Chapter 16 — The Advance on Florence
The Advance on Florence
ON 8 July rumours that the Division was shortly to return to the line were confirmed. The assembly area lay 230 miles away near Lake Trasimene. After the opening of the Second Front the fighting in Italy had been given less prominence in the world's newspapers, but the Fifth and Eighth Armies' swift advance from Rome had been spectacular. As the two armies began to approach the hills south of the open city of Florence and the River Arno, they encountered stiffening resistance from an enemy feverishly trying to gain time to strengthen his next defensive barrier, the Gothic Line. This ran across the peninsula from Massa on the Gulf of Genoa, north of Florence, to Pesaro on the Adriatic coast. It was to 13 Corps' sector south of Florence that 2 NZ Division had been directed. The Corps was making its thrust along the two main roads leading north, Route 2 on the left flank and Route 71 on the right. The 6th British Armoured Division which was operating on the right had met stubborn resistance, and the task of the New Zealanders was to clear the heavily wooded hills north-east of Route 71 and so pave the way for an armoured thrust along the road through the town of Arezzo to the Arno.
Sixth Brigade was chosen to relieve Sacforce, the infantry group operating in the area, and within twenty-four hours was moving northwards. During the 9th a small advanced party left the battalion area, and at 2 a.m. the main body embussed and followed. All badges and means of identification had been removed—an order which the troops had now come to expect before each action. Everyone was in good spirits, particularly the 4th Reinforcements who had joined the battalion at Baggush in December 1941. They carried with them the almost certain knowledge that this action would be their last before returning to New Zealand on furlough.
The Battle for Florence, 12 July–15 August 1944
While the men basked in the warm sunshine or bathed in the lake, preparations for the relief and the subsequent assault page 411 were made.1 Maps were issued and ground details carefully studied. Intensive patrolling was to be carried out first to determine the location and approximate strength of the enemy. By nightfall on the 12th all was ready, and at 7 p.m. the troops embussed and travelled up Route 71. A short distance from the new sector the convoy halted and the companies moved off on foot to begin the relief. With A Coy in the lead, they followed rough country roads and tracks through the hills. By midnight the battalion was in position, A Coy on the lower slopes of Mount Maggio, D Coy on lower ground about 200 yards west of it, and Battalion HQ about an equal distance to the south. C and B Coys in reserve were much closer to the road. About 5000 yards away 25 Battalion completed the relief of Sacforce. On the right flank an Italian reconnaissance force was occupying the high ground to prevent any enemy infiltration from the east.
The night passed without any sign of the enemy. At first light a three-man patrol from A Coy climbed Mount Maggio and found it unoccupied. About the same time one of the Divisional Cavalry troops, accompanied by six Shermans, set out along a rough road which wound through the hills through the south-eastern corner of the sector. The patrol, emboldened by its success, continued north from the crest of Mount Maggio along a high saddle to Pt 773 (Cerola) and then west to Pt 855 (Cavadenti), both of which were unoccupied. Later in the morning Maj McKinlay sent a platoon forward to occupy Mount Maggio. Meanwhile, the Divisional Cavalry party had been held up by a road demolition at a point almost due east of Maggio. No. 13 Platoon, accompanied by some sappers, went forward to clear the road.
Satisfied that the enemy was already beginning to withdraw from the area, Col Fountaine ordered C Coy to occupy Pt 691 (Mount Opino). The capture of this feature would enable the armoured column, which had been joined by D Coy, to continue its drive on Arezzo. C Coy moved off about 1 a.m. and had considerable trouble maintaining direction because of the darkness and the nature of the ground. After he had gone about two miles beyond A Coy Maj Williams ordered his men to rest until daylight, when he would be better able to determine his position. At first light it was evident the company was some distance from its objective, but Williams decided to rest his men page 413 until early in the afternoon. Mount Opino was divided into two peaks about 150 yards apart, and when the leading platoon approached the nearest, Pt 671, it was fired on. An Artillery FOO2 with the company called down a heavy concentration on the area, after which 14 Platoon charged in to occupy a house on the crest of the feature. The Germans as quickly ran down the reverse slope and escaped.
No. 14 Platoon remained on Pt 671 while the other two platoons took up positions on Pt 691, which was found deserted. The company was still digging in at last light when, following a mortar concentration, the enemy counter-attacked Pt 671. The attack was unexpected. Some of the men were caught without arms and the platoon had to retire from its position. The FOO called down another concentration, which fell in the company area and caused four casualties, including two men killed. Unfortunately communications broke down at this stage and the men had no choice but to sit quiet until the 25-pounders stopped firing. The Germans made no effort to press home their advantage, and later 14 Platoon reoccupied its position without meeting opposition.
On the right of the company the armoured column, now under the command of Maj Barnett, had skirted around the east of Mount Opino to be held up at a crossroads east of Mount Lignano. Intense shell and mortar fire at this point forced the armoured cars to fall back, and although the 4.2-inch mortars and 6 Field Regiment fired many concentrations they were unable to dislodge the enemy gunners. Second-Lieutenant Sargent,3 the last officer of the battalion to be killed in action, met his death as a result of the enemy shelling.
At dawn on the 15th the situation was unchanged, but a B Coy patrol led by Cpl Brick4 was having an exciting time. It had set out just before dawn towards Pt 844, a hill about 500 yards north-west of Mount Cavadenti. Cautiously the small party climbed the hill slope in the half light. On the crest the page 414 corporal and Pte McLeod,5 who accompanied him, tripped over a spandau post. Before the enemy gunners had recovered from their surprise the patrol leader had opened fire. One German was killed and the two others wounded and taken prisoner before other spandau posts in the vicinity began firing. The advantage of surprise gone, Cpl Brick set about getting his men and the prisoners back to the lines as quickly as possible. All but one of the enemy posts could be covered by Bren fire, and this was quietened by Pte Parker,6 who coolly lobbed grenades at it. Driving the prisoners ahead of it, the patrol raced back down the hill and across the open ground to Mount Cavadenti. Despite the heavy machine-gun fire none of the party was hit.
