CHAPTER 15 — Advance to Florence
Advance to Florence
The pursuit beyond Rome had been swift and relentless in spite of a skilled and determined rearguard, but the Italian theatre no longer had first call on all resources of land, sea and air. The light of world publicity that had featured every incident in the Italian campaign was now switched to France; so were planes, shells, and three veteran United States and two French divisions. From this stage onwards the Italian campaign was designed to threaten an area vital to the enemy —Austria—and to force a diversion of strength from both Russia and France. In world strategy a hitherto main battleground became overnight a secondary front. But that was beyond the view of the rank-and-file Kiwi. All he knew and was concerned about was the fact that he was going into action again after, in his opinion, all too short a rest.
In actual fact there was nothing capricious in the sudden stopping of Rome leave. Divisional Headquarters had received a signal as imperative as the one recalling the Division from Syria to North Africa in June 1942, and acted on it as quickly.
The enemy had fallen back to a position around Lake Trasimene, and, after hard fighting, 13 Corps had broken through but was faced by a determined defence at Arezzo, 40 miles south-east of Florence. Two attempts to outflank the position had failed, and while Arezzo held the Germans had little to fear on the rest of the front. The whole Allied plan, therefore, was in jeopardy, for it was based on the early capture of Florence and a quick strike through the mountains to Bologna and the heart of the industrial north. The pressing need was for infantry to support 6 Armoured Division in its attack on Arezzo, and 2 New Zealand Division was the most immediately available. Sixth Brigade was detailed for the role and left on the night of 9–10 July. Fifth Brigade followed the next night.
Trucks arrived in the afternoon and the troops stacked their ear on board preparatory to moving when the time arrived page 350 to join the 1150-vehicle brigade column. The daylight hours were spent in burning rubbish, burying what could not be burnt, and giving away odds and ends to the swarming hordes of Italian women and children who invariably assembled when a move was about to take place.
The convoy rumbled through Rome, through the long straight miles of workers' tenements while their inhabitants slept, past palaces, churches and silent ruins, museums, libraries and grimy industrial buildings, and on to Route 3, where the road began to climb. Rome glistened in the growing light and, dominating the myriad spires, Saint Peter's, with its base of two and a half acres and its 400-foot-high dome, could still be seen 15 miles away. By breakfast time the convoy was dispersed in a divisional staging area at Civita Castellana, 30 miles north of the city, where it remained until the early hours of the next morning. Daylight saw it again dispersed at Paciano, a hundred miles further north. The third leg, a short one of about twenty miles, took a long time because of demolitions and detours. The enemy had defended the area tenaciously, his engineers had covered the retirement in their usual efficient manner, and the RAF had not been absent. The battalion dispersed near the hilltop village of Cortona, while 6 Brigade fought its way over the top of Monte Lignano and 6 Armoured Division made its third and successful bid to capture Arezzo. The following week was spent in training in co-operation with tanks and in being instructed by engineers on mines and mine detection. Commands in the battalion had altered considerably since Balsorano: on handing over to Lieutenant-Colonel Thodey, Lieutenant-Colonel Trousdale had spent a month as CO 2 NZEF Advanced Base before being appointed to the Prisoner-of-war Repatriation Unit in England; Major Dymock1 had come from 22 (Motor) Battalion; Major Hawkesby had returned from a sojourn in hospital; and Major Tanner had left to attend staff college.
During this period the troops did several route marches to Lake Trasimene, eight miles away, and picnicked there. Lunch at the lake, followed by swimming and rowing assault boats page 351 borrowed from an engineer unit training there, made a pleasant day. Fruit was plentiful—and so were flies, ants, and bugs of various descriptions and varying voracity.
