20 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 17 — To Florence
It was time again to rest and prepare for the next assault. On 13 June the regiment moved back about 12 miles along Route 82 to orchard country between Isola del Liri and Fontana Liri, near the road to Arpino from the west. None are big towns but all are easy to find on the map. Isola del Liri, on an island as its name indicates, is literally in the middle of the river, whose waterfalls drive its paper-mills. Fontana Liri, east of the river a mile or so and up a zigzag road, is a picturesque little town surmounted by a medieval castle which reminds you of the pictures in old children's books. Arpino has a more war-like history than either of the others: as the ancient mountain town of Arpinum, it was seized by the Romans as long ago as 305 bc and, over two thousand years later, was used as a German headquarters during the Cassino campaign.
The regiment's new area was on a side road just off Route 82 and near the junction of the winding hill road to Arpino. The men were bivouacked in orchards and wheatfields—fields sown by the Italians with German seed on German orders and whose crops were intended to feed German horses. The enemy had had to retreat before the grain was ready to reap and it was still too green to burn; but the satisfaction of the Italians at this happy state did not last long when the tanks of the liberatori crowded into their fields. There were loud protests and even tears, but space was limited and the roads congested and the tanks had to be stabled wherever room could be found.
But in spite of their disappointment the people were friendly, their wine good, and their homes hospitable. In the fertile valley there were plenty of streams in which the men swam on the warm summer days or rested in the shade of the willows on their banks when the sun became too hot. The banks of the Liri had first to be cleared of mines and booby traps, but otherwise the area was ‘rustic and peaceful’. Sappers built an ideal pool in an old spillway and furnished it with a springboard. At times the heat was oppressive, but then a sudden page 444 thunderstorm would clear the air and give a rest from training. There was also leave by unit parties to Rome: day leave only for other ranks, unfortunately, although a limited number of officers could stay overnight.
It was a tiring day. Parties left the unit at 4 a.m. and got back about midnight. Baedeker gives the city and its monuments, churches, galleries, and museums a hundred-odd pages, a special appendix, and a detailed plan for a fortnight's tour ‘to obtain even a hasty glimpse’, but most men on their first sightseeing visit found the pavements hard and their guides' string of facts and figures bewildering. Some were content to ‘do the city’ in that first thirsty trip, limiting most of their future sightseeing to the New Zealand club and the bars and bistros. Most men liked Rome for its dignity, its spacious tree-lined streets and stately buildings—‘the largest, cleanest, most slumless city I have ever seen’. Descriptions of its monuments, paintings, ruins, and churches helped to fill many a letter home; but the club in the Hotel Quirinale was cool and friendly and central and it was good to sit down for a while to listen to the Italian orchestra and try the beer. There was also leave farther afield to Ischia and Salerno and some excursions to Cassino, but many men were content to do their sightseeing in the local towns and villages.
To complete a brief picture of this period of relaxation mention must be made of the armoured brigade sports meeting on 28 June on the outskirts of Isola del Liri. The area of flat ground was not very large and the stony track had to be levelled by bulldozers. The meeting began on the 24th but was postponed that afternoon because of heavy rain. Points were allotted for each event and the regiment did well, taking second place to 22 (Motor) Battalion. Brigade swimming sports were held a fortnight later at Fontana Liri after an earlier meeting to select the regiment's best.
But life was not all play and no work. There were route marches, shoots, squadron commanders' conferences, and that old war diary favourite ‘General maintenance’. The pattern was the same whenever the regiment had some time on its hands: the men marched and shot while commanders conferred and planned next week's exercises. Co-operation with infantry was the theme of these exercises and 26 Battalion the men on foot. Later, men from the battalion visited the regiment to look page 445 over the tanks, and tank officers were sent to infantry battalions for a week's attachment.
A Squadron repeated the exercises early in July, first with 22 (Motor) Battalion and then with the Maoris. Four tanks from RHQ troop also took part in the latter exercise. In the words of the brigade diary, ‘many small points were cleared up and a sound basis of understanding … achieved’ in this tank and infantry training.
On 6 July Captain Johnston relinquished the appointment of Adjutant which he had held for almost exactly two years. He was the last of the ‘originals’ to go on furlough, and if any man deserved it it was he. He had joined the battalion in October 1939 and had come overseas in battalion headquarters' orderly room as sergeant clerk. In Crete he had relinquished his orderly-room job for that of platoon sergeant in B Company. At Maleme and Galatas his courage and leadership had won him the MM; he had been wounded at Galatas on 25 May but had rallied some men who were withdrawing and led them back into action. Commissioned in November 1941, he rejoined the battalion in July 1942 as its Adjutant. His successor in that appointment was Second-Lieutenant ‘Lu’ Hazlett.
A move was imminent and those in the know took their last look at Rome. On 12 July Corporal ‘Snow’ Millard,1 Lance-Corporal Fred Mason, and Troopers Gibb,2 Stewart,3 and Fitzgibbon4 of the Ruapehu furlough draft arrived suddenly and unofficially from Advanced Base at Bari to rejoin the regiment, just as preparations for departure were being completed. On the 13th the regiment moved north, the wheeled vehicles travelling by night (or rather, the very early morning) and the tanks on transporters following late that afternoon and travelling by night. The ‘wheels’ travelled via Rome and staged at Civita Castellana. They pushed on next day (again an early-morning move) over rough and dusty roads to just above Panicale, between three and four miles directly below Lake Trasimene and about 200 from Fontana Liri. The tanks took a couple of days longer to arrive, travelling part of the way on their own tracks, page 446 but by the 17th the regiment was complete and had settled in.
At the regimental parade that morning, the first in the new area, Lieutenant-Colonel Purcell told the unit's 4th Reinforcements the news they had been waiting so long to hear. The married men among them and some single men chosen by ballot were to go home in a few days in the Taupo furlough draft, and at ‘sparrow chirp’ on the 20th after the inevitable, strenuous farewell parties they left for Advanced Base.
The rest of the unit stayed only a few days longer, time enough for a swim or two in the lake to wash off the dust of the journey north and for some visits to neighbouring villages. It was cooler here than in the Liri valley but the water in the lake was pleasantly warm. Some men found time to go farther afield, hitchhiking some 30 miles to Assisi, on a spur of the hills beyond Perugia. Then on the afternoon and evening of the 22nd the regiment headed north, wheeled and tracked vehicles in separate convoys as usual, in a move of about 70 miles.
The new area was near Siena on an oak-covered knoll some five miles north of the city. The last fortnight's moves had eaten up a lot of ground and brought the war much closer, and a succession of short moves in the next few days was to bring it closer still. First there was talk of camouflage precautions and dispersal; next routine orders became shorter then stopped altogether; then surplus equipment was handed in and extra rations drawn from the QM; and, almost before the regiment realised it, it was in action once again.
A short move early in the morning on 26 July—the day the King visited the Division—brought 20 Regiment to Tavarnelle, and in the afternoon it reorganised in echelon groups in readiness for action. The main appointments in the unit were then:
|Commanding Officer:||Lt-Col H. A. Purcell|
|Second-in-Command:||Maj J. M. Elliott5|
|Adjutant:||2 Lt J. L. Hazlett|
|Intelligence Officer:||2 Lt A. H. Pedder|
|HQ Squadron||Maj J. R. Coote|
|A Squadron||Maj R. A. Bay|
|B Squadron||Maj L. B. Clapham|
|C Squadron||Maj P. A. Barton6|
From Tavarnelle B Squadron was the first to move north. Under the command of 22 (Motor) Battalion, it headed along Route 2 on the morning of 27 July to Bargino, ‘an area of ripe peaches, water melons and tomatoes’ on the Pesa River. At noon 5 Troop (Lieutenant Cross7), accompanied by two reconnaissance Honeys and a section of carriers from 22 Battalion, left to reconnoitre a route up the east bank of the Pesa. A sharp lookout for mines was kept, and although signs of disturbed earth were seen the tanks drove safely between these spots. No enemy was met, but the reconnaissance was halted at a blown bridge where a secondary road off Route 2 crossed the river.
