18 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 35 — Tiger Country
First, there was a general feeling that, with Jerry in retreat everywhere, the end of the war was at last coming into view. Nearer home, the excellent show with 8 Indian Division had more than restored the 18th's confidence, which had shown signs of ebbing a little after the bad times at Orsogna and Cassino. It was well rested now, up to its full strength in men and tanks and equipment, well rehearsed in fighting alongside the infantry. Everyone looked forward confidently to better things than had been in the past.
But the ‘new order’ got away to a shaky start on that weary morning of 22 July, and the regiment needed all its morale to stand the strain. When the word went round to get ready for action, officers and men alike protested and complained, but they did it. There were only a few hours' respite. At 3 p.m. two troops of A Squadron, under Captain Pyatt, went forward to 23 Battalion on 5 Brigade's right, and Captain Laurie led two troops of B Squadron up towards 28 Battalion on the left.
The hills ahead, alternating thick trees and open olive groves, with standing crops in the gullies, were criss-crossed in all directions by shallow watercourses and narrow dusty roads. Much of the advance would certainly have to be across country, which did not promise to be easy, for the tanks would be groping ahead almost blind. In places the olive branches came down low enough to brush the turrets. The enemy here was 4 Parachute Division, not in the same class as the celebrated 1 Parachute Division, but still one of the best in Italy and a fit opponent.
That day 23 Battalion had struck bad trouble on its way forward, and, though Jerry was only fighting a rearguard action, he seemed likely to cause more headaches yet. Near the page 503 shell-smashed village of San Donato Pyatt's tanks linked up with D Company, and infantry and tanks prepared to push on north towards a tiny group of buildings called Morocco, three miles ahead and a mile and a half short of Route 2, which here cut diagonally across the line of advance. It was all very hurried—nobody had time for ‘recce’ or discussion first, so it was no wonder that at a road fork a mile ahead of San Donato, where the Morocco road branched left, Second-Lieutenant Jim Farrelly's1 3 Troop took the right-hand road by mistake.
This was a lucky mistake, as it happened, for Farrelly's tanks arrived up with the infantry on the right-hand road just in good time to spoil a counter-attack by some stalwart paratroopers and chase away a self-propelled gun, before wheeling left across country to join Second-Lieutenant Graham Kendall's2 4 Troop on the Morocco road. One of Kendall's tanks had gone up on a mine at the road fork, but after that the short advance was all that an infantry–tank ‘do’ should be, the tanks moving on steadily in line abreast, D Company's foremost sections walking on either side of the road among the tanks. It was no way to move if shells were falling, but for the moment there were none.
By 8 p.m., in the half light of the long summer evening, infantry and tanks together were approaching Morocco. There was a trickle of fire coming from the houses now, and you could see the odd German flitting about. The 23 Battalion men, covered by the tanks, went from house to house dragging out a few defiant prisoners. One tank was set alight by a series of shots from a tank or self-propelled gun tucked away among the buildings, but then this moved off in the gathering dusk, and resistance in Morocco was almost over. One Sherman unfortunately fired on some 23 Battalion men who loomed up dimly ahead, and in the confusion most of the prisoners got away; but this was the only blemish in a good piece of cooperation. While all this was going on, 4 Troop had veered off to the right with one infantry platoon and occupied another little cluster of houses, from which Jerry seemed to have decamped not long before.page 504
Before leaving Morocco Jerry had been up to his tricks, and had blown a demolition that almost blocked the road between the houses; but it did not take long to get round this, and the tanks then pushed on another half mile with no more interference, and harboured for the night close to the infantry among the olives by the road. About midnight Major Dickinson brought up the rest of A Squadron, with C Company, 23 Battalion, riding on the tanks, to reinforce D Company for an early morning advance next day.
Dawn saw the tank harbour full of bustle, and at 4.30 a.m. C Company was off again heading for Route 2, with Dickinson's half-squadron moving level. Jerry, it was plain, was not far away. At a group of houses some 500 yards short of Route 2 a little outpost surrendered after some persuasion; then a demolition went up only 100 yards ahead of the first tank, and two more ‘blows’ were seen and heard among the trees ahead, just about where Route 2 ought to be. Lieutenant John Wright's3 tank had a track blown off by a mine. But all this could not delay the tanks for long; I Troop, in the lead, crossed Route 2 and pushed on to the little village of Strada just beyond, where C Company had struck a nest of Spandaus and anti-tank rocket guns, abominable little weapons with the jaw-breaking name of ‘Ofenroehre’ but known to the boys as ‘Bazookas’ after their American counterpart. The tanks stood a little way back and hammered the buildings with all their weapons while the infantry moved in, and Jerry fled, abandoning one of his bazookas. It was still only 7.15 a.m.
