrived at San Cristofano.
Fifth Brigade ordered that every attempt should be made to reduce the Villa Capponi ‘pocket’, and instructed 1 MG Company to send forward some Vickers guns to assist. About 5.30 p.m. Thomas called for another effort to gain Point 122, but the tanks could not get past the demolition, and despite supporting fire from the battalion weapons, tanks and Vickers guns, B Company could make no further progress. As the company was under fire on open ground and suffering casualties to no purpose, Thomas obtained permission from Brigade Headquarters for it to move back to a less exposed position.
Thus, at the end of 3 August, 5 Brigade’s advance had been checked about three miles from Florence by the enemy on the high ground north-east of Giogoli, part of the bridgehead held
by 1 Parachute Corps to cover the withdrawal of troops and vehicles across the Arno. The enemy was fighting a delaying action on the Ema stream, which crosses Route 2 at Galluzzo and joins the Greve at La Gora, less than a mile from Villa Capponi. The South Africans, whose tanks were seen by the New Zealanders on the far side of the Greve, were halted about a mile from Galluzzo.
Meanwhile 4 Brigade (except for the tanks of 19 and 20 Regiments supporting 5 Brigade) and 6 Brigade remained in reserve.
The 22nd Battalion, after ascertaining that the enemy had gone from the northern slope of La Poggiona, was withdrawn by 4 Brigade and bivouacked with C Squadron, 20 Regiment, between La Romola and Cerbaia, where they were rejoined later by two platoons of 3 Company and a troop of tanks which had been left in occupation of La Poggiona.
In 6 Brigade’s sector hostility had ceased except for sporadic long-range shelling. Armoured cars of C Squadron, Divisional Cavalry, struggled over narrow roads, on which the enemy had left many mines and demolitions, and found that he had gone from Santa Maria and Pian dei Cerri. Patrols from 25 Battalion also encountered mines, booby traps and demolitions but no enemy. It was possible to move freely between San Michele, Cerbaia and La Romola without drawing fire. Everywhere the Italians were returning to their homes.
Divisional Cavalry assumed responsibility for this part of the front while 6 Brigade concentrated, 24 Battalion in Castellare and 25 and 26 Battalions and 18 Regiment in or near Cerbaia, together with NZASC transport ready to carry the three battalions should 6 Brigade be called upon to continue the advance.
This concentration of troops was almost complete when, about 4.30 p.m., shells began to fall on Cerbaia. The shelling continued with hardly a break for two and a half hours, although the medium guns and fighter-bombers were directed on the places from which it was thought to come. Casualties in the crowded village were not as heavy as they might have been, probably because most of the men, on arrival, had sought out shelter in the buildings in which to sleep. An officer was killed and about 30 men wounded; six vehicles and a six-pounder gun were destroyed, and a dozen or more trucks damaged. At Castellare 24 Battalion escaped the shell-fire.
The Germans claimed on 3 August that the Allied forces ‘ignored the fact that Florence is an open city’147 and shelled the Piazza Museo Instituto d’Arte (south of the Arno), the Ponte della Vittoria (the westernmost of the city’s six bridges) and the south-western suburb of Bellosguardo. They also claimed that Allied aircraft attacked the piazza and streets in the southern part of the city. ‘Considerable damage was caused to buildings.’148
When he heard an Italian report on 3 August that the enemy had prepared the Arno bridges for demolition and intended to hold the other side of the river, General Freyberg said, ‘He is a dirty dog. Knowing that we won’t shell it [Florence] he’s used it as a billet and now he sits there and hopes we will knock it down.’149 Next morning the GOC noted in his diary that the enemy had snipers in the south of Florence, and that ‘he is said to have announced that we are shelling the city which is not true.’ Later in the day, when Brigadier Pleasants said that his troops were being shot at from Florence, the General replied, ‘I can’t help it’, and confirmed that Florence was not to be shelled or mortared.
Army Group C gave permission for the withdrawal of 1 Parachute Corps during the night of 3–4 August to the Heinrich Mountain Line, on the northern outskirts of Florence, and also authorised the demolition of the bridges, except the Ponte Vecchio, which was to be blocked by the demolition of houses at both ends. The main body of 1 Parachute Corps withdrew during the night ‘according to plan’, but very early in the morning of the 4th the rearguards left south of the city ‘were attacked in strength. To avoid fighting in the town, which might well have resulted in the rearguards being cut off among the maze of houses and lanes, they were withdrawn across the Arno. ... The enemy followed up fast, guided by civilians through the obstacles and minefields at the entrance to the city. The prepared demolitions in Florence were blown according to orders. ... Partisans cut the fuzes leading to the houses south of the Ponte Vecchio, but they were repaired, and when the houses blew up the partisans were buried among the ruins.’150
Later in the morning Field Marshal Kesselring demanded an explanation of why his order that 1 Parachute Corps was to leave three battalions south of Florence when it withdrew had been disobeyed. He was told that if the battalions had stayed where
they were they would have been cut off, and if they had tried to get back in daylight they would have been badly mauled because of the Allies’ good observation from the ridges south of the city.