Monday, 17 July, was a memorable day. The air was electric. Something had been brewing for days, but the battalion orderly room had learnt the meaning of security, and beyond the fact that the new commanding officer would be present, there were only the vaguest suggestions of something interesting for somebody. The companies fell in, were inspected, and marched to the battalion parade ground. Colonel Thodey introduced himself, and then went on to announce that the 19 married men of the 4th Reinforcements were on the roll of the Taupo furlough draft, were excused all duties and would be marched out almost immediately. The brigade band played in the battalion area in the evening; a concert organised by Padre Duncan2 followed; and other gatherings, at which the departing Fourths were the guests of honour, organised themselves. A night to be remembered! The furlough men were inspected and farewelled by Brigadier Stewart next day and marched out the following day, while the battalion went for a long route march to get the parting celebrations out of its system. Movement orders were received in the morning.
Eighth Army had taken over from Fifth Army a 15-mile-wide sector astride the route Siena-Empoli, which was in the process of being vacated by 2 Moroccan Division. This was the quickest route to Florence, and 2 NZ Division had been directed to seize crossings over the River Arno on the thrust line Castellina-San Casciano-Signa (five miles west of the city). On the New Zealanders' right 6 South African Armoured Division would strike straight at Florence, and on the left 8 Indian Division would give flank protection and follow up the enemy withdrawal.
Fifth Brigade moved off on the morning of 21 July, but 21 Battalion, in brigade reserve, did not leave Cortona until the late afternoon. It was not a good day. The country was hilly, it was high summer, and the roads were inches deep in dust. Part of the column took the wrong turning while passing page 352 through Siena, whereupon French, American, and New Zealand provosts rushed up and down giving contrary orders in different languages. It was two hours before the transport tangle was straightened out. The halt that night was at Castellina, 50 miles north-west of Cortona, where the hundred-odd reinforcements who had joined the unit at Arce heard the rumbling like summer thunder in Egypt and did not have to be told what it really was.
The general position was that the capture of Arezzo, in addition to the pressure further west, had forced the enemy into another fighting withdrawal to a new line based on the Arno. The divisional sector was held with two battalions forward, 23 Battalion on the right and 28 Battalion on the left, both supported by armour. Their instructions were to maintain close contact with the enemy and by aggressive action force his withdrawal to continue. While the situation remained fluid, each forward battalion would conduct its own advance with Brigade co-ordinating times and distances.page 353
The operation began at daylight on 22 July and by the end of the day 23 Battalion, after some fierce fighting, was poised for the capture of Sambuca, where the River Pesa converges, on and follows the road to San Casciano, six miles further north. The 28th Battalion had an easier time and had patrolled as far as Pignano. The 21st Battalion edged up behind the forward battalions. A hot and arid ten-mile march through Castellina ended near San Donato, where bivvies were pitched and the troops listened to the BBC giving details of a bomb plot that had been designed to produce a new Fuehrer in Germany. The idea had been to eliminate Hitler and sue for peace, but though Hitler was not killed most of the plotters were. The Fuehrer went on the air in a national hook-up, firstly to prove that he was (unhappily) still alive, and secondly to order everybody to shoot everybody suspected of being in sympathy with the movement to liquidate him. Judging by the battle sounds ahead, 21 Battalion considered that the attempt had not upset the German defence of Italy to any noticeable extent.
After breakfast on the 23rd the troops packed up and moved along a road, over a couple of hills, and through San Donato to a lying-up position two miles further forward. The Maoris were in Tavarnelle and pushing on, while 23 Battalion had occupied Strada La Rocca, crossed the Pesa into Sambuca, and was patrolling up to Fabbrica. The 21st Battalion was to take over the pursuit from 23 Battalion after dark, and Colonel Thodey made a reconnaissance of the forward area. He found that 23 Battalion had at last been halted in front of Fabbrica, which was strongly held. Civilians had volunteered the information that the Germans had left Fabbrica, but when A Company 23 Battalion approached the village it was fired on at point-blank range and had to withdraw under cover of a smoke screen.