Now Second-Lieutenant Doug Crump's 2 Troop, with a platoon of C Company, set to work to clear several hundred yards of a ridge, thickly sprinkled with houses, to the right of Strada. This was quite a long job, as Jerry was holding on stoutly, but before midday, with the help of some wonderful artillery salvoes, the ridge was clear, and Jerry had moved back to the thick country behind Route 2, taking at least one tank back with him, but leaving behind another bazooka and some machine guns.
18 Regt in The Florence Campaign, 23-27 July1944
Up to now A Squadron seemed to have had most of the fun. The Maoris were advancing on the left, parallel to 23 Battalion; but their colonel had different ideas about the use of tanks, for Captain Laurie's half of B Squadron was ordered to go along, not with the foremost infantry, but behind the companies, ready to join in if any sticky situation cropped up. Except for some ‘softening-up’ fire by one troop towards dusk, the tanks had nothing to do as the Maoris moved on the ruined village of Tignano, sticking up above the trees on the crest of a little ridge. A mile short of the village Jerry had blown a bridge over a creek, but the Honey tanks, snooping round, found a way across for the Shermans. The half-squadron spent a quiet night near Tignano, and at dawn pushed on behind three Maori companies, which soon after 7 a.m. entered Tavarnelle on Route 2 with no opposition. Three hours later, after spending some time clearing mines from the approach to Tavarnelle, the tanks moved on again, Second-Lieutenant Andrewes's4 8 Troop pushing up Route 2 to the north-east, Lieutenant Colin Jamison's5 5 Troop up a small road leading north-west.
Now the battle began to liven up. At the first crossroads past Tavarnelle 5 Troop was held up by mines and a bad ‘blow’. The Maoris on Route 2 ran into a nest of opposition until 8 Troop, coming up behind, took a hand in the game and persuaded Jerry to leave. Then, about midday, with 5 Troop just beginning to move again, 8 Troop turned west from Route 2, crashed its way through the trees, across a gully, and up on to the next ridge, where 5 Troop was now trailing along behind the Maori companies. The road here ran along the shallow ridge-top, with comparatively open fields on both sides.
With our tanks and infantry boring into Jerry's lines beyond Route 2, the climax of the fighting approached.page 507
The line of advance along the ridges now lay almost north. Ahead could be seen the first of those magnificent villas of Tuscany which the Kiwis were so often to meet and live in on the way to Florence. On B Squadron's front was the Villa Bonazza, with thick shrubberies and plantations all round it, and a mere 400 yards ahead of A Squadron the Villa Strada (christened by the Kiwis ‘The Castle’), even bigger and more imposing, and surrounded by a high wall. In and round these two houses Jerry was strongly established, covering the Strada ridge and the road forward of Tavarnelle with Spandaus and mortars.
Here A Squadron had its worst ‘brew-up’, a shocking affair which had a very bad effect on all who saw it. Corporal Don Cates's6 tank, hit by an anti-tank shell from somewhere round the Castle, burst into flames too suddenly for the crew to get clear—Trooper John Kingsford7 was killed and all the rest badly burned, Cates and Trooper ‘Toby’ Donaldson8 fatally. Such a disaster was calculated to take the edge off the tankies' confidence quicker than anything else, especially as the whisper was now going round, ‘Tigers ahead, look out!’ They had heard plenty about the Tiger tank, Germany's biggest and toughest, 60 tons of armour plate mounting an 88-millimetre gun, able to outclass a Sherman anywhere. The bravest tank crew would think twice before tackling a Tiger in cold blood.
After a few shells on the Castle, 23 Battalion went into the attack at 1.30 p.m., with the remaining A Squadron tanks covering them from the Strada ridge. Here the victorious advance had its first bad check. The Castle and its grounds were stiff with Germans, and they threw everything at the attackers, who fell back on Strada in some dismay. Major Dickinson describes the scene:
In no time our haybarn was full of wounded & my crews were risking their lives to bring them in. I shouted myself hoarse telling them to take cover & disperse…. We could not do much about the shelling because it was long range & we couldn't find where it came from…. It was coming from three directions in page 508 front & from both sides. So our move forward halted & stayed put with a disorganised infantry no supporting arms and a few tanks holding precariously to the edge of a village.
A Squadron's battle report tells of the rest of the afternoon: Enemy fire increased in intensity and movement became impossible. Enemy fire included spandau, tank and SP fire, mortar and heavy field gun. One tank received several direct hits and the tank comd was seriously wounded…. The whole area from STRADA to the crossroads was kept under heavy fire for the rest of the afternoon and it was decided not to attempt any further advance.