The South Africans were the first Allied troops to enter Florence. The Imperial Light Horse crossed the Ema at Galluzzo, on Route 2, and patrols going on foot through the southern outskirts of the city reached the Arno at dawn on 4 August; they found that five of the six bridges had been demolished and that the approaches to the Ponte Vecchio – which in any case was too weak except for the lightest traffic – had been blocked. As the South African Division closed up to the river, German snipers and machine guns opened fire from the north bank.
The New Zealanders arrived later in the morning. C Company, 23 Battalion, discovered that the enemy, except for 15 men who were taken prisoner, had gone from Villa Capponi. One platoon crossed the Greve at La Gora to make contact with the South Africans; another platoon of this company and the three of D, mounted on the tanks of A Squadron, 19 Regiment, forded the Greve and raced ‘through farmyards, across fields, straight through one stone wall and then pell-mell along a secondary road. ...’151 Determined to be the first New Zealanders in the city, they pushed through Marignolle and entered the southern suburbs about 11 a.m.
‘In no time,’ says Colonel Thomas (who was riding on Major H. A. Robinson’s tank), ‘there were thousands in the streets, cheering frantically, throwing flowers and fruit onto the tanks. Wine, champagne, and even whiskey were passed up in glasses and bottles. It was a great moment. We approached the Arno and I called up Brigade on the wireless set and reported our success – they said “Good Show but withdraw immediately!”‘152 This ‘was a shattering blow to the troops after having come so far, but later events proved the message could not have arrived at a more appropriate time’.153 As they retired, the tanks with the infantry still sitting on them came under sniper, machine-gun and shell fire. Thomas, wounded in the wrist by a shell burst, was the only casualty. The withdrawal was continued to the area between Villa Capponi and Giogoli.
Men from the Maori Battalion may have entered the southern suburbs of Florence about the same time as Thomas’s column, if not earlier.154 D Company, 28 Battalion, with tanks of A Squadron,
20 Regiment, and armoured cars of B Squadron, Divisional Cavalry, probed forward before dawn on 4 August, and soon found that there was no enemy ahead. The infantry climbed on to the tanks, which set off along the road through Scandicci, only to find that the nearby bridge over the Greve had been demolished. Battalion Headquarters gave permission to go ahead. The men crossed the river and, after a ford had been bulldozed, the tanks caught up and carried them along the road towards the Ponte della Vittoria. When they ventured into the open to examine the bridge (already blown), they were met by machine-gun fire from the far bank of the Arno.
After 23 Battalion discovered that the enemy had gone from Villa Capponi, C Company of 28 Battalion advanced beyond Giogoli and also crossed the Greve. Unable to contact Battalion Headquarters by radio, Captain Baker decided on his own initiative to carry on to Florence – which was in accord with the wishes of his men, who made a triumphant entry into the southern suburbs. Their progress, however, was cut short when Colonel Awatere ordered the company to concentrate by Monticelli, on a road to the west.
The Maori Battalion was instructed to consolidate on the south bank of the Arno west of the Ponte della Vittoria and to act as a firm base through which engineers and patrols from other units were to reconnoitre possible crossing places in preparation for continuing the advance. At nightfall, therefore, the battalion was disposed with B and D Companies near the river bank and A and C in reserve. Tanks of A Squadron, 19 Regiment, completing the relief of the 20th (which returned to 4 Brigade), supported the forward companies.
The enemy shelled the positions near the river and movement on the roads during the afternoon and into the night; his machine-gun posts continually swept the south bank and its approaches.
The 21st Battalion, instructed to reconnoitre the bank and crossing places with a view to establishing a bridgehead across the river, went into position behind 28 Battalion in the evening. A patrol of an officer and 10 men from B Company waded across and went about 100 yards beyond the river without meeting the enemy, but while returning was fired on by South African posts farther upstream. Another patrol of the same size, from D Company, found a good ford for tanks a short distance downstream from the Ponte della Vittoria, and saw Germans digging defensive positions in a park on the far bank.
Meanwhile Divisional Cavalry patrols swept the low ground near the river on the Division’s left flank, while farther west 8 Indian Division approached the suburban area of Lastra a Signa, opposite Signa.
