Italy Volume II : From Cassino to Trieste
II: On the Banks of the Arno
II: On the Banks of the Arno
When the South Africans and New Zealanders entered the triangular portion of Florence south of the Arno on 4 August, the enemy had retreated to the Heinrich Mountain Line, which passed through the northern outskirts of the city, but had left outposts on the north bank of the Arno. He intended to continue holding the Heinrich Line along the river on each side of Florence, even if the Allies broke into the Heinrich Mountain Line north-west of the city, where he expected a thrust to be made and planned to seal off a penetration.
The Allies, who had proclaimed their desire to avoid fighting in Florence, seem to have hoped that the Germans would evacuate the city as soon as 13 Corps threatened to cross the Arno and envelop it. The corps was prepared to attempt a bridgehead up to the time that its troops reached the southern suburbs. The New Zealand Division's intended role was to advance on the west of the city: 5 Brigade group was to occupy a bridgehead as far as the Mugnone stream, which passed through the northern part of the city. The 1st Canadian Division was then to take over this sector and the New Zealand Division was to sidestep westward to 8 Indian Division's sector to screen the deployment and preparations of 2 US Corps for an attack over the river.
The first part of this plan depended on a reasonably easy crossing of the river against little German resistance. At 6 p.m. on 4 August Brigadier Pleasants reported to General Freyberg on 5 Brigade's prospects: ‘I do not think it is on tonight. The time factor is against me. If we could have [crossed] it might have had a surprise value. He has spandaus on top of the houses in the town.’ The General replied: ‘It is not on unless he is out of the town. I would not shoot at the town.’ Later he told the corps commander that the plan for that night ‘would not be on as it is really an operation to get across. They will try with patrols…. Sappers say doing a low level crossing will be difficult and the other [way] is a 200 feet span [bridge]. Canadians will take over the situation as it is….’1
1 GOC's diary.
The Allied troops in the Florence sector had to contend not only with aggressive German patrols day and night, but also with Italian fascists, who wore no recognised military uniform and sniped from the upper storeys of buildings. German artillery and mortar fire inflicted casualties, but no retributory shellfire could be directed against the city. The Germans, unable to cope with the provision of food, water and sanitation for the city's large population, withdrew their rearguards behind the Mugnone on 10 August, and next day patrols from 8 Indian Division (which had replaced 1 Canadian Division) penetrated as far as this stream. The engineers made a ford across the Arno and opened the Ponte Vecchio for light vehicles, which permitted the Allied Military Government to deliver provisions to the Florentines, many of whom had gone without food, water, gas, electricity and sanitary services for several days. German raiding parties, usually with one or two tanks or armoured cars, clashed with the British and Indian troops garrisoning the city.
The 8th Indian Division handed over its commitments in Florence to 1 British Division on 16 August, and a day or two later the Germans, again because of their inability to feed the part of the city still in their hands, withdrew to the Heinrich Mountain Line. Meanwhile, in the loop of the Arno east of Florence, 4 British Division, after a hard fight, drove the enemy across the river, and some 15 miles west of the city 2 NZ Division cleared the south bank in the vicinity of Empoli. From Pontassieve to its boundary with Fifth Army west of Empoli, Eighth Army then stood on the line of the Arno.
When the New Zealand Division replaced 8 Indian Division in the Lastra a Signa – Empoli sector, its role was to screen the deployment and preparation of 2 US Corps, which proposed to take part in a co-ordinated attack by Eighth and Fifth Armies to force the enemy back to the Gothic Line. The New Zealanders were to clear the south bank of the Arno before the Americans crossed to secure Monte Albano. Although the Americans did eventually take over this sector, the attack was cancelled because of a change in the Allied armies' plan.
In the Florence sector the Maori Battalion was relieved by the Loyal Edmonton Regiment and the Divisional Cavalry patrols by Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, and 5 Brigade handed over command to 2 Canadian Brigade on 5 August. As it was page 200 unnecessary to hold a brigade in reserve to meet a counter-attack in the Lastra a Signa – Empoli sector, all three New Zealand brigades, replacing those of 8 Indian Division, went into the line along the river, 4 Brigade on the right, 6 Brigade in the centre, and 5 Brigade on the left flank facing the German pocket holding Empoli and the ground in the fork of the Arno and Elsa rivers.