This was the only possible decision. To go in again to face that weight of fire–it was later found that Jerry had four Mark IV tanks or self-propelled guns there—would have been suicide. So nightfall found 23 Battalion and A Squadron still where they had been at midday, on the Strada ridge, under fire, licking their wounds and waiting their chance to push on again.
Meanwhile, on the left, the story had been roughly the same. Laurie's tanks, pressing on in the early afternoon after the Maoris, were stopped at a road bend by felled trees, mines and a demolition; mortar bombs began to fall, and from the direction of the Villa Bonazza fast tank shells came whistling down the road. The Maoris, moving in under cover of the Shermans' fire, cleared a few Germans out of buildings, took some prisoners and an anti-tank gun; the tanks, deployed to the right of the road, began to shoot up the villa and its grounds, but this brought on a savage reaction from Jerry, and a Tiger tank beside a little cemetery on the right flank hit and burnt two Shermans in quick succession. This was a bad half-hour. B Squadron's report on the action tells the story of its losses:
Heavy & accurate mortar fire continued throughout the operation…. Tank No. 10 (O.C. of No. 8 Troop) received direct hits by HE & AP & caught fire. Turret crew badly knocked about. I died of wounds, 2 wounded…. Decision to withdraw tanks slightly to more covered positions made. During this, No. 3 tank was hit by HE but managed to limp to cover. Remained out of action thereafter. Fire started under No. 12 tank & the commander was wounded trying to put it out. At this stage, TIGER tank identified approx. 1500 yards to NE. Heavily engaged … & many direct hits scored. No. 11 tank received direct hit in return & caught fire. Entire turret crew killed.page 509
This slogging match lasted all afternoon. Second-Lieutenant Harry Hodge's 7 Troop, coming forward through the smoke of the burning tanks to reinforce the badly-hit 5 and 8 Troops, joined battle with the Tiger, which moved from its cemetery down the gully to B Squadron's right, and was stopped in a maize field as it tried to climb the opposite hill to Route 2. It was not easy to bring the guns to bear on it–in the end only Corporal Bruce Johnstone's9 tank, with Trooper ‘Squat’ Warren10 on the gun, was able to shoot with any chance of success, firing from the shelter of a tall clump of bushes. The other crews of 7 Troop took ammunition from their tanks to keep up Johnstone's supply. Johnstone writes of the action:
We used H.E. shells to observe our bursts & then continued to use AP & APHE…. We had to knock the tops off some very tall trees in the gully for us to see our target eventually…. We could see the AP bouncing from his hide.
Luckily the Tiger, being now on the far slope of the gully and stern on to its assailant, couldn't elevate its gun to return the fire. It was a rare opportunity.
While this was going on, the Villa Bonazza and its plantations, which were still full of Germans, were taking a battering from the artillery. As the afternoon wore on the fire from the villa faltered, and by evening the place was empty. Jerry had apparently had enough and had retired from the field.
The Tiger was left dead in the maize field, a pathetic derelict, damaged beyond repair and finally blown up by its crew. Nobody realised this till next morning. It was cause for celebration in 18 Regiment, for this was 2 NZ Division's first Tiger. The tankies swarmed over it, admiring it and the persistent gunnery that had wounded it to death. Its fame went far and wide, spread through the Division by a bold NZEF Times reporter who wrote:
Even in death she is the biggest and most lethal-looking tank any of us has ever seen. The broad tracks are broken and scarred by three armour-piercing shells. It was not these that put her out of action. The tracks are not entirely cut and the bogies are undamaged…. Apart from several shells which hit and almost page 510 penetrated the armour belt, and several more which cut great gouges in the turret, there is the one which pierced two inches of steel, tore off the engine cover, and ricochetted back to damage the engine itself. This is the shell which finally made the Germans decide that it was time to leave.
But such victories are not won without loss. Six killed and eleven wounded in one day's fighting is heavy for an armoured unit—it was the 18th's worst day in Italy, surpassing even the famous 15 December on the Orsogna road. Notable among the dead was Corporal Cassidy Brown of the Reconnaissance Troop, hero of the 1941 Tobruk exploit,11 fighting man and boxer of renown, spoken of as ‘one of those legendary types whose style & exploits enriched the unit to which they belonged’. Men like this no unit could afford to lose.
