Italy Volume II : From Cassino to Trieste
V: La Romola
V: La Romola
At the end of July 6 Brigade was still hemmed in in its bridgehead across the Pesa River. No longer was the enemy fighting rearguard actions and falling back as he had done previously when the main body of the attackers approached his positions; he seemed prepared to stand on the Paula Line and fight it out for some time. His counter-attacks, first down the Poggio Cigoli road and then against San Michele, were the first real counter-attacks met by the New Zealand Division in the advance on Florence. It looked as if further progress in this sector could be achieved only by a set-piece attack.
Nevertheless, with the forces of 13 Corps arrayed in such strength against him, the enemy was bound to withdraw. With British, South African, New Zealand and Indian divisions ranged side by side, there was a spirit of competition in the drive to the Arno and Florence. The 6th South African Armoured Division was not yet ready to make a concerted thrust with the New Zealand Division, but General Freyberg apparently was reluctant to mark time— or to lose the lead in the race to Florence—and already had decided to keep up the pressure on the New Zealand front by switching the weight of the attack to the right flank, the direct route to the city and the flank on which the two divisions could best assist each other.
The new plan envisaged 6 Brigade containing the enemy in its sector and exploiting if and when possible, while the rest of the Division advanced on the left of Route 2, across the eastern edge of the Pian dei Cerri and then direct on Florence. It had been intended that 5 Brigade, having led from the start of the advance until 6 Brigade passed through on 27 July, should have a spell for rest and reorganisation while carrying out a protective role on the western flank, but now that 8 Indian Division had made this role unnecessary, it was logical to transfer 5 Brigade to the other flank, where it would be in a better position to join in a major advance. The lack of protection on the eastern flank until the South Africans drew level, the increased resistance and the threat of counter-attack on 22 Battalion gave urgency to this redeployment.
The 23rd Battalion, which had been placed at 4 Brigade's disposal to guard this flank, was warned on the morning of 28 July that it might have to take over part of 22 Battalion's front. At midday 4 Brigade was advised that the GOC had decided to bring the whole of 5 Brigade to this flank and that 23 Battalion would then revert to 5 Brigade's command. Later in the day, how- page 156 ever, permission was given for 23 Battalion to be brought forward to reinforce 4 Brigade, on condition that it was not to be used by that brigade in an assault.
After nightfall 23 Battalion moved north through San Casciano to take over from 2 Company the right-hand half of 22 Battalion's front, with A Company on the right, B on the left, C in right rear protecting the open flank, and D in reserve, and with A Squadron, 20 Armoured Regiment (which relieved A Squadron, 19 Regiment) in support. The 22nd Battalion reorganised its sector south of La Romola with 1 Company on the right, 3 on the left and 2 in reserve, and with C Squadron of 20 Regiment (having relieved B Squadron) in support. Anti-tank and Vickers guns were sited with both battalions.
During the night patrols and listening posts reported the presence of tracked vehicles in and about La Romola and (on 23 Battalion's front) troop and vehicle activity along the road through Sant' Andrea. A stonk was called for on the latter locality, and this immediately brought enemy retaliation with shell and mortar fire.
The enemy continued to harass 4 Brigade's salient. He obviously enjoyed good observation in daylight from the high ground to the east across the River Greve. He shelled and mortared buildings and roads, and laid concentrations on any movement in the forward areas and occasionally in the rear, chiefly on the roads around San Casciano. Movement along the San Casciano – Casa Vecchia – Spedaletto road drew shell, mortar and machine-gun fire. Positions in the Pisignano area, facing the La Romola ridge across the valley of the Sugana stream, were continually and accurately bombarded. A request was made for an air strike on La Romola when 22 Battalion reported increasing movement there. The village was bombed and strafed with ‘good results … though the number of planes (6) was disappointingly small….’1
A liaison officer from 6 South African Armoured Division arrived in 23 Battalion's lines and reported that the nearest South African troops, apart from patrols, were to the south-east, held up by enemy fire and the difficult going caused by a number of streams that ran into the Greve. Later 23 Battalion's outposts made contact with South African patrols.