On the left flank 25 Battalion had captured Mount Lignano, the dominant feature in the chain of hills. Only three features in the area, Pt 844, Mount Camurcina to the north-west, and another Pt 844 alongside it, remained in enemy hands. The Brigade Commander, Brig J. T. Burrows,7 decided to bring in 24 Battalion and attempt to clear these points under cover of darkness. The assault was to begin at 2 a.m. on the 16th and would follow a light artillery barrage. B Coy 26 Battalion, with 7 Platoon attached, was ordered to capture the nearest Pt 844. The information supplied by Cpl Brick and the wounded prisoners indicated that the company could expect opposition, but 7 Platoon which led the attack found the hilltop deserted. Major Harvey had only just wirelessed back a success signal when the platoon reported it was being heavily shelled by 25- pounders. Frantic messages were relayed back to the gunners and the firing soon ceased, but not before two men had been killed and two wounded. One of the killed was Cpl Fred Tyson, a very popular NCO who had done so well at Cassino.
This was an unfortunate ending to an operation which finished soon after daybreak, when it was learned that the Germans had page 415 withdrawn to positions north of Arezzo. Those who had envisaged another mobile role, culminating in a triumphant entry into Florence, were doomed to disappointment, for soon afterwards the CO was ordered to withdraw his men to Castiglion Fiorentino in readiness to move to another sector. Later in the day the battalion reassembled in a pleasant camping area about five miles from the town. Everyone was expecting orders to move, but a week passed before the unit returned to the line. Nobody minded for the weather was beautiful and trucks went daily to the lake carrying swimming parties.
The married men and a few lucky single members of the 4th Reinforcements left for New Zealand. They were only a small proportion of those who had joined the battalion in the Desert, but they were key men and sorely missed. A special farewell celebration was held in their honour, and while there are many who have hazy recollections of what went on, the whole camp turned out to watch the party begin the long journey home.
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Thirteenth Corps was now advancing across the wooded hills of Tuscany along a front of more than 40 miles. The Corps Commander had five divisions under command, and he decided to make his main thrust along the general line of Route 2 on the left flank. He planned to drive a narrow wedge through to the Arno, south-west of Florence and little more than 20 miles away, using 2 NZ Division and 6 South African Armoured Division. The New Zealanders' role was similar to that carried out south of Arezzo—to clear a way through the hills so that the armour could advance along the main highway.
On 21 July 5 Brigade relieved French Moroccan troops in a sector west of Route 2 and almost immediately began driving north along both banks of the Pesa River. Progress was slow for hills extended right down to the river banks; and firmly established on these were some of the enemy's best troops—4 Paratroop Division and 29 Panzer Division. On the 22nd the battalion moved across to a 6 Brigade assembly area near the town of Castellina, and about 13 miles from the scene of the fighting. It was a dusty, 70-mile journey and nobody was sorry when it was over. Everyone was expecting to move into the line page 416 almost immediately, but several pleasant days of idleness passed before the battalion moved into action. This spell was largely caused by stubborn enemy resistance to 5 Brigade's advance. At the point where Route 2 crossed the line of advance and turned north along the east bank of the river, a composite force known as ArmCav, and containing tanks, armoured cars, engineers and infantry, followed the road while 5 Brigade cleared the hilltops rising from the other bank. By 26 July 5 Brigade, following the line of the ridges, had swung south of the river and the ArmCav force, following Route 2, had turned north-east towards the town of San Casciano. Sixth Brigade was ordered to plug the gap between the two and then force a crossing of the river where it turned west across the front. This would bring the New Zealanders into a position where they could attack the remaining arc of hills covering the approaches to Florence. The pace of the armoured drive along Route 2 was wholly dependent on the speed with which the New Zealanders cleared these hills.
Night moves on 24 and 25 July had brought the battalion close to the fighting. At dawn on the 26th the troops were dispersed under cover near the town of Tavarnelle on Route 2. Colonel Fountaine already knew his battalion would lead the brigade in its advance along the river bank and across the river. The plan was fairly simple. After 5 Brigade had captured La Ripa, a town in the line of advance of both brigades, the battalion was to follow a road leading through the town west along the river. A crossing was to be made near Cerbaia. The 24th Battalion following would make another crossing west of this town, and later 25 Battalion would also cross the Pesa to protect the right flank.
During the morning 41 reinforcements arrived and were posted to companies. Their arrival almost offset the recent departures. About midday Battalion HQ and A Coy set out on foot along Route 2. They turned onto the road leading to La Ripa and halted after travelling three miles. No further progress could be made until 21 Battalion cleared the town. Dusk fell, and shortly afterwards sounds of firing could be heard ahead. A Coy prepared to move. Major McKinlay had under command half of C Squadron 19 Armoured Regiment, two anti-tank guns, a section of Vickers gunners, and some sappers page 417 from 8 Field Company NZE. Several hours passed. The artillery fired heavy concentrations in the vicinity of Cerbaia. Finally, at 1.30 a.m. La Ripa was reported clear of the enemy. The 21st Battalion was advancing west along a road leading to Montagnana, south of Cerbaia.
With 9 Platoon leading, A Coy began to advance. Half an hour later it reached the crossroads just south of the town. Here a large demolition blocked the passage of tanks, and the Company Commander decided to halt until sappers could repair the damage. Two hours passed, and finally at 4.40 a.m., with daylight approaching, Col Fountaine ordered the company to continue on towards Cerbaia without support. A few minutes later the road was reported clear and the tanks began to follow in the wake of the platoons. When it was nearly daylight Maj McKinlay discovered that in the darkness his company had turned down the road leading to Montagnana. Tanks and infantry alike had to turn and retrace their steps to La Ripa. On the right road the platoons lost no time in heading towards Cerbaia, but it was impossible to reach it before daylight. As the two leading platoons neared a crossroads south of the town and the river they came under machine-gun fire. Two sections from 9 Platoon were detailed to clear a nearby low hill from which the fire was coming. However, by the time the infantry reached the crest of this feature the enemy had gone.
About the same time the bridge across the river was blown, and a few seconds later another bridge farther west also went up. Explosions were also heard in Cerbaia, only a few hundred yards away. By this time it was after 8 a.m. and the company was in full view of the town and the hills north of it. The men took whatever cover was available while a reconnaissance patrol went ahead to examine the blown bridge. It returned after having been fired on from the town. The enemy's reaction to the advance soon took another form and the company came under very heavy shellfire. Most of the men had not been able to dig in and were sheltering in ditches near the road. In a short time three men were killed and three others wounded. Later, during a lull in the firing, 7 Platoon, which was in reserve, crossed the shallow river and entered Cerbaia from the north-east. The rest of the company followed the road and page 418 entered the town from the south. The enemy rearguard had left and Cerbaia was captured without a shot being fired by the New Zealanders.
