19 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 21 — Rome and the Pursuit North
Rome and the Pursuit North
So Rome fell to the Allied armies in Italy, two days before the Anglo-American invasion was launched against the shores of Normandy. It was but the latest of many captures of Rome in History, but it was the first time since Belisarius captured it fourteen centuries ago that the Eternal City had been taken by an invading army from the South.
—Field-Marshal Alexander’s Despatch
June opened auspiciously: on the 4th Rome fell and on the 6th the Allies landed in Normandy. The Mediterranean theatre was now less important, but some bitter battles lay ahead. Although the German armies in Italy now faced a numerically smaller opposition, the quality of the Allied arms kept all their formations fully engaged right up to the end of hostilities and forced the German High Command to reinforce them at a time when it was sorely pressed elsewhere in Europe.
After the breakthrough into the Liri valley 2 NZ Division began to move northwards with the rest of the pursuing forces. In the last days of May 18 and 20 Armoured Regiments took their share of the spearhead actions, but the 19th, busy refitting, did not leave the now peaceful backwater behind Cassino until 1 June when, with the task of protecting the right flank of the divisional advance towards Avezzano, it began to move forward again.
The main attack by this time was well past Sora, and the move up the Belmonte-Atina valley was made under a dense pall of choking dust stirred up by endless convoys of vehicles pushing onward in fast pursuit. In the vicinity of Alvito the first active opposition was encountered. The regimental area was sharply ‘stonked’ for fifteen minutes by light-calibre guns. Beyond some slight damage to several vehicles, there were no serious results, and the following morning (2 June) A Squadron formed a gunline to support 12 Lancers, which was attacking a ridge behind San Donato. page 419 The tanks, commanded by Captain Ellingham,1 engaged suspected enemy positions and took on a self-propelled gun during the three days’ operations. Captain Morrin acted as observation-post officer with Headquarters 12 Lancers at San Donato.
The plum for this period of service fell to a force commanded by Captain Saxton consisting of the Reconnaissance Troop, one platoon of infantry from 22 (Motor) Battalion, and No. 4 Troop from A Squadron. Its task was to seek out the enemy’s forward positions and ascertain if the Valle di Rio would be suitable for tanks if chosen as a future axis of advance. Saxton Force moved from Alvito on the 3rd and spent two interesting days on this assignment. The enemy was known to be thinning out and, though the small force was once engaged at long range by his guns, it did not make contact with the retreating foe but must have been hot on his heels.
As it moved up the valley and through the small agricultural settlements, Saxton Force was greeted by the Italian villagers as liberators and given an enthusiastic welcome. There were many amusing incidents, and the hospitality offered was so profuse that at times the situation became embarrassing. This was the 19th’s first experience of what in the closing stages of the campaign became a regular feature.
Sunday, 4 June, began a week rich in controversial chatter. The long-discussed and vexing question—the end of the war—at last seemed in sight of being resolved. The regiment, not employed on operations and cooped up in bivvies and temporary billets by daily drenching thunderstorms, received the stirring intelligence that Rome had fallen. Then, two days later, while the excitement was still simmering, it heard news of the opening of the Second Front. Every radio was now permanently tuned to the BBC, and the opening bars of the signature tune for the news bulletins were the signal for groups to assemble ready to applaud and discuss the latest communique. It was not long before the page 420 lively strains of the traditional British Army march ‘Liliburlero’ caught on, and soon this bright BBC revival almost ousted that tearful, war-torn lament, ‘Lili Marlene’. The change was long overdue.
During this slack period full opportunity was taken to practise and improve co-operation between infantry and armour. The 19th Regiment and 5 Brigade units began a series of exercises which lasted throughout the month. The first exercise, happily given the code-name KORERO, was undertaken with 28 (Maori) Battalion; in it theories developed during the hard fighting on the Gustav Line were put to the test of practical demonstration, and the work of those taking part was under the critical appraisal of experts from both arms. Conferences held after each performance fully examined both the method and the execution of each task, and discussion brought to light many valuable suggestions which were tried out in the following exercises. This training was to prove of considerable worth, for as later operations were to show, close co-operation between infantry and armour was to achieve successes which left no doubt about the high degree of efficiency attained.
While the New Zealand units were training and re-equipping, the Allied advance in Italy was still pressing onwards; 2 NZ Division was now left well behind. On 12 June orders were received for 19 Regiment to move to a rest and training area in the vicinity of Arce, where it was expected all New Zealand units would be concentrated for approximately one month. The tanks left by transporter the same day, and the rest of the regiment followed by road on the 13th.
The new area was ideal for recreation and training, and a full programme of tactical exercises, sport, and general physical limbering-up was quickly got under way. While the regiment was moving in, the Italian farmers feverishly harvested the growing crops from the surrounding fields which would shortly be churned up by tank tracks and hobnailed boots, and from garden plots which would most certainly suffer from the depredations of foraging parties in search of something fresh and succulent to supplement their rations.page 421
Mid-June to mid-July was spent in this area. Arce and Fontana Liri were the chief townships. The fine, warm weather, and the many excellent swimming spots available, made the stay extremely pleasant; regimental, brigade and divisional sports meetings were held, and these competitive games, in addition to the stimulating and challenging tactical training, soon had every soldier on his toes. All types of operational workouts proved men, weapons and vehicles, and gave units the chance to achieve that cohesive quality which is only attained by hard practice out of the line—a time when easy comfort might well be expected.
