CHAPTER 14 — Advance on Florence
Advance on Florence
The unexpected order to move deprived A and B Companies of a visit to Lake Albano. It had also caught the battalion at some disadvantage because of TAB and typhus inoculations, but preparations were quickly under way, including the usual rather futile attempts to keep the movements of the Division secret; Italian civilians were well aware that the troops were leaving, indeed many farewelled them, but possibly the removal of badges and vehicle signs made the task of enemy agents in identifying the columns on the congested roads a little more difficult.
A very early start was made on 10 July when at 1.30 a.m. 25 Battalion, as part of 6 Brigade Group, departed on the first stage of the 200-mile journey to a concentration area near Lake Trasimene, 60 miles south-east of Florence. The roads, though tarsealed, were rather rough where the numerous bomb-craters caused by Allied aircraft had been filled in by the Italians, and after a seven-hour journey the men were glad to halt at the staging area at Civita Castellana, 30 miles beyond Rome. The troops had a fleeting glimpse of Rome as the convoy passed through the outskirts of the city.
In the morning D Company rejoined, having reached Lake Bolsena at midday on the 7th, when it was learnt that its task was to furnish security guards and pickets in Florence. Apparently the move of the Division had cancelled this role and the company spent a very happy three days in swimming and general recreation.
Leaving at 2.30 next morning, the battalion before midday reached its area overlooking Lake Trasimene; it was a rough and dusty journey through a countryside much like New Zealand, with fences and with reapers and binders working on the farms.
In the afternoon of the 11th a reconnaissance party left for the position the battalion was to take over. This was a few hundred yards south-west of the crest of Monte Lignano and was held by 1 Battalion King's Royal Rifle Corps. After sending the B Echelon vehicles to the brigade area about four miles back, the battalion at 7.30 p.m. on the 12th followed Route 71 until compelled to halt in the vicinity of Castiglion Fiorentino, 20 miles to the north, until darkness fell, when it moved on to the debussing points near Rigutino three miles away. There thirty mules provided by Headquarters KRRC on request were loaded with the medium machine guns of 5 MG Platoon (which was under the battalion's command), ammunition, and other heavy items, and a few minutes before midnight the steep climb to the heights above commenced.
Moving up a road to the small village of Pieve di Rigutino, about a mile away, 25 Battalion headquarters occupied a rather queer house, a collection of rooms built in an old disused church. Two miles south of Rigutino, D Company left the vehicles and, avoiding that village, which was being shelled intermittently, moved across country for a few hundred yards, following the road taken by Battalion Headquarters and halting just south of the village. For the local protection of Battalion Headquarters, 18 Platoon was sent off 500 yards to the west, well up into the hills, where it took up a position as a standing patrol near a track on the side of a ridge leading up to Monte Lignano, 2400 yards to the north. The platoon occupied a house which already held no fewer than thirty-three Italians, whose numbers were considerably reduced a little later when enemy shelling in the vicinity caused a good deal of alarm.
In the meantime C Company had debussed in Rigutino and marched north-west along Route 71 for about a mile, whence it followed a track rising very steeply to the north-east for 2800 yards to the front-line position occupied by A Company 1 KRRC, which it relieved. The climb was a stiff one of 1400 feet up a very rocky mule-track and took over an hour. Fortunately, mules were available to carry the equipment, including that of a section of medium machine guns which were in position by 4 a.m. The relief was completed half an hour later. Heavy machine-gun fire delayed some of the KRRC men, and as daylight was near they took up a sheltered position till the evening. The front taken over by C Company had apparently been far from quiet.page 449
‘The relieved company had been pretty badly knocked about,’ said Private Shinnick1 of 15 Platoon [Lieutenant Trevor Collins, with Sergeant Schofield2 as platoon sergeant], ‘and twice Jerry had got amongst them with patrols while his continuous mortaring took a heavy toll, for the positions, held as they were in a thick plantation of pines, were subjected to a type of low air-burst as the falling bombs exploded on contact with branches. They had lost over 50 per cent casualties in 4 days.’
A and B Companies also followed the route taken by Battalion Headquarters, A Company taking up a position about half a mile south-west of Pieve di Rigutino and B Company occupying Quercioli village, about the same distance south of A Company. During the relief there was a good deal of shelling and mortaring but no casualties were reported. About three miles to the south-east of 25 Battalion headquarters, 26 Battalion by midnight had occupied its position on the lower slopes of Monte Maggio.