B Squadron, Divisional Cavalry, which had been ambushed while attempting to cross the Vingone the previous night, forded this stream and the Greve on 4 August. Some of its cars accompanied the Maoris and tanks to Florence; some made contact with South African patrols and helped comb the southern suburbs for any enemy who might still be there.
C Squadron made slow progress northwards from Pian dei Cerri and Santa Maria because of demolitions and the many trees which the enemy had felled across the road. After fording the Vingone the squadron’s cars engaged the enemy in houses by Route 67 (the highway from Florence to the west), from which he was not dislodged until shelled by the artillery.
Next day A and B Squadrons investigated the river bank west of Florence, engaged snipers and machine-gun posts on the far side, and reported several places where the river could be crossed; C Squadron covered the Division’s left flank and made contact with patrols from 8 Indian Division working towards Lastra a Signa, where German patrols were still active.
The New Zealand Division’s destruction of the German defences on the hills commanding the city’s southern approaches had been the turning point of the battle for Florence.
‘At times the enemy fought almost fanatically,’ wrote the Eighth Army Commander (General Leese). ‘They had, apparently, been ordered to hold on south of Florence at all costs. Eventually, the general advance came to a halt about 5,000 yards south of Florence and the River Arno. Owing to the necessity to take over the French front, 13th Corps was very extended. It was doubtful whether we could break into the defences until we had brought up more reserves. However, determined attacks by the New Zealand Division against the Poggio al Pino and Poggiona high ground S.E. of Florence gained the day. The New Zealand Division fought magnificently over a period of four days. If it had not been for their effort it would have been necessary to check along the whole front until we could bring in fresh divisions. In
conformity with the New Zealanders, progress was made all along the line. ...’155
‘Now that we have entered Florence,’ said the corps commander (General Kirkman), ‘I should like to say how much 13 Corps owes to 2 NZ Division during its recent fighting. In the battles for Arezzo and Florence your troops as always fought magnificently, and gave us the extra punch that was necessary to eject the enemy from his chosen positions in the very difficult country south of the River Arno. ...’156
When the commander of 6 South African Armoured Division (Major-General W. H. E. Poole) told General Freyberg in the evening of 4 August that ‘You have done a magnificent job,’ the latter replied, ‘It had to be done. We had a better chance than you did. It has probably saved you a lot of casualties.’157
The previous day Freyberg had sent a short report to New Zealand giving the Division’s known casualties at that stage. He felt ‘this was necessary in view of rather horrific picture of stern actions being fought by the New Zealand Division south of the Arno.’158 During the Division’s advance of over 20 miles which began on 22 July, its casualties were almost a thousand: 214 were killed or died of wounds, 710 were wounded, and 29 became prisoners of war, a total of 953.159 While the Division remained on the south bank of the Arno (until the night of 15–16 August) a further 34 were killed and 107 wounded, which brought the total to 1094. Between 22 July and 16 August, also, 52 of 4 Armoured Brigade’s tanks, the strength of one whole regiment, were put out of action, many of them permanently.
The Division undoubtedly had grown in efficiency. Co-operation had improved between infantry, armour, artillery, engineers and the other arms. Without such co-operation there could have been little or no progress at times. For example, the Division would not have been able to get on as it did without the sappers’ skill and speed in erecting bridges, trimming demolitions and clearing the way through minefields.
German records acknowledge the effectiveness of the artillery fire. Indeed the gun teams were kept very busy, and the expenditure
of ammunition was enormous. Occasionally the infantry criticised the gunners’ ‘short shooting’ which inflicted casualties among their own men, but the artillery had to contend with great difficulties: the preparation of complicated programmes in support of attacks at very short notice, and the problem of crest clearance in hilly, wooded country where the similarities in heights and place-names on the map were confusing.
The Division, with one armoured and two infantry brigades, was better constituted for the mobile warfare it had known in North Africa in 1941–43 than for the type of fighting which it now encountered in Italy in 1944. It did not have enough infantrymen; the two infantry brigades could not find the rested and fresh troops to relieve those in need of respite. Consequently, instead of being employed as the motorised unit of an armoured brigade, for which it had been specially trained, 22 (Motor) Battalion went into the line alongside the infantry units.
This handicap was reduced in the winter of 1944–45 by changing each of the two infantry brigades from three to four battalions, which was accomplished by converting Divisional Cavalry and 22 (Motor) Battalion to infantry. Before the offensive in the spring of 1945 the infantry strength of the Division was further increased by converting the machine-gun battalion to infantry and forming an extra brigade. The Division then had an armoured brigade of three regiments, and three infantry brigades, each of three battalions.