Inspections of captured enemy equipment (including tanks), a visit to the Cassino and Liri valley battlegrounds, and many happy social occasions within and between units were highlights; but the brightest event of all for those who were fortunate enough to get there was leave to Rome. This began on 18 June and naturally was a privilege greatly sought after and much appreciated. Cairo, Athens, and now Rome—an impressive grand tour when viewed in retrospect. Of them all, Rome will always remain the most satisfying, for in addition to its fame and its rich attractions, its occupation by the Allied forces was the most convincing evidence of the success of our arms yet experienced by our troops, some of whom had had almost five years’ active service to look back on. To visit the Eternal City was to experience in some small measure the triumph of conquest.
As in Cairo and in Bari, the New Zealanders on leave were well catered for, and as usual the facilities they enjoyed were the envy of the soldiers of many nations. The sumptuous hotel Quirinale, in the centre of the city, became the New Zealand Club. Until the close of the campaign it was to remain the doyen of the several outstanding leave centres arranged for New Zealand troops in Italy.
While at Arce 19 Regiment made several important changes in its senior appointments. Major Everist, returning from a staff course in England, took over as second-in-command from Major Thodey, who marched out to command 21 Battalion. The full cycle was now complete, for with this significant promotion—a tank officer to command an page 422 infantry battalion—the integration of the two arms became more than a mere text at a training conference. It set the official seal to the matter; not only was full co-operation demanded, but commands were interchangeable. The armour, as the younger of the two arms, felt the appointment to be one of confidence not only in the officer chosen but also in the arm he represented. All ranks agreed that in big, rugged, reliable Jock Thodey the 21st was getting one of the best of soldiers. His bright-eyed, slow-breaking smile, no less than his solid soldierliness, had made him a splendid influence in the 19th since it was first formed. He had held with distinction many appointments in infantry as well as in armoured days; he was one of the old originals; he carried away from the 19th the good wishes of all who had served with him.
Other changes involved the move to the New Zealand Armoured Corps training depot in Egypt of Majors Parata and Scotland. Both officers had had considerable battle experience in armour and the use of their knowledge in the training of the reinforcements would ultimately be of great benefit to the brigade. Captain McInnes now took over C Squadron, with Captain Koorey as second-in-command. Captain Hutchinson became OC Headquarters Squadron, and Captain Wilson second-in-command, while Captain Morrin went to A Squadron as second captain under Major Robinson,2 who marched in from 18 Regiment as OC.
On 12 July 19 Regiment began to move forward with the rest of the Division on the first stage of a 200-mile advance to take part in the actions being fought in Tuscany, where the enemy, after his long retreat, was now making a determined stand on the high country to the south of the Arno River. Two weeks were to elapse before the regiment was in action again, and during that time the move forward was made in three bounds. The first was along Route 6 via Frosinone and Rome then on to Route 3 to Civita Castellana, where a night and a very hot day were spent in a page 423 staging area. On the 14th the next bound—on Routes 3 and 71—took the unit to Citta delle Pieve, where a concentration area near Lake Trasimene was occupied until the 22nd.
During the wait in this area forty-one married men of the 4th Reinforcements were marched out after the usual celebration to join the Taupo draft on furlough, and a few days later eighteen reinforcements were taken on strength. Meanwhile preparations were being made for the coming operations, and 142 Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, was affiliated to 4 Brigade, the commander of 384 Battery coming to 19 Regiment on attachment. On 17 July it was announced that 5 Brigade and 19 Regiment would form a battle group in the advance towards Florence.
Thirteenth Corps, of which the New Zealand Division was part, had attacked Arezzo on 15 July, and after fierce fighting in which the New Zealand infantry played a distinguished role, the way was clear for a further advance against the important Gothic Line, which here ran along the summit of the northern Apennines and formed a defensive barrier extending from the Gulf of Genoa to Pesaro on the Adriatic. Florence, required as a base for Eighth Army’s offensive against the Gothic Line itself, was the immediate objective. Though declared an open city, Florence was defended by two lines (Olga and Paula), which were based on the high ground south of the Arno. Both were to be stoutly held by the enemy who, having regained his balance after his headlong flight up the middle third of the Italian Peninsula, had reorganised and was preparing for a stand which would hold up the Allied advance once winter set in.