In the morning and again in the afternoon 25 Battalion headquarters and A and B Companies were shelled, the house occupied by Battalion Headquarters receiving a direct hit a little before noon and 18 Platoon's house also being hit during a heavy mortar bombardment later in the day. Shortly before midday B Company sent 11 Platoon as a standing patrol from Quercioli up a wadi to occupy a group of houses 2400 yards to the north-east of Point 570. It was a very isolated situation for such a small detachment, dominated as it was by Col de Luca and Monte Camurcina, two hilltops 500 yards apart and 1100 to 1600 yards north-east of the platoon and 300 feet higher. These hilltops were held by the enemy, who could easily have occupied the houses and so gained access to the track which led down to Quercioli. The platoon was observed, from the battalion OP, to have occupied the houses; it secured ‘a lovely house’, as a battalion signaller described it, and though it had met with no opposition, it had obviously been observed as later in the day it had casualties from mortar fire. The platoon was to remain in position until relieved by 24 Battalion at first light next morning, 14 July.
In C Company's position near the top of Monte Lignano the MMG section had one man killed and three wounded by page 450 enemy shelling and mortar fire, while 25 Battalion casualties during the day were one killed and one wounded. A jeep was also hit. Enemy occupation of the crest above the company was confirmed late in the day by the Bren-gunners; noticing a cave near the top, they suspected it held a Spandau post, a suspicion that was speedily confirmed, when they fired into it with a Bren gun, by immediate retaliatory Spandau fire.
Throughout the day many Allied aircraft passed within view of the battalion, their targets being gun positions and any vehicles and troops on the move, part of the preparations for the impending offensive.
The battalion, as well as other units in the Division, was rather ‘at sixes and sevens’ on account of the withdrawal for furlough of the 4th Reinforcements, as indicated in extracts from the diary of Wakeling, who was one of them:
‘Tues II July: 4th Reinf withdrawn for furlough. Told later that we are to move up and take over from some Tommies….
‘Wed 12th: Told that the 4ths are to see no more action but will stay at B Ech till withdrawn from the Div.
‘Plenty of panic as 4ths to be replaced in all jobs.’
The unexpectedly early move to the front was responsible for the very short notice of the withdrawal, which however excluded some of the single men. It is no small matter suddenly to withdraw highly experienced men, many of them in key jobs, on the eve of battle. The draft returning to New Zealand, ‘Taupo’ as it was named, left for Advanced Base on 20 July.
Meanwhile, on 13 July, preparations were in train for an attack by 25 Battalion on Monte Lignano. In the morning Brigadier Burrows3 had walked up to Battalion Headquarters to discuss the plans, which Colonel Norman subsequently explained to the company commanders and other officers. The operation was to be a full-scale attack with strong artillery support and with two troops 17/21 Lancers and one platoon 2 MG Company under command. C Company was to take the summit of Lignano and D Company Point 650, which was 1200 yards farther on to the north-west. A Company would occupy an intermediate position on the western shoulder near the top of Monte Lignano, and B Company in reserve would move up page 451 to the head of the wadi north of Battalion Headquarters to occupy the position vacated by C Company. When the objectives were taken the battalion would be relieved by 24 Battalion.
On the left of 25 Battalion 1 Guards Brigade was to capture Stoppiace, 400 yards north-west of D Company's objective, and also a hill half a mile north-east of Stoppiace; this was the first phase of its offensive from the south-west against Arezzo, and as a preliminary the British artillery and aircraft had for some days been active on that front.
Three New Zealand field regiments firing timed concentrations on the objectives were to support 25 Battalion. It was recognised that the precipitous nature of the country made the task of the artillery very difficult and instructions were issued to all batteries that ‘care will be taken in computing correct Angle of Sight for individual guns during fire plan’. This matter assumed special significance during the attack, as will be seen. Two batteries from each of 4 and 5 Field Regiments were to engage the peak of Monte Lignano for an hour, first rapidly, then very slowly, and finally slowly, and at the same time search an area of fifty yards by a hundred yards at the peak. The third battery of 5 Field Regiment was to shell the eastern slopes of Lignano and the third battery of 4 Field Regiment would engage D Company's final objective, which the other two batteries of the regiment would also engage when they had finished with Lignano.
Sixth Field Regiment had targets beyond Monte Lignano, 500 yards to the north, 1100 yards to the north-east, and 750 yards to the north-west (towards D Company's objective). The 4.2-inch mortars were also taking part, 6 Brigade's mortar platoon with two troops of 39 NZ Mortar Battery engaging targets on two hills 800 yards east and 1200 yards south-east of Lignano and also on 6 Field Regiment's target to the north-east. A British medium battery was to support the attack by fire on two points 900 and 1200 yards to the north-east of Lignano.
Zero hour was to be 1 a.m., 15 July, when the artillery concentrations would commence. Twenty-fourth Battalion was to provide carrying parties for ammunition and was to assist 25 Battalion's signallers in taking signal wire forward; it was also to furnish any additional stretcher-bearers required and establish a prisoner-of-war collecting post.