Returning from the bridge, Cross's tank slipped sideways off the narrow track—the tanks were keeping closely to the tracks they made on the way up—and struck a mine. There may have been more than one for the damage was extensive. A track and front bogey were blown off and the right-hand side of the hull blown in; the lap-gunner (the spare driver) took the full blast and was severely shaken. Cross, head and shoulders out of the turret, was enveloped in a sheet of flame, but apart from a few singed hairs and a headache suffered no injury.
The absence of enemy opposition seemed to indicate that the road through San Casciano might be clear. The squadron set off at good speed to find out, eight infantrymen perched on each tank. The enemy had apparently been waiting for such a target as he opened fire on the tanks when they slowed down at a U bend. Caught unawares and unable to hear the shells coming above the noise made by the tanks, four infantrymen were wounded by splinters. No tanks were hit, although two in 8 Troop suffered mechanical trouble (one a fuel blockage and the other a wireless fault) and had to be left behind. Honey tanks replaced them.
Plans were at once laid for an attack. It was to be made by 22 Battalion with armoured support, B Squadron of the 20th on the left flank and A Squadron of the 19th on the right, the latter also under 20 Regiment's command. A line through the villages of Talente, Cigliano and Casa Vecchia, running from left to right, was the first objective. Supporting B Squadron was 3 Company of 22 (Motor) Battalion, a platoon of engineers and a bulldozer, a 4 Field Regiment and a Royal Artillery forward observation officer, the latter for self-propelled guns. B Squadron's orders were to advance through Pisignano, a ridge-top village on one of the middle roads of the four which fan north from the crossroads above San Casciano roughly like the outstretched fingers of a hand.
The move began at I a.m. on the 28th. The night was inky black; the road, which looked promising enough on the map, little better than a goat path. The advance was slow and tiring. Every three-quarters of an hour or so mines or demolitions or difficulty in seeing the track would bring the convoy to a halt. In the dark drivers had to rely wholly on the tank commanders. Demolitions caused several detours.
At 4.30 a.m. the tanks reached Pisignano. About this time the infantry at last made contact with the enemy and reported enemy vehicles moving east on the south fork of the Cerbaia–Giogoli road. The FOOs called down a ‘stonk’; apparently it was not fired, for an hour later Colonel Purcell arrived at Pisignano, with the information (later proved false) that the vehicles heard on the road were thought to be 6 Brigade's.
By this time it was growing light. The enemy held the high ground across a deep valley from the ridge on which sat Pisignano, and it was decided to consolidate round the village. On the top of the enemy's ridge was the village of la Romola.
After a six-hour advance in which it had covered about one mile each hour, the squadron reached the reverse slope of the Pisignano ridge, dispersed, unloaded its surplus gear and began to prepare breakfast. Some crews were half-way through the meal, others had not started it, when orders came through to push on at once. While the rest of the troop had been making page 450 preparations for the meal, 8 Troop's commander (Second-Lieutenant John Ritchie8) had moved over the ridge with a section of infantry to reconnoitre the road down into the valley, reported to have been evacuated by the enemy. He reached the flat safely but was sniped at when he left his tank to reconnoitre a route across a demolition into la Romola. He then called up the rest of his troop.
In a country of narrow roads and rugged hills cut by steep river valleys it is easiest sometimes to see an action through a driver's eyes. Trooper Bob Middleton9 was the driver of the corporal's tank in 8 Troop, now ordered to follow its leader on to the flat below la Romola. He says:
The Troop Sergeant moved off as we started to stow away our breakfast utensils. This done we followed in his wake, up on to the ridge. On reaching the top I looked down. To say I was amazed is to but put it mildly. How on earth was I to take a tank down into the valley floor? It was a good three hundred yards to the bottom; very steep; while the track was as wide as the tank and no more and zig-zagged all the way to the bottom, each little zig—of which there seemed to be an infinite number—being at right angles to the following zag. On the valley floor and to my right I could see the other two tanks which appeared to be sitting about twenty yards apart.
Off I set, and down this goat track we went. At each corner, as the track was so steep, it was necessary for me to hold back hard on the sticks, and push out the clutch, while the spare driver changed gear. What a place to manoeuvre such a thundering big vehicle….
About half-way down there was a large casa, behind which was a fair-sized back-yard. Just as I neared this place, I noticed away to my right a large demolition go skywards. My thoughts began to run riot; there was apparently more than MG posts left, and I remember thinking at the time how inviting was that back-yard, from which I could have placed the tank in a good covering fire position. As events later proved, it would have been an excellent position, as one could see the whole of the surrounding countryside and yet be hidden from view.
As Middleton indicates, there was more in la Romola than ‘the odd MG post’ which the troop had been led to believe. During the move down the hillside the tank attracted some light mortaring, to which the two tanks already in the valley replied with their 75-millimetre guns.page 451
La Romola was now directly above the troop, which was being sniped at by spandau posts. The three tanks then opened up with their Brownings and gave the town ten minutes' ‘hurry-up’ —‘I was having a grand old time shooting up everything in sight,’ says one gunner. There was no reply. After five minutes of ‘deathlike quietness’ Corporal Stan Harrison,10 the commander of Middleton's tank, was ordered to have a look at the demolition on the road to the left to see if a path across it could be found. Again Middleton's story is worth hearing at first hand:
As I had pulled the tank up on the edge of a four feet vertical drop, it was necessary to move in between the other two tanks in order to cross. This we did, and just as we reached the position I remember saying to the spare driver, ‘What the Hell is the drop like in front of us?’ I stopped the tank momentarily and pulled myself up out of my seat, by the expedient of hooking my elbows over the edge of the manhole, to have a look myself before proceeding any further.
As I completed this operation I seemed to be surrounded by a sheet of flame. There flashed through my mind the vision of a flashlight photographer operating at a dance back home. For a couple of seconds after this my brain failed to function, and then my one overpowering thought was to get away as far as I could. I bailed out, jumped on to the road in front and down into a small depression in front of me where I lay still and flat. I was shivering. I must have lain there for a couple of minutes, while running through my mind was, ‘What had happened to the remainder of the crew?’ Curiosity got the better of me; I raised myself ever so slightly and had a look at the tank. The whole three tanks were on fire; smoke was everywhere and dust surrounded them. Not a soul in sight. I lay there for another few seconds, scared stiff, wondering whether to make a bid for safety or whether to stay where I was in the meantime. Whether it was the fear of being alone, or what, I just cannot say, but I know that I jumped up and ran towards my tank in the direction of safety. I paused beside the old tank—the radiated heat was stifling—and on again as fast as I could go.
In less than five minutes B Squadron had lost the whole of one troop, a quarter of its fighting strength. Harrison's tank was hit at seven o'clock, an HE shell exploding on the turret ring and killing the turret crew. Before the troop could disperse the second tank was hit by an AP shell and the following shot put the third tank out of action. All three were set on fire.page 452
The damage was done by either a self-propelled gun or a Tiger tank (probably the latter) firing from a hidden position in a copse on the right flank covering the demolition on the road. Corporal Harrison and two men were killed and Sergeant Bell wounded.