Our armies in Italy were by this time considerably reduced in numbers and therefore in their ability to follow up their recent successes. Large formations of troops, quantities of equipment, and many of the supporting Air Force groups had been withdrawn for service on the Second Front or were being held in readiness for the landing on the south coast of France. But now that Arezzo had fallen Eighth Army page 424 had secured a road and railhead for its forthcoming operations, and by 24 July 2 New Zealand Division and 6 South African Division were facing up to the Olga Line. Route 2 was the axis of the proposed advance, and 19 Regiment, which had travelled 68 miles on its tracks the previous night and had established its headquarters at Fornacelle, was now committed.
A Squadron moved out to come under the command of 5 Brigade (Brigadier Stewart) and became part of a force known as Armcav, which also comprised C Squadron Divisional Cavalry, 2 Company 22 (Motor) Battalion, No. 1 Troop 31 Anti-Tank Battery, two platoons 6 Field Company, a detachment of 4 Squadron 2 NZ Divisional Signals, one bridge-layer tank, and one bulldozer. On the 25th Armcav began to move against Fabbrica from an area near San Donato. Fifth Brigade at this time was astride the Pesa River and Route 2, and Armcav was acting as the spearhead of its advance, probing along Route 2 and along the parallel road which also led to the hilltop town of San Casciano. This was the key objective in the Olga Line.
Fabbrica was occupied at first light on the 25th and Armcav, after making good the crossroads, continued on to Bibbione. Demolitions and light machine-gun fire had caused only short delays up to this time, but now heavy shellfire and mortaring caused many casualties to the infantry and held up forward movement. Air support was called for and San Casciano was not entered until 9.30 a.m. on the 27th. There had been reports of a concentration of enemy armour on the right flank, but no German tanks were encountered. One hour later, during mopping-up operations, Armcav ceased to exist; A Squadron 19 Regiment passed to the command of 22 Battalion, and then at 9.15 p.m. to the command of 20 Armoured Regiment. During this period mopping-up was completed, one half of the squadron, under the second captain, being employed on this work. With the infantry riding on the tanks, a systematic house-to-house search was carried out, and the few remaining pockets of resistance were cleaned up. A good bag of prisoners was taken.page 425
4 Armoured Brigade’s advance to Florence 25 July-4 August 1944. Each regiment’s main moves only are shown
The Olga Line was now broken, but to the north of the Pesa River the Paula Line, based on the semi-circle of hills fronting Florence, was the next barrier. Sixth Brigade (Brigadier Burrows), supported by B and C Squadrons of the 19th, now prepared to assault this line at a point north-east of Cerbaia. B Squadron (Major Wakelin) was under the command of 24 Battalion, and C Squadron (Captain McInnes) under 26 Battalion. Both squadrons joined their infantry units on 26 July. Each was operating less one troop, these two troops having been kept back at San Pancrazio as a regimental reserve group under the command of Captain Kerr.
At first light on the 27th C Squadron, after having advanced from Lucignano during the night, was in position at Montagnana. In close support of the infantry, the tanks moved down towards the Pesa River, where the forward troop quickly came under spandau fire. This opposition was soon overcome. While the tanks were crossing a bridge about 700 yards short of the main riverbed the structure collapsed and the leading tank fell into the stream, where it rolled over on its side. Engineer assistance was required to bulldoze a track, but within ten minutes No. 12 Troop, plus one tank of No. 10 Troop, had gone ahead and secured the crossroads. Here instructions were received for the tanks to halt until called for by the infantry.
The area was under observation from the high ground around Cerbaia and to the north-east, and the enemy lost no time in engaging the squadron with armour-piercing and high-explosive shells. The tanks replied vigorously and, by firing armour-piercing shells into the houses on the crest above Cerbaia, quietened the enemy guns, but his artillery and mortars continued to be troublesome. One tank was hit five times, once with armour-piercing and four times with high-explosive shells. One officer and one other rank were wounded, and the damaged tank overturned when a spare driver from another vehicle tried to get it under cover.
A Company 26 Battalion reached the Pesa River at 7 a.m. and called for tank assistance an hour later. While crossing page 427 the river two tanks struck mines and were immobilised, and there was a delay until the bed was cleared. Meanwhile Squadron Headquarters and No. 9 Troop went forward and from positions under cover engaged the enemy on the high ground. They were heavily shelled in return, one tank having its turret severely damaged. This shot also ignited a smoke canister carried on the outside of the tank and the crew, three of whom were wounded, were forced to evacuate.
The Pesa River crossing was not completed until 4.15 p.m., and the tanks then entered Cerbaia and took up positions in close support of 26 Battalion, which had established its headquarters in a building at a corner of the town’s square. No. 11 Troop moved forward to support No. 9 Platoon of A Company while the rest of the squadron was assigned to covering positions watching the roads. At 9.30 p.m. information was received that the enemy had withdrawn to the hills north and west of Cerbaia, and C Squadron, in close support of 26 Battalion, was ordered to consolidate at Point 281.
This move was part of an attack on a two-brigade front being made by the New Zealand Division. The object was to clear the enemy from the heights south of Florence and so permit further progress along the main roads in the Pesa and Greve valleys.