1 War diary, HQ 4 Armd Bde.
A divisional operation instruction issued later that day set out the plan. At first it directed that on the night of 30–31 July 5 Brigade would begin the operation supported by feint attacks by both 4 and 6 Brigades, and next night 4 and 6 Brigades were to make a combined attack; but this was quickly changed to a combined 4 and 5 Brigade operation on the first night, followed by 6 Brigade attacking alone on the second night. Fourth Brigade was then to drop back for reorganisation while 5 and 6 Brigades made the final assault to break the Paula Line on the night of 1–2 August. Both 4 Brigade and Divisional Cavalry were to be ready ‘to debouch at first light’2 on 2 August.
Fifth Brigade assumed responsibility for the Division's right flank in the evening of 29 July, when 23 Battalion and 20 Armoured Regiment (less C Squadron, with 22 Battalion) came under its command, and the transfer of 21 and 28 Battalions from the left flank was well on the way. The 21st, in reserve, took up a position on the right flank near San Casciano; the Maori Battalion moved into the line between 23 and 22 Battalions south of Faltignano, where C Company on the right and A on the left completed the relief of B Company, 23 Battalion, about midnight; the other two companies of 28 Battalion and B Company of the 23rd were in reserve.
1 GOC's diary.
It was proposed that A Company should put in a dawn attack on Sant' Andrea. A few of the men apparently ‘felt that the limit of their physical and nervous reserves or of what should be asked of them had been reached’2 and refused to go. The CO (Lieutenant- Colonel Thomas) personally led the way ‘to show the men he would not ask them to do anything he was not prepared to do himself.’3
The artillery fired a stonk on the village, and A Company attacked with a troop (three Shermans) of A Squadron, 20 Armoured Regiment, in support. A blown culvert over a ditch blocked the road in the gully, but a way across for the tanks was found and improved by men working with shovels. A few prisoners from 10 Parachute Regiment4 were taken on the other side of the gully, and the tanks and infantry went on to the village. Thomas returned to Battalion Headquarters while the company commander (Captain Duncan5) and his men continued with the occupation of the village, from which about 50 or 60 Germans had withdrawn only a few minutes earlier.
The enemy, however, was still in the proximity of Sant' Andrea, and from Villa Mazzei, about 300 yards to the north-west, commanded its southern access. He shelled and mortared the village, and it was anticipated that he would counter-attack. Strenuous efforts were made to get support weapons to A Company, but wheeled vehicles could not pass the demolition on the road from Spedaletto, which the engineers were unable to repair because all movement on the road in daylight drew fire; their bulldozer had to be driven hastily into cover. When a Tiger tank was observed working its way towards Sant' Andrea, two M10s were despatched to support A Company, but were halted by the state of the road. Mortars, sited well forward, were directed on Villa Mazzei and other targets considered too close for the artillery.
1 23 Battalion, p. 373.
2 Ibid., p. 372.
3 R. S. Duncan, quoted in 23 Battalion, p. 373.
4 The boundary between 4 Para Div and 29 Pz Gren Div was approximately half-way between La Romola and Route 2. Reports differ as to how many prisoners were taken at Sant' Andrea, but the number probably was small.
Late in the afternoon enemy infantry attacked again, but did not dislodge A Company. ‘My blokes shot about 12 counted Jerries from the top windows and really had quite a good time,’ says Duncan.3 The New Zealand casualties at Sant' Andrea that day were very few and included only one killed.
The Division's officers, down to CO level, assembled at Divisional Headquarters in the morning of 30 July to hear the situation and new plans explained. General Freyberg told them that he intended to mount three attacks, the first that night, the second next night and the third when certain factors, including the ammunition supply, were favourable. He explained that the Division could either continue operations on the left or transfer its strength to the right flank, which offered the shortest route to Florence and the opportunity of assisting the South Africans, who had been held up by strong enemy positions covering the line of the Greve River. He had chosen the second alternative and ‘in the normal way one would feel inclined to advance in one [bound] but for the fact that he [the enemy] is putting tiger tanks in his objectives. We have therefore to clear up the road and get M.10's forward or 17-pounders. This being so the only way is to do limited objective attacks which we dislike because they don't displace the enemy trench mortars.’4
3 Quoted in 23 Battalion, p. 375. Ross says that 26 German graves were later found at a house just outside Sant' Andrea.
4 GOC's diary.
Fifth Brigade's first objective was on the high ground north of Sant' Andrea and Faltignano, its second on the ridge about a mile north-east of La Romola, and its third bestride the valley between Poggio delle Monache and La Poggiona. Fourth Brigade's objective was just beyond La Romola. Sixth Brigade's first objective took in Poggio Cigoli, La Liona and the ridge north of San Michele; its second was about midway between Poggio Cigoli and Poggio Valicaia, and its third on the northern side of Poggio Valicaia.