By 10 a.m. the tanks, which had lagged behind the infantry, had reached the crossroads. D Coy was with them. The rest of the supporting arms remained on call at La Ripa. A short time afterwards Tac HQ moved forward to join D Coy, leaving only B and C Coys south of La Ripa. Although a bridgehead had been secured across the river, the position was by no means secure. Tanks which had attempted to link up with A Coy had been unable to cross the river because of mines. The enemy shelling had become much heavier, and much of it was directed on the tank laager near the crossroads where D Coy was also sheltering. Tactical HQ and the company suffered casualties. One tank was set on fire. Telephone wires were frequently cut and communication at this stage was chiefly by wireless. Counter-battery fire failed to stop the enemy shelling.
At 11 a.m. the mobile column driving up Route 2 reported the capture of San Casciano, a town east of Cerbaia and on the north bank of the river. The 21st Battalion, which had advanced along a route parallel to but south of A Coy during the night, was occupying a hill south of the crossroads. The establishment of the two bridgeheads over the river and the capture of the ground leading up to them ended the first phase of the Division's drive on Florence. The battalion's part in it had been relatively simple, but the second phase did not look as easy.
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The semi-circle of hills and ridges which covered the approaches to Florence reached almost to the river bank. Those nearest Cerbaia were dominated by higher ground north and west of them. From the town several roads and tracks led into the hills. One ran north-east to La Romola, a small town two miles away. Another led to San Michele, a village perched on the crest of a high hill overlooking Cerbaia and much of the surrounding countryside. Sixth Brigade had been ordered to capture both these towns and clear the hills, while the rest of the Division advanced east from San Casciano towards it. The page 419 Brigade Commander decided to attack after dusk with two battalions.
The 24th Battalion was ordered to establish another bridgehead across the river to the left of 26 Battalion and attack with it. Its objective was San Michele, while that of 26 Battalion was the high ground overlooking La Romola. Armoured support would be provided by 19 Armoured Regiment. The strength of the German forces was uncertain, although it was known that elements of 29 Panzer Division, supported by tanks, were in the area.
The Action at Cerbaia, 27 July–3 August 1944
Nothing could be done until sappers had cleared the mines from the riverbed so that tanks could join A Coy. This task was completed under heavy shellfire, and by 6 p.m. the first tanks had reached Cerbaia. About the same time B and C Coys began to move forward from La Ripa. The latter company was to spearhead the advance through the hills, while B Coy occupied Cerbaia and A Coy covered the bridgehead. Major Kain, who was commanding C Coy in the absence of Maj Williams on leave, was given three objectives, the nearest of which was Pt 281, a hilltop about 3500 yards north-east of Cerbaia. If little or no opposition was encountered the company was to exploit towards Pt 382 and Pt 395 respectively, 1200 yards north-east and 2000 yards north-west of Pt 281. Major Kain had not been able to carry out any preliminary reconnaissance although A Coy patrols reported that the enemy had withdrawn into the hills. The line of advance followed a rough country road, ran up a sharp and exposed ridge, and then skirted around and through the hills.
Handicapped by the darkness and with only a hazy knowledge of the country it was to cross, the company left Cerbaia shortly after 10 p.m. and cautiously began to climb the nearest ridge. Near the top of it, on the fringe of a vineyard, two German machine-gunners were taken prisoner. There was no sign of the company of 24 Battalion which was supposed to link up with C Coy at this point. Major Kain decided to go on, although by this time the supporting armour was some distance behind. At 4 a.m. he reported that he was 600 yards beyond Pt 281 and his men were digging in on both sides of the road. No opposition had been encountered, but an enemy truck had driven past the company towards Cerbaia.
Unaware that C Coy had actually bypassed Pt 281, which was separated from the road by a heavily wooded gully too difficult to traverse at night, orders were issued from Tac HQ to carry out the second phase of the night's operation. Major Kain was ordered to exploit towards Pt 395, and a platoon from B Coy was sent to make contact with C Coy and then continue on towards Pt 382. It appeared at this stage that the enemy had either withdrawn or was withdrawing from the area. Major Kain, however, was taking no chances and he waited for tanks page 421 to join him. They could be heard moving some distance away. A section from 14 Platoon had been detailed to guide them and act as covering party to sappers testing the road for mines. Quick-witted action by the section leader, Cpl Murphy,8 had already saved the party casualties. As they moved up the hill someone in a trench called out ‘Buona sera.’ Thinking they were New Zealanders, the corporal asked who they were. The rattle of a bolt was the answer. Without stopping to think the corporal charged the trench, killed the German machine-gunner, and wounded the two other occupants. One of the wounded volunteered the information that there were more of his company about, so sappers and infantrymen prepared to find them. Just as the party was about to set out, the missing 24 Battalion company arrived and reported that the Germans had been captured in a house apparently bypassed by C Coy. The enemy truck had also been captured.
At 5 a.m. the tank commander reported that he would not be able to reach C Coy before dawn. Shortly after this the forward troops were subjected to heavy mortar fire. By daylight the ridge which the company was occupying was being bombarded by mortar bombs and shells. The three tanks which reached the area could find no cover and were soon put out of commission. The situation rapidly became worse for it was evident that the enemy was holding the wooded heights around the company in strength, and from this cover he could launch a counter-attack in almost any direction. By 9.30 a.m. the enemy fire had increased to such an extent that the company had withdrawn to cover in a house. Several men had been wounded, including some of the tank crews. Without supporting arms it was impossible to retaliate, and Maj Kain saw no alternative but to withdraw, particularly as the platoons could take up no defensive positions.
The expected counter-attack developed soon afterwards, but before the Germans could surround it the company ran in groups of two and three down the exposed slope, using every bit of cover available. A jeep being used as an ambulance had already collected all but three of the wounded and was return- page 422 ing for more. The driver, Pte Robinson,9 arrived as the last of the company left the besieged house. In a matter of seconds the wounded men were on the jeep and the driver had set out down the road. Pursued by the machine-gun fire of Germans who had entered the house by another door, the jeep bumped over the rough road through the curtain of shells falling on and around it, to reach Cerbaia in safety.