During the day (the 27th) 24 Battalion had gone forward into position and half of B Squadron had moved from Lucignano in the morning to Molino di Maiana, taking some prisoners en route. The Reconnaissance Troop then having reported the way clear, the remainder of the squadron joined up in the afternoon, and the whole moved to Talente, where enemy posts were engaged from a position on the ridge. At 9 p.m. orders were received to proceed through Cerbaia to Castellare to support 24 Battalion in an attack on Points 261 and 281 timed for 1 a.m. on the 28th.
On the 28th A Squadron moved forward with the infantry some 4000 yards to Gentilino. There heavy shelling caused much concern until an enemy observation post was discovered several hundred yards behind the new area. During the afternoon’s operations No. 3 Troop ran into trouble page 428 when Lieutenant Griggs’ tank (commanded at the time by Corporal Frost,3 Griggs having been wounded earlier) was hit by an armour-piercing shell. As the crew were escaping they ran into machine-gun fire. Corporal Jim Frost was killed, Trooper Hec McNair4 was mortally wounded, and one other man was wounded. This squadron had two killed and ten wounded in the six days’ fighting. So constant was the movement that it was reckoned that sixteen hours’ sleep was the total rest the crews had been able to snatch in the whole period.
At 8 p.m. on the 28th A Squadron was withdrawn to an area four miles south of San Casciano for a badly needed spell.
B Squadron’s night move on the 27th–28th from Talente to Cerbaia was a most difficult one. It was a black, moonless night, and the steep route had not been previously reconnoitred, so two of the squadron officers, Captain Carey and Lieutenant Jordan,5 set out on foot to lead the tanks. The hair-raising journey was accomplished despite mines, intermittent fire from scattered enemy posts encountered en route, and bad going. By 4.45 a.m. only ten tanks had reached Cerbaia, and Second-Lieutenants Hobson6 and Opie, with three tanks, were ordered forward at 5 a.m. to support 24 Battalion’s advanced positions. These tanks moved up to the infantry forward positions and successfully carried out observed shooting against enemy strongposts while Lieutenant Jordan, working on the left flank with three more tanks, carried out a similar role.
C Squadron, in close support of 26 Battalion, had also had a slow journey forward, but by 4.30 a.m. its tanks had dropped the anti-tank guns they were towing and set down some medium machine guns and crews at the crossroads beyond Castellare. At 5.15 a.m. the first tanks were in page 429 position with C Company 26 Battalion across the valley from the village of San Michele; during the move these tanks had made contact with A Company 24 Battalion. Five tanks were now positioned in the infantry forward positions while two more were sent back to bring up anti-tank guns. The enemy had observed the approach of the armour, however, and from the direction of La Romola armour-piercing fire was unpleasantly active. The tanks engaged all suspected areas, but from 7.30 a.m. the whole position was being heavily shelled by enemy guns of all calibres.
At 9.30 a.m. enemy armour was seen moving in an area forward of La Romola, and from a range of 1700 yards these tanks engaged C Squadron commander’s tank, scoring a direct hit after six rounds in quick succession. The shot penetrated the Sherman, killing two of the crew and severely wounding Captain McInnes, who died at the main dressing station two days later.
One of the tanks from No. 9 Troop quickly got into action and engaged the enemy, and the armour-piercing fire ceased as the German tanks pulled out of danger, but a heavy concentration of high-explosive shells wounded two more C Squadron officers. During this ‘stonk’ No. 11 Troop commander’s tank was hit in the radiator and immobilised. It blocked the road and, owing to the intense fire, could not be got clear before the enemy mounted his counter-attack.
About 9.30 a.m., after a terrific bombardment, enemy infantry appeared, and C Company 26 Battalion fell back behind the ridge, the crews of the three immobilised tanks going back with it. During this reverse one of the forward tanks hooked on an anti-tank gun and attempted to tow it to the rear, but the gun was hit on the drawbar by armour-piercing fire and cut loose. From 10 a.m. until 4.40 p.m. the five C Squadron runners remained in the vicinity of a house; they then came under the command of B Squadron.
B Squadron, whose left flank was quite open, spent an anxious day. The tanks engaged targets as required by the infantry, and the area came in for its share of the heavy shelling and mortaring. By 4.15 p.m. three tanks had been knocked out, all receiving direct hits. Lieutenant Jordan’s page 430 tank went out several times during the day and successfully dealt with enemy infantry attempting to infiltrate on the left flank, and during the counter-attack in C Squadron’s area Opie’s and Hobson’s tanks gave all the support possible. They were right out in the open and remained in close support throughout the day. Had they been withdrawn, the German armour which was known to be in San Michele would undoubtedly have ventured out against our own infantry. Two members of the crews of these tanks have supplied accounts of their experiences during the day. The wireless operator of Opie’s tank, Frank Tolley,7 writes:
In the very early hours of the morning we arrived at a house on a hill not far from San Michele. Several NZ boys, wounded, and two Jerry prisoners were already in this casa. I did not get out of the tank but presumed they were inf chaps who were wounded. (Later in the day this house was taken over by Jerry again.)