It was here that Padre Gourdie turned on the performance of his life. He was always noted for his tendency to gravitate up towards the front; wherever the regiment went he turned up at the ‘sharp end’, touring the foremost tanks with cheerful words and an old pack full of cigarettes or chocolate or tinned milk. On this trying day he was all over the place, pulling the men out of two burning tanks, attending to wounds and burns, braving shell and Spandau fire again and again to take carrier-loads of wounded back to the RAP. When, a few weeks later, he was awarded the unit's fifth DSO, everyone was delighted.
There were others, too, who worked like demons to haul the crews out of the burning tanks. Notable among them was Captain Laurie, who had a most hectic day apart from this, tearing up and down the ridge, keeping control of his scattered tanks and keeping in touch with the elusive infantry. Prominent among the rescue workers was Trooper E. W. Clarke,12 and so was Corporal Win Snell,13 who was wounded while attending to the casualties. This was no job for anyone with a weak stomach.
While all the metal was flying beyond Route 2, C Squadron was spending a satisfactory day on the right flank, where a page 511 company of infantry and some Divisional Cavalry armoured cars were pushing ahead along a road parallel to the Pesa River. At dawn C Squadron moved up through San Donato, running into a shower of shells on the way, and placed itself nicely in position among the trees some half a mile north of the village. Here it stayed all day, bombarding the road and getting nothing back, which, thought everyone, was just as it should be. Views on this indirect fire business had changed now. The tankies, who six or eight months ago had been inclined to look down on it as a menial job, had begun to pride themselves on their skill at it, and it was now quite an accepted thing in the Division that the Shermans could contribute a lot to its gun power, especially for tackling Jerry from well forward before the 25-pounders could move up.
After such a day of stress and strain, anticlimax was almost bound to follow. The Kiwis' first enthusiasm for the chase had been toned down a little by the setbacks of 23 July. Two days of heavy fighting had cost more men and tanks than General Freyberg was prepared to lose; so his orders to 5 Brigade now were to take more care, to keep up the advance but not to ‘mix it’ so willingly with Jerry. The tankies, who were beginning to feel unhappy about racing ahead at full speed through this Tiger country, were all in favour of taking things a little easier.
At 8 a.m. on 24 July, in a heavy mist, Captain Pyatt's half of A Squadron moved forward towards the Castle, nosing gently along the road from Strada in the infantry's wake. Nothing much was expected at the Castle now, for during the night vehicles had been heard moving away, and it seemed probable that Jerry's tanks and guns would not be there. And so it turned out. Infantry and tanks moved slowly past the Castle, everyone on the alert for trouble, for the country was very thick and broken, with gullies running down on both sides of the road. Half a mile past the Castle Pyatt's tank went up on a mine while making its way round a demolition; the rest carried on for another half-mile, and then, as A Squadron's battle report has it:
They encountered a mine field and the Tp Comds tank went up. At the same time, the infantry were held up by spandau fire and very heavy mortar and arty fire swept the road in a very page 512 efficient manner. A-Tk guns and ofenroehr were seen, and these made several attempts to get the tanks. The fwd elements were pinned down for an hour, but 3 Tp was able to get into firing position at cemetery…. Heavy fire from enemy mortars, arty and SP guns continued until 1330 hrs. The Squadron suffered no casualties.
Luckily there were no Tigers on the prowl today, or the story might have been worse.
Pyatt's tanks had no more excitement that day. In deference to divisional orders the attack was called off, and infantry and tanks stayed where they were till evening, when 21 Battalion came up to take over the running from the 23rd. Now it became C Squadron's turn to go in, and A Squadron pulled back to an olive grove near Tavarnelle, where the fitters and LAD men got to work to put the tanks back into fighting trim in double-quick time.