C Coy halted when it reached 24 Battalion's position, which lay about 800 yards south-west of Pt 281 and extended west from the ridge across the lower slopes of Pt 261. The platoons took up a position behind and to the right of this company and dug in under heavy shell and mortar fire. The B Coy platoon sent forward early in the morning joined C Coy and dug in on the right flank. It had suffered fairly heavy casualties from shelling both before and after the hasty withdrawal. The enemy counter-attack continued, and 24 Battalion personnel occupying a house forward of C Coy were closely engaged by German infantry. The enemy lost heavily and was eventually forced to withdraw. The shelling and mortaring began anew but no further attacks developed during the rest of the day.
After the first message from Maj Kain saying he was being forced to withdraw, Tac HQ heard nothing more from him until nearly 11 a.m. A few cryptic messages from tanks in the area, one to the effect that the company had been overrun and another that Tiger tanks were supporting the German infantry, caused considerable alarm. This was dispelled later in the morning when Maj Kain reported that practically all his men had been accounted for and that the enemy attack appeared to have ceased. During the afternoon more tanks crossed the river to join the troops holding the bridgehead. Counter-battery fire was increased considerably, the 25-pounders and 4.2-inch mortars concentrating on targets reported by the forward infantry. As a result of this the hostile fire on the forward areas had slackened off considerably by dusk. Plans to extend the bridgehead and capture San Michele were completed at a brigade conference late in the afternoon. The 24th Battalion was to attack west from its positions on Pt 261 and attack the page 423 village, while 25 Battalion established a strongpoint on the north bank of the river east of Cerbaia. To prevent any outflanking move from the direction of La Romola, D Coy of 26 Battalion was to take up a position overlooking this road about a mile from Cerbaia. The CO decided to relieve C Coy, and Maj Harvey was ordered to take his company forward. The supporting arms were also to go forward.
Enemy shelling and mortaring, which had eased off at dusk, began again about 7 p.m. Cerbaia was shelled, and shortly afterwards 8 Platoon was attacked by an enemy party of unknown strength. Defensive fire was laid down by 6 Field Regiment and this, coupled with the heavy fire brought to bear by the platoon itself, broke up the enemy assault. In the mêlée two of the company were taken prisoner and three others were wounded. The enemy party was thought to have come from the area where 25 Battalion intended to establish a strongpoint. In the hills a much more serious threat had developed as the enemy renewed his assault on A Coy 24 Battalion. C Coy, which was still in position, was not directly involved but gave what supporting fire it could. At length concentrated fire from tanks, field guns, mortars, and platoon weapons drove the enemy back and the line was re-established.
At 11 p.m. B Coy relieved the troops on the hill, who withdrew across the river to the reserve position vacated by D Coy. After 36 hours without sleep they were feeling exhausted, particularly after a day of almost constant enemy fire. Casualties totalled 15—two killed, ten wounded, and three prisoners of war.
D Coy, meanwhile, had moved about 1500 yards along the road to La Romola. Sappers who accompanied the infantry tested the road for mines so that at some later stage a tank-supported attack could be made on the town. Captain Smythe,10 acting commander of D Coy, deployed his men on the high ground astride the road, and the supporting arms—mortars and six-pounders—were positioned on vantage points. One of the anti-tank guns sent forward to the company went over a bank and was not recovered until much later.page 424
The night passed without much more activity on the battalion front although spasmodic shelling caused several casualties. B Coy reported several times that artillery ‘shorts’ were landing in its sector. The attacks on both flanks were successful. D Coy 25 Battalion crossed the river and by morning was strongly entrenched around Montepaldi. C Squadron 18 Armoured Regiment captured Talente, a town north of this point. On the left flank 24 Battalion captured San Michele after a stern tussle.
The next day, 29 July, passed without any serious threat developing on the battalion front, a suspected counter-attack from the direction of La Romola being broken up by accurate artillery fire. The Germans apparently regarded San Michele as vital to their defences, and 24 Battalion and the tanks supporting it were fully occupied beating back enemy attempts to recapture the village. Enemy shelling and mortar fire was very heavy at times, but equally heavy counter-battery fire resulted in a gradual easing of the situation. During the afternoon Allied planes made several sorties overhead, La Romola being one of the targets. Civilians who had come through the German lines gave details of the enemy's troop dispositions, ammunition dumps, and gun positions. They stated that parachutists with tanks in support were holding La Romola, and that 200 poorly equipped partisans led by escaped prisoners of war were harassing the enemy in the hills north of the town.
It had been decided that 6 Brigade would not attempt to move deeper into the hills until 5 Brigade and 4 Armoured Brigade on the right flank could conform. The 22nd Battalion was already driving west towards La Romola. Late in the afternoon the enemy made a determined bid to recapture San Michele. Lorried infantry drove right into the village and they were followed by several tanks. The Shermans with 24 Battalion were either knocked out or forced to withdraw, but the infantry held on. The situation was very fluid, with both sides holding parts of the village. Plans to drive the enemy out were immediately prepared, and the tanks supporting 26 Battalion were transferred to 24 Battalion for this purpose. Late that night San Michele was recaptured.
The transfer of the Shermans to 24 Battalion necessitated some changes in the forward platoon positions. More anti-tank page 425 guns were sent forward to B and D Coys and deployed. Most of the platoon positions were changed. B Coy extended its front to take over part of 24 Battalion's sector. Mines were laid in front of both companies. Spasmodic shelling and mortaring caused a few casualties and brought the total for the day to twelve, all of whom were wounded. Some of these casualties resulted from long-range shelling of Cerbaia.
The 30th was a fairly peaceful day with enemy shelling ceasing every time Allied planes appeared. The forward platoons called down artillery and mortar concentrations on suspected enemy gun positions at intervals during the day and the night which followed. Battalion HQ moved into Cerbaia and a much better system of internal communication resulted. After dusk limited patrolling was carried out by both B and D Coys. There was no sign of the enemy. The Carrier Platoon went forward on foot to B Coy and was given an infantry role. From the right flank came the sounds of battle as 22 Battalion closed in on La Romola. The last day of the month was little different from the preceding two. Cerbaia was again shelled by enemy long-range guns but on this occasion nobody was injured. The 22nd Battalion linked up with D Coy and the stage was set for the advance to continue. The enemy was given little respite as Allied planes, tanks, artillery and mortars all took their turn at harassing his positions and lines of communication.