3 tanks of 6 Tp and 3 of 8 Tp were our original strength but during the move up through the night our number was reduced to 2 of 6 Tp and 1 of 8 Tp—track trouble mostly. Lieut. M. Hobson was in charge of 6 Tp tanks and Lieut. M. Opie in charge of 8 Tp’s surviving tank.
After leaving this casa and moving on towards the ridge we eventually stopped overlooking a wide valley with the church of San Michele on the far ridge on the opposite side. From what I can remember of wireless communication “C” Sqn were first to strike trouble that morning. I know that Capt. McInnes and his crew received a direct hit, their tank brewing up and two of the crew were later taken prisoner, I think 2 were also burned in the tank.
6 Tp’s 2 tanks were both hit before we stopped it. I saw some members of their crew through my periscope staggering dazedly about, one in particular—Alec Cameron’s8—had a miraculous escape during a heavy mortar stonk. I could see the bombs landing all round him and how he never got hit seemed a miracle to me.
Between 9 & 10am our tank received a direct hit on the left rear bogie suspension and track and she wouldn’t move an inch. We stayed with her and throughout the day fired away practically all our ammunition using 125 rounds of AP, HE, and APHE plus all our Browning ammunition. As the hours wore page 431 on the heat inside the tank became almost unbearable and it was made worse by the gun fumes and the hot shells on the floor of the turret. Naturally we got rid of empty shells as soon as possible.
About 4.30pm we were very pleased when the order came over the air for us to abandon ship. Jack George9 and Snow Hammond10 (spare driver and driver respectively) were first out through the escape hatch at the bottom of the tank. Gordon Riggir,11 the gunner, was next, then myself wireless operator. I took the head sets (good ones—which were scarce) code sheets etc with me and had so much junk stuffed down my overalls that I got jammed half way out the hatch. Mac Opie, after making a final check and dismantling the 75 and Brownings, was last out. As we made our ways back individually through the FDLs which were dug in, the Inf boys looked at us as much as to say what the h—— are you chaps doing wandering round here! When our crew got together we had a photo taken in the courtyard of the casa where a more or less Hqs had been estalished.
Sergeant Alex Cameron of No. 6 Troop also writes an interesting account. He covers several points already mentioned in the general narrative and also verifies the previous story.
On the morning of the 28th July, 1944, No. 6 Tp “B” Sqn had only 2 tanks in action, one commanded by Lieut Martin Hobson the other by Sgt Roland Lupton.12 The third tank had lost a track the previous night when crossing a river. I was the gunner in the Tp leader’s tank so was not in the best position to see all that was to be seen.
We arrived at a casa on the hill just before dawn and Lieut Hobson went in to contact the Inf commander. When I looked out of the tank I saw a number of wounded Jerries lying against the wall and I also saw an officer of the 27th Bn whom I knew—so some of the MG blokes were about. A little later Lieut Hobson moved his tank to a position forward and to the left and he then returned to the casa where he could get observation from the top windows. A short time after the Jerry fire became very intense and he was unable to return to the tank for some time.page 432
About mid morning Capt Wethey of “C” Sqn came over to our tank and used the wireless to report the wounding of “C” Squadron commander and the loss of some of their tanks. Some little time later our Inf started moving back very quickly past our tank and a tank came back down the road towing a 17 pounder. A little way behind us the towing bar was hit by a shell and the tank went on without the gun—I don’t think they knew they had lost it.
About this time Lieut Hobson returned and the situation was looking very sticky so he moved his tanks a 100 yds or so to the rear of the casa and on the other side of the crest close to a No. 8 Tp tank commanded by Lieut Opie.
Here we engaged targets with the 75 mm and after firing for some time—apparently with good effect—we came under very heavy and accurate gun fire. There were fountains of earth and dust and smoke going up all round us and the trees were literally being torn out by the roots. Tpr O’Leary,13 our driver, received a nasty shell wound on the top of his arm; the splinter came down through the hatch. I was just handing the first aid kit through to him when there was an ear splitting crash, a sheet of flame and then that dry acrid stench of HE. The next thing I knew I was trying to push the No 19 wireless set off myself. The German shell had hit the A aerial base and blown the set right out of its brackets.
Somebody yelled “get out”. We did; quickly. As I landed a burst of machine gun fire hit the ground right at my feet so they were not on that spot many seconds! We all dived under the tank which was the only shelter about, but within a few seconds a shell landed somewhere right beside us and we all received shrapnel wounds. One of our crew was shell shocked and wounded so Lieut Hobson decided to put him into Sgt Lupton’s tank to get first aid. He was no sooner in the Sgt’s tank than that tank also received a direct hit; right on top of the turret. I was told later that the shell cracked the turret clean across.