The roads in this sector were extremely poor, narrow and dusty, and those near the river could be watched by the enemy. The changeover on 6 and 7 August, therefore, was arranged so that the New Zealand units went into position and the Indian units came out with the minimum of congestion and observation by the enemy. Prisoners taken in the next few days claimed that the enemy had known or suspected that a relief was taking place and had accepted the opportunity to relieve some of his own front-line troops at the same time. Nevertheless the Germans reported a week later that Empoli was being attacked by Indian troops.
Fourth Brigade, with a narrow front, had only 22 (Motor) Battalion forward; 6 Brigade, with a much wider front, placed 26 Battalion on the right, 25 in the centre and 24 on the left; 5 Brigade went into position with 21 Battalion forward on the right, 23 on the left and 28 in reserve. The foremost infantry posts were anything from half a mile to two miles from the Arno. The no-man's land on the south bank contained German strongpoints in buildings, as well as many Italians still living in their houses, refugees, partisans, fascists, and sympathisers and agents for both sides.
The commander of a machine-gun platoon attached to 3 Company of 22 Battalion about 3000 yards from the Arno near Lastra a Signa says his men shared with an infantry platoon, an artillery observation post, and the Italians who were still in residence, a house combined with a church on the highest part and another house on the reverse slope of the nearest range of hills to the river. ‘The accommodation is somewhat cramped…. However, any roof is welcome as the weather is showery at present. We are combining our usual role with that of infantry posts as a protection to the hill against possible patrols….
‘We have a wonderful panorama from our positions, of the Arno plains and the mountains of the Gothic line beyond. The Arno runs through olive groves and cultivated ground to where it disappears into the sprawling suburbs of Florence on our extreme right. On the far side of the plain Prato is visible guarding the mouth of one of the passes through which runs a main road to Bologna. Straight out in front, across the river from Lastra, is Signa, still held by Jerry….page 201
‘Most of the roads round here run along the tops of a series of parallel ridges and large stretches are under observation…. Consequently only jeeps can use the road in daylight and even they have to idle along to avoid raising dust. We had done about a mile down the exposed part when Jerry started putting down a stonk about 500x1 short of the road…. half a minute later there was a screech and he dropped a clutch of three squarely over us….’ Miraculously unscathed, the men in the jeep forgot about the dust ‘and put the accelerator down through the floor….’
Later the same machine-gunners found themselves in ‘quite the most luxurious place we have ever scored so far in Italy, being a modern three-storeyed building, with eight or nine rooms on each floor. The owner is in England and part of it is occupied by Italians but we have plenty of room…. Someone leaning too heavily on a panel this afternoon accidentally exposed a secret cache which on being investigated yielded two large stone jars of about 3-gallon capacity, each full of preserved eggs, about twelve pounds of fine white sugar and a dozen or so bottles of assorted vermouth, spurmanti, vino santo and a peach liqueur….’2
1 x: yards.
2 Diary, B. C. H. Moss.
3 Steeleforce comprised HQ 27 (MG) Bn, 4 MG Coy, C (later B) Coy 25 Bn, a troop of C Sqn 19 Regt, a troop of 39 Hy Mor Bty, a detachment of 8 Fd Coy, and two companies (‘infantillery’) of men of 7 A-Tk Regt in an infantry role. The three brigades then consisted of the following units:
4 Armd Bde: 22 (Mot) Bn, 18 Armd Regt, B Sqn Div Cav, 4 Fd Regt, detachments of 31 and 34 A-Tk Btys, half-battery of 39 Hy Mor Bty, 41 Lt AA Bty, 3 MG Coy, 6 Fd Coy, A Coy 4 Fd Amb, and (in reserve) 20 Armd Regt.
(The 17-pounders of 7 A-Tk Regt stayed in the line but the six-pounder troops were withdrawn and turned into ‘infantillery’. The two M10 troops were sent back to the rear for intensive training still considered necessary after their performance during the advance to Florence.)
During the Division's stay in this sector 5 Brigade's occupation of the town of Empoli and the country to the west as far as the Elsa River brought most of the fighting; 4 and 6 Brigades were able to edge most of the enemy across to the north bank of the Arno by patrolling and by stepping up their forward posts until they were in control of the south bank.