That night patrolling was carried out to determine if the Germans had pulled back. C Coy relieved B Coy, and later 14 Platoon was sent to occupy the house vacated by the company on the morning of the 28th. If intelligence reports were correct there were no enemy troops in the vicinity; but the platoon met opposition before it reached its objective and withdrew. Sergeant Lane,11 who had been wounded and left behind on the 28th, was found hiding in one of the nearer houses. Unfortunately, on the way back to the lines he sustained another wound from which he subsequently died. The Germans apparently thought this skirmish indicated an attack, for they shelled and mortared the company's sector and the ground forward of it for some time afterwards. This fire ceased after 6 page 426 Field Regiment had fired several heavy concentrations on the area where the platoon had met resistance.
On 1 August the Brigade Commander gave orders that the houses approached by the C Coy patrol be cleared in daylight to permit a full-scale attack by 25 Battalion on Pt 382. The 22nd Battalion was to attack a nearby hill, Pt 361, at the same time. The capture of these two features would give the Division a view over the lower ground around Florence, now only eight miles away. A three-man patrol sent out during the morning found the nearest house unoccupied, and as a result of its report the company started to advance up the ridge about 11 a.m. The first house was taken without any difficulty and the second cleared after two artillery concentrations had been fired on it. Corporal Murphy's section again distinguished itself by closing in quickly after the shelling ceased and capturing 20 Germans, including an officer, who were about to withdraw to prepared defences nearby. Later in the day a third house was taken.
The 25th Battalion was to attack under a barrage, and after dusk C Coy withdrew behind the start line. Both A and D Coys of 26 Battalion came under command of 25 Battalion; D Coy was to capture Pt 261, west of Pt 281, and A Coy was to form part of a reserve. The guns began firing at 10 p.m. and shortly afterwards reports of success on all fronts were received. D Coy captured its objective without loss and took two prisoners. Later 25 Battalion consolidated on its objective with tanks in support. The 22nd Battalion achieved partial success.
The next day, 2 August, saw the close of the battalion's part in the battle for Florence. Allied planes were active all day and consequently there was little enemy shelling. Troops of other units moving north-east and west from San Michele and La Romola crossed the battalion front, leaving D Coy holding a reserve sector. At 11 a.m. came the dramatic news that 4 Armoured Brigade had broken through the enemy barrier and was well on the way to its objective. Colonel Fountaine was ordered to withdraw his companies from the hills and concentrate around Cerbaia ready to take part in the final drive on Florence. The troops were in good spirits despite the ordeal of several days under fairly heavy shelling and mortaring, and were keen to be the first to enter the city. Casualties for the page 427 week totalled 61—nine killed, 47 wounded, and five prisoners of war.
The enemy made one last effort before leaving the troops in Cerbaia in peace. At 4.30 a.m. on the 3rd everyone was awakened by the deafening noise of shells crashing nearby. For two hours long-range guns fired salvo after salvo into the town. Considerable damage was done to buildings and two trucks and an anti-tank portée were destroyed, but few soldiers or civilians were injured. Another reminder of the recent presence of Germans in the area were the mines. Many of the buildings were found to be mined, and because of them one man was killed and another wounded.
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Three days passed before definite orders were received for the battalion's next role, and during this period the men saw their chance of being first into Florence slipping away. By the 5th 5 Brigade had reached the southern outskirts of the city and was holding a sector of the south bank of the Arno. At this juncture, with success in sight, the brigade was relieved by Canadians. Back at Cerbaia it had begun to rain, and a plan to shift to a bivouac area was postponed.
The Division's new task was not particularly difficult and there was little likelihood of any major action. While the New Zealanders had been clearing the high ground west of Route 2, 8 Indian Division on the left flank of 13 Corps had continued to advance west and north-west towards the Arno. No hills of any consequence barred the way, and the Indians had advanced to within a short distance of their objective. The Division was to relieve them and continue to clear the ground up to the river. After this task was completed it was to find out as much as it could about the river, the approaches to it, and the enemy's dispositions on the other side. An impression of a defensive attitude was to be created as part of a plan to conceal the assembly of American units which would later launch an attack across the river.
Sixth Brigade was directed to take over the centre sector from 17 Indian Brigade, and during the 6th Col Fountaine carried out a reconnaissance of the battalion's sector. In this area the page 428 Arno turned to run south-west, and the Indians had advanced to within half a mile of it. The battalion front extended north-east for approximately a mile from Montelupo, a town near the river and reputedly still occupied by the Germans. The ground sloped down to the river and was crossed by numerous rough roads and tracks. Trees and vines provided ample cover.
At dusk the same day the troops embussed and lorries carried them to within two miles of Montelupo. From this point the companies marched to their respective sectors; B Coy went to the left flank, C Coy to the right, while A Coy came up between them. D Coy remained in reserve near Battalion HQ, about half a mile to the rear of B Coy. Each company was given mortar and anti-tank support and the men dug in, hindered only by intermittent shelling. By dawn all-round defensive positions had been completed. Little happened during the day except for the departure of two senior officers, Majors Kain and McKinlay. Both had seen long service with the battalion and had fully earned a spell from front-line activities. Major Williams had already returned from leave to take command of C Coy again, and Capt Murray,12 a newcomer to the battalion who had left New Zealand with 20 Battalion, was given command of A Coy.
After dusk patrolling began. A fighting patrol sent to Montelupo found the streets deserted and all doors barred. Subsequently a company from 25 Battalion was sent to occupy it. Other patrols examined the ground forward of the sector up to the river and ventured about 3000 yards north-east of C Coy's boundary. In no instance were enemy troops sighted. The river was examined in various places and roads tested for mines.
On 8 August Col Fountaine was advised that his battalion was to join 5 Brigade in its sector about four miles south of Montelupo. A group known as Steele Force would relieve his men after dark. Very little happened during the day and the relief was carried out without incident. By early morning the unit was concentrated in an area about three miles from the river. A reconnaissance of the new sector was carried out dur- page 429 ing the day, and late in the afternoon the troops embussed and set out by a circuitous route of 23 miles to their new position. In 5 Brigade's sector 21 and 23 Battalions were holding positions about 2000–3000 yards from the river; 26 Battalion was to squeeze between them, relieving two companies of 23 Battalion as it did so. The right flank of the brigade lay close to Empoli, a fairly large town on the south bank of the river. Patrol reports indicated that this town and the villages south of it were strongly held by the enemy. The addition of 26 Battalion would enable 5 Brigade to deploy 23 Battalion farther to the south to link up with American troops on the left flank.