Fifth Brigade's advance to its first objective was to start at 10 p.m. on 30 July, and 4 Brigade's advance to La Romola three hours later. Fifth Brigade instructed 28 Battalion to send a small force, supported by artillery concentrations, to capture Casa del Carpione (midway between Spedaletto and Faltignano) before the start of the main attack, in which 23 and 28 Battalions were to be supported by a barrage creeping in 100-yard lifts every four minutes; this was to be fired by the three New Zealand field regiments and 57 Field Regiment, RA (from 6 British Armoured Division), and in addition 70 and 75 Medium Regiments were to lay concentrations on observed and suspected enemy positions. Each battalion was to have half of A Squadron, 20 Armoured Regiment, and a platoon of 1 MG Company under command; the 23rd also was to have two M10s of 31 Anti-Tank Battery. Two troops (eight 4·2-inch mortars) of 39 Heavy Mortar Battery were given tasks in direct support of both battalions. For protection against enemy tanks on the objective, 32 Anti-Tank Battery was to provide a troop (four 17-pounders) for 28 Battalion and two troops (eight six-pounders) for the 23rd; these guns and two six-pounders of each battalion's anti-tank platoon were to follow the tanks in the advance. The sappers of 7 Field Company (a detachment with a bulldozer accompanying each battalion) were to open the routes forward immediately for the support weapons and were to be ready to lay mines in front of the newly won positions.
The plan for 23 Battalion, finalised early in the evening of the 30th, was to secure a line from Sant' Andrea through Villa Mazzei to Point 246 (Palastra), about 1000 yards north-west of Sant' page 161 Andrea. C Company was to relieve A at Sant' Andrea, and D was to advance to Villa Mazzei and Palastra. For this purpose the OC D Company (Major Grant1), assisted by Captain Donnelly2 of 20 Regiment, organised his force in several groups: a platoon each of infantry and engineers and a troop of tanks were to go direct to Villa Mazzei and another platoon of infantry and troop of tanks to Palastra; the headquarters group, the third platoon of infantry, the rest of the engineers and the anti-tank guns were to follow.
C Company completed the relief of A at Sant' Andrea after midnight. Meanwhile Grant's force passed through Spedaletto and followed the barrage. The opposition was slight, but the tanks had difficulty in keeping up with the infantry and on the way ‘flushed two Tigers’ which fired their machine guns ‘but for some reason or other—including the obvious one that they may have run out of ammunition—did not follow up their tracer with armour-piercing shells.’3 By 2 a.m. both Villa Mazzei and Palastra had been occupied, and seven prisoners taken from 10 Parachute Regiment.
No contact had been made with 28 Battalion on the left, and enemy fire was coming from the direction of Il Pino, to the left rear of D Company, which was reinforced by a platoon from B and protected by 10 six-pounder anti-tank guns towed forward by tanks or jeeps. As the light improved it became evident that Palastra was dominated by higher ground on at least three sides. When further information was gathered of the limits reached by 28 Battalion—still south of Il Pino—and of the presence of Tiger tanks, it was decided to make D Company's main position a bend in the road east of Il Pino, where there was better cover and observation.
Much hostile fire and activity on the eastern flank gave warning that the enemy might counter-attack down the road to Sant' Andrea, but apparently he was deterred by defensive fire from the tanks and the artillery.
On the left A Company and a troop of A Squadron took the Cigliano-Faltignano track, but ran into fire as they approached the Borro Suganella, where a demolition proved impassable for the tanks and no alternative crossing could be found. One platoon was left with the tanks while the engineers began work on the demolition; the rest of the company went on beyond the Suganella, but had lost the barrage and encountered mortar and machine-gun fire, and for some time had no communication with Battalion Headquarters because of radio interference.
