CHAPTER 19 — The Advance to the Arno
The Advance to the Arno
By 25 May the advance up the Liri valley was well under way and leading elements of Eighth Army were on a line which extended south-westwards from the left of 6 Brigade's Terelle sector to Villa Santa Lucia, and thence westwards almost to Aquino, just short of where Highway 82 swept north through Arce and Sora to Avezzano.
Meanwhile, in the Terelle sector, where 5 Brigade had relieved 6 Brigade on 18 May, heavy but haphazard shelling on the night of the 25th gave the first hint that the enemy was about to withdraw from the Apennine front. Throughout the following day demolitions were heard and observed, so 5 Brigade sent out patrols and tanks to test the enemy's strength. These continued their advance during the night and at first light occupied the village of Terelle. Fifth Brigade then began to advance northwards on Atina from Belmonte and made good progress, but 6 Brigade, moving on a converging course from the Volturno valley through San Biagio towards the same objective, was delayed by extensive demolitions.
Fifth Brigade occupied Atina on 28 May and, continuing its steady advance northwards, was in firm possession of the village of Brocco, two miles south-east of Sora, by the evening of the 30th. It was on this day that a K Section soldier, Signalman Hope,1 died of wounds, the first casualty that Signals had suffered since 20 March during the battle for Cassino.
Next day infantry of 28 (Maori) Battalion, supported by tanks of 18 Armoured Regiment, entered Sora, where for a time they met considerable enemy mortar fire, but within a few hours the village was cleared.
About the beginning of June, while Main Headquarters 2 NZ Division was at Atina, A (wireless) Section operated its No. 299 set—a 400-watt equipment—as the control set of a wireless net for an airborne operation. A detachment of paratroops about sixty strong from 2 Independent Paratroop Brigade was landed behind the enemy lines, 15 miles in advance of 5 Brigade's foremost positions, in an attempt to cut off the enemy's rearguard or to force him to withdraw too quickly to carry out his demolition plans for holding up 5 Brigade.
Besides the control set at the New Zealand headquarters, there were two other sets on the net, one with the paratroop force and the other at the airborne base of 2 Independent Paratroop Brigade, south of Salerno. Three other sets, including one at Main Headquarters 10 Corps and another at Main Headquarters Eighth Army, listened on the net but were not permitted to transmit any signals.
A Section's control set opened communication with the Salerno airborne base at almost maximum signal strength early in the evening of 1 June; soon afterwards the Douglas transports appeared from the south and, accompanied by a strong escort of fighter aircraft, passed over Main Headquarters 2 NZ Division. The troops watched them fly away to the north and circle over the target area. After the landing no signals were heard from the paratroops until about an hour after midnight, when test reports were exchanged at good signal strength. Throughout the morning of 2 June communications were maintained at a little less than maximum signal strength, although the paratroops had reported that they were unable to erect proper aerials during daylight hours.
Early that afternoon communication with the force was suddenly lost. It was never restored, although a continuous watch was kept throughout the next three days and frequent calls made. During 2 and 3 June several messages were transmitted to the paratroops in F procedure—a method of transmission in which each word or group of a message is sent twice at a deliberate and slow rate of sending—but no replies were received. On the evening of the 4th, as a last resort, a No. 22 page 447 set and batteries were dropped in the landing area, but nothing further was heard from the paratroops. Attempts at communication were abandoned next day and the net closed down.
After Sora the advance continued in the upper Liri valley, but at a slower rate because of stiffening resistance, and Balsorano did not fall until the Divisional Cavalry entered it on 6 June. From there the chase was taken over by 6 Brigade, which met only slight resistance and infrequent delays from mines and demolitions. The brigade entered Avezzano, on the lateral highway between Rome and Pesaro on the Adriatic side, on the 9th.
Rome had fallen on 4 June to Allied forces advancing up the western littoral of the peninsula. Active operations, at least so far as the New Zealand Division was concerned, came to an end for a spell, and on the 11th formations and units began to concentrate in the Sora area.