On the night 13–14 July 26 Battalion advanced its positions about a mile and a half and 24 Battalion moved into the gap page 452 between 26 and 25 Battalions, relieving 11 Platoon in its standing patrol position in the houses at Point 570. On 11 Platoon rejoining at Quercioli, B Company at 3.45 a.m. took over D Company's position at Pieve di Rigutino, including the standing patrol west of Battalion Headquarters; the patrol was no sooner established than it received a direct hit on the house by a 75-millimetre shell, which killed three men and wounded three others.
A Company, followed by D Company, also moved forward, reaching a lying-up position near C Company an hour before sunrise; Battalion Headquarters and B Company both followed so that the battalion was concentrated well forward in the shelter of Monte Lignano, ready to attack the next morning. In the absence of Colonel Norman for discussions at Brigade Headquarters the IO read out the draft orders to the company commanders, and in the afternoon on his return Norman issued his final orders, which varied only slightly from those given the previous day. A Company (Major Sanders) and C Company (Major Handyside) were to take the main feature, Monte Lignano. D Company (Major Hewitt) was to pass round the western side of the peak and a little below it, capture the high ground at Point 783 (about 500 yards north-west of Lignano), and then clear the ridge running westwards to Point 650. B Company (Major Finlay) was to occupy the position vacated by C Company. Colonel Norman then took the company commanders forward to a point where the ground to be covered by the attack could be seen, and in the evening had a last-minute run over the plans with his Orders Group.
Twice in the afternoon the lying-up area was shelled, causing casualties, and further casualties occurred when mortars bombarded the position at 9.15 p.m. and again at 11.40 p.m. It seemed as if the Germans had some inkling of the impending attack, probably from the noise of vehicles, from observation, and from interceptions of telephone or wireless messages. The battalion found that an enemy wireless station, operating on the same frequency at 2 a.m. during the attack, caused such interference that it was necessary to re-net all sets at Battalion Headquarters and change the frequency. The casualties reported prior to the attack were seven killed and one officer (Second-Lieutenant de Lautour4) and thirteen other ranks wounded.page 453
At 1 a.m. on 15 July the artillery concentrations opened as planned. Forty minutes later C Company moved along the ridge leading up the slopes of Monte Lignano to get close under the artillery fire before it lifted. The visibility was much reduced by rain and the enemy artillery was shelling the jeep track and the wadi north of the previous position occupied by Battalion Headquarters; the forward concentration of the battalion in the early morning of the 14th—a wise move—therefore avoided this fire. A Company followed C Company and then D Company passed through Battalion Headquarters' position, each company keeping ten minutes' interval from the company in front. B Company then came up and occupied C Company's position.
At 2.15 a.m. all was going well with the attack and no opposition had been encountered. C Company was mounting the slopes of Lignano, with 15 Platoon (Lieutenant Trevor Collins) actually at the top at a red house reported by Collins to have mines around it. A Company had reached the foot of the slope. Twelve minutes later C Company reported that shells were falling in the vicinity of the red house and then confirmed that they were from the supporting artillery. Until the fire could be lifted further advance was hindered, but this proved difficult to arrange; direct communication between the FOOs accompanying the infantry and their respective artillery regiments could not be established because of their lack of R/T equipment in the forward position occupied by Battalion Headquarters, and the only means of communication was by the battalion sets to the artillery and L/T through to Brigade Headquarters. Three unsuccessful attempts to have the fire lifted were made by Colonel Norman, the shells continuing to fall short. Ten minutes later he asked that the concentration should be lifted 300 yards to the north, and thirteen minutes later, at 2.15 a.m., that it be lifted another 200 yards.
By this time the advancing companies were exchanging rifle and machine-gun fire with the enemy. A Company was deployed along the base of the western slopes of Lignano, with 8 Platoon (Lieutenant Liddell5) 300 yards to the left, 9 Platoon (Lieutenant K. J. S. Bourke) on the right, and 7 Platoon (Lieutenant N. Lawson) in reserve, preparatory to advancing up the western slope to the summit. Within a few minutes C Company again reported that shells were falling on the page 454 platoon at the red house and also on the platoon on its right, and five minutes afterwards A Company made a similar complaint, asking that the fire be lifted 500 yards to the north. At five minutes past three C Company reported the capture of its objective on Monte Lignano, and ten minutes later A Company had two platoons in position there, 9 Platoon on the right and 8 Platoon on the left, 7 Platoon still being in reserve. Visible evidence of this success was soon forthcoming when nine prisoners of war from C Company arrived at Battalion Headquarters.
Enemy mortars were then active, but again the fire fell in rear of the forward companies. That fire did not trouble them, but C Company's forward platoon was much concerned with shells which at 3.25 a.m. were reported still to be falling short, and as much as two and a half hours later D Company was to have a similar experience.