B Company (Captain Parfitt) relieved A Company 23 Battalion in Sambuca and A Company (Major Harding) relieved D Company 23 Battalion in Rocca. C Company (Major Hawkesby) moved up in close support of A Company and D Company (Major Dymock) remained in reserve. The enemy were holding Fabbrica in strength. B Company remained in Sambuca, but the Maoris were still going forward and at first light were in page 354 Bonazza. The remaining two companies of 23 Battalion were held up temporarily at a road block outside Strada. The 21st Battalion stayed in position during the 24th, while the Maoris and 23 Battalion reconnoitred ahead in the face of mounting opposition. Colonel Thodey moved Battalion Headquarters to a crossroads north of Rocca, and D Company was dispersed along the road. The men made frequent reconnaissances on their own account, but only to collect fruit and ripe tomatoes.
Armcav, a composite force of tanks, Divisional Cavalry, and a company of 22 Battalion, relieved B Company in Sambuca, whereupon the latter joined D Company, both in its reserve role and in its fruit-gathering activities. A Company, with C Company in close support, moved out of Rocca, passed through 23 Battalion during the night, and found that the enemy rearguard had departed. By mid-morning they were on the San Casciano-Montespertoli road, west of the Pesa. Thodey was ordered to stand on that line. He had lost touch with the Maoris, but they were known to be not far away.
By the end of the day, during which the battalion remained halted, the South African and New Zealand Divisions faced squarely up to the German Olga Line, which extended along the top of a ridge on the South African front to San Casciano, across the Pesa to another ridge at Poppiano, thence across the Indian Division's front.
The presence of Armcav striking at San Casciano enabled 5 Brigade to regroup, and 21 Battalion was ordered to sidestep west towards Poppiano, where the Maoris were halted, and to take over a portion of their front. Guides from the Maori Battalion reported to lead B and D Companies to their new area south-east of Poppiano. B Company's guide got lost, and the troops eventually settled into houses near to but not actually where they should have been.
Sergeant Ward gives a glimpse of the Tuscan countryside:
At three in the morning we bedded down in a house for the night and stayed there all the next day. Suited me, for I was able to look around a beautiful home. Tuscany, the wealthiest province in Italy, is made up of huge estates run on the feudal system of ancient England. Around the houses were acres and acres of flower and vegetable gardens, orchards, vineyards and park lands, all farmed by page 355 servants of the house. Evidently the owner had been on excellent terms with the Germans, for the place was not looted and in addition I collected the owner's membership card of the Fascist Union in Florence. On the top floor the chaps soon found and made use of the billiard table.
D Company had a very busy time, starting with an early reconnaissance by Major Dymock. He was looking over the area with Lieutenant-Colonel Awatere,3 and had arrived at the left flanking platoon of the company he was to relieve. The platoon was settled in a house with all windows securely blacked out and was having a meal by candlelight, when the roof was lifted off by a bazooka or self-propelled gun. Grenade splinters and bullets ripped through the windows and within seconds a battle was raging around the house. Awatere and Dymock spent the time filling Bren and tommy-gun magazines, and the Major maintained afterwards that never before or since had he seen so many filled so quickly. The enemy withdrew after twenty minutes of furious firing, and the Maoris resumed their interrupted meal. The D Company guide had a sure eye for country, and the relief was effected by 3.30 a.m. The company was fired on quite heavily off and on during the rest of the night, and at first light 17 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant Fitzgibbon), supported by a tank, went out to test the enemy strength. Three spandau nests were destroyed, but it soon became obvious that there were more enemy than the platoon could handle. Fitzgibbon was wounded by a mortar fragment, but withdrew the platoon with six wounded back to safety.
Very little progress was made on the divisional front during the day, and at last light the enemy was still holding San Casciano on the right flank and was reported to be in strength in the Poppiano-La Ripa area. B Company made good progress with a billiards tournament.