At midnight on the 4th the Division passed from the command of 10 Corps into Eighth Army reserve, whereupon all wireless communications with 10 Corps except one wireless-telegraphy circuit ceased and were transferred to Main Headquarters Eighth Army nets. Almost immediately difficulties appeared—those curious difficulties that seemed always to occur whenever the Division retired to a rear area and attempted to switch its wireless communications from its own parent corps' headquarters to another corps or army formation. That afternoon a message had been received instructing the Division to come up on the Eighth Army net, but although A (wireless) Section's operators identified the net readily enough at the appointed time, they failed to attract the attention of the Eighth Army control set.
While the Division was still at Sora, Divisional Signals received a message from the Chief Signal Officer, Eighth Army, in which he conveyed an appreciative message from General Leese about the work of Signals in Eighth Army throughout the fighting for the Gustav Line. The CSO wrote:
I have had a very kind letter from the Army Commander expressing his thanks and appreciation for the line organization throughout the Army. He mentions especially the artillery communications and the success with which lines were kept through page 448 during periods of heavy fighting and traffic. Will you please indicate to the officers and men concerned my pleasure at having received such a letter from the Army Commander and my pride in their achievements which made it possible for him to write it.
On 13 June Main Headquarters 2 NZ Division and Headquarters 5 Brigade moved to a concentration area at Arce, and were followed next day by 4 and 5 Field Regiments, with E and F Sections attached, and an advance party of L Section from Headquarters 6 Brigade. Headquarters 6 Brigade arrived on the 15th. Headquarters 4 Armoured Brigade had moved on the 13th to Arpino, five miles to the north-east of Arce.
By 15 June all formations and units of the Division were concentrated in the Arce area, in quiet and extremely pleasant surroundings, and the usual sports competitions began. Much useful training was also carried out, of course, and most units contrived to strike a nice balance between work and play. One of the most attractive features of the rest period was the system of day leave to Rome, where one of the city's best hotels—the Quirinale—had been made into a New Zealand club. Other leave parties visited Naples, and some went to the beautiful island of Ischia, a few miles off the coast from Naples.
During the stay at Arce line circuits within the Division were short and easily maintained. There was one line to Eighth Army and one wireless-telegraphy channel; the line, however, was a very poor speech circuit, and as it had no superposed telegraph channel, most of the traffic for Headquarters Eighth Army had to be cleared by wireless telegraphy, or, when the congestion became too great, by special despatch rider. This state of affairs continued for several days until 18 June, when the GOC, concerned at the mounting delays to traffic between the two headquarters, ordered that a one-to-one wireless circuit should be set up. Accordingly, a No. 299 set manned by New Zealand operators was sent off to Headquarters Eighth Army, and communication between the two terminals on this circuit was established early on the 19th.
Lieutenant-Colonel Grant returned from hospital on 27 June and resumed command of Divisional Signals next day. He had been admitted to 2 NZ General Hospital on 28 May to undergo an operation, and as the next senior officer, Major Pryor, had page 449 left ten days before on furlough to the United Kingdom, command of the unit had passed to Major Ingle, then second-in- command and OC No. 3 Company. This was an unusual distinction for Ingle, who was then only twenty-six years of age and one of the youngest lieutenant-colonels in the Division. He had had only a little over two years' service with Divisional Signals, having been transferred to the Signal School from 19 Battalion late in 1941. He had been posted to Divisional Signals in Syria in early 1942, equipped only with the knowledge gained from two courses of instruction, one at the New Zealand Signal School and the other at the Middle East Signal School at Digla, near Maadi, and with no experience of Signals in the field. During the fighting in the Alamein Line in mid-1942 he had commanded D (operating) Section at Main Headquarters 2 NZ Division—a task considered to be one of the most difficult and exacting in the unit. Later, during the battles in Tunisia at the end of the North African campaign, he had commanded with considerable ability K Section at Headquarters 5 Brigade and had won a generous measure of praise for his work from the Brigade Commander.