I was standing on the off side of the tank when this shell hit it and I received the full blast. I picked myself up about 5 yds away and feeling a bit silly ran towards a hay stack and took what cover I could. The stack was in a plough furrow. After some minutes I took a quick look round for the rest of Tp but could find no-one but about 5 or 600 yds down the hill I saw two men and decided to go with them. When I joined them they proved to be Lieut Opie and Tpr Riggir of 8 Tp. Their tank had been hit with AP and had cut one track. I returned to Sqn Hqs with them and was then evacuated.page 433
For the rest of the afternoon B Squadron, with the remnants of C now under command, kept up the duel in the 24 Battalion sector. These tanks were joined by Kerr Force (the regimental reserve) which had been standing by at Talente. No. 7 Troop (Lieutenant McCown) and Captain Kerr’s troop went forward in the late afternoon to occupy the position previously held by C Squadron where, after another enemy counter-attack at 5 p.m., the situation looked grave. Effective fire from these tanks and from our own artillery eventually caused the enemy infantry to retire, leaving many casualties. The three tanks on the left flank, under Lieutenant Jordan, got in some good shooting during this episode.
After dark B Squadron and its attached tanks moved back behind the Castellare feature for maintenance and replenishment, but the night was far from quiet and a further six casualties occurred in the laager area. The enemy mortars were particularly active.
There was even more bitter fighting on the 29th for the possession of San Michele, which had been occupied during darkness by our infantry. At dawn No. 7 Troop entered the village in close support of 24 Battalion. En route the troop corporal, Corporal Brenton,14 was killed by spandau fire and the tank wireless disabled. At 8.30 a.m. came the enemy’s first ‘feeler’ attack, and though this was easily repulsed, an hour later he attacked again in force. This time his infantry was supported by tanks, and his guns of all types were most active. No. 5 Troop (Second-Lieutenant Woolven15) went over the ridge to reinforce No. 7, but lost one tank which capsized on the way. The troop commander’s and sergeant’s tanks both got into San Michele, however, and were to play a full part in the terrific battle which went on there all day.
The enemy counter-attacked at San Michele on eight separate occasions, each attack being preceded by intense shelling. He seemed determined to retake the village at all page 434 costs, and at one stage brought lorried infantry behind tanks to within 800 yards of the forward positions. Our artillery did a grand job in smashing these counter-attacks, and Lieutenant McCown took up a truly precarious position in the church tower where, with a long lead down to his tank wireless, he coolly directed the guns throughout the day. On several occasions he clambered down to fight his tank, and once, when the attackers had penetrated into the streets, he scored a direct hit on an enemy tank. His tower observation post was hit several times, but despite this and the confusion of both sides firing at once, he continued to give directions to our artillery.
McCown was working on a very slender margin of error, as the shells, to be effective, had to just clear the village. The enemy, immediately beyond, was too close for comfort. The 105-millimetre guns were firing directly over the tower and bursting perhaps less than 200 yards away; afterwards McCown was able to give a graphic description of what it felt like to be underneath a concentration of twenty-four of these shells, which (he claimed) were jostling each other as they passed uncomfortably close to the top of his tower on their way to the target. The fall of shot from both field regiments in support was wonderfully accurate, and their rate of fire was high. The 6th Field Regiment was reported to have used 1000 rounds a gun that day, and the enemy artillery seemed to be doing equally heavy work, for according to many experienced soldiers the shelling was even more concentrated than that encountered at Cassino.
At 5 p.m. the last and most determined effort was made by the enemy to recapture the village. During the artillery concentration which preceded this attack Lieutenant Woolven’s tank was knocked out. He immediately switched to his sergeant’s tank, but shortly afterwards this too was hit and the turret jammed. By this time the only other surviving tank in the forward area (McCown’s) was also out of action with a jammed case in the 75-millimetre gun. Shortly after dark both these tanks were ordered to move to a position down the ridge to put their guns in working order.page 435
The infantry still in San Michele went to ground in the crypt of the church, and at dark the enemy was in effective control of the village. Sergeant Jones,16 of No. 5 Troop, after giving up his tank to his troop commander, had remained hidden in a house. He slipped out to reconnoitre the village and rejoined Squadron Headquarters at midnight. He had moved right through the village and reported having seen no one but the enemy since the last two tanks had withdrawn.
At 1.15 a.m. on the 30th a company of 25 Battalion, supported by a tank force consisting of one troop each of B and C Squadrons 19 Regiment and A Squadron 18 Regiment (this force was commanded by Captain Carey), attacked San Michele. A heavy concentration had been put down by our artillery and the force met little opposition in its advance to the village. The infantry emerged from the crypt where they had remained undiscovered all night, and thereafter San Michele was in our hands. In this action the tanks were led forward by Lieutenant Woolven who, despite his hard day’s fighting, volunteered to guide the force in. The going was difficult and a tank destroyer—fortunately the last vehicle in the column—capsized. This was bad enough, but when the crew sent a wireless message ‘in clear’ reporting the incident to their battery commander, giving their exact position and stating their intention of abandoning the gun, some hard words were said by those in the force whose appreciation of the importance of security was based on more practical lines.