The timetable did not call for 21 Battalion to advance until after dark that night (the 26th), when a very full programme had been arranged. A Company was to remain in position; B Company was to capture and consolidate La Ripa and remain as a firm base for 26 Battalion; D Company, with the M2 page 356 aid of a barrage, was to clear San Quirico and hold a crossroads immediately north of the village; C Company had the task of taking Poppiano, the key to the enemy line. At 10 p.m. the artillery opened with a ‘stander’ on D Company's start line, and an hour later the troops followed the barrage along the road to San Quirico. Fire was severe at first, but the company pushed determinedly on and through the village, searching the houses en route. An extra handicap was the short firing of a machine gun from somewhere in the rear, but the misdirected effort of the gunner caused no casualties, and D Company dug in on its crossroad objective.
As soon as the barrage started B Company left in a wide flanking movement that took it around the end of the firing. The men were sorry to part with their billiard saloon, but consoled themselves by taking a little something in their water bottles for the road. It was a wise precaution, for their route was down a long gully and across the mouths of several more gullies before they came to La Ripa, only to find the place empty.
At 4 a.m. C Company was sent to clear Poppiano. The Germans had just moved out and the sole occupant of the village square was the local priest. He led the company to the vaults under the church, where the population of Poppiano was gathered and where one prisoner who had evidently decided to desert was taken. He was the smallest German the troops had ever seen. He was so small that the fishermen among them maintained that he ought to be thrown back. After his removal the troops had to undergo one of the minor horrors of war by being soundly kissed by all the unshaven inmates of the cellar. C Company then consolidated in the village, with 14 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant Oates) and a troop of tanks in and around a castle on the forward slopes of the ridge upon which the village was situated. Mussolini was supposed to have used the castle as a hideout and shelter from air raids. If so, the rather palatable apricot-flavoured vino the troops found there might have been a favourite of his.
By this time 26 Battalion had arrived in La Ripa and had gone on down the road towards the Pesa River as the left flanking battalion of 6 Brigade. B Company was recalled and page 357 retraced its steps up the hillside it had descended a few hours earlier to D Company's road junction, where it was to join some tanks, sappers, and a bulldozer and push on to Montagnana, two miles west of 26 Battalion's objective, the town of Cerbaia. The place was being shelled, but the augmented B Company got away without casualties.
The road to Montagnana was down a long spur in full view of the enemy on the east side of the Pesa, but 6 Brigade, advancing with the evident intention of crossing the river, attracted most of the enemy's attention.
No. 10 Platoon led the way, strung out in open formation across the road, and about 300 yards in front of the tanks. Its wireless had broken down, and Lieutenant Bullock maintained communication by riding on the leading tank and watching his platoon in front. The company proceeded in this way for about two miles, when a road demolition was met. There were no mines about, so the bulldozer went ahead and, behind an infantry screen, cleared a track for the tanks.
The advance then continued to the outskirts of Montagnana, where there was a stalemate for half an hour, with the company halted and the tanks, without artillery support but with a Mark VI Tiger reported in the vicinity, reluctant to become sitting targets.
Sergeant Ward writes:
Paddy Sheehan crawled up to me and said he was tired of sitting down and thought he could see some camouflage out on the left and what about taking a look. We decided to sneak around the left flank and investigate the village. We nipped through back yards, opened doors quietly and crawled up staircases. There were no enemy about, but they must have left in a great hurry, for there was food half eaten on the tables. The camouflage Paddy thought he saw was a fallen tree with a hay stack behind it, so we returned to the platoon with the information that the village was empty.
B Company moved into Montagnana and consolidated. It found a bigger and even more pretentious mansion than the one it had left in the early morning, but with this difference: the owner might have expressed pro-British sentiments, for everything possible, furniture, glass, earthenware and oil paintings page 358 had been destroyed, presumably by the enemy. Even the wine casks in the cellar had been broached.