Bell was standing in his turret when his tank was hit. ‘The shot punched metal on to the grenade box. There was an explosion and I knew my right foot was gone,’ he says. ‘Expecting a brew up, I ordered my crew out, struggled through the turret hatch and jumped down.’ Captain Familton, B Squadron's second-in-command, is less matter-of-fact: ‘He knew his turret crew could not get out while he was there and at any moment another 88-mm might arrive so he jumped from the top of the turret, 9 ft. 6 ins., to the ground. Mortars and machine guns were engaging the area and Jim Bell ordered his crew to get out to safety and leave him there. They refused and picked him up and ran with him towards cover. A Spandau opened up on them and they had to throw Jim into a ditch and take cover themselves. A Bren carrier under a Red Cross flag was sent down the hill under Lt. Jack Shacklock to try to recover the wounded. Jerry honoured the flag and Jim Bell was picked up. When they reached the top of the hill I went over to see Jim and with a wan smile he handed me his pistol and binoculars and asked me to see that the QM, Don Cameron,11 marked them off on his card. Jim lost his leg.’
Behind the tanks was an open field about forty yards wide, and behind that a field of corn. The survivors of the three crews and the wounded found shelter at first among the tall stalks and then in the large house about 200 yards away up the hill track. Spandaus had opened fire again, and a short but heavy storm of mortar fire splattered round the house just as the men got inside. By now our own artillery had opened fire on la Romola and ‘all hell was let loose’. The Italians in the house gave the crews a meal and some wine, and in twos and threes at ten-minute intervals, for the route was under observation for part of the way, they headed back down a lane behind the house and returned to the rest of the squadron.
B Squadron spent the rest of the day in its positions behind Pisignano, 6 Troop on the ridge and the others on the road page 453 behind it. During the morning their positions were heavily mortared and shelled but the squadron had no further losses. At 8.30 p.m. it was relieved by C Squadron and returned to Bargino to reorganise. During the next few days troops were borrowed from it to support A Squadron's advance on Faltignano.
A and C Squadrons of the 20th, left behind at Tavarnelle when B Squadron moved north on the morning of the 27th, followed it later that morning to Bargino. Next day they moved forward again to San Casciano to support A Squadron 19 Regiment's thrust, directed by 20 Regiment's tactical headquarters from a house near San Casciano. The 20th's A Squadron, the first of the reserve to be employed, waited at the town's southern entrance, but the advance did not make as much ground as planned and the whole squadron was not required. Half the squadron, however—Nos. I and 2 Troops under Captain Caldwell—was called forward at 6 a.m. to the centre of the sector. They moved up with a platoon of infantry with each troop. One troop took the road to Spedaletto and the other the road through Cigliano; neither at first met enemy opposition. But when I Troop tried to push on to the Villa al Leccio its tanks came under the eye of the enemy in la Romola when about to cross the ‘wadi’ Borro Suganella and were heavily mortared and shelled. The plan was then abandoned: the going was too difficult, the ground too exposed, the enemy opposition too aggressive. The troop then took up positions on the escarpment north of Cigliano, with 2 Troop farther back covering Route 2. Behind them the other two troops formed the reserve.
There was no change in these positions next day except that 4 Troop moved up Route 2 at dawn into a reserve position a little way past San Casciano and that evening relieved 3 Troop which had two unfit tanks, one with a punctured radiator, the other with an unserviceable gun. The relieving troop commander, Lieutenant Colmore-Williams,12 found the enemy very sensitive and he returned from his reconnaissance in the afternoon with all the tyres of his scout car punctured and its water page 454 tanks holed by mortar fire. An infantry patrol which moved forward that night under the cover of a ‘stonk’ fired by two of the troop's tanks also found the enemy aggressive.
At dawn on 30 July 4 Troop set off with a company of 23 Battalion to attack Sant' Andrea, along the road a bit from Spedaletto. As the night patrol had found, the enemy position was strongly held and a blown culvert blocked the road. No. 4 Troop moved down into the gully under mortar fire to try to find a crossing, its tanks silhouetted in the light from burning haystacks. A likely crossing was found and the tank crews, later helped by infantrymen, used their shovels to improve it. Some prisoners were taken on the crest of the gully and a wounded infantryman of the previous night's patrol rescued. Under covering fire from another troop, two of the tanks and infantry moved up to the outskirts of the village, leaving the third tank behind to improve the crossing.
While the infantry began to clear out the houses, Colmore-Williams's two tanks took up anti-tank positions and shot up enemy snipers and spandau posts in the village. These posts harassed the attackers with their waspish fire, causing them much anxiety and many casualties. A Tiger tank—the squat, powerful, 65-ton German Mark VI Tiger, a name that never failed to stir the blood of Sherman crews in Italy—supported as usual by a self-propelled or anti-tank gun, also took a hand, the gun concentrating on the tanks, the Tiger shooting up the infantry. The third tank back at the crossing was ordered up and led in, and with its help a counter-attack was repulsed. The guns were called up, too, to shell the Tiger but their fire could not shift it.
No. 4 Troop's fight at Sant' Andrea is one of the regiment's best troop actions of the war and it won for Lieutenant Colmore-Williams an immediate MC. Although wounded in the head by a sniper early in the day, he stayed with his troop until ordered back late in the evening by Colonel Purcell. Several times during the day he left his tank and went forward on foot to keep contact with the infantry or to post the other tanks of his troop. His courage, determination, and sound tactics against a stronger enemy prevented the village from being recaptured and our infantry overrun.
The enemy made at least three counter-attacks to retake Sant' page 455 Andrea, first on the left flank and later on the right. One of the Shermans received a direct hit from an HE shell and its commander, Lance-Sergeant Cook,13 was wounded. The enemy infantry could approach through corn and olive trees to within a few yards of the tanks, but foolishly disclosed their position when one of them threw a grenade at the troop commander, then returning on foot to his tank after placing Cook's tank, now commanded by Trooper Greenall,14 in position. The tanks raked the olives with machine guns and shellfire, firing into the trees for airburst effect.
Supported by a bazooka team, the Tiger then moved down the street through the village and our infantry called for support. As Colmore-Williams moved his tank round the church into a firing position a ‘bazooka man’ rose up and rested his bazooka against an olive tree to aim. The tank's gunner ‘gave him a 75-mm HE all to himself’ and Dave Coppin,15 the spare driver, sprayed the area with the bow gun. The other tanks also opened fire, causing many casualties: the bazooka team was wiped out and fifteen enemy dead were afterwards counted close by. Although some very accurate mortar fire troubled the troop for some time, the enemy infantry left the tanks alone.
The Tiger still had to be kept at bay. A bend in the road allowed it to come within about 100 yards of the troop commander's tank before it came into view. When it ventured round the bend it was blinded by a round or two of smoke and chased back into cover, tail first, with six or seven armour-piercing and high-explosive shells buzzing around its ears.
Colmore-Williams then withdrew his tank behind the church and Greenall's tank was placed in position to fire on the Tiger should it come farther down the road. Later it withdrew altogether. Discouraged, the enemy pockets in the village then became less troublesome. Colmore-Williams was ordered to report to the CO and on the way back was wounded again when his tank received a direct hit.