In an interview two months after the action Private Shinnick of 15 Platoon C Company gave some details of his experiences and of the course of the fighting: ‘The feature [M. Lignano] itself was unusual and certainly a difficult one for the artillery to play on. It was arranged that after reaching the main objective the barrage would play over it on to a further feature to be taken later. The clearance to be given us for this task was a mere 10 feet. [Note: This figure is either surmise or rumour. There is no possibility of such a clearance being accepted.]
‘C Company were to be the first over the start line with 15 Platoon first out. The terrain was such that the start line could only be reached by scrambling almost on hands and knees in single file. C Coy were to take the right flank of the crest, D Coy left flank of the crest, and A Coy the crest itself, with B Coy in reserve. But it didn't work out like that.
‘Just before the barrage commenced a terrific thunderstorm broke, after threatening to do so for several hours. Fortunately it finished before we started the attack. The barrage commenced at 11 p.m. [? 1 a.m.] and the first few shells landed in our positions killing several and wounding others, then eventually went over to Jerry's positions, playing there till midnight [?] when we commenced to form up. Our platoon strength was now 21, and the other platoons were little better.
‘As we were moving into the position our barrage dropped again and landed down below us. It killed and wounded 2 more. Then it commenced creeping up over us and somehow page 455 we managed to withdraw 50 yards and miraculously had no further casualties though shells were bursting all around us. As it lifted we again moved, following close under the barrage.
‘We safely negotiated a minefield and managed to get around the reverse side of the spur, formed up with two sections forward and one in reserve and commenced to move forward up the steep face of the main feature. It was terribly rocky and often it was a case of helping one another over the obstacles. Most of the shells fell in front of the feature, but a few came over and landed amongst us, causing no casualties though often the blast knocked us flat to the ground.
‘First opposition was from a Jerry fox-hole, but we silenced it and pressed on over the rocky terrain, until we encountered the next opposition. Another Jerry strongpoint was left in silence. On approaching the ridge of the spur we found that the barrage was still playing on it, so elected to move further to the left and occupy the main crest from where we were receiving enemy fire. We made the crest on which was a very badly shattered building [the red house] and we occupied it. The reserve section was left here while the first two sections pushed on to clear the left flank of it. However they were caught in our own barrage and shortly reduced to the numbers of two and four.
‘Prisoners were now being taken but then a group of Jerries came in to consolidate their positions on the house but found us already in occupation. We wirelessed back that the position had been taken and to lift the barrage, but it continued to whittle away at what poor protection we had, and for 20 minutes we had to endure our own concentrated shellfire.
‘One section passed on to the left flank and captured two MMG posts and partly cleared the way for D Coy which was coming up. As we had already occupied A Coy positions, we were left there and A Coy took over C Coy positions.
‘The 10 feet artillery clearance was not enough, as 50 per cent of the shells failed to clear the crest. From the crest our own artillery flashes could be seen and you then had about 10 seconds to get under cover….’
The two forward company commanders in reports to Battalion Headquarters described the action of their companies:
‘C Company left the start line at 0140 hours with two platoons forward and sections in single file,’ wrote Major Handyside. ‘The Company kept well up the hill and advanced for ten minutes until we were held up by our bombardment. page 456 While waiting for the barrage to lift off the lower slopes of Lignano, one man was killed by shorts from our own guns. When the barrage lifted at 0200 the Company deployed and advanced quickly up the hill. First opposition was met 400 yards from the red house but did not slow the advance. 14 Platoon on the right struck no opposition. 15 Platoon on the left killed about 6 Germans short of the red house and took prisoners at the red house, then secured the peak, and drove the enemy down the other side. The peak was still being shelled by our own Arty although word had been got back to remedy this. The peak was shelled by our own guns until 0300 hours and casualties were considerable at this stage. The Company was dug in by daylight and lines out to two platoons and back to Battalion. Throughout the attack wireless communication was excellent both with 18 and 38 sets. Camouflage jackets were worn and are considered a good thing but would be better with sleeves. Casualties on 15 July 13. Own artillery 1 killed 8 wounded. Enemy action 2 killed 2 wounded.’
Major Sanders commanding A Company had very much the same experience. ‘The sky on the night 14/15 was very cloudy,’ he wrote, ‘and rain had fallen round midnight. Visibility was only about 50 yards. Owing to the fact that the Company could not be deployed on a start line and given a bearing to the objective, it was a very difficult matter to manoeuvre the Coy on to the objective and maintain contact in the dark. This was done by shouting to each other which must also have disclosed our whereabouts to the enemy. The approach to the objective was a fairly narrow ridge and this approach had to be used by all three companies. The Company was unable to deploy till the actual slopes of Lignano were reached. To here the Coy advanced two platoons up, each in single file about 30 yards apart, followed by Coy HQ and the reserve platoon. On reaching the slopes of Lignano No. 8 PI moved round to the left about 300 yards, turned right, and advanced up the slopes, No. 9 PI doing the same thing on their right. Very little opposition was encountered. The 2 or 3 Spandau posts were quickly silenced, and the reserve platoon (No. 7) was not committed. There was no enemy shelling on the feature till about 1000 hours the next morning from which time onwards he shelled us intermittently as did our own artillery. A Coy's casualties were 3 killed 9 wounded.’