As it was impossible to get tanks across the Borro Suganella— the sappers estimated that it would take six hours to complete the crossing on the Cigliano-Faltignano track—Brigadier Stewart directed that A Squadron's tanks should withdraw and take the roundabout route through Spedaletto in 23 Battalion's sector, and arranged for a troop from B Squadron to go along this route at once to join C Company. He also instructed 28 Battalion to send a reserve company forward to thicken its front.
In an exhilarating advance C Company, ably led by Captain Baker,1 and supported by the two Shermans, killed at least 20 of the enemy, captured a German RAP and several prisoners, and by 1.30 p.m. was at Point 250 (Torrebianca), about 1000 yards north of Faltignano, where it was joined later by tanks of A Squadron which had passed through 23 Battalion's sector.
For most of the day the situation of A Company, 28 Battalion, was obscure. It was without tank support, anti-tank guns and observers for the artillery, and was understood to be pinned down for some hours by a suspected Tiger in the vicinity of its objective, Point 204 (Casa Ralli), about 1000 yards north-west of Faltignano. This tank probably had retired by midday, when it appeared that the enemy was moving back from 5 Brigade's front. Late in the afternoon it was confirmed that A Company was close to Casa Ralli.
Meanwhile a fresh plan had been prepared for 28 Battalion: it was to continue to push for its original objectives during the day and the night of 31 July – 1 August and if practicable carry on further to a line from Point 250 (Torrebianca) on the right to Point 227 (almost due east of La Romola across the valley of the Sugana stream) on the left. By the time this plan was issued in printed form (at 2.35 p.m.), part of it had been completed: C Company had reached Point 250 (Torrebianca), which the battalion had understood to have been its original objective.2
Assisted by artillery, mortar and machine-gun fire, A Company began a northward advance at 7 p.m. and gained Point 227 within the hour. C Company also pushed farther north, beyond its intended objective, and by 9.30 p.m. was at Villa Balbani, about a mile from Faltignano. A troop of tanks from A Squadron, 20 Regiment, was with each company, and anti-tank guns moved up in support. C Company placed a standing patrol on Poggio Montauto, on the eastern flank, and A Company sent a patrol northward along the road and creek (a tributary of the Sugana stream).
2 There are two Points 250 within a mile north of Faltignano, at Torrebianca and Villa Balbani, and in addition a 250 contour is shown on the 1:25,000 map at Villa al Leccio. The orders issued on 31 July give Villa al Leccio as the original objective, but a trace issued with 5 Bde's operation order on 30 July shows the objective RIPON at Torrebianca, farther north.
3 GOC's diary.
To reach its objective, a line cutting the ridge just beyond La Romola, 4 Brigade faced the formidable task of crossing the steep-sided valley of the Sugana stream, into which the enemy had observation and could direct the fire of his artillery, tanks, self-propelled guns, mortars and machine guns from the front and both flanks.
The plan for the attack, which was to start at 1 a.m. on 31 July, was that 22 Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Donald1) was to advance under a series of timed artillery concentrations fired by 4 and 6 Field Regiments and 70 and 75 Medium Regiments, and was to have the support of C Squadron of 20 Regiment, 31 Anti-Tank Battery (minus all except one section of its M10s and one troop of its six-pounders, but with a troop of 17-pounders from 34 Battery), 3 MG Company (whose 12 Vickers were to ‘thicken’2 the artillery barrage) and detachments of 6 Field Company. The attack was to be made by 1 Company on the right, 3 on the left and 2 in close support, each with a troop of tanks and a party of sappers.
Reconnaissance the previous night below La Romola had found the stream and the sunken lateral road obstacles for tanks, but just before the attack began a report was received that the ‘river crossing was OK’3 for tanks. Patrols had been sent out in daylight and at night to investigate reports from civilians that the enemy had evacuated La Romola. These reports were proved false, at the cost of casualties to both patrols.
2 That night 1 and 3 MG Companies fired 108,000 rounds.
3 War diary, 22 (Mot) Bn.
4 Comment by a platoon commander quoted in 22 Battalion, pp. 316–17.
The officer commanding 1 Company (Major O'Reilly3) was wounded in the head near the start line, and Captain Turner4 was given command of the three platoons (6, 7 and 8) which made straight for La Romola. O'Reilly, after regaining consciousness, refused to go back to the dressing station but joined 5 Platoon, which was to accompany the tanks to the village.