The rest of the day passed on 21 Battalion's front without noteworthy incident. The Maoris assumed responsibility for the protection of the brigade's left flank, Armcav entered San Casciano, and the German Olga Line had gone. The battalion regrouped during the night. C Company moved from Poppiano and joined B Company in Montagnana; D Company stayed in position; A Company and Battalion Headquarters moved into the Montagnana area.
In the morning the Indians were seen moving up the ridge and thus securing the divisional left flank. The 23rd Battalion had passed to the command of 4 Armoured Brigade preparatory to the attack on the wooded hills north of San Casciano, the German Paula Line and the last defence in front of Florence.
Sixth Brigade, with 4 Armoured Brigade on its right, began the attack on the Paula Line, and D Company's crossroads were close enough to give a grandstand view of some of the fighting on the eastern side of the Pesa. The road was soon full of jeeps and pick-ups, and the German gunners, in spite of their preoccupation with 6 Brigade, found time to shell it.
Major Dymock remembers the occasion:
Jerry gave quite a lot of harassing mortar fire from the west, so Company Headquarters plus visitors (… the Padre and others) kept to the eastern side of headquarters house until an 88 began to work on that side as well. I remember the assembled company getting very restless under an assumed air of casualness, each privately dying to duck away to the other side of the house, but waiting for me as senior officer to make the first move. I did so after about the third near miss from the 88, and we had not gone more than a minute when a direct hit came in through the window into the room we had just left. I have never seen such a shambles. The Padre asked me if I thought the chaps would like him to say a few words, which he did. Our visitors left during the first lull.
The 21st Battalion stayed around Montagnana until the morning of 30 July. There was fierce fighting for the Paula Line, with the enemy counter-attacking, the RAF making sortie after sortie, and the battle still undecided. The 23rd Battalion relieved two companies of 22 (Motor) Battalion, and the Maoris page 359 in turn relieved the left flank of 23 Battalion. The 21st Battalion was the last unit of 5 Brigade to vacate the area, and it moved by RMT to the town square of battered San Casciano. From there it marched into positions around that road junction, with the role of protecting the right flank of the brigade sector until the South Africans got up. The latter were strongly opposed and were still two miles or more south of the New Zealand line.
Meanwhile 6 Brigade was fighting desperately. Faltignano had been won and lost, San Michele had become a name 6 Brigade will never forget, and the Paula Line was still holding. The only event of importance that happened in 21 Battalion's area was the finding by attached engineers of an unrifled bank vault in dive-bombed San Casciano. The discoverers repaired the German omission with gelignite and shared the contents, about £200 each, so rumour went. The troops felt that a knowledge of explosives could be included with advantage in the training syllabus.
Fifth Brigade resumed the attack on the night of 30–31 July, with 23 Battalion on the right and 28 Battalion on the left, while the 21st continued to watch the right flank between the New Zealanders and the South Africans, whose forward elements were now drawing level. By the following night the brigade objective, a line running east from the Massanera crossroads and due east from San Michele, had been occupied after some hard fighting. The 23rd Battalion was relieved by a South African battalion that had come under the command of 5 Brigade, and 21 Battalion moved up to Il Pino crossroads behind the Maoris. The Division was now facing the last obstacle before Florence. The key position was the Pian dei Cerri Ridge, and the intention was for the whole Division to make a co-ordinated attack so that each brigade arrived on its objective simultaneously. La Poggiona Hill, on the eastern end of Pian dei Cerri Ridge, dominated the road forward and was 5 Brigade's objective. The 21st Battalion was to make the brigade attack with two companies forward, each having for its objective a rocky outcrop on the side of La Poggiona called by the Italians Poggio Issi and Poggio Manache. These two outcrops were named by Brigade for reference purposes the page 360 Twin Nipples, and were referred to by the troops somewhat less delicately.
Colonel Thodey had under command for the attack one platoon of 1 Machine Gun Company, and in support a squad of 20 Armoured Regiment and two detachments from 7 Field Company with a bulldozer. He was to select his own start line, and a barrage would be provided. The Maoris were reported to have reached a crossroads two miles north of Il Pino, and it was decided to go in there. The barrage would open at the crossroads, and the Maori Battalion was to pull back out of danger before 21 Battalion passed through.