The relief was completed by 11 p.m. and the companies immediately dug in. D Coy was forward on the left flank, with C Coy on the right of it and much nearer to Empoli. A Coy was in support close to Battalion HQ and B Coy in reserve some distance to the rear. Light shelling and mortaring caused no casualties to the supporting arms as they moved forward to take up positions covering the 1500-yard front. No tank support had been allocated so anti-tank guns were sent well forward. Almost a soon as they were in position the mortars and Vickers gunners were called on to harass suspected enemy strongpoints. About midnight a reconnaissance patrol sent out by D Coy ran into spandau fire near a railway embankment, which extended across the front about a thousand yards from the FDLs. An American who was with the patrol was ambushed and killed.
In the morning the troops took stock of their surroundings. Ahead of the forward companies lay a 3000-yard stretch of flat ground, broken only by the high railway embankment. Most of the ground was under heavy cultivation and vines and trees gave good cover. The main road linking Florence with the coast crossed the front and passed east through Empoli. So too did the railway line, while another line from Siena circled around on the left of D Coy to link up with it south of the town. These made Empoli an important communications centre and accounted for its size. Between the embankment and the river a network of roads and tracks linked the villages which dotted the small plain.
During the day final preparations for an attack to the river bank were made. The 23rd and 26th Battalions were to take page 430 part, and 302 US Regiment on the left flank would conform with any gains made. The intention was to capture the ground south of Empoli up to the river's edge. The attack was timed to start at five minutes after midnight and a light barrage would be fired. The 26th Battalion already had anti-tank, mortar, and machine-gun support, but to these would be added a troop of 17-pounders. The infantry would have to clear the railway embankment without tank support. The armour, which was concentrated some distance behind the FDLs, would follow the road and attempt to join the infantry as they approached the cluster of small villages near the river. Their rate of progress largely depended on the speed with which the sappers cleared the roads of mines and demolitions.
Colonel Fountaine's plan of attack was fairly simple. C and D Coys, advancing within their existing boundaries, would attack behind the barrage to the first objective, the railway embankment. After a pause they would continue on to the river. The reserve companies were to move forward, B Coy to D Coy's vacated sector and, on the right, A Coy to the railway embankment. By this means the enemy would be unable to outflank C Coy on its objective by moving south between 21 Battalion on the right and Empoli. The importance of such flank protection became more apparent after the attack began. As C Coy would be advancing along a front more than twice as wide as D Coy's, 12 Platoon was placed under Maj Williams' command. Vickers gunners were to accompany the infantrymen but the rest of the supporting arms were to follow later.
Thirty-six reinforcements had joined the unit the previous day and their arrival swelled the number in the battalion to 759, including 29 officers—only slightly below strength. For a while it seemed that the attack would be made in pouring rain. The skies clouded over early in the afternoon and later heavy rain fell, but to everyone's relief it had eased off by nightfall. Desultory shelling on both sides of the river continued until long after dark. Every now and again heavy mortar concentrations landed in and around the FDLs. They eventually claimed a victim about 11 p.m. when a C Coy man was wounded.
The Drive to the Arno River, 9–15 August
Over an hour had passed and the company was now behind schedule. The next objective was the village of Avane, a few hundred yards from the river. Retaining the same formation, the company continued across the railway line and began to move along the main road. There was no sign of any tanks, and spandau fire from Point Cassino again forced the men to take cover. Major Barnett wirelessed for another artillery concentration, but this could not be given until the whereabouts of C Coy was known. Gradually the platoons worked their way forward and by 2.30 a.m. were past the buildings, the enemy having abandoned his posts. In the darkness the platoons followed the main road instead of turning off towards Avane. This mistake was soon discovered and the men doubled back on their tracks. Open formation was abandoned, and the platoons marched in single file along the rough road which led to their objective. The pace of the advance was still very slow because of mortar fire and machine-gunning and the necessity to clear each house systematically. Dawn had broken by the time the leading elements reached Avane, but the air was still murky with dust and smoke. Still moving in line, the company moved through the village until held up at a point where wrecked buildings blocked the road. The only street open turned left and would have brought the troops into 23 Battalion's sector, some distance from the proposed platoon positions. While the leaders were deciding what to do the rest of the company closed up.page 433
Suddenly a German was noticed climbing over the pile of rubble. McNab challenged him and received a bullet in the thigh. Within a few seconds the air was alive with bullets as Germans hidden in the rubble and buildings nearby opened fire. The troops scattered to the nearest cover, generally a house. The one 17 Platoon moved into was occupied by enemy troops and an NCO was killed before the Germans made their escape through a hole in the wall. Major Barnett decided against attempting to clear the town without armoured support, so all platoons mounted strong pickets and stayed where they were. The company had already lost five men, and to clear the town at this juncture would have cost the lives of many more. Eight enemy prisoners had been taken and five more were taken later in the day.
Long before this C Coy had reached its objectives—the villages of San Maria and Empoli Vecchio. When the barrage began all four platoons had been deployed across the start line. Near the embankment the platoons came under fire and suffered casualties. No. 13 Platoon cleared one post and the enemy was forced to retire from the others. As the company crossed the railway line it again came under fire, but it was not sufficient to hold up the troops for long. Nos. 14 and 15 Platoons continued on towards San Maria, while 12 Platoon branched off to Empoli Vecchio and 13 Platoon remained at the railway crossing. No further opposition was encountered, and 15 Platoon and Coy HQ entered San Maria to find it deserted. No. 14 Platoon had lost its bearings in the dark and had returned to the railway embankment. Later the Company Commander brought both platoons forward, where they took up positions on the outskirts of the village. No. 12 Platoon remained at Empoli Vecchio, which was only about 300 yards away. By 4.30 a.m. the company had consolidated in its new position. Several prisoners had been taken at a cost to the company of three killed and two wounded.
A Coy, which had followed C Coy as far as the embankment, met the heaviest opposition, and by skilful manœuvre had prevented a counter-attack which might have imperilled the battalion's assault. The company moved through C Coy's former sector and, continuing along a road leading to Empoli, page 434 stopped at a road junction. Nos. 8 and 9 Platoons, accompanied by Coy HQ, turned left to follow a track leading to the embankment, while 7 Platoon continued down the road to straddle another road junction. The enemy was shelling both roads at this time and casualties were sustained. By 4 a.m. the company was in position. No. 7 Platoon's commander, Sgt O'Reilly, had placed his three sections rather far apart, one in front of a house on the left of the road and the other two on the right. An anti-tank gun was left on the roadside.