No. 3 Company (Major Sainsbury5) was hard hit before it left the start line: 14 Platoon was reduced to a handful of men, and the reserve platoon (No. 16) was brought in to fill the gap but had not gone far before its commander (Lieutenant McNeil6) was killed. Sergeant Eades,7 who then took control of 16 Platoon, won the DCM and an immediate commission in the field in recognition of his courage and leadership in the next few days.
First to reach La Romola was 15 Platoon (Lieutenant Thomas8) of 3 Company. This platoon broke contact in the middle but somehow managed to link up again in the darkness and, after destroying at least two machine-gun posts, occupied a two-storied building on the fringe of the village, where it was joined about 3 a.m. by 13 Platoon (Lieutenant Paterson9), which had been severely shelled and was only 11 strong. A small group of 14 Platoon also arrived and took charge of some prisoners. At dawn 3 Company penetrated the village.
1 Some reports attribute casualties on the start line and during the advance to shells from the New Zealand guns falling short.
2 22 Battalion, p. 318.
7 2 Lt A. E. Eades, DCM; Woodville; born Pahiatua, 10 Jun 1917; labourer.
While searching some houses Second-Lieutenant Woolcott2 and a small party from 5 Platoon unexpectedly came upon a Tiger tank which appeared to be abandoned. Lance-Corporal Dillon3 began climbing on to it, ‘when up comes the lid. Before I could surrender, the German did, with three or four others….’4 Later the tank, in perfect order, was driven towards the rear, where its unheralded approach caused alarm.
Meanwhile 2 Company (Major Hutcheson5), after being severely mortared in the Sugana valley, advanced on to the ridge farther west to cover the left flank and the La Romola – Cerbaia road. Company Headquarters was established at a ‘sort of palace [Tattoli] … full of terrified civilians,’6 and the platoons went on to their objective on top of the ridge about half a mile from La Romola.
Because of the extremely bad going the supporting tanks had been unable to keep up with the infantry. One of 12 Troop's tanks (with 1 Company) dropped out with mechanical trouble early in the advance, another got stuck on a narrow track, and only one reached La Romola. All three tanks of 9 Troop (following 3 Company) got through to the village shortly after daybreak, and one of them was transferred to 12 Troop so that both 1 and 3 Companies would have two in support. On the way to 2 Company's positions 11 Troop had to wait for several hours while a bulldozer made a deviation past a large demolition on the road in the valley, and one of its tanks shed a track. The crippled tanks were repaired and on the road again by afternoon.
Strenuous efforts, including the repairing of two large demolitions by the engineers under fire, were made to get anti-tank guns up to La Romola, in case the enemy should counter-attack with Tiger tanks in support. No such attack developed, although the enemy shelled and mortared the forward positions throughout the day. One M10 was sited to cover the northern approaches to the village, and three 17-pounders were disposed in or near the village. When one of the 17-pounder gun positions came under fire, the crew retired into nearby houses, which permitted an audacious German patrol to render the gun useless and drive away the gun-tower.
1 22 Battalion, p. 323.
4 22 Battalion, pp. 324–5.
By evening on 31 July 22 Battalion was firmly established in La Romola with two companies of infantry closely supported by three troops of tanks, and was in contact with 6 Brigade on the left flank. The battalion reported that its casualties in the attack on the village were eight killed, 22 wounded and two missing; it had taken 21 prisoners and killed an estimated 40–50 of the enemy.
The night in La Romola was eventful. A stray shell set off some engineers' explosives in a house, and caused several casualties in 6 Field Company. Later a more severe explosion brought down a house in rubble which blocked the main street. This building had been occupied by gunners of 7 Anti-Tank Regiment, 10 of whom were killed and others wounded by the explosion and falling masonry. The house was so badly wrecked that the engineers had to use a bulldozer for ‘corpse extrication’2—to clear the rubble and recover the bodies. The explosion was thought to have been caused either by a delayed-action demolition or by a shell detonating a heap of enemy explosive stacked in the house. An immediate search of other houses revealed a heavy demolition charge with a time fuse, which was disarmed, and subsequently the sappers removed several charges from culverts in or near the village and disarmed three booby traps in houses.
1 War diary, 20 Armd Regt.