Brigadier Stewart drew up his plan of battle on the information that the Maoris were in square 7362 on the map 106–111 Signa, but the Maori Battalion had passed several crossroads during the night's fighting and was actually at the crossroads in square 7361, which is five-eighths of a mile (to be precise, one kilometre) farther south. Whether the Maoris made a mistake in plotting their position, or whether their message was mutilated in transmission, is not clear, but the brigade situation report placed them at the wrong crossroads.
The first consequence of the error was that Brigadier Stewart left at 5 a.m. on the morning of 1 August on a forward reconnaissance and drove straight into the enemy lines and became a prisoner for the duration. When frantic messages and searches failed to find the Brigadier, Colonel Pleasants,4 second-in-command of 4 Armoured Brigade, assumed command of 5 Brigade, but the error in the situation report was not known and the artillery barrage was worked out on false premises. The 21st Battalion's attack went in that night, but did not succeed because the barrage started behind the enemy lines.
A Company advanced on the right and C Company on the left, with the road as the axis of advance. The barrage opened at 3 a.m. and both companies, each with two platoons up in extended order, went forward. The night was very dark and the twin features could not be seen. A Company advanced without much difficulty until the estimated distance had been page 361 covered, and reported that the objective was still not in sight. Daybreak was now not far off, and as the support arms had not got over the road demolitions, the company was recalled.
C Company, on the left of the road, had no trouble until it came to a place where a gully parallel to the road narrowed its front to a few yards. The forward platoon commanders, Second-Lieutenant Weir5 (13 Platoon) on the right and Second-Lieutenant Blackie (15 Platoon) on the left, considered that they had gone the required distance, but they could not see the Nipples. They had decided to push on when they were fired on from four directions, forward, right-forward, left and rear-left. Private ‘Mac’ McEwing,6 13 Platoon's wireless operator, was hit in the first burst but, after his wound was bandaged with a field dressing, carried on with his job. The right-hand section near the road was pinned down and eventually withdrew with A Company. Sergeant ‘Ollie’ Spinetto7 engaged the left rear spandau with his Bren, while 15 Platoon tried to silence the third spandau. Corporal ‘Mick’ Fitness,8 staggering back with mortar splinters in his leg and face, met Second-Lieutenant Weir, who nearly shot him for a German because of his inability to answer clearly when challenged. Instead of reporting to the RAP, Fitness guided Weir and McEwing over to where Spinetto, from the shelter of a tree, was shooting it out with the spandau. They arranged that the sergeant would keep the spandau busy while Weir and the rest of the section rushed it from a flank. The operation was completely successful and the two Germans operating the machine gun were killed. McEwing by this time had picked up the order to withdraw, but in the mêlée direction had been lost and the whereabouts of Company Headquarters was uncertain. McEwing thereupon wirelessed a request to Company Headquarters to put up a flare, and the platoons pulled back to the crossroads and were dispersed in houses in the vicinity.page 362
Although 21 Battalion's effort had misfired, 22 Battalion was established a few hundred yards below the crest of the Pian dei Cerri Ridge, and 25 Battalion, leading 6 Brigade's attack, was within a thousand yards of the top. Both units had taken all their objectives.
A new programme was arranged for the following night, with B and D Companies of 21 Battalion making the attack. It was a day of heavy gunfire; the enemy positions on the ridge and the Twin Nipples were under fire from bombers, fighters, and artillery almost without rest. B and D Companies, in spite of fire from a Tiger which forced them to take cover in a ditch alongside the road, were on the start line by 10.30 p.m. There was further delay because of a short-firing gun which cost several casualties, but otherwise the operation went according to plan. B Company swung into single file at the point where its front narrowed and where C Company had been held up, and formed up again in open order beyond the obstacle.