At 7 a.m. 18 Regiment took over the still lively sector and those of 19 Regiment’s tanks in running order moved to a rest area south of Cerbaia. San Michele had been a very hot spot; both flanks were open, it was commanded by high ground in front, and was well taped by German guns of all calibres. The formidable Tiger tank had also been in opposition. The village had been defended tenaciously, and it was evident that the enemy had considered it a vital spot in the barrier in front of Florence, for after he was driven page 436 from it his repeated and ferocious attempts to recapture it were abandoned only when it became evident that the area was likely to be bypassed. The 24th and 25th Battalions had heavy casualties in these actions, and B and C Squadrons of the 19th in close support had as many casualties during the two days of the action as the whole regiment had sustained during operation DICKENS at Cassino. The 25th Battalion and 18 Regiment were still to see some hard fighting in this sector.
From 30 July to 3 August was spent regrouping. A Squadron came back under command on the 31st, and in the midst of the hasty reorganisation and maintenance then in progress came the news that the regiment would probably be required for operations the following day. Feverish preparations followed, but in the early stages of the three-brigade attack which was the prelude to the fall of Florence the 19th was not employed.
On the 31st the Padre brought back from 6 MDS the news of the death of Captain Doug McInnes. This was a sad blow to the regiment, for he had been a popular and gallant officer. Well known for his plain speaking and forthright manner, which he matched by great personal energy and dash, ‘Mac’ (as he was known to his close associates; he was Captain ‘McGinty’ to his troops) was the type of man whose passing left all ranks of the unit with a sense of personal loss. He was succeeded in C Squadron by Captain Wilson.
On 1 August the regiment continued to put its equipment in order, and awaited with interest the news of the attack then in progress. One item of intelligence which aroused excitement was the report (later confirmed) that the Commander 5 Brigade (Brigadier Stewart) had been missing all day and was probably a prisoner of war. At 8 p.m. the CO, returning from Brigade, called a conference of squadron commanders and explained that the regiment was to remain in reserve when 4 Armoured Brigade’s attack was launched, which would be after the infantry had captured the heights. A Squadron was to stand by immediately because it might be needed to cover the left flank.page 437
On the 2nd the regiment remained in position, and it was not until midday on the 3rd that orders were issued for A Squadron to move to support 23 Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel W. B. Thomas17) in an assault on San Cristofano and the ridge immediately beyond. The move was made with B Company 23 Battalion riding on the tanks, and by 3.30 p.m. the leading troops were on the first objective, but resistance now became most stubborn and No. 1 Troop had only one tank still mobile. Second-Lieutenant Adair was mortally wounded while reconnoitring on foot, and No. 2 Troop was held up by a demolition. Quick work by Lieutenant Davidson,18 who went forward on foot to find a way round and led his tank to a position where it could deal with some of the most troublesome enemy posts, eased the situation, but the infantry had many casualties.
Nos. 3 and 4 Troops were also held up by a demolition which completely blocked the only open route, and as night was falling the infantry and tank commanders decided to hold their present position and to push on again the next day. The wounded were evacuated that night, among them Trooper George Perkins19 who, when the sniping and mortaring was at its peak, had carried in several wounded men, including his own troop commander, before he was struck down himself.
On the following day (4 August) the infantry and tanks advanced unopposed to Capponi, and then, after crossing the River Greve, continued on with excitement at its peak to the outskirts of Florence itself. It was a thrilling experience. No. 2 Troop went on to Ponte della Vittoria and reported that the bridges over the Arno, which flows through the centre of the city, had been blown. The tanks ran into considerable fire from enemy posts in the houses on page 438 the opposite bank, but this fire was not returned because Florence had been declared an open city.
There was great rejoicing among sections of the civilian population, and A Squadron shared with 5 Brigade and with the South Africans the honours accorded that day to the ‘liberators’. Despite sniping and machine-gunning from posts on the north bank of the river, the tanks were festooned with flowers by wildly excited partisans of both sexes. It was only with great difficulty that the column was disengaged, especially when, with feeling running high, our troops showed more than willingness to take on the opposition across the river. During the afternoon A Squadron took over from 20 Regiment in the western suburbs, and next day handed over to the Canadians. The changeover was made under severe mortaring from the enemy, whose appreciation of what constituted an open city did not conform to the principles laid down in the Geneva Convention.
Of the advance to Florence an A Squadron diarist records:
What a grand pair of soldiers ‘Long Robbie’ (the “A” Squadron Commander) and ‘Sandy’ Thomas (C.O. 23 Battalion) were. Both big men physically, they literally paced out the whole route, determined to get ahead somehow now that we had been turned off Route 2…. they were irked at the little progress being made on our flank while the Springboks drove triumphantly along the route the Kiwis had done so much to clear. They were determined to share the honours.
Up and down hills they trudged blazing a trail and behind them we crashed through olive groves, climbed hills and forded rivers until with No. 2 Troop leading (Lt. Ewan Davidson) and the infantry of 23 Battalion riding on the tanks we entered the outskirts of the town. There were no South Africans in sight and no other Allied troops. When the shooting started Sandy Thomas who was riding on our tank had the bad luck to be wounded. Still he and ‘Long Robbie’ had got us in at the kill.