On B Squadron's front, 7 Troop and Sergeant ‘Hoot’ Gibson's14 6 Troop, under Major Stanford, came through during the night of 23 July, and in the morning took over from Laurie's tanks, pushing along the ridge from the Villa Bonazza. Dodging mines and a demolition in the road, 7 Troop advanced past another mansion which crowned the point of the ridge, fired a young barrage to help D Company, 28 Battalion, on to the next ridge, then followed up and covered the Maoris as they probed further. On the right 6 Troop, making its laborious way forward with C Company and shooting up possible enemy hideouts as it went, clashed with a Panther tank, not as big and savage as a Tiger, but still a formidable tank, which blazed defiantly away from the Strada road and effectively scotched the advance on the Maoris' right. A self-propelled ‘tank-buster’ from 7 Anti-Tank Regiment had a crack at it but was knocked out. Sergeant Gibson was wounded when his tank ran on a mine. Nasty persistent shellfire forced the Maoris back a little way; towards dusk 6 Troop woke up to the startling fact that there was no infantry in front of it, and it pulled back to the Villa Bonazza, where during the evening the rest of B Squadron also gathered.page 513
Next day, 25 July, was better, the Maoris forging ahead against an enemy who appeared briefly here and there but pulled back smartly under the persuasion of a few tank shells. All B Squadron was up with the hunt today. On the left 7 Troop advanced across country, and it was not easy country, largely hillsides and round-topped spurs thick with trees. The rest of the squadron, headed by a ‘composite’ troop under Lieutenant Jamison, had a road to travel on, for here the Maoris swung across 21 Battalion's bows and took over the Strada road, while 21 Battalion side-stepped to the right. For two miles along this road B Squadron advanced, knocking holes in all the buildings it saw. Towards the end of the day, in the tiny crossroads settlement of San Pancrazio, there was a short delay with demolitions, mines and anti-tank fire; but this opposition, like the rest, melted away when the tanks worked round the craters, the Maoris pressed in to close quarters, and some Divisional Cavalry Staghounds came up to join the party. By evening infantry and tanks were still probing north and west, picking mines, both real and dummy, out of the roads. This had been a good day, a big hole had been gouged in Jerry's territory, and still he was fighting only a rearguard action and not showing himself keen for a stand-up battle.
That night B Squadron stayed at a magnificent mansion, the Villa Corno, alleged to belong to the Bishop of Florence, described appreciatively by one man as ‘beautiful, lovely furniture, rooms big with chandeliers’. It was twice the size of the Villa Bonazza and much more splendid—the whole squadron could have lost itself in this place.
From 26 July B Squadron played a secondary role in proceedings, for 21 Battalion went to the forefront of the advance, while the Maoris moved up quietly, just looking after the left flank. One troop, under Lieutenant Oxbrow, went up to Belvedere farm, a mile and a half past San Pancrazio, to cover the Maoris' open left flank, and later in the day Second-Lieutenant Hodge took 7 Troop forward to just short of San Quirico, perched up on the next ridge, where it spent the rest of the day under nagging shellfire. On the evening of 27 July the squadron left this region of palatial summer homes and moved back two miles to the Pesa valley, where a road wound downhill and crossed the river to San Casciano, a big page 514 prominent town jutting up on the skyline opposite. This Pesa valley was a beautiful place, warm and peaceful now that the fighting had moved on. The ugliest scar on the landscape was a group of German tanks sitting useless in the river just where the bridge had been.
The story now swings back to C Squadron, which crossed Route 2 on the evening of 24 July and took over from A Squadron beyond Strada.
That night Lieutenant Brosnan's15 9 Troop and Captain Tyerman's 10 Troop went up through Strada with 21 Battalion, overtook A Squadron ahead of the Castle, and at 2 a.m. moved on again to the next crossroads to support the infantry, who had been forging ahead in the dark, finding Jerry gone and all quiet. This was the crossroads from which the lurking Panther had savaged Gibson's troop the previous afternoon, but it was no longer there.
In the morning, while the B Squadron tanks climbed out of the gully to the left and swung on to the Strada road, A Company, 21 Battalion, was deflected on to a narrower road, unmetalled and dusty, leading off to the right down a long ridge towards the Pesa River, which came into occasional view at the foot of the slope. Even after daybreak progress here was very slow. Jerry had not completely abandoned this area, but had little rearguards among the trees, and the road was blown and mined in places, so infantry and sappers had a busy morning, while the tanks spent most of their time waiting for the way to be cleared. By midday A Company was at the end of the ridge, a commanding point overlooking the Pesa, with Tyerman's tanks in close attendance. About 1000 yards down the slope was the jagged gap where the bridge below San Casciano had been; down in the flat valley Route 2 ran along the other side of the river, made a right-angled turn and wound up a spur to San Casciano. Jerry was still holding the near side of the Pesa. During the afternoon a little attack was organised, with 9 and 10 Troops included in it, to sweep downhill and seize a stretch of the Pesa bank as far as the blown bridge.page 515
This went well at first. The leading platoon and 10 Troop, setting out at 5.30 p.m., were in a group of houses near the foot of the ridge, just above the river, within three-quarters of an hour. But 9 Troop and the second infantry platoon, moving on towards the blown bridge, ran into trouble. From houses by the bridge and from the San Casciano spur came mortars and anti-tank shells; the infantry, after being held up for a while, finally forced their way along the slope to just above the blown bridge, but the tanks could not get forward at all. Brosnan's tank threw a track before it reached the start line; another Sherman was knocked out and Corporal Gordon Griffiths16 killed by anti-tank fire from across the river; a foot ‘recce’ to the final objective found that the lane leading forward along the riverbank was no good for tanks. So the matter rested for the night, with the foremost infantry out ahead on its own, and 10 Troop in the best cover it could get. The remains of 9 Troop went back to Squadron Headquarters on the Strada road.