Lieutenant Liddell, commanding 8 Platoon, also referred in his report to the difficulty of control and deployment, and page 457 added: ‘PI reached objective late as C Coy leading att. was held up for some time by the arty barrage. Enemy resistance was not strong after arty stonk. Several badly-laid Teller mines encountered, trip wires attached. No casualties as wires were too slack. Spandaus still fire tracer giving away location of M.G. posts. Contrary to usual, enemy did not use flares until PI was on objective. Enemy defences shallow but well sited. Casualties (a) Own—nil. (b) Enemy—MG post wiped out.’
Lieutenant Bourke, commanding 9 Platoon, also mentioned the delay caused by C Company being stopped by the artillery fire and said: ‘…and when we moved the pace became a little fast with some resultant confusion and loss of direction. German opposition was not up to standard due possibly to the heavy shelling he had experienced. Booby traps in pln. area consisted of crude trip wires on to Teller mines.’
Meanwhile D Company continued its advance, passing through A Company towards its more distant objective, and although held up for a time, reported a platoon on the objective at 4.25 a.m. and a second platoon there fifteen minutes later. No time was lost by Battalion Headquarters in establishing communication, a line being run forward to A and C Companies and an artillery FOO reaching C Company within half an hour.
Enemy counter-attack after the loss of a position was regarded as automatic and standard procedure and, despite indications, especially in higher formations, that the enemy was contemplating an early withdrawal, Colonel Norman was taking no chances: at 4.45 a.m. he asked for the tanks to come up to support the forward companies and later in the day arranged for more concentrated dispositions for the night to be adopted by those companies. The tanks came up the ridge leading to Monte Lignano from the south-west and about 6 a.m. took up a position about 500 yards west of B Company, with one tank a little closer, and within 600 yards of the summit, the rough ground preventing further progress. However, from the position they had reached, the tanks were able to deal with any enemy attack from the west and the moral effect of their presence well forward was considerable. The battalion had a good many casualties, with nine killed, two died of wounds, and twenty-seven wounded. About twenty of the enemy were killed and nineteen taken prisoner.
As day was dawning, about an hour before sunrise, which was at 5.42 a.m., all companies and Battalion Headquarters page 458 were under heavy mortar fire; this was perhaps a counter-measure against a possible further advance from 25 Battalion's sector since the Guards, having captured Stoppiace (400 yards north-west of D Company) at 4.15 a.m., had a company driven off its next objective half a mile farther on. Early in the morning enemy guns shelling the battalion could be clearly seen, but communication from the OP to the artillery failed and at 8.30 a.m. Colonel Norman asked that dive-bombers, which were active on the Guards' front, should attack the guns.
During the attack by 25 Battalion, companies of 24 Battalion on the right had also advanced in the Monte Camurcina area about two miles south-east of Monte Lignano, and 26 Battalion had moved up to Monte Spino, three miles east-south-east of that point.
At various times during the day the company positions were mortared and shelled by the enemy, and between 1 p.m. and 9.40 p.m. there were no fewer than six reports of the supporting artillery shelling the forward companies, one gun in particular continuing to offend. Two men were killed. After dark a patrol from D Company established touch with the Guards on the left and returned with five prisoners, captured in the vicinity of Point 650 on the company's left flank. Fortunately the jeeps were able to bring rations, greatcoats, and one blanket per man up as far as Battalion Headquarters, very much reducing the work of carrying parties, though as Private Peters6 of C Company put it, ‘rations and ammo were brought up by the blood, sweat, and tears method—right up to the top of the hill from below’.
Although it was expecting a counter-attack and B Company 24 Battalion had been ordered up to come under command as a reserve, 25 Battalion had a quiet night. The German acceptance of the loss of this vital sector of the Arezzo defence system is explained in conversations between enemy commanders, available from documents captured after the war:
‘We must accept the loss of M. Lignano…,’ said the Chief of Staff Tenth Army in a telephone conversation with the Chief of Staff 76 Panzer Corps at 9.5 a.m. on the 15th. ‘The withdrawal to the next line will take two days. A strong rearguard immediately north of Arezzo will hold on for a day….’ The Army Commander then spoke to the Army Group: ‘This penetration on 15 Pz Gren Div's left, which has led to the loss page 459 of Lignano, was caused by a strong attack with a purely limited objective. I don't like it because the enemy shelling is so heavy down there that I don't want to mount a counter-attack, which would be very costly. On the other hand, from Lignano the enemy can see right to Arezzo. That is a point in favour of … [the] plan to withdraw….’