Some patrols accompanied American engineer parties whose task was to reconnoitre the river and its approaches for the proposed crossing. The small town of Montelupo was found deserted and was occupied by a company from 25 Battalion. The enemy had mined many of the roads and tracks and had felled trees across some of them; he also had left cunningly designed booby traps in buildings. Clashes between New Zealand and German patrols caused casualties on both sides. Strict control had to be exercised over the many civilians moving about the countryside, and a curfew imposed. Italians reported that German patrols wore civilian clothes to pass over the river in greater safety.
An advance to the river was planned to start on the night of 10–11 August. Fourth and 6th Brigades were scarcely involved; 5 Brigade was to clear the ground between Empoli and the Elsa River, an operation which would outflank the town and, it was hoped, induce the enemy to withdraw. The chief obstacle, apart from the enemy himself, was the railway embankment carrying the main line to the west. The only crossing places were on the Osteria-Santa Maria and the Osteria-Marcignana roads, and both would need attention from the engineers before tanks could use them.
New Zealand infantrymen return to their transport after driving the Germans off the high ground around Monte Lignano
Headquarters 23 Battalion in temporary occupation of a palatial villa during the advance to Florence
The front of the church in San Michele, where D Company of 24 Battalion withstood several counter-attacks
The Tiger tank captured intact by 22 Battalion at La Romola stands alongside one of 4 Armoured Brigade's comparatively small Sherman tanks
Colonel B. Barrington is introduced to King George VI by General Leese during the King's visit to the New Zealand sector south of Florence. Brigadier L. M. Inglis is on the other side of the car
Damage to the road from Osteria and mines slowed the progress of the tanks (two troops of A Squadron, 19 Regiment). By 4.15 a.m. the sappers with a bulldozer had cleared the road as far as the railway and levelled a demolition at the crossing, but the Shermans had gone only 200 yards beyond this when they came to a large demolition thickly sown with mines. As the clearing of a way past this obstruction would take several hours and it was nearly daybreak, Brigade Headquarters ordered some of the tanks supporting 23 Battalion to try to cross the front to help the infantry at Avane.
With a wider sector to cover, 23 Battalion advanced with three companies forward. A and D Companies, on the right and in the centre respectively, reached their objectives in a bend of the Arno practically unhampered by the enemy. Well before daybreak A was in the village of Riottoli and D in Vitiana and Pagnana. C Com- page 204 pany, on the left, moving up the road to Marcignana, was followed by C Squadron of Divisional Cavalry (with a platoon of B Company attached), two troops of A Squadron, 19 Regiment, and the support weapons. There was a demolition south of the railway crossing, where the embankment had been blown and mined, and another demolition on the other side. As the infantry mounted the embankment they came under machine-gun fire from a nearby house. The tanks brought their guns to bear on the house while the infantry assaulted it. The enemy gave in quickly, yielding five prisoners, and C Company continued without further opposition to the turn-off to Marcignana, where its men drove back another enemy post.
By dawn C Company was in Marcignana and in control of the road to a demolished bridge on the Arno. The company was joined by C Squadron, Divisional Cavalry, which had much difficulty in negotiating the narrow lanes but eventually found a suitable ford over the Elsa River.
The sappers cleared the demolitions at the railway crossing on the road to Marcignana, and one troop of tanks worked its way to the vicinity of Pagnana, while the other troop turned eastward along the road leading to Empoli with the intention of joining A Company of 23 Battalion at Riottoli. In response to the request for tank support at Avane, this troop continued past Riottoli, but was halted by a large demolition.
An unexpected action had occurred during the night when A Company, 26 Battalion, moved up in rear of C to guard against a counter-attack from Empoli. A platoon sent to take a position on the railway embankment encountered an enemy party marching from the direction of Empoli. A brisk skirmish ended when other men from A Company came to assist. Seven of the enemy were captured and the rest driven off. The prisoners revealed that their party, about 60 strong, was to have taken reliefs and supplies to posts along the railway.