That night Major Bay with 3 and 4 Troops advanced with a page 456 company from 23 Battalion along the road from Spedaletto, took their road junction objectives, and occupied Villa Mazzei and Palastra. They flushed two Tigers but met only light opposition. The Tigers fired their machine guns, scoring hits on the squadron commander's turret, 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. The other two troops, Nos. I and 2, advanced at the same time with the Maori Battalion to Faltignano, but although the infantry reached the village the tanks were again unable to cross the gully below la Romola. They withdrew at dawn on the 31st to San Casciano and came forward again that evening with the Maori Battalion, pushing ahead through II Pino to the Villa al Leccio. The other half squadron (3 and 4 Troops) was relieved late that night by a South African squadron.
Sergeant Bill Russell, advancing with the Maoris, can be relied on always to give a soldier's view of the battle. After a busy night he wanted sleep and perhaps thought the Maoris unnecessarily aggressive. Of the first night's advance he says: ‘The Maoris were all keyed up at the sight of the enemy and before settling in and summing up the position got going with mortars and Brens. In a few minutes we got the expected reply and I wondered if our casa would really stand the shelling. I know I left the shelter of one wall just before it caved in. I was trying to catch a sleep on a billiard table before the Maoris opened up but their mortars disturbed my sleep. We had had little time for sleep before that.’
Italians living in the house had prepared a meal, but they left hurriedly during the heaviest part of the shelling and the tank crews and infantry finished it. One Maori soldier also tried on the household wardrobe and, when the shelling ceased, cycled off down the road wearing a new suit and a bowler hat.
In the next night's advance with the Maoris (a pitch-black night, 31 July-I August) Russell's troop was held up once more at the ‘wadi’ between Cigliano and la Romola and at daylight had to withdraw to Cigliano, where, says Russell, ‘sleep was again my problem. I strolled across a clearing to another tank crew to say we would park there, have a feed and a sleep if time permitted. I was standing alongside the driver when a shell came over and landed on a heap of mortar shells and page 457 badly wounded the driver—I wish I could remember his name. … Fright drove us both under the tank and what an ordeal to get a big legless man in pain out of this position. Luckily there was an RAP in a building alongside and we were both attended to. I was operated on and flown to No. 2 G.H. so missed the highlights of Florence.’
No. 5 Troop of B Squadron also turned tail a Tiger in a daring little action near II Pino on 31 July. The troop had been sent forward the day before to relieve A Squadron's No. 4 Troop and give close support to the Maori infantry. The Maoris' attack gained only about fifty yards, for the enemy laid his guns and mortars on them and had an SP gun and Tiger in support. The corporal's tank was hit by the Tiger's fire, its driver (Trooper Hampton16), being killed and one of the crew wounded. The rest of the troop pulled back over the crest.
Cross laid some smoke in front of the corporal's tank and ‘hopped over to have a dekko’. He could see where the Tiger was lying, ‘beautifully camouflaged’, and brought his own tank round the side of the slope behind the knocked-out tank. Below the crest he lined up the turret on the Tiger's hideout and then moved quickly over the top into a firing position. The gunner immediately spotted his target and loosed off two rounds of American smoke, followed by five or six armour-piercing shells. Caught by surprise, the Tiger withdrew hurriedly, ‘much to our relief. Our last view was of an A.P. ricochetting off his turret so we felt we had at least given him a jar.’
The attack pushed forward to the next group of houses where two spandaus firing from a top-story window held it up. The enemy was soon winkled out, although ‘winkled’ hardly describes an operation in which the tanks had to blow the top corner off the house before the enemy machine-gunners surrendered.
Cross's next objective was the target of a lifetime. Five hundred yards away from the tank's position in support of the right-hand platoon, a large house stood in a clear patch at least a hundred yards away from its nearest clump of olive trees. Enemy troops were running from the olives to the house. The tank lay quiet until all were inside and then shot to a prearranged plan. page 458 Eight shells were fired into the bottom story, one immediately below each window, then eight into the top story. The troops inside then began to run back to the olive trees. All three Brown ings opened up—the co-axial gun, lap-gunner's, and the com mander's ack-ack—and each fired four belts of ammunition. The Maoris later reported many enemy killed.
Cross had begun this adventurous day with a narrow escape. Taking his sergeant (Noel Jenkins17) with him, he had gone forward at dawn to look for the Maoris, sometimes elusive people to find. In a clump of olive trees two figures could be seen in the dim light. Cross went forward alone while Jenkins stayed put—‘just in case!’ ‘Closer inspection revealed them to be wearing camouflage suits, but the Maoris often did that— you know the blotchy green suits the Hun wore. They sepa rated, both covering me with rifles, no doubt suspicious also, so I walked up to one. I got close enough to see the “Gott mit Uns” on his web belt and realised my mistake. (I well remem ber that he had not had a shave.) Said the first thing that came into my head—“Saida – Yalla – Iggery”—turned about and walked back to Noel, with a very funny feeling in the seat of my pants. I was thankful to get behind the stone fence.’
C Squadron had moved up from San Casciano on the night of 28-29 July to relieve B Squadron in the area Pisignano-Cigliano. From their positions in houses on the ridge the crews had a grand OP view of la Romola, just over a mile away across the valley. They spent the 29th observing enemy movement in the town, taking note for the artillery of any likely strongpoints. From time to time the tanks' positions were shelled, one shell wounding Corporal L. E. Clarke,18 a 9 Troop tank commander, in a leg.
On the night of 30-31 July (start time 1 a.m.) the squadron supported 22 Battalion's attack on la Romola, one troop with each infantry company and No. 10 (Second-Lieutenant de Lau tour) in reserve. With each troop was a detachment of engin eers, and 11 Troop (Second-Lieutenant ‘Snow’ Nixon) had a page 459 bulldozer to clear its track down from Cigliano. Driver Middle ton has already described the state of the track down from Pisignano; that from Cigliano was no better and in the dark the infantry very soon left the tanks behind. ‘We had to move down a very steep track with the tanks,’ writes Corporal Nigel Overton of 11 Troop, ‘and it was an “extra dark” night. Some of the bends in the track were too sharp to get round and the tanks had to back to get room to turn. Everything seemed to let loose from La Romola. The air seemed to be full of flying tracer and every one seemed to be heading straight at you.’
Inevitably on such a night and over such country, the infan try lost wireless touch with their battalion headquarters and got too far ahead of the tanks. No. 11 Troop, in particular, had to wait for several hours while its bulldozer made a deviation and was then put on the wrong track by the engineers. That was the last the troop saw of its infantry. The corporal's tank in 12 Troop got mechanical trouble and soon dropped out. Sergeant Owen Hughes's tank became stuck when a road gave way. Jack Denham's No. 9 Troop had a better run and got forward into la Romola after dawn. Denham found that the best way to make progress was to lead the tanks on foot, but he lost one tank to 12 Troop to replace its casualties and had only two tanks (his own and Sergeant McMinn's19) in la Romola with the forward company of 22 Battalion.
Taken all round, it was a most confused night. One of the infantry companies was caught in our own barrage, and it was some time after dawn before tanks and infantry were properly grouped in the town. The enemy did not give up easily and his shelling was heavy, especially so at 22 Battalion's head quarters. An infantry patrol captured a Tiger tank, its crew asleep and the wireless still on; it was possibly this tank's gun that had made such short work of Ritchie's troop a few days before.20 De Lautour's troop, in reserve but in a position to give covering fire, did one good shoot on likely enemy OPs and got back ‘a proper plaster’. The crew of an 11 Troop tank that had shed a track near the bottom of the hill also had rather page 460 a lively time when daylight came and had to lie low until about ten o'clock before all was clear. The ‘flying fitters’ again demonstrated their efficiency. First thing in the morning, with Captain Taylor and his T2, they were up working on the cripples and by afternoon had three of them on the road again. The reserve troop also moved across the valley early in the afternoon into la Romola to reinforce the tanks in the town.