That night the rest of 21 Battalion moved on through San Pancrazio, and in the morning the main body of C Squadron, with Captain Pyatt now in command and Lieutenant Greenfield's 12 Troop leading, set out to carry the advance on northwards. The line of advance, working gradually over towards the Pesa, had narrowed down to one battalion width, so 21 Battalion was to carry on alone for a while, with a heavy reinforcement of tanks, anti-tank guns and the self-propelled ‘tank-busters’. The place was stiff with artillery observers from both 25-pounders and ‘Long Toms’. Everything seemed to be going well, with a good chance of giving Jerry another punch on the nose.
But not immediately. On the edge of the tiny village of San Quirico, at another of those heavily wooded crossroads that were so apt to cause trouble, a fierce action developed suddenly, 12 Troop and the leading infantry of 21 Battalion against a strong, determined paratroop rearguard in houses and among the trees. The fight raged all day against Spandaus and mortars, anti-tank guns, and what Rumour said was a Tiger hidden somewhere in the village. Greenfield remembers this day vividly:page 516
We had all three tanks in positions covering the houses and crossroads and were slamming everything into them. I remember my gunner firing the 75 at running German infantry while I was screaming over the intercom to use his co-ax…. With so much firing and so little movement the tank turrets were full of smoke and fumes and were becoming just about unbearable. We decided that as we stood we commanded the crossroads and so must stay there…. Obviously Jerry also felt that he must stay there and move us out again if he could…. So he seemed to bring to bear on us all the mortars he could get…. We found most success came with the use of A.P.-H.E. into each house visible and two or three through the church tower, plus H.E…. fired into the belt of trees ahead. We found the conditions inside the tanks so bad that I had the crew members taking turns to get out and brew tea under the backs of the tanks…. Looking back it seems crazy but at the time we all felt the risk was well worth-while and tea had never tasted better…. It was certainly a trying day and the troop behaved magnificently. Sergt. Alby Reynolds17 was perfect.
Honours for the day went to our side. The 21 Battalion boys had to pull back with some casualties, but 12 Troop finished the day with only minor damage to the tanks, while several Spandaus and bazookas were shelled and machine-gunned out of existence, and Jerry lost many dead in San Quirico. In the afternoon half of A Squadron, under Captain Passmore, came up to ‘thicken up’ the next attack, and did a little shooting, knocking down San Quirico's long-suffering tower. Church towers were a specialty of Captain Passmore's.
Farther back down the road towards San Pancrazio, 9 and 11 Troops of C Squadron spent a wretched day, for Jerry landed shells indiscriminately along this road. Down past San Quirico the country fell away to a wide shallow valley which gave Jerry a good view of our ridge, and every movement brought shells.
Down in the Pesa valley to the right, 10 Troop had an even grimmer day. Tanks or anti-tank guns on the hillsides over the river kept slamming away at the Shermans, too invisible among the trees themselves to make good targets, though 10 Troop sprayed the hill with fire. The only encouraging event of the day was when the RAF came over in the afternoon and did its best to wipe San Casciano off the map. Towards page 517 evening, with the fire slackening a little, the tankies tried to ‘recce’ a ford over the Pesa, but this called forth a new outburst of fire. All three tanks were hit. Sergeant Jack Edgar's18 tank brewed up, and he was killed, despite frenzied efforts by everyone to drag him clear.
So 26 July was C Squadron's black day. Better things were promised, for that night 21 Battalion advanced again, took San Quirico—12 Troop had heard Jerry's transport departing earlier in the evening—and the next settlement of La Ripa. Now the whole show was to move on again and clear two more miles of the ridge road; then 6 Brigade, coming through, was to attack across the Pesa, swinging its direction to the right and making for the town of Cerbaia on the far bank. At Cerbaia there was a bridge, but the hope of capturing it intact could be pretty well forgotten, for Jerry was making an artistic job of his demolitions these days.
Closing in on San Quirico after dark, 9 and 11 Troops were ready to push on soon after midnight, lined up on the road with some 17-pounder anti-tank guns, ‘tank-busters’, Divisional Cavalry Staghounds and a party of engineers. But the word to move did not come and did not come, and dawn was pretty close before the column got under way. The first of 6 Brigade's infantry, with some 19 Regiment tanks, had already passed along the road in the dark. The night was full of the song of shells sailing over towards Jerry's positions beyond the Pesa.