Early in July preparations began for the Division's next move, which was to take it northwards for the task of clearing a route for a British armoured advance through a line of strongly defended posts south of Arezzo. These posts, which were sited on heavily wooded ridges and peaks overlooking the Allied lines of approach from the south, formed the outpost line for the enemy's main line of defence, the Gothic Line, which spanned the peninsula from coast to coast north of Florence.
The usual security precautions, now almost inseparable from plans for moves of the Division to newoperational areas, included the stripping of all titles and badges, the obliteration of fernleaf emblems, and the formation of a deception headquarters which would simulate the presence of a divisional formation at the old site at Arce by transmitting dummy cipher traffic on a special wireless net set up there for the purpose.
Main and Rear Headquarters of the Division moved off from Arce in pouring rain a few minutes after midnight on 10 July, and by 9.30 a.m. had reached the divisional staging area at Civita Castellana on Highway 3, 25 miles north of Rome. A page 450 forward signals party had already arrived there on the 9th, and by the time Main Divisional Headquarters arrived had laid out line communications to Headquarters 6 Brigade, an advance party from Headquarters 5 Brigade, and to Headquarters Divisional Artillery, and had joined up circuits from Main Headquarters Eighth Army and from Main Headquarters 13 Corps, under whose command the Division had now come.
Early next morning 6 Brigade left the staging area for the divisional concentration area south of Lake Trasimene. It was followed next day, the 12th, by Divisional Headquarters and 5 Brigade, the former going to a site near Cortona, north of the lake, and 5 Brigade remaining for the time being at Panicale, south of the lake. In the meantime 6 Brigade had moved farther north in readiness for an operational task against the enemy outpost line screening Arezzo from the south, and by late evening on the 12th Main Headquarters 6 Brigade was established in the vicinity of Castiglion Fiorentino.
Fourth Armoured Brigade left the Arce area very early on the morning of the 13th and, passing around the outskirts of Rome just as dawn was breaking, arrived about breakfast time at the staging area at Civita Castellana. It moved on again soon after midnight and, early in the morning of the 14th, established its main headquarters in a pleasant site among oak trees about half a mile off the road near Piegaro, eight miles south of Lake Trasimene.
Fifth Brigade had moved up closer to Cortona the previous day, the day on which 6 Brigade commenced its attack against Monte Castiglion Maggio and Monte Cavadenti, the foremost enemy positions, which fell into New Zealand hands without much trouble. Farther to the north-west, however, two other high features, Monte Lignano and Monte Camurcina, were more strongly defended, and it was not until early on the 15th that the first fell to 25 Battalion. Twenty-four hours later a two-battalion attack was thrown against Camurcina and another feature, from both of which, however, the enemy had withdrawn, leaving the way clear to Arezzo. At daylight on the 16th tanks of 6 Armoured Division passed through the head of the valley and entered the town, which was also found to be clear of enemy troops.page 451
That day 6 Brigade was withdrawn to a rear area a few miles south-west of Castiglion Fiorentino and the Division again went into reserve. Eighth Army's advance was by now thrusting north-westwards across the plains of Tuscany, between the mountains on the east and the line of the River Arno which skirted Highway 69 between Arezzo and Florence.
At this stage the Corps Commander changed his thrust line from the right to the left of the front, where he planned to drive through to the south-west of Florence, which had been declared an open city because of its traditional associations as a repository of the world's priceless art treasures. The New Zealand Division and 6 South African Armoured Division were chosen for this task, and on 21 July Main Headquarters 2 NZ Division moved to Castellina, a little over ten miles to the north of Siena. A forward signals party had already laid lines to Headquarters Divisional Artillery and to 5 Brigade, which was then in position a few miles north-west of Castellina preparing to relieve troops of the French Moroccan Division in the San Donato area. Next day two other New Zealand formations moved into the Siena area, 4 Armoured Brigade taking up a position five miles to the north of the town and 6 Brigade a little farther to the north-west.