The troops in la Romola soon made themselves fairly com fortable in houses, but they spent a disturbed and uneasy night. In many of the houses and buildings, particularly in one four or five-storied building near the square, the enemy had left behind large quantities of explosives. This building was taken over by gun crews of 7 Anti-Tank Regiment. ‘About midnight I was doing a watch from my tank a short distance away when I heard a shell coming,’ says Corporal Overton. ‘I ducked into the turret and the shell hit this building and there was a terrific explosion and half the place came down. Twelve lives were lost there.’21
It was thought by many at the time that the enemy had left behind a delayed-action bomb, and those men who shared quarters with large stocks of enemy ammunition and demolition charges had some uneasy second thoughts about their lodgings. Others were too busy helping to rescue the wounded or recover buried guns to have time to worry, de Lautour's troop in par ticular giving valuable assistance.
While 3 and 4 Troops rested and refitted on 1 August at San Casciano, 1 and 2 Troops with the Maoris had an exciting day. The excitement began shortly after 8 a.m., the starting time of the attack, when shells from a heavy gun landed close by and a Tiger tank, with enemy infantry in position near it, was reported. By twenty to nine half a mile had been covered and an anti-tank gun dealt with. Half an hour later the Tiger and its infantry were reported to be withdrawing, hurried on by our artillery. A little way past Massanera demolitions and trees blocked the road, and behind them enemy infantry were making a stand. The tanks were called up to drive them back.
Nearing the attack's objective—a line from Poggio delle page 461 Monache (right) to the ridge of la Poggiona—the tanks were held up by anti-tank-gun fire and ‘things became rather hectic.’ It was now nearly noon. Farther back up the road a Tiger was sitting, but the infantry were too close to call down a ‘stonk’ on it. No. 2 Troop commander's tank was hit, its tracks dam aged and the commander lightly wounded. Thinking the damage had been done by the Tiger, Lieutenant French22 ordered his crew out. However, the tank had been hit by a high-explosive shell and, finding that its engines still ran, its crew reboarded it and brought it back to safety.
‘We turned round and bolted back behind a house,’ says Corporal George Innes,23 commander of one of the 2 Troop tanks, ‘the dust we created saving us from further hits. We stayed behind this building for a few minutes but the Tigers were moving round to get a shot at us so we had to pull back a bit further. We had to go back on to the road in full view and I was last tank out, which wasn't good.’
On the way out Innes's tank stalled on the crown of the road, and with a Tiger lumbering along the road towards him not more than 200 yards away the tank's commander had some anxious moments. ‘Turn the b—round and get cracking up the — strada,’ he ordered. In the ‘flap’ he had forgotten to switch over to ‘inter-com’ and his orders, ‘perfectly clear and direct but not quite the King's English’, were received clearly at the Maori Battalion's headquarters. The crew had just time to bale out before a shot struck the Sherman and set it on fire. The crew then took shelter with some Maori infantry in a house near the Villa Treggiaia.
The advancing enemy surrounded the house, the beseiging force comprising two tanks and a party of infantry. The other A Squadron tanks came to the rescue, calling down an artillery concentration round the house and following it with a smoke screen, under whose cover the infantry and tank crew escaped. French's gunner (Trooper Des Hargraves24), who was left for dead when his tank was hit, shared a house unseen for almost page 462 two days and nights with a party of enemy. He spent the time hidden under some straw until an attack by the Maoris on the morning of 3 August put the building in New Zealand hands once more.
Hargraves had a lucky escape when a Maori tommy-gunner let fly at a window from which he was helping to speed the enemy's retreat. On returning to his squadron he was able to give a useful report on the enemy's strength and on other activities which he had noticed while in hiding.
During the night of 1-2 August 1 and 2 Troops moved back from Massanera to San Casciano, where the squadron regrouped before moving forward again early on the morning of the 3rd. B Squadron now took its turn in the lead, half a squadron (7 and 8 Troops) with two Mios (3-inch American naval-type guns mounted on Sherman chassis) giving support to an attack on 2 August by two companies of 21 Battalion over the same ground that the Maoris had covered the day before. The enemy had dug in his toes and the attack made little progress. Early in the afternoon a direct hit by our medium guns drove the crew from a Tiger tank spotted on Point 243, but unfortunately did not knock out the tank for the crew returned and drove it away behind the ridge. The enemy infantry withdrew with it, or shortly afterwards, and that night the two reserve companies of 21 Battalion passed through with 8 Troop and took the objective, the features Poggio delle Monache and Point 243. Especially good work was done during the day and again in the night attack by the two Honey tanks under Sergeant Gahan,25 one of which had been attached to each forward company. Keeping close behind the infantry, they kept 21 Battalion headquarters informed throughout the day of the attack's progress.
In the night advance there was another brief brush with a Tiger shortly after midnight near the Villa Treggiaia. The enemy tank was flushed by the infantry and chased off by one of the Mios, both of which stayed forward in support when the objective was taken about half an hour later. One Honey tank was put out of action on a mine on the way up and one of its crew injured. No. 5 Troop then joined No. 8 on the objective.page 463
The forward troops could hear an enemy tank (or tanks) withdrawing and at dawn on the 3rd, in the approved leap frogging style, two companies of Maoris and the rest of the squadron passed through 21 Battalion. The rest of the squad ron comprised 6 and 7 Troops and a scratch troop of two RHQ Troop tanks under the squadron sergeant-major, ‘Plonk’ Reid. The two Mios went with them. Their task was to capture the high features north-east of Giogoli and the village itself.
The first opposition came from spandau nests which the tanks took care of without much trouble, and by half past eight 6 Troop was in Giogoli (but out of touch by 38 set) and 7 Troop on its hill to the north-east. By 9 a.m. the infantry had moved about half a mile ahead of Giogoli and into Tiger country once more, and were calling for support to drive the enemy from a key hill feature, Point 199, on which a rearguard party held a strong position in the Villa Capponi.
No. 6 Troop under Lieutenant Bill Heptinstall26 had captured its first objective—a crest line of cyprus trees leading up to a large stone casa—without much difficulty and it then moved across country up a slight incline through a dense grove of olive trees. Low branches blocked the view and smashed at wireless aerials and hatch covers, one of which, its catch sheared off by a branch, fell heavily on the troop sergeant's hand, cut ting it badly. (Sergeant Johnson27 lost part of his hand and was evacuated.) Here the troop lost contact with the infantry.
Back on the road after a quick downhill run, Heptinstall's tank surprised a German bazooka gunner lying on the bank by the side of the road. Quick work by the tank's lap-gunner, Clive Lane,28 disposed of him, but it was obvious that the troop's difficulties were just beginning.
The road ahead climbed through a steep cutting for about two-thirds of its length then ran downhill, disappearing from sight. It was an obvious place for a Tiger to wait. Covered by his other two tanks, Heptinstall tried to outflank the feature by moving up a narrow track to the left, but the track ended at a page 464 house and the going beyond it was impossible. With some difficulty he turned his tank and returned to the main road. There was still no sign of the infantry. Regiment said they were ahead and under fire and needed help. There was nothing for it but to try to dash through the cutting.