The sergeant was moving around his men to see if they were all right, when he heard voices and saw a column of men marching towards him from the direction of Empoli. They were almost up to the forward right-hand section. O'Reilly opened fire with his tommy gun. This was a signal for confused firing on both sides. The forward section on the right fell back on the rear one and the two sections concentrated fire on the enemy, who immediately sought cover and returned the fire. The section across the road was unaware of what was happening and, in any case, could not fire for fear of hitting their platoon mates. Grenades and bullets were flying in all directions.
Realising he would need the support of the full platoon, Sgt O'Reilly set out at the height of the battle to collect the left-hand section. Despite the very real danger of running into enemy troops, he succeeded in reaching the section and bringing it around to where the rest of the platoon was still fighting. The men were not dug in but had taken cover in conveniently placed irrigation ditches. From the volume of fire it was evident that the platoon was greatly outnumbered but there was no thought of withdrawing. A message was sent to Maj Murray, and as dawn approached 8 Platoon arrived in the area. Sherman tanks could be heard approaching along the road. The enemy turned and fled. For 7 Platoon it was just as well the enemy did withdraw. Its stack of grenades was gone, Bren and tommy-gun magazines were empty, and the riflemen had only a few rounds left. A German officer had been killed and several of the enemy wounded. Seven prisoners were taken and from them it was learned that the enemy party had totalled over sixty. No. 7 Platoon had four men lightly wounded.page 435
An hour after daybreak the situation in all sectors was considered fairly satisfactory. The 23rd Battalion had captured all its objectives and had linked up with the Americans. That Avane had only been partially captured was not considered important as 23 Battalion was in a position to give assistance if required. Mines and demolitions had held up the tanks and supporting arms, which at this stage were still some distance from the forward companies. Until tanks reached Avane no attempt was being made to clear the village or the ground between it and San Maria. Casualties for the attack totalled 19, including five killed. Twenty-seven prisoners had been taken. A 500-yard stretch of ground between C Coy and Empoli was still in enemy hands. A wide irrigation ditch running down to the river separated the company from this area and lessened the possibility of any tank-supported counter-attack on that flank.
Hostile shelling and mortaring continued throughout the day and into the night. Spandaus opened fire on A Coy from the general direction of Empoli, but this fire ceased soon after 9 a.m. A small reconnaissance patrol sent out to examine some houses on the outskirts of the town was fired on and immediately withdrew. Later in the day a three-man patrol led by Lt Moncrieff14 entered the town via the railway station. They reached the square before they were fired on by men in civilian clothes. Caught out in the open, they lost no time in withdrawing back across the irrigation ditch to C Coy and thence back to A Coy. In Avane there was a good deal of crossfire throughout most of the day. It ceased at nightfall and a fighting patrol found the enemy gone. Patrolling continued after dusk but opposition was encountered at only one point. This was when a fighting patrol from C Coy set out to cover the ground between the forward companies. Half-way across it ran into heavy fire from spandau posts near the little village of La Ripa.
Colonel Fountaine decided to send B Coy forward to clear this ground. Captain Kerr, who was acting Company Commander, led the company towards Avane from which it had been decided to operate. In the meantime long-range enemy guns were shelling D Coy, which had moved to its originally page 436 planned position. Several artillery concentrations were fired, including one on the area B Coy was to clear. By 1 a.m. the enemy machine-gunners in La Ripa had been silenced.
The past twenty-four hours had been trying for the sappers repairing the roads. Enemy gunners were concentrating on the roads and the sappers had suffered casualties, but by daylight on the 12th tanks and mortars had reached Avane and the road to San Maria was reported clear. The next task was to clear the road from San Maria to Empoli. Just before lunch a sapper sergeant was wounded by a sniper in one of a group of houses around a crossroads about half-way to the town. Major Williams detailed 14 Platoon to clear these houses so that the road work could continue. An artillery concentration was fired on the area and the platoon attacked. For over an hour Maj Williams waited for news of the attack. Sounds of firing indicated that the platoon had met opposition. Finally, at ten past six the platoon arrived back in San Maria. It had been strongly opposed by enemy infantry who had turned several of the houses into strongpoints. Under fire from several directions the platoon had sustained seven casualties, including one man killed, before it was able to extricate itself.
After this rebuff the CO decided to make a company attack on the crossroads. In Empoli itself 28 Battalion was slowly making progress but had not attempted to extend across to C Coy. The Colonel ordered Maj Murray to prepare to attack before dawn on the 13th. The rest of the day passed uneventfully. Towards dusk the tempo of the enemy shell and mortar fire increased considerably and for a while Battalion HQ was inundated with reports of gun positions sent in by the platoons. Already a map showing the dispositions of enemy troops along the far side of the river had been found on a dead German officer—a map which a jubilant Battalion HQ staff sent post-haste to Brigade HQ. Everyone was feeling rather pleased except perhaps the reinforcements, 70 all told, who arrived at Battalion HQ during the day and soon joined the ranks of those doing picket duty.
With A Coy holding the ground between Empoli and San Maria, 5 Brigade was now in possession of the approaches to the river along the whole of its sector. Late in the afternoon of the 13th several officers of 85 US Division visited Battalion HQ. This division was to relieve the New Zealanders after dusk on 15 August. The next two days passed slowly although very little happened. Patrols examined the approaches to the river and tested it to see if it was fordable. Finally, after dusk on the 15th, 339 US Regiment arrived in the battalion sector and by midnight the relief was completed.
This brought to a close the Division's operations in central Italy. The advance on Florence and the Arno had been divided into three separate phases. First came the attack through the hills to Arezzo, then more hill fighting west of Route 2, and lastly the mopping-up operations around Empoli, 16 miles south-west of Florence. On very few occasions had the battalion come in close contact with the enemy. Accurate and sustained shell and mortar fire had caused most of the casualties in the unit. Twenty-four men had lost their lives, 91 had been wounded, and five others taken prisoner. During the same period influenza and jaundice had taken a heavy toll, although most of those evacuated to hospital eventually rejoined the battalion. Reinforcements kept the unit's strength at a fairly high figure. Captain Fletcher and the RAP staff had done a wonderful job. Often the doctor set up his RAP close to the FDLs and worked under heavy fire. Like his predecessor Capt Rutherford, he went forward whenever it was difficult to get the page 439 wounded back and attended to casualties where they lay. Because of this care few men died of their wounds, and the wounded themselves escaped a good deal of pain from lack of attention.