Fifth Brigade now held positions on three sides of Empoli, and hoped that the enemy would pull out of his own accord. A patrol from A Company, 26 Battalion, approached the town from the west but was forced back by machine-gun fire. A small patrol from B Company, 28 Battalion, entered the town from the east, but the enemy appeared in its rear and cut off retreat, so it continued on through the town to C Company, 26 Battalion, at Santa Maria. Another patrol from A Company, 26 Battalion, worked its way along the railway and entered the town by the station, on the south side; it proceeded unmolested as far as the main square, but came under fire when it approached some men in civilian clothes, so took cover and also found its way out to Santa Maria.page 205
B Company, 28 Battalion, supported by artillery fire, entered Empoli from the south in the evening of the 11th, and broke into groups to deal with small parties of the enemy. C Company, 21 Battalion (which was east of the town) was sent to reinforce the Maoris, some of whom had reached houses overlooking the river, and sappers began to clear a route for tanks of B Squadron, 19 Regiment, two troops of which arrived before dawn. The enemy shelled and machine-gunned the town and its approaches at daybreak, and several clashes occurred when daylight disclosed the locations of opposing troops. Many German dead were found unburied in the streets and houses. One gruesome discovery was four bodies, believed to be of partisans, with their heads severed and the skin flayed from the soles of their feet.
While Empoli was being cleared on the night of 11–12 August, D Company of 26 Battalion waited for tanks to get through to help it clear the eastern part of Avane. Apparently the company was apprehensive of a counter-attack, for it called upon the artillery for numerous defensive-fire tasks, but when patrols set out to investigate, the enemy had gone. The engineers cleared the road from Osteria as far as Empoli Vecchio, but when they tried to work along the road from Santa Maria towards Empoli they came under fire from buildings to the north. After a short concentration on these buildings by the artillery and tanks, a platoon from C Company set out to clear them, but met such determined resistance that it had to call off the attack.
Except on the immediate west of Empoli, 5 Brigade's front was comparatively quiet by the evening of the 12th. A, C and D Companies of 28 Battalion were brought up to relieve 21 Battalion in the town and in some small villages to the east of it. An assault on the strongpoint between Empoli and Santa Maria was delayed while attempts were made to get tanks of A Squadron, 19 Regiment, over the irrigation ditch. This proved too much of an obstacle in the dark, and while the tanks were still west of the ditch, A Company of 26 Battalion attacked with two platoons supported by the artillery. The platoon on the right ran into fire from machine-gun posts and lost two men killed and 11 wounded. Meanwhile the tanks were guided over the ditch and fired on the buildings. The other platoon closed in, only to find that the enemy had gone, abandoning his weapons and equipment. As the light improved, however, fire came from positions farther east, apparently from men in civilian clothes.
Brigadier Pleasants ordered the Maoris in Empoli to wipe out this opposition. In the afternoon of the 13th A Company, 28 Battalion, with sappers and five tanks of B Squadron, 19 Regiment, page 206 in support, advanced from the vicinity of the railway station along the western side of the town. They encountered enemy posts where the Santa Maria road entered the town, and these the tanks shot up at point-blank range. About 25 of the enemy were killed and five surrendered. The searching of buildings absorbed so many men that a platoon was sent from B Company to assist.
That night spandaus and nebelwerfers fired continuously from the north bank, probably to cover the retreat of any troops who had been left south of the river. By daybreak on the 14th all organised resistance on the south bank had ceased.
While Empoli was being occupied, patrols of C Squadron, Divisional Cavalry, reconnoitred west of the Elsa River, but were restricted in their movement by shelling from American artillery. On the morning of the 13th contact was made with a patrol from 91 US Division who stated that the village of Isola was to be occupied that evening. Before the American troops moved in, Isola and the area occupied by C Company of 23 Battalion were showered by propaganda leaflets fired from 2 US Corps guns, which also distributed them on 4 Field Regiment's area farther east next day.
As soon as the south bank of the Arno was under Allied control and the Americans' preparations completed, 2 US Corps was to extend into 13 Corps' sector by taking over from 2 NZ Division. The enemy still had a few posts west of Lastra a Signa, but apparently these were considered of little significance after Empoli had been occupied. Although it was known by this time that the Americans' projected advance north of the river had been cancelled or postponed, 85 US Division relieved 4 and 6 NZ Brigades on the night of 14–15 August and 5 Brigade the following night. Several German patrols approached during the relief, and one overran an American machine-gun post in a position from which 22 Battalion men were withdrawn.