The last telephone conversation recorded on the 15th, between Army Group and 10th Army, was:
‘What line will you be occupying first thing to-morrow?’
Tenth Army: ‘We will have strong rearguards on our present line…. The high ground east and south-east of Arezzo must stay in our hands as long as possible as from there we can see the country SW from Arezzo….’
Thus 25 Battalion had captured the key position of the Arezzo defence system though the Germans for the moment continued to hold Monte Camurcina, two miles to the south-east, and other high ground on the New Zealand front. The following morning, however, these positions were captured in an attack at 2 a.m. by the other two battalions of 6 Brigade, the left battalion of which (24 Battalion) after first light established contact by a patrol with A Company 25 Battalion on Monte Lignano. At the same time the Guards Brigade on the left continued its advance on the high country 4000 yards to the north-west of 25 Battalion.
The only serious trouble encountered in the attack by 25 Battalion was the shellfire reported on many occasions, and from several sources, as coming from the supporting artillery. The first incident was the shelling of C Company at 9.15 a.m. on the 14th, shown in a shelling report from 25 Battalion to 6 Brigade. At that hour C Company was still in the forward position it had taken over in the early hours of the 13th from the KRRC.
The shelling report also gives other instances, between 1.45 a.m. and 10.15 p.m. on the 15th, of the shelling of A, C, and D Companies, two of them involving two companies in the same incident and some of them continuing for an hour or more, all attributed to the supporting guns. In six of the incidents—from 2.25 a.m. to 3.25 a.m. on the 15th—the shells fell near the summit of Lignano, which was the target for concentrations—code name helmieh—timed to end at 2 a.m., after which hour in accordance with the artillery plan there should have been no fire on the top of Lignano.page 460
The guns deemed responsible were reported to be on a bearing of 155 degrees, which passed through the area occupied by the supporting artillery, and there is Private Shinnick's statement that the ‘artillery flashes could be seen and you then had about 10 seconds to get under cover’. This bearing of 155 degrees, projected beyond the summit of Monte Lignano, ran through one of the artillery target areas 750 yards north-west of the peak, and the particular concentration—code name helwan—was named by 25 Battalion as responsible for much of the trouble. From the evidence available it appears that either the guns firing the helmieh concentrations failed to lift at 2 a.m. in accordance with the plan, or those firing the helwan concentrations on targets 750 yards beyond Lignano were responsible.
Reports regarding short-shooting were not confined to 25 Battalion, as during the attack on the following night, 15–16 July, both 24 and 26 Battalions reported trouble from the supporting artillery and had it speedily rectified.
Twenty-fifth Battalion concluded its task in the Monte Lignano sector at noon on 16 July, when without further casualties it withdrew to 6 Brigade's B Echelon area; its losses in the operations were 17 other ranks killed, 4 died of wounds, and 3 officers (Lieutenant Cameron,7 and Second-Lieutenants P. A. de Lautour and E. Cardale8) and 41 other ranks wounded. At a divisional conference that day General Freyberg congratulated 6 Brigade on its work in the line and said: ‘I do think that the attack by 25 Battalion was a very admirable one and a very tidy one. It was a very difficult operation.’
In due course Colonel Norman was awarded the Distinguished Service Order; he had made a close and hazardous forward reconnaissance and his planning and sound leadership were largely responsible for the success of this important operation. For skilful and courageous leadership in this action, Sergeant Leslie9 was awarded the Military Medal.
The Division was now in Corps Reserve and the battalion spent the ensuing eight days resting and reorganising. A change of adjutants took place, Captain D. F. Muir being attached to Brigade HQ; Lieutenant A. B. West replaced him as adjutant.page 461
In the days that followed, the Allied advance passed beyond Arezzo and secured an important bridgehead over the Arno River in readiness for the advance on Florence. The main thrust to the Arno had, however, moved to the western flank and the New Zealand and 6 South African Divisions were being used there, 40 miles north-west of the Lignano sector. Since 21 July 5 Brigade had been advancing in that direction astride the Pesa River against stubborn resistance and was approaching the village of San Casciano, nine miles north of San Donato, where 6 Brigade was to arrive on the 24th. Fifth Brigade had orders to advance during the night 25 – 26 July and secure a line from the Pesa River, 700 yards west of Cerbaia, southwards for about three miles.
On the evening of the 22nd 25 Battalion arrived in the new area after a somewhat roundabout and dusty journey of about 60 miles, moving on two days later about 14 miles and on the following evening a further eight miles to the north. There the troops dug in. The enemy was a mere three miles away, his tanks and infantry opposing 5 Brigade, which was continuing its advance; at the same time a composite force of armour, engineers, and infantry on the right bank of the Pesa turned to the north-east along Route 2 against the enemy at S. Casciano.