The other two tanks gave covering fire and Heptinstall charged through the cutting ‘at fastest tank speed’. He had planned to turn sharp left up a side road at the far end, but the tank was going so fast that it reached the turn-off sooner than expected and nearly overshot it. Before the tank could turn it was hit by an 88-millimetre shell, probably fired by a Tiger tank lying in wait beside a house in the side road. The driver, Harold Chatterton,29 was killed instantly; the rest of the crew baled out on to the road but were mown down by a hail of machine-gun fire. Heptinstall, the only survivor, landed on the right-hand side of the road and dived into a ditch.
After a moment the firing died down when the enemy's attention was engaged by the other two tanks advancing along the road. Because of the rise in the road their commanders could not see what had happened to their leader. Heptinstall made a run for it and warned his corporal, ‘Lofty’ Newman,30 before he got too far forward. The two tanks then gave Heptin stall covering fire while he tried to return to his tank to see if he could rescue any of the crew. Armed with a borrowed tommy gun, he got close enough to see that they had all been killed, but was stopped from going farther by enemy infantry tossing grenades down into the road from their weapon pits on the top of the bank. On the way back to the tanks he took prisoner a couple of enemy soldiers who were manning, ‘without enthusi asm’, a light machine gun in a weapon pit by the side of the road. He had already passed these men a couple of times on foot without noticing them, and they had apparently preferred to let him go by rather than attract the notice of the tanks. ‘I am sure that Heppy would have dealt with them with his bare hands had they shown any resistance,’ says Newman.
From its hull-down position Newman's tank especially got in some murderous fire against the infantry in their weapon pits. page 465 ‘Tiger’ Lyons31 was the gunner and he was not likely to miss a German trench at such short range—some were only about ten yards away. ‘I can still see an enemy tin hat flying about 20 ft in the air after he attempted to dig some German infantry out of a slit trench,’ Corporal Newman recalls.
Soon the troop was joined by Reid's composite troop—a more than welcome reinforcement—which, according to Ser geant George Robson, one of the troop's tank commanders, had been having ‘a great time blazing away at a large white casa about 700 or 800 yards away trying to put shells through the lower windows.’ Fire was ‘poured on’ the enemy positions on Point 199, the gunners using small-arms, high-explosive, armour-piercing, and even smoke shells as ammunition became short. The enemy retaliated.
Reid's arrival forward when he was most needed is described by Corporal Newman. The squadron sergeant-major preferred to wear in action a broad-brimmed stetson rather than the less colourful steel helmet, but on this occasion he had been ordered by Major Clapham to wear his helmet. ‘The sight that met my eyes when I looked to see who had come to my assistance was “Plonk” standing well up in his tank wearing his old stetson but also with the tin hat jammed down on top. So I dare say both he and the Major must have been satisfied….’
‘We called for artillery fire on to the Tiger and in the mean time remained in the sunken road and decided to “brew up”,’ says Robson. ‘I stayed in my tank looking after the radio and had just received a cup of tea when all hell broke loose, shells bursting all over the place. Nobody was hurt but those who were out of the tanks got back very smartly. I'm not quite sure, but I think our bloke called for a stonk on Janet. [The features were known by girls' names.] However, the story goes that we were on Janet ourselves and, of course, we were plastered by German, South African and New Zealand guns. The wind from the shells sailing overhead just about dragged us out of the tanks.’
This was the enemy's last real stand before the Arno, and when the advance was resumed next morning (4 August) two burnt-out Tiger tanks, still smouldering, were found just past page 466 the end of the sunken road. The more optimistic in the regi ment claimed that their HE fire had knocked them out, a claim which greatly heartened 6 Troop at the time but which now seems hardly likely. The squadron commander, Major Clapham, thinks that they were probably brewed up by the artillery, the most likely possibility; Heptinstall himself, who was given some credit for the success at the time and has most to lose, says that ‘it is my personal belief that the Jerries brewed them up as they probably did not have enough petrol to move them back beyond the Arno.’
These tanks had been the core of the enemy's opposition during the fighting of the last three days and their elimination, no matter who was responsible, virtually meant the end of the battle south of the Arno. Heptinstall won the MC for his ‘outstanding ability and courage’ in this action, and others shared the credit with him: Sergeant-Major Reid, as aggressive as ever (‘if there was anything Jack Reid liked more than a scrap it was another scrap’); Corporal Newman (‘the magnificent, aggressive cool soldier he always was’); the four men killed—Harold Chatterton, Frank Mathias,32 Clive Lane, and John Kevern.33
When Reid's troop moved up to support Heptinstall's troop at the sunken road, the two Mios ‘tank-destroyers’ followed him. The orders given the Mios at the start of the attack were to follow the Sergeant-Major's troop, and when Reid was ordered forward the officer in charge of the guns unfortunately assumed that he was to follow too. The troops had been issued with their weapons only a few days before and had had little time to get to know them. The tanks were firing on Point 199 when ‘all of a sudden the ground started to plough up around us,’ says Sergeant Robson. ‘88 AP stuff was pelting right and left so we moved very smartly and it was then I noticed that one of the M.ios was “brewing up”. The other bloke reversed out of sight.’
Two of the Mio's crew were killed and two wounded. The other was sent to the rear.
While B Squadron's three troops advanced up the centre page 467 with two of the Maori companies, A Squadron took the left flank with a third company whose first objective was a bridge about half a mile south-west of Scandicci. The squadron followed up the road behind B Squadron to the road junction below Giogoli, where the tanks turned left and by narrow tracks and winding roads and a short stretch across country reached the Villa Franceschi, an attractive country house surrounded by privet hedges. It was a difficult ride by moonlight for the tanks but no opposition was met.
The villa was just over half a mile south-west of Scandicci and, unknown to the squadron at the time, was surrounded by mines. The tanks harboured in a covered garden at the back of the house, close to the shelter of its walls. They were nearly all in position when one tank ran over a mine, which blew off the front bogey assembly and broke a track. It was decided to stay there until morning. Colonel Purcell, anxious that his regiment should be first into Florence, was perturbed at the delay, but the engineers later found many mines round the house, some of them only a few inches from the tanks' track marks. Seen in daylight, the garden was ‘festooned with booby traps’.
Back on the right flank B Squadron and the Maoris found themselves in the middle of a slogging match between our own guns and the enemy's guns and mortars. The sound of bridges being blown over the Greve just before noon on the 3rd indicated that the enemy had decided to go back over the Arno, and it seemed as usual that he had ammunition to use up before he left. Two or more enemy tanks were known to be in the squadron's area, one of them—as a prisoner confirmed—in the village of San Cristofano. But when tanks and infantry later entered the village the Tiger had gone.
The enemy force on the ridge behind Giogoli was still there when night fell and it was decided that B Squadron should support A at Scandicci rather than lose more men trying to crack a difficult position, which in any case would fall when the positions on its flanks fell back. At 8 a.m. next day A Squadron moved straight across country to Scandicci with a company of Maoris. As they half-expected, they found the enemy gone and the bridge over the Greve north-east of the village blown. A bulldozer made a crossing and the tanks, each carrying a page 468 section of Maoris eager to be first into Florence, headed up the road towards the city. About ten o'clock, when still about 300 yards from the Arno and in the outskirts of the city, the leading tank of 4 Troop came under spandau fire from the rooftops of the buildings along the river's north bank. Nos. 1 and 4 Troops then moved up to the south bank and engaged the enemy posts and snipers.