The opposition on the Nipples was quickly silenced. Thirty prisoners were taken and 60 dead Germans, mostly killed by the barrage, were buried, at a cost of two killed and 26 wounded. The Tiger had gone when the troops exploited around, leaving only traces of its hurried departure.
Within two hours of the capture of the Twin Nipples the enemy was thinning out. While this was going on the troops on the Nipples dug deep slit trenches in preparation for the retaliation daylight would most certainly bring. It came, but from the wrong direction—they were ‘stonked’ for some minutes by our own artillery, luckily without loss. The rest of the day was peaceful, probably because the enemy was too busy abandoning his positions south of the Arno River.
The battalion stewed in the August heat and watched the tide of battle roll along the road towards Florence. The 28th and 23rd Battalions passed through, and civilians emerged from their hiding places. The South Africans entered Florence early the next morning (4 August) and in the evening 21 Battalion moved forward to Scandicci village, within a couple of miles of the outskirts of the river city. The troops were feasting their eyes on the city spread below them and were promising to brighten the lights already beginning to twinkle across the page 363 river, when they were horrified to see a Tiger tank bearing down on the column. As a Tiger can shoot a Sherman to pieces with the greatest of ease, there was marked relief when it was learned that a 22 Battalion officer had found the Tiger intact and was driving it back as a keepsake.
The fleshpots of Florence were not for 5 Brigade, although 23 Battalion won a race with the Maoris for the honour of being the first New Zealanders into the city. They were recalled before the first draughts of victory had properly settled the dust, and the brigade moved on 6 August to the Fezzana area, a mile north-west of Poppiano. The Indian Division had not reached the Arno, and 2 New Zealand Division was to take over and reconnoitre the approaches to the river.
The battalion left again the same night and, after debussing, marching several miles and getting lost in the process, eventually relieved the 3/8 Punjabis. The 23rd Battalion was on the left of the 21st, and the Maoris were in reserve.
The brigade was now 15 miles west of Florence and facing Empoli, a town about the same size as Cassino. The country was flat to undulating, with the hills on the northern bank of the Arno. The main body of the enemy had retired across the river, but he maintained outposts on the south bank, mostly in houses in and around Empoli. The battalion was deployed with B, A, and C Companies forward and D Company in reserve. C Company, on the left flank, was directly in front of the Empoli railway station and separated from 23 Battalion by a number of houses, around which there was a fair amount of German patrol activity at night. The patrols were not aggressive, however, and apart from interfering with the gathering of peaches and pears, did no harm.
From the 7th to the 11th 21 Battalion reconnoitred routes to the river bank by night and lay up in its houses by day. Some patrols were fired on and some were not. There were no casualties from enemy action, but a trigger-happy sentry in 11 Platoon shot Sergeant Don Naylor9 in the leg when he was visiting the company posts.
The 21st Battalion was ordered to occupy Empoli, and page 364 B Company 28 Battalion came under command for the operation. It had been established that Empoli had been evacuated by its inhabitants and was not held in force, but snipers and patrols were active and the whole area was heavily booby-trapped.
The Maoris under Major Te Punga10 went into Empoli on the night of 11–12 August, while C Company stood by to reinforce them if they were held up. They reported that they had cleared most of the town but needed assistance to hold it. C Company accordingly moved into the town, while engineers cleared demolitions so that tanks could support them if necessary.