On the 6th A Squadron rejoined the rest of the regiment, now under the command of 4 Armoured Brigade, as it moved to Geppetto (near the Pesa), Major Robinson having gone back the day before to take over the convoy. The new area was occupied during the afternoon, and shortly after midnight a message was received instructing that one squad- page 439 ron was to come under the command of each of the infantry brigades at 9 a.m. on the 7th. Accordingly B Squadron was detailed to 5 Brigade and C Squadron to 6 Brigade, and representatives from both squadrons reported to their respective formation headquarters for instructions. The tanks moved out to their new locations at last light.
On 7 August Lieutenant-Colonel McGaffin, who had commanded the regiment since April 1942, left to take up the appointment of second-in-command of 4 Armoured Brigade. His period of command had covered the whole of 19 Regiment’s active armoured career and from the day he took over he had devoted himself zealously to the interests and efficiency of the unit. His tireless energy was the best possible example to all ranks, for as infantry turned armour they had much to learn. Under his vigorous leadership the new role had been taken up speedily and successfully. There were few officers in the Division with such wide experience in diesel engines and heavy equipment, and in the matter of mechanical maintenance the 19th, under his trained eye, had gained a proud record.
In operations Colonel McGaffin’s control and decision had always inspired confidence, as had his habit of getting round with complete disregard for his own safety or comfort on frequent visits to all his squadrons, though they were often many miles apart and sometimes working with different formations.
Although the regiment was still on operations, time was found on the 8th for a brief farewell celebration, and the retiring CO left the 19th with the good wishes of all who had served with him. It was with genuine regret that, shortly after his promotion, the unit heard that he had been admitted to hospital in a serious condition following an internal hæmorrhage. Few realised the strain he must have endured during the last six months of his service, for his capacity for hard work had not diminished despite the painful affliction against which he had been battling.
Lieutenant-Colonel Everist succeeded Colonel McGaffin as commanding officer, and the following changes were made page 440 within the regiment. Major Robinson became second-in-command; Captain Ellingham became OC A Squadron; Captain Wiseley second-in-command of A Squadron; and Captain Hughes20 became Adjutant.
It was 14 August before the Germans withdrew from Florence, and from the 4th mopping up and patrol work kept the Division active. Fourth Armoured Brigade was constantly employed on these operations, and 19 Regiment had a number of small assignments, the most rewarding being that undertaken by B Squadron in support of 28 Battalion in a walkover attack on Empoli. Little opposition was encountered and the two troops employed—Nos. 5 and 7 Troops—‘liberated’ several cases of wrist watches, these being one of the chief manufactures of the town. As this windfall arrived after a serious and protracted watch shortage in the regiment, B Squadron struck a sellers’ market.
On 16 August the regiment began to hand over to United States armoured forces, each squadron taking the American relieving officers to its forward area before withdrawing in turn to reassemble at Fornacelle. The handing over was not without its amusing moments. The Americans had come as usual well prepared on the Q side. Their headquarters was a hospitable one, and ice cream, served out lavishly in full pint dollops, was a luxury our troops had never before encountered in the battle area. The refrigerated churn in which it was manufactured, together with a special oven (about the size of a grand piano) used exclusively for frying chip potatoes, were regarded, when the astonishment subsided, as minor marvels of modern warfare.
Six days were spent in the pleasant shade of a grove of large oak trees at Fornacelle. After the heat, dust and din of the Florence action this opportunity for rest and maintenance was greatly enjoyed. Leave was generous and parties visited Siena, Rome, and a beach camp at Piombino. A regimental race meeting was held, and the mobile cinema was set up handy to the area.page 441
On the 24th the regiment lined the route to see Mr Churchill pass during his tour of Eighth Army’s area. Despite a typical unemotional reception by the New Zealand Division—the undemonstrative character of New Zealand troops had been shown a month before when King George VI visited the battle area—there was no doubt about his popularity with the troops, and his presence in Italy was construed as a favourable omen for the coming of peace.
The unit held a most successful concert on the last evening at Fornacelle. Padre John Somerville organised it and, as usual, some surprisingly good talent was brought to light. The concert was a splendid end to a pleasant week. The following day the first parties began to move out, and by the end of August the 19th had proceeded in groups across Italy to the Adriatic coast, where it reassembled and awaited orders in the Iesi concentration area.
2 Lt-Col H. A. Robinson, DSO, MC, m.i.d.; Waipukurau; born New Plymouth, 29 Sep 1912; farmhand; troop leader, later 2 i/c Div Cav 1939–44; CO 18 Armd Regt Mar-Jul 1944; 20 Armd Regt May-Oct 1945; twice wounded.
17 Lt-Col W. B. Thomas, DSO, MC and bar, m.i.d., Silver Star (US); London; born Nelson, 29 Jun 1918; bank officer; CO 23 Bn 1944–45; twice wounded; wounded and p.w. May 1941; escaped Nov 1941; Hampshire Regt 1947-.