The role of 6 Brigade was to pass through or behind the right flank of 5 Brigade and establish a bridgehead over the Pesa about four miles to the north in the vicinity of Cerbaia; it was then to secure a line of hills 5000 yards to the north and north-east, the last enemy defensive positions before Florence, which lay only four miles beyond. The objective was to be taken by 26 Battalion on the right and 24 Battalion on the left; 25 Battalion in reserve was to have B Company in readiness to pass through 26 Battalion if that unit was held up in its advance on Cerbaia. Each of the two attacking battalions had a squadron of tanks, a platoon of machine guns, a troop of six-pounders, a section of 17-pounders, and a detachment of engineers, all under command.
In the night 25 Battalion had advanced to Cerbaia and by 2 a.m. on the 28th had occupied the bridgehead. On the right B Company had 12 Platoon forward in Upper Cerbaia, 800 yards from the river, and 10 and 11 Platoons 500 yards behind in the lower town. Major Sanders with A Company on the left sent 7 and 8 Platoons forward on either side of 12 Platoon and kept 9 Platoon in reserve in Lower Cerbaia. Battalion Headquarters came up to a position west of the Pesa, where it was 1500 yards south of the town. C Company was in reserve nearby with 14 Platoon detached for a day under command of the Divisional Cavalry at Castellare, 900 yards north-west of Cerbaia. D Company was south-west of Cerbaia, where it was guarding the left flank of the brigade and was in touch with the Divisional Cavalry.
Throughout the day there was only spasmodic mortaring of Battalion Headquarters and C Company, but A and B Companies were under rather heavy mortar fire accompanied by occasional shelling. The battalion's casualties that day were two died of wounds and two wounded. During its short stay with the Divisional Cavalry at Castellare, ‘14 Platoon had two sections sent out to clear a couple of Spandau posts which were holding up the advance’, a personal account mentions. ‘They did this operation in mobile form by being taken in on Div Cav Staghound vehicles’, and, using the words of Dick Parker,10 ‘the old hands ensured they were on the back of this vehicle’; but when the objective was reached the Germans had retreated.
In the morning of the 28th Colonel Norman attended a conference at 26 Battalion headquarters, where a proposed attack on Points 261 and 281, hilltops 700 yards apart and forming a spur or salient from higher ground behind, was discussed. Throughout the day the progress of 24 and 26 Battalions was followed at 25 Battalion headquarters by interception of wireless messages. Further discussions took place the next day regarding an attack on 30–31 July by the battalion against the two hilltops, and it was planned that C Company would take Point 261 and D Company Point 281. Meanwhile, however, a counter-attack at San Michele against 24 Battalion had altered the situation, B Company being placed under page 464 command of that battalion to relieve its A Company, which was reported to be surrounded by enemy tanks and infantry.
At 11 p.m. B Company (Major Finlay) left Cerbaia for Castellare, and on arriving there a few minutes after midnight it was ordered by 24 Battalion to attack San Michele, which in fact had been heavily attacked and largely occupied by the enemy. By 2 a.m. B Company was on its start line and immediately advanced under a barrage; within the hour it had entered the village, which was found to be clear of the enemy. Nos. 10 and 11 Platoons then occupied a house at the northern end where they covered a road junction, while Company Headquarters and 12 Platoon were in the Monastery, 250 yards to the south. At that stage A Company 24 Battalion was withdrawn, and shortly afterwards B Company 24 Battalion arrived on the scene and occupied the south-west end of the village, its headquarters joining that of B Company 25 Battalion in the Monastery, from which W/T communication with 24 Battalion headquarters had been established.
At times during the day San Michele was heavily shelled and mortared and at 6 p.m. two enemy tanks were reported to be approaching 10 and 11 Platoons; artillery defensive fire was called for but the shells fell amongst the platoons and the fire was raised 800 yards to the target area. At 6.30 p.m. fighter-bombers bombed and strafed the enemy tanks, destroying one; enemy tanks were again reported, a false alarm as was subsequently discovered, but the defensive fire called for again fell on the forward platoons; the artillery was then requested to raise all D/F tasks 800 yards. It seems probable that this request should have been made when 10 and 11 Platoons were first placed in position at the northern end of the village. Twenty-fifth Battalion's casualties on the 29th were one man wounded and on the 30th three men killed.