The New Zealand Division was to seize a crossing over the Arno River at the town of Signa, eight miles west of Florence and within the semi-circular fringe of hills which was the German Paula Line, one of two subsidiary lines of defence forward of the main enemy defences in the Gothic Line north of the city. Fifth Brigade was to make the initial advance northward from the San Donato area against the first of these subsidiary defences, the Olga Line. On 5 Brigade's right, 6 South African Armoured Division was to advance through the valley of the Greve River along the line of Route 2 and drive on to Florence itself.
Fifth Brigade began its advance towards the Pesa River valley and Highway 2 on 22 July against strenuous resistance, but continued to make satisfactory progress despite counter-attacks until the first halt occurred on the 26th at San Casciano, where the enemy attempted to stem the advance. That night, however, 21 Battalion pushed in an attack along a ridge to the page 452 west of the town; the ridge overlooked the Pesa River to the north. A tremendous weight of artillery and mortar fire was put down on the town in support of 21 Battalion's attack. As the infantry approached the enemy withdrew, relinquishing the western flank of his Olga Line, and fell back on to his Paula defences.
While 5 Brigade's infantry was thus reducing the enemy's resistance in the Olga Line and pressing on towards the inner defences south-west of Florence, Brigade Headquarters had moved up to within a few miles south-west of San Casciano, which infantry of 22 (Motor) Battalion of 4 Armoured Brigade entered on the 27th, almost unopposed except for some fire from German snipers in the outskirts of the town. During the headquarters' successive moves on the 23rd north to Cortine, near San Donate, then beyond Tavarnelle next day, and to the San Casciano area the following day, K Section, assisted by two B (cable) Section detachments on loan from Signals at Main Divisional Headquarters, encountered considerable difficulty in maintaining its lines along the axis of advance because of the damage inflicted on cables by tracked and wheeled transport. Despite an almost complete lack of sleep and few opportunities to snatch even a few bites of food, linemen and despatch riders worked tirelessly for the first few days of the advance. It was not until the 26th that the continual damage caused to forward lines by tanks and carriers began to lessen, thus giving the tired men a well-earned rest.
Sixth Brigade had moved up from the Siena area to San Donato on the 24th, and to San Casciano the following day. L Section laid a line from Brigade Headquarters westwards to a road junction near the village of Montespertoli on the 26th and established a signal centre there in readiness for the brig- ade's attack, which was to strike north next day to secure a crossing over the Pesa River at the town of Cerbaia, overlooked from the north-east and north by strong enemy defences on the heights of La Romola and San Michele. After securing its Cerbaia bridgehead, the brigade attacked again early on the morning of the 28th towards these two villages, but was compelled to withdraw in the face of strong counter-attacks.
During 6 Brigade's advance on the 27th to seize the river page 453 crossing, L Section extended Brigade Headquarters' lines forward to 24, 25 and 26 Battalions as they advanced, but heavy enemy shelling caused numerous faults throughout the day. Wireless communications to all three battalions continued to be satisfactory until the evening. Then, owing to night effects on transmission and the long distance which then intervened between the battalions and Brigade Headquarters near San Casciano, signal strengths began to fall off rapidly and communications soon became unstable. Two sets were sent out to intermediate points to serve as manual relay stations, with the result that traffic, retransmitted by the relay stations, was again resumed at workable signal strengths.
In the brigade's attack from the river crossing towards the heights to the north-east this arrangement continued to provide stable wireless communications, but line communications were not nearly so satisfactory except to 26 Battalion; heavy enemy shelling and the movement of tanks in the vicinity of the headquarters of 24 and 25 Battalions damaged the lines to such an extent that communications were never properly established.
At the same time that 6 Brigade was attacking north-eastwards from the Cerbaia crossing, 22 (Motor) Battalion and 20 Armoured Regiment attacked from the direction of San Casciano towards a high, steep ridge on which stood the village of Faltignano, but their progress was halted by artillery fire and they were forced to withdraw into the valley south of the ridge.
Although 4 Armoured Brigade's principal means of communication during this attack was by wireless, the usual lines were provided to the units under command. These circuits included one which ran from Main Brigade Headquarters, a few miles south of San Casciano, to 22 (Motor) Battalion's rear headquarters north of the town, and then continued forward to the southern slopes of Faltignano Ridge, where the battal- ion's tactical headquarters shared the line terminal with Headquarters 20 Armoured Regiment.