With officers of long experience in command the battalion was running very smoothly. In all three sectors the troops in the FDLs seldom went without a meal even if circumstances caused it to be late in arriving. This in itself was no easy task. Internal communications had been fairly good and the No. 38 sets had proved invaluable in the hills. To some of the newcomers it was rather galling to have to endure persistent enemy fire and not be able to retaliate because the supporting arms could not get forward. Nevertheless, it had been a satisfactory month and the end of the war seemed near. Morale was very high.
* * *
The rest area chosen for 6 Brigade lay in hilly country about five miles north of Siena and about 50 miles from Empoli. The main body of the battalion arrived about midday on the 16th and quickly settled down to enjoy a fortnight without training of any description. Fine weather helped to make the spell enjoyable. Fresh fruit, wine and vegetables could be purchased in the town or from small villages nearby. Each day lorryloads of troops were taken into Siena, a large town of historical and academic interest. Other leave parties went to Rome, whilst a large party spent three days on the beaches around Cecina, a village on the west coast south of Pisa. Because of the high percentage on leave each day there was little need for evening entertainment, but a large audience attended a performance of the Kiwi Concert Party, which was voted as good as ever. On 22 August Brig Parkinson resumed command of the brigade and two days later Mr. Churchill visited the Division. On the same day an advanced party set out to locate a bivouac area on the Adriatic coast.
The Division had been transferred to the Adriatic sector, and two days later the men were on trucks heading for the Apennines and the new camp, 230 miles away. Badges and titles had been removed, for once more the move was a secret one. The roads page 440 were very dusty but good progress was made. When the convoy halted for the night, 130 miles had been covered and Lake Trasimene and Assisi had been left behind. Not far from th staging area was the town of Foligno and, of more interest to the drivers, a large airfield. No aircraft occupied this field, but parked on it were thousands of brand-new vehicles of all descriptions. Envious eyes were cast on them. On the 29th the journey was continued. The road led through several picturesque valleys and up over a 4000 ft mountain pass. Late in the afternoon the convoy came to a stop about three miles north of the town of Iesi. The long and dusty journey was over and nobody was sorry.
The camp site was a good one, with plenty of shelter and a fresh-water stream nearby. Nearly everyone thought that the Division's role would be to take part in the assault on the Gothic Line, reputed to be the strongest chain of defences south of the Po River, but three weeks went by before the battalion moved into the line. During this period the unit moved closer to the fighting and the rest of the Division assembled and prepared for action. While the battalion was at Iesi the weather was hot and sultry. Heavy rain fell on 1 September, but the skies cleared and bathing parties went down to the beach as usual. A large party camped for three days along the seaside near the town of Senigallia. Parcels and mail now reached the men more quickly and during the stay at Iesi a large parcel mail was distributed. Rich suppers and mild attacks of dysentery were common for several days. Poor quality wines were on sale in local bars and the soldiers were encouraged to buy their liquor from bulk supplies held by the QM. Mosquitoes caused considerable inconvenience and the nets on issue were used to good purpose. Only light training was carried out, designed to initiate recent reinforcements into the part they would have to play in future actions.
About twenty-five to thirty miles away British, Canadian, and Polish divisions and the New Zealand artillery were attacking the Gothic Line defences near Pesaro. For a few days the fighting was very severe, but by 5 September a bridgehead 20 miles wide and five miles deep had been established. The next day the battalion moved 30 miles to another camp site south-east of page 441 Fano. Rain fell for the next two days, but after this the weather cleared again. More attention was paid to training, and on the 7th and 8th companies witnessed demonstrations by amphibious DUKW vehicles. All ranks were given rides over land and water. On the 12th the battalion moved again, this time to Gradara, a village about six miles from the scene of the fighting. The short journey was interesting for the troops were able to see sections of the famous Gothic Line. Miles of wire, wide minebelts, and concrete gun emplacements stretched across the front.
The Division's role was now known. It was to remain in reserve until Canadian troops had crossed the many-pronged Marecchia River and captured the seaport town of Rimini. When this had been accomplished, 6 Brigade with armoured support would exploit the bridgehead and drive up the coastal plain to Ravenna. During the few days spent at Gradara several conferences were held and the battalion's part in the forthcoming operations discussed in detail. Intelligence reports and large-scale maps were studied by all officers. Finally, after three weeks of waiting, the battalion moved forward on 18 September to a brigade concentration area near Riccione. There had been a number of changes in command. Majors Sanders and Williams were in hospital and Capt Piper and four other long-service officers had left for Advanced Base at Bari. These losses were only partially offset by promotions within the unit. Major Barnett became the second-in-command and Capt R. Hunter assumed command of D Coy. Captain K. W. Hobbs took over C Coy and two NCOs, WO II Lock and Sgt O'Reilly, were granted commissions in the field. Reinforcements had brought the unit strength to 713, including 29 officers—three officers and 56 other ranks below full strength.
1 Appointments at 8 Jul 1944 were:
2 i/c: Maj G. P. Sanders
Adjt: Capt P. J. Humphries
QM: Capt M. Joel
MO: Capt I. H. Fletcher
Padre: Rev. J. A. Linton
OC A Coy: Maj A. R. McKinlay
OC B Coy: Maj D. P. W. Harvey
OC C Coy: Maj J. R. Williams
OC D Coy: Maj A. W. Barnett
OC HQ Coy: Capt D. C. Piper
IO: Lt B. H. Palmer
2 Forward Observation Officer.
7 Brig J. T. Burrows, DSO and bar, ED, m.i.d., Order of Valour (Greek); Christchurch; born Christchurch, 14 Jul 1904; schoolmaster; CO 20 Bn Dec 1941–Jun 1942; 20 Bn and Armd Regt Aug 1942–Jul 1943; commanded 4 Bde 27–29 Jun 1942, 5 Jul–15 Aug 1942; 5 Bde Mar 1944, Aug–Nov 1944; 6 Bde Jul–Aug 1944; Rector Waitaki BHS 1945–49; Commandant Southern Military District Nov 1951–.