Under Captain Familton the reserve troops of B Squadron (Nos. 5 and 8) set off some time about ten o'clock to join A Squadron at Scandicci but were held up for about half an hour while engineers cleared a track at a mined demolition on the road. By noon the head of the column had reached a road junction with Route 67, the main road south of the Arno, on the outskirts of Florence and were sent ahead to reconnoitre possible crossings over the river. They reported two (Cross, ‘as cool as a cucumber’, making a reconnaissance on foot in the bed of the river) and some spandau nests on the far bank.
The rest of the squadron came forward early in the afternoon. Enemy patrols were still south of the river, one of them reported to be trying to blow the bridge over the Greve near Mantignano. Sergeant-Major Reid's troop was sent to stop them. They found the bridge still intact and chased away a small patrol, but they lost one man, Trooper Irvine,34 taken prisoner of war. Irvine, spare driver in Robson's crew, had volunteered to go forward on foot to identify a party of infantry away to the right. He crawled along a field drain for about 200 yards and, in his own concise phrase, ‘Then I found out they were not our infantry’.
Shortly before 5 p.m. the troop was relieved by a Divisional Cavalry patrol which had arrived at the bridge about the same time as the Sergeant-Major's troop. Both squadrons were then relieved by 19 Armoured Regiment and returned to the regiment's concentration area at Giogoli.
To complete the story of the battle the doings of C Squadron must be followed from la Romola on, where the morning of 1 August found them after a sleepless night. Major Barton and Lieutenant-Colonel Donald,35 CO 22 (Motor) Battalion, began page 469 the day with a reconnaissance of the town and made plans for an attack on Point 305, one of the attack's objectives which had not yet fallen. After delay—the attack was originally planned for the morning—tanks and infantry moved up the road about three o'clock. Firing on la Querciola, a mile and a bit to the north, 10 Troop (in the words of the squadron report) ‘did some rare shooting on three houses which were known to have Germans in—they were ultimately found to have very German-bespattered walls.’ The point of the attack was a section of carriers, its shaft the two tanks of 9 Troop and a platoon of infantry. Heavy machine-gun fire and shelling caused the platoon some casualties, and first the carriers and later the tanks were withdrawn.
It was then decided to ‘make a proper attack’ that night on Point 305 and Point 361, the la Poggiona feature, using two 22 Battalion companies, a troop of tanks with each. The going was easy, and with a screen of engineers to clear the way the tanks made good progress. Bill de Lautour's 10 Troop again did some useful shooting. The ground was thickly wooded and it was difficult for the tanks to ‘marry up’ with the infantry, one company of which was put off its stride, suffered casualties, and went astray when it ran into its own artillery barrage.
No. 3 Company took la Poggiona ridge, was pushed off it, got back again, and was pushed off it once more when it ran out of ammunition. As in the la Romola action a few nights before, the forward companies lost touch with their battalion headquarters and most of the news of the battle came over Squadron Headquarters' wireless link with the tanks.
About half past eight on the morning of the 2nd Major Barton went forward in his tank with Colonel Donald, taking up ammunition and supplies for 3 Company. ‘By this time things were pretty secure,’ he records in his report. ‘M.io and A. tk guns were up. Jerry was reacting violently and shelled heavily. There was a big scare by persistent report of two Tigers moving along wadi within 400 yards of fwd tps. Changes were made to meet the possibility—a few scones were baked in the OC's tank as first report stated that they were moving up the road which we were just going down back to Bn HQ! After some delay things were straightened up and the Tigers ultimately must have gone or were Shermans.’page 470
However, there was a German tank roaming abroad that morning. Captain Eastgate, then second-captain of the squadron, who was waiting in some scrub with a troop of tanks and the reserve company of 22 Battalion, says that the men in the tanks ‘clearly saw’ a German Mark IV tank come down the road to the west of the area (the road through Poggio Cigoli) and pass through the infantry positions until it was ‘brewed up’. This tank was knocked out in 25 Battalion's sector by a 17- pounder gun.
During the morning 9 Troop rested and replenished in la Romola and moved up early in the afternoon to relieve 10 Troop. A further attack on la Poggiona, this time by 2 Company of the 22nd, was planned for six o'clock that evening. The tanks' role was to ‘soften up’ the enemy, a job for which artillery, mortars, and medium machine guns had been called on for help. Once again the artillery barrage went wrong. Part of the ‘stonk’, plus the German defensive fire in return, landed on the infantry's start line, breaking up the company and causing casualties. The company commander rallied his men, those of them who were left unscathed, and with two officers and twenty-four men took the hill. Enemy machine guns and artillery opposed them. At one stage when it appeared that they were being forced off the hill, Eastgate sent a message to that effect to Colonel Donald. No. 3 Company was rushed up from reserve to hold the line and later advanced and took the hill.
No. 10 Troop was also caught by our own artillery on the start line but suffered no damage or casualties. The experience is described by Corporal Overton:
At zero hour … the 25-pounders were to open up and we were sitting waiting expecting to see the shells land on the ridge in front of us. But no! Down they came and we were right in the middle of it. It was good to know one had 3 ins of steel around him at that moment.
The Inf suffered a few casualties and the 25-pounders set fire to the dry grass and scrub in which we were lined up. We had quite a busy time dodging fires and trying to do some shooting, and eventually the fires drove us out and we had to pull back behind them.
The enemy had good observation from higher ground and his shelling was the heaviest and most concentrated C Squadron had experienced. Sergeant Hughes was slightly wounded by page 471 shrapnel and was being helped to the RAP by Trooper Pierce36 when a mortar bomb landed a few feet away. Pierce was killed, Hughes wounded again. The tanks had amazing luck— not even a radiator holed. Twenty-second Battalion had no luck at all, and about ten o'clock one of its forward platoons again collected what is described as a ‘friendly stonk’ from our own guns, the battalion's fourth such misfortune in the last few days. Its positions on the ridge were topped by pines, and these probably caused airbursts and made casualties heavier.37
At dawn (it was now 3 August) 9 Troop found a way up to the top of the hill, a climb that it had been thought wiser not to try by night. It found targets for its guns on the road from San Paolo to Scandicci, claiming hits on two trucks, and got a grand view of the River Arno, with Florence in the background. The troop spent the morning on the hill and at half past twelve was relieved by No. 10. The rest of the squadron pulled back with 22 Battalion early in the afternoon to a concentration area about half a mile south-west of la Romola, 10 Troop rejoining them later. Here the ‘flying fitters' and instrument mechanics worked till after midnight to get the tanks into battle order— the squadron had been warned to be ready to move by 6 a.m. —while the squadron sergeant-major with a squad of spare men and reconnaissance crews replenished them. By 2 a.m. on 4 August all the squadron's sixteen runners were ready for action once more, but in the morning the move was cancelled and the squadron stood down.
The crews welcomed the rest. Ignoring for the moment the heavy shelling and mortaring from la Poggiona, the squadron had not had much hard fighting in the last few days: no victories over Tigers or spectacular advances to drive fatigue from tired limbs. Day and night attacks had given the crews little chance to rest, and they were on call most of the time. The gunners had done some excellent shooting and the tanks and infantry had worked well together. Major Barton has special praise for 22 Battalion in his report of the operation: … the page 472 co-operation with the inf has been far and away better than anything we have struck yet. We have found the CO … extremely helpful and the officers and men have a real understanding of tanks and what they can do. Our chaps have now got a very genuine admiration for this Bn.’