The move was unexciting at first. The infantry occupied the village of Montagnana with no argument. The tanks, slowed up by craters in the road, turned off towards Cerbaia, then on to a road running north-west along the side of the last ridge before the Pesa. It was now broad day, and from over the river an anti-tank gun was sending fast shells whizzing among the tanks—not dangerous shelling, but very vexing. Rumour still had Tigers ahead, and certainly there were plenty of the unmistakable broad Tiger tracks to be seen. So the situation was uncomfortable, especially as there was no infantry anywhere around.
This had been a handsome road before our artillery smashed it up. It was thickly lined with houses, lovely houses many of page 518 them, reputedly the summer villas of wealthy Florentines. By about 8 a.m. the C Squadron tanks were in among the buildings, keeping an eye on that open left flank and firing at the odd target above Cerbaia (not that there was much visible to fire at). Jerry had quite recently left this area. At one stage his last troops were seen withdrawing over the river to the left, and the tanks put a few shells among them at long range. The Cerbaia bridge had only just been blown, and 6 Brigade was striving, under heavy fire, to establish a bridgehead over the river by Cerbaia. The valley was blanketed in smoke, and the noise was appalling.
It had not been quiet all day. Jerry had pulled out overnight from the slope in front of San Casciano, but he was still not far ahead—10 Troop, to quote the war diary, ‘remained under hy fire throughout the morning but this eased in the afternoon and the fitters were able to get to work making these tks road worthy again’. During the day the watchers on our side of the Pesa had the satisfaction of seeing New Zealand tanks, Staghounds and infantry go up Route 2 and into San Casciano.
Some of the spadework for this had been done by 18 Regiment, though San Casciano wasn't officially included in the unit's scheme of things. Quite early in the day Honey tanks of the Recce Troop had made their way across the Pesa and up the San Casciano road until the first tank went up on an anti-tank mine, injuring all the crew. Several people, including Lieutenant-Colonel Ferguson and Captain Passmore, had taken jeeps up in the same direction, lifting mines and trying to find a way up for Shermans—no easy job, as every little culvert was blown. Lieutenant Jamison of B Squadron had been killed when his jeep hit a mine on a narrow road down towards the river. In this fair Tuscan countryside there was no place you could trust. Along the edges of roads, in ditches, in farmyards, crops and hedges, at every crossroads, Jerry had sown his mines. He had stretched wires across the lanes to take jeep drivers at throat height. You had to be suspicious and alert all the time.page 519
This was the end of 18 Regiment's first foray into Tiger country. The whole unit came down to the lush grass and peach orchards of the Pesa, with B2 Echelon only five miles back on Route 2. Crews and fitters set to work to put the tanks back into first-class shape, for, though the regiment now went back from 5 Brigade's command to 4 Brigade, it was still on call and might be summoned forward any time at short notice.
The past six days had seen the 18th mixed up in confused fighting, difficult to understand or control, each half-squadron acting more or less on its own, and as a rule nobody knowing what anyone else was doing, or where. Some sticky situations had arisen—the paratroopers, steady fighters and well armed, had done a lot of damage in short engagements before slipping away northwards. The 18th had had 12 killed and 18 wounded, seven Shermans and one Honey knocked out, seven more Shermans disabled on mines and dragged back by the recovery people.
To the men in the tanks, knowing nothing but their own little part, the whole thing was a nightmare, intensified by the cruel heat of the long summer days. Lieutenant Greenfield speaks of the blurred memory of those days that remained in the mind:
I remember heat, dust, smoke, noise, constant movement, a shortage of rest, no time for meals, sleep or reconnaissance, no time for thought. I remember the smell of rotting flesh, the explosion of mines and shells, the mad chatter of spandaus and our own guns, the fumes of the guns … combining with the dust and heat to make the tanks almost unbearable…. Half the time I had no idea where we were or what the ground was like, and there was no time to find out, but we were going forward in spite of it all and we had to keep going…. There were Tigers about and there was a fear of them felt by us all…. We were always driving our tanks towards the unseen and dreaded 88's, not knowing whose turn it was to be the first target. There was little time for food, and little appetite for it. The need was for another mug of tea, but there was often not the time to boil the water and so we had to make do with coffee and milk made with warm water. Night and day we were kept on the go.