Back at Main Headquarters 4 Armoured Brigade, 4 Signal Squadron's signal office was sited in a stable in a substantial stone building; this gave excellent protection from the intermittent shelling which fell on San Casciano and the brigade area throughout the day. All around the headquarters area the page 454 25-pounders of the New Zealand field regiments and those of 142 Self-Propelled Regiment, Royal Artillery, which was under the command of 4 Armoured Brigade at the time, roared incessantly in support of the attack against Faltignano. Conditions in the stable were so difficult because of the ceaseless clamour that the operators had to strain their ears to receive incoming signals.
On the 24th Main Headquarters 2 NZ Division had moved up from Castellina to a new location close to San Donato; at this time 5 Brigade was fighting its way forward towards San Casciano and there was an unusually heavy volume of traffic on the circuits leading forward from Main Divisional Headquarters. The men of B (cable) Section were again pressed almost to the limits of their ingenuity and endurance as they strove to extend the main artery forward behind the advance and to maintain existing lines in working order.
Enemy shelling caused some of the damage sustained by most lines, but the movement of tracked vehicles was also responsible for widespread disruption. Wireless also had its troubles: owing to the restricted number of frequencies within the Division—an old problem—overlapping occurred on most nets, with the inevitable result that frequency congestion soon made several circuits difficult to operate satisfactorily.
On the afternoon of 25 July a forward signals party left the Main Headquarters at San Donato for Tavarnelle, six miles south of San Casciano on Highway 2. By early evening it had installed a forward exchange and established line communication to 5 Brigade, 6 Brigade, 4 Armoured Brigade, Headquarters Divisional Artillery, Headquarters 13 Corps, and Rear Headquarters 2 NZ Division, and was ready to take over the divisional communications when the Main Headquarters closed at San Donato next day and moved to the new area.
The last few days of July brought heavy fighting on both flanks of the New Zealand line, which both 5 and 6 Brigades strove to carry forward against the enemy-held high ground north of the bend in the Pesa River where it swings north-westwards at Cerbaia. On the left 6 Brigade eventually won a hard-fought two-day battle for the hilltop village of San Michele, a battle which became an epic of New Zealand arms page 455 in the Italian campaign. On the right 23 and 28 Battalions of 5 Brigade captured Faltignano Ridge on the 30th after furious fighting. Between the two, La Romola Ridge fell to 22 (Motor) Battalion.
The last day of the month found the infantry clearing out the last remnants of resistance along the high ground of Faltignano, La Romola and San Michele, and making preparations to press on towards La Poggiona Ridge to the north, where a line of crests formed the last barrier of the Paula Line in front of Florence. In the valley of the Greve South African tanks inched slowly forward along Highway 2 as the New Zealand brigades cleared the high ground above them on their left.
The battle which was to end with the fall of Florence began shortly before midnight on 1 August with a three-brigade assault against La Poggiona Ridge, which overlooked the Arno plain west of Florence. The enemy resisted strongly and for two days hard fighting raged for possession of the ridge. Early on the morning of the 3rd 5 Brigade infantry passed around the eastern end of the feature, which was now firmly in the hands of the New Zealanders.
The enemy's resistance began to collapse quickly as he relinquished his positions south of the Arno, and the battle for the Paula Line was over. Early on the morning of 4 August the South African armour, which up to this stage had been able to make only slight progress through the Greve valley, entered Florence. Some hours later a New Zealand column of infantry, armour and engineers entered the south-western outskirts of the city, to be accorded a tumultuous welcome by civilian crowds. But the joyful festivities of the Florentines and the responses of the soldiers were suddenly interrupted in a most ill-mannered fashion by enemy snipers and machine-gunners on the northern side of the Arno, where that part of the city still remained in German hands.
On 7 August 2 New Zealand Division relieved 8 Indian Division to the west of Florence, and on the 16th it in turn was relieved by 85 Division of Fifth Army and withdrew to Castellina under the command of Eighth Army.