Co-operation with the infantry had long been a contentious point and it seems a good note on which to end this chapter of the regiment's history, which has taken it from a picturesque resting place in the Liri valley to be among the first New Zealanders into Florence—the South Africans, on the right flank, had entered the city only a few hours before.38 Most of the city lay on the far side of the Arno and was still in German hands, but the inhabitants of the southern suburbs across the river were friendly and generous in their welcome. They clambered on top of the tanks, threw flowers, clapped and cheered, kissed all and sundry, and pressed gifts of wine and fruit on the tank crews. It was good wine—the liberators of Florence deserved better than vino rosso and ‘plonk’ that day—and victory was toasted and healths drunk in cognac, cognac in large quantities: ‘I remember getting slightly umbriago that day,’ one officer recalls. ‘The boys were very sorry that we were withdrawn at 1900 hours just when things looked as though they would build into a really good party.’
From across the river German gunners and spandau crews could see the welcome from their rooftops but refused to enter into the spirit of the occasion. Their fire quickly cleared the streets.
There was a thunderstorm late in the afternoon and by 7 p.m. 19 Armoured Regiment had relieved A and B Squadrons. A flooded ford across the Greve delayed the move back, most of A Echelon's lorries having to be hauled up the slippery bank by Captain Taylor's T2.39 Traffic coming the other way added page 473 to the congestion at the ford, but fortunately the enemy guns were busy shelling the town. Part of the regiment's convoy was delayed for some hours.
Next morning (5 August) the regiment moved back from Giogoli, through la Romola and Cerbaia, and on the afternoon of the 6th moved north-west about three miles or so to its new concentration area. Geppetto was the nearest village.
The fighting since 27 July had cost the regiment nine killed and thirteen wounded (two of the latter officers) and six tanks destroyed. Two troopers were missing, believed (and later confirmed) prisoners of war. Two men of the 7 Anti-Tank Regiment Mio crews attached to the 20th had also been killed and two others wounded.
In the last nine days crews from the regiment had fought no fewer than nine actions against Tiger tanks, and the area between San Casciano and Florence where these battles took place came to be known in the regiment as the ‘Tiger country’. It is a pleasant, undulating countryside, fertile with orchards and vineyards, and even the military eye, quick only to recognise whether the ‘cover’ was good or the ‘going’ passable, could hardly fail to be impressed by its beauty. Wooded hills, sunken roads, and steep river valleys help the defender rather than the attacker, who is forced by the lack of broad horizons to probe blindly forward, his tanks behind a screen of infantry. As was only to be expected, the Germans made good use of the terrain's natural advantages.
With the choice of ground, the enemy took the hills and ridges. When he was forced off one he retired to the next, leaving behind a sniper or two or an artillery OP, a Tiger tank or a self-propelled gun. As he withdrew he blocked the roads by demolitions or felled trees across them. Camouflaged in hull-down positions in the shelter of orchard or narrow village side-street, the Tigers lay in wait. At short range they would make a quick kill with their deadly 88-millimetre gun before withdrawing to an alternative and equally well-chosen position; or else they would form the spearhead of a local counter-attack, making a brief sortie behind a screen of infantry before going back into cover. Almost invariably, a Tiger would have another tank or a self-propelled gun to support it, the supporting weapon keeping silent until its fire was most needed.page 474
In spite of the Tiger's advantages of position, of heavier armour and guns, the Sherman fought back with credit in the regiment's nine encounters of the battle. As in any fight between welter and heavyweight, tactics, speed and aggression were the lighter opponent's weapons. The Tiger's front and rear armour was too heavy to be battered by a straight punch but its flanks could be pierced by an anti-tank shell. If it could be blinded by smoke—the American 75-millimetre smoke shell was especially effective as its burning phosphorus could set the enemy tank on fire if drawn into its engines—a few rounds of armour-piercing and high-explosive fired from the flank were usually sufficient to drive the Tiger back into cover.
One of the chief lessons of the battle—not a new lesson by any means—was the need for reconnaissance. To blunder blindly on to a hull-down enemy was to court death. In a set-piece attack by night over difficult going the only reliable way to get the tanks forward was first to make a reconnaissance on foot to find the best line of approach. Seldom were the troop commanders allowed sufficient time to make a thorough reconnaissance. Sometimes a special road party of infantry, a platoon or section strong, was detailed as a screen behind which the tanks moved forward to join the infantry on its objectives. This party was separate from the assaulting troops, its role being to protect the tanks at night against stray parties of enemy who had been missed in the infantry's advance or who had slipped back into their positions again when the attackers had passed through.
In this close country the Honey tanks of the reconnaissance troop again proved their value. Because they were more manoeuvrable they could get forward where Shermans could not, and up with the infantry companies they gave valuable service as a channel of communication with rear headquarters. Usually a Honey tank was attached to the headquarters of each attacking company and a scout car to the battalion commander's headquarters; a battalion commander often received through the tanks' wireless net his only news of the progress of his forward platoons. The Honeys were useful, too, for towing anti-tank guns forward, since their open tops allowed the gun crew to be carried inside the tank, comparatively safe from small-arms fire. On the way back they sometimes carried prisoners.page 475
After the battle there was some criticism by squadron commanders of the use of tanks by half-squadrons, which occasionally were placed under the command of the infantry commander whose troops the tanks were supporting. By breaking up the armour into ‘penny packets’—to use a popular desert term—the weight of the tanks' gun-power was largely lost and the mutual support that troops could give each other in an attack through the regiment's wireless net was much less effective. Perhaps the only advantage gained from the employment of half-squadrons was that a squadron could be kept in action longer without relief, the two troops not employed being able to rest and replenish until called forward to relieve the two troops in action.
And lastly, there was the question of command. When one arm has to fight in close support of another, the arrangements most suitable for one do not always suit the other. To take one detail: the location of Regimental Headquarters was not always satisfactory to the regiment. For convenience, it was usually with or close to the brigade headquarters under whose command the regiment was operating, but sometimes this site was too far from the forward tanks for the range of their wirelesses— not the best place from which to serve the fighting squadrons.
However, these are points of detail, technical points of command and administration, irritating at the time in the midst of battle when communications have broken down and contact has been lost. But, on the whole, the man in the tank and the infantryman on foot were more than satisfied with the regiment's part in the battle for Florence.
5 Major Coote acted as second-in-command for a period while Major Elliott temporarily filled the appointment of Brigade Major at Headquarters 4 Brigade.
6 Major Barton, back from hospital and rest camp, took over from Captain Jordan, who was given command of the reconnaissance troop.
20 The sight of this tank being driven back caused momentary consternation in the reconnaissance troop, which was relieved to see a New Zealander's head and shoulders emerge from the turret.
21 The Anti-Tank Regiment's war diary says ten men were killed and two evacu ated suffering from shock.
30 2 Lt R. M. Newman; Hyde, Central Otago; born Middlemarch, 2 Nov 1918; farm labourer; wounded 13 Apr 1945.
37 Trooper J. R. Blunden was mentioned in orders for his gallantry in rescuing a wounded infantryman under fire. ‘The GOC 2 NZEF congratulates Tpr Blunden on his courage and directs that this act of gallantry be recorded on his conduct sheet and personal records,’ the citation ran.
38 With units passing through each other to take the lead in turn, there was considerable speculation as to which would be first into Florence. The doubtful honour of being ‘the first Kiwi to enter Florence’ was won by Brigadier Stewart, 5 Brigade's commander. Driving forward early on 1 August to find the Maori Battalion's headquarters, he went too far and was taken prisoner. The Brigadier's driver was Trooper S. W. Dickie of the reconnaissance troop, who the night before had been sent back to Brigade Headquarters with one of the troop's scout cars. He was taken prisoner with the Brigadier—‘and we hadn't even had breakfast either’