And Padre Gourdie speaks of the campaign as ‘extremely exacting…. Often the sleep gained was very short, many not getting to bed until 11 p.m., midnight or 1 a.m., and the tanks starting up at 3 or 3.30 a.m. next morning’.page 520
So far the story has dealt almost entirely with the fighting squadrons, and has passed over the ‘bits and pieces’, the less glamorous links that held the chain together. There was the Reconnaissance Troop, perhaps the hardest-worked of all, tearing round the country, keeping the whole show more or less coherent, exploring lanes, showing the squadrons the way over new ground. There were the energetic fitters who had gone up forward and doctored wounded tanks on the spot, sometimes while shells were still falling. There were ‘Doc’ Nelson19 and his RAP boys who had the heart-breaking job of patching up the burnt men on 23 July. There were the Dingo scout cars of the Intercommunication Troop, lent out to the squadrons as message carriers, reconnaissance cars, wireless links, and a dozen other things. There were the signallers, under Second-Lieutenant ‘Chook’ Fowler, always on the go, chasing the tanks round the Tuscan hills with new batteries, toiling to keep telephones working only to have their lines torn down, over and over again, by bulldozers or other Juggernauts. And there were the B Echelon people, worried and hampered in their efforts to keep up supplies because in this mad, hurried campaign nobody ever knew where anyone else was.
Fortunately, food was no worry, for it was full, ripe summer, and there were plenty of local supplies, tomatoes and peaches and pork and potatoes, that could be bought, or more often just ‘borrowed’. The regiment almost literally lived off the country.
The tank tactics in these few days had been an interesting experiment. The ‘half-squadron’ system, two troops under the squadron commander and two under the second-in-command or battle captain, had worked pretty well in this advance on narrow fronts through close country with the infantry nearby. It had enabled more tanks to be up with the infantry and at the same time under control from well forward. It had made ‘leapfrog’ reliefs quite simple as the battle moved on. It had page 521 allowed half the squadron to get some sleep and look after its tanks. But it was not a popular idea, and after the Florence campaign it was little used. It certainly cut down the squadron's ‘punch’, and would have been a poor system in open country or in a stand-up battle—on that notorious 23 July, when B Squadron had its epic fight with the Tiger, two troops had been inadequate, and a third had to be called up in a hurry.
The most striking point about this campaign was the moral effect of the Tiger tank. Unless the cards all turned in its favour a Sherman was no match for a Tiger, twice its size and armed with a gun that made the ‘seventy-five’ look like a pop-gun. From the moment the Tiger appeared it became a kind of bogey, and the air was full of rumours of more and more Tigers lying in wait just ahead; just as in the desert every German gun was an ‘eighty-eight’, so here every tracked vehicle heard over in German territory was a Tiger. The natural result was that, quite suddenly, the New Zealand tanks became more cautious than they had ever been before. You could not blame the tankies, who were acting under divisional orders not to ‘stick their necks out’. But to the infantry, who did not realise the length of the odds, and who had come to admire the Shermans for their willingness to tackle anything, the change was puzzling and disappointing. Infantrymen were apt to think unkind thoughts about the tankies' new caution; tankies to feel that the infantry was unreasonable and expected far too much of them. The high mutual regard of New Zealand tanks and infantry was in danger.
Bound up with all this was the question whether tanks should be ‘under command’ of the infantry, taking orders from infantry commanders, or only ‘in support’, fighting alongside the infantry but under their own regimental or brigade control. Ideas clashed on this. The infantry preferred, naturally, to have its tanks under command, saying that it led to better co-operation and smoother work on the battlefield. The tankies bitterly opposed this—how on earth, they asked, could infantry commanders, who did not know a bee from a bull's foot about tank tactics or tanks' difficulties, tell them what to do? At Strada and Tavarnelle they had been under command, and there was already a feeling abroad in 18 Regiment that they had been given suicide jobs that led to unnecessary losses. One page 522 squadron commander has said: ‘I could never appreciate the demands made on the stamina of tank crews by infantry commanders.’ The tanks needed a lot of looking after to keep them in action; and what chance did they have, asked the tankies with heat, when they were kept in action day after day from 3 or 4 a.m. to midnight?
Here were two viewpoints that could hardly be reconciled. The argument remained to the end of the war, and in some instances feeling ran high. It would be exaggeration to say that the old harmony between tanks and infantry was gone; but after the Florence battle it was not always what it had been.
7 Tpr J. J. Kingsford; born NZ 12 Feb 1914; shop salesman; killed in action 23 Jul 1944.
10 Cpl W. G. Warren; born NZ 14 Apr 1920; farmhand; killed in action 21 Apr 1945.
16 Cpl G. N. R. Griffiths; born NZ 13 Aug 1918; truck driver; killed in action 25 Jul 1944.