Before the move Colonel Thodey and Major Hawkesby had made a reconnaissance of the situation and had found that, with the exception of the final block of houses on the river side of the town, the Maoris had killed, silenced, or chased the enemy out of Empoli. There was, however, still a fair number of mortar shells coming in, so substantial houses were decided on for platoon posts. No. 14 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant Oates) went in first, passed through the Maoris, and took possession of a large house that commanded the road into the town square. No. 13 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant Weir) followed on receipt of a signal that 14 Platoon was settled in. Its house, on the opposite side of the road from 14 Platoon's, was surrounded by a stone wall surmounted by iron spikes and guarded by a high-grilled, padlocked door. Mindful of booby traps, the platoon left the door alone and climbed over the wall. Corporal Frank Price11 was missing when the platoon reorganised prior to investigating the house, but was discovered securely fastened to the top of the wall with his foot caught between the spikes. After much pushing and pulling, aided by the Corporal supplying language suitable to the occasion, he was freed. Two doors into the house were booby-trapped with Schu mines, which were disconnected, and the platoon settled in, whereupon 15 Platoon (Sergeant ‘Ginner’ Murray12), Major page 365 Hawkesby, and Company Headquarters completed the company dispositions in the house selected for the purpose.
There were sporadic spandau bursts until dawn, when a German was seen by a sentry at an upstairs window in 14 Platoon's house. Owing to the angle of approach it was impossible to shoot him without leaning half out of the window, but the German evidently thought the house occupied by his own side and waved a greeting before he vanished. Not to be outdone in politeness, the New Zealander returned the wave. The sequel came a few minutes later when four Germans were spotted by both platoons making for 14 Platoon's house. Three were wounded and one killed but, still regarding the house as a place of refuge, two of the wounded Germans ran for it, where they were disillusioned. They were told to go and bring in their mates, but were unfortunate enough to set off one of their own booby traps in the doorway that had failed to function earlier. One German was killed and two of the platoon wounded, luckily not seriously.
That was the end of active hostilities in Empoli as far as C Company was concerned. The town was mortared on and off during the day and more snipers were rounded up by the Maoris. An amateur burglar in 15 Platoon tried his apprentice hand on a safe that he discovered, no doubt spurred on by the exploit of the engineers in San Casciano. His first effort with a Hawkins grenade was not successful, and a Teller mine merely altered its shape but did not open it.
The Maoris took over the occupation of Empoli that night and C Company returned to its old area until the 16th. The battalion moved to a staging area some eight miles south early the following morning, and left on a dark and dusty ride to Strada, about a mile south of Castellina and 5 Brigade's rest area. There was a strong rumour that the battalion would be staying in the area for some time and, although the troops had heard that tale before, the ‘jacking up’ of amenities was energetically undertaken. A cinema unit opened in the battalion area, grapes were at their best, and the product of other years' crops not unavailable. The invasion of southern France was going well and the Americans were nearing Paris. Less authentic news was that the war was scheduled to be over with page 366 the occupation of Berlin within two months, and that the Division was moving over to France to be in at the kill.
Six-day leave to Rome opened again; Siena was within bounds; and each company spent two days at the beach near Vada. Real sand and real salt-water bathing. If you could manage to forget the sunken ships off shore and the mined areas, it was just like a long weekend at home, even to the three hours' drive back in the evening and work the next morning. Of course it could not last. Company commanders began to attend conferences, and orderly-room sergeants began to look important; routine training commenced; France or …?
The last company left for Vada on the 23rd. The following day the troops formed up along the Castellina-Siena road and watched Mr. Churchill drive past in a cloud of dust. On the 26th leave was cancelled and the carriers left the battalion. On Sunday, 27 August, there was no doubt about it; and the troops packed up.
The battalion's casualties during July and August were 19 killed and 61 wounded.
2 Rev. D. E. Duncan; Wairoa; born Waikanae, 30 Aug 1912; Presbyterian minister; wounded 9 Oct 1944.
4 Brig C. L. Pleasants, CBE, DSO, MC, ED, m.i.d.; Fiji; born Halcombe, 26 Jul 1910; schoolmaster; CO 18 Bn Jul-Oct 1942; 18 Armd Regt Oct 1942-Mar 1944; comd 4 Armd Bde Sep-Nov 1944; 5 Bde 1–22 Aug 1944, Nov 1944-Feb 1945, May 1945-Jan 1946; twice wounded; Commander Fiji Military Forces 1949–53.