The proposed attack by 25 Battalion, planned for that night, was indefinitely postponed, and early in the morning of the 31st, on relief by C Company 24 Battalion, B Company returned to its former position at Cerbaia. During its operations the company had met with negligible opposition, apart from shelling and mortaring after the advance, and had had no casualties, but apparently it made an interesting discovery: rumour has it that ‘in Michele 25 Battalion nearly went into the wholesale furrier business, as one of the houses they occupied was found, after much ingenuity, to contain a large quantity of expensive furs in a room that had been sealed by cement and water.’page 465
July had been an expensive month in casualties for the battalion, with 21 men killed, 7 died of wounds, and 3 officers and 44 other ranks wounded. However, the strength was well maintained by reinforcements, at approximately seventy below establishment at the end of the month. Though admissions to hospital through sickness were about twenty a week, chiefly fever and diarrhoea cases, the general health of the men remained good.
On 1 August C Company from its reserve position south of Cerbaia joined A and B Companies in the town. Preparations were made for an attack that night, on the same lines as previously planned, though the scope of the operations had been enlarged from a brigade to a divisional basis. Sixth Brigade was to capture the high ground to the north-east of San Michele in three phases: in the first phase the objectives were Points 261 and 281 (as before) and Point 282, another 300 yards farther on, which were to be captured by 25 Battalion on the right and 26 Battalion on the left; 25 Battalion was allotted Points 281 and 282. The start line extended from a bend in a wadi on the right (1500 yards south-west of Point 281) to a track on the left (900 yards south-west of Point 261). A road running to the north-east formed the axis of advance as well as the boundary between the two battalions; it was not to be used by 26 Battalion for its support weapons until 25 Battalion's weapons had gone forward.
The barrage was to open at 11 p.m. and would advance at the rate of 100 yards in five minutes, resting for sixty minutes beyond the objective. After reaching their objectives the battalions were to bring up their support weapons and prepare the positions for defence; 25 Battalion was then to be ready to advance to the next objective.
The second phase was an attack by 25 Battalion on Point 337, a hill 600 yards to the north of Point 281; it was completely covered with trees. The third phase was a continuation of the attack by 25 Battalion to Point 382, a further 600 yards to the north-east.
Additional troops placed under command were one company of 26 Battalion, one platoon of 2 MG Company, one troop of six-pounders and one section of 17-pounders from 33 Anti-Tank Battery, 6 Brigade Heavy Mortar Platoon, and a detachment of 8 Field Company. B Squadron 18 Armoured Regiment was in support.page 466
By 10 p.m. on 1 August 25 Battalion had established its headquarters in a house near a road junction 1400 yards north-east of Cerbaia, where it was 700 yards south-west of the start line. An hour later the barrage opened, lifting after twenty minutes, and A Company then crossed the start line, followed at intervals by C, D, and B Companies; A, C, and D Companies each had a troop of tanks in support.
On the left of the first objective A Company took Point 282 with no opposition except for mortar fire, though half an hour after midnight a minefield across the road 200 yards south of Point 281 caused some delay. Point 281 also gave no difficulty and by 1 a.m. the company had secured both hilltops. No. 8 Platoon had an amusing experience on Point 282: supporting Sherman tanks shot up a house which the platoon was to occupy and the house was then approached with the normal precautions, the men sweeping the windows and doors with small-arms fire. The platoon commander, Lieutenant Mitchell,11 and Corporal Scandrett,12 then went in to finish off the job with grenades and tommy-gun fire; groans were heard and, on investigation, a goat and two large bullocks—the total bag— were found.
At 3 a.m. C Company reported itself in position on Point 337, having captured thirty prisoners. Bound for the final objective, D Company crossed the start line as arranged at 1.30 a.m. with 18 Platoon leading, followed by Company Headquarters and 16 and 17 Platoons. There was intermittent shelling as the company advanced up the road, and half a mile from the start a shell burst close to 17 Platoon, killing the platoon commander (Second-Lieutenant Cottam13) and the wireless operator (Private Kerr14), and wounding another man; the 38 set was destroyed. Sergeant Hayton15 of 16 Platoon was also wounded by the same shell but remained with his platoon. Sergeant Bruce16 took over the command of 17 Platoon.page 467
D Company continued to advance up the road until held up for an hour by C Company, which had been checked at a house a few yards north of Point 337. On resuming the advance D Company occupied Point 382 and a house on the ridge beyond, meeting with no opposition, though there were signs that the enemy had hurriedly departed. While consolidating on the south-east side of the hill 16 Platoon was bombarded with rifle grenades, but when a tank opened fire on the enemy post it soon put an end to that. Shortly afterwards Corporal Morgan17 with two men attacked a Spandau post which had opened fire from the eastern flank; they killed one man and brought back his paybook to identify his unit. By 5 a.m. D Company was firmly established on the final objective; 17 Platoon was on the right, 600 yards east of Point 382, which was held by 18 Platoon, while Company Headquarters and 16 Platoon were 300 yards south-east of the hill. B Company then came up on the left of D Company and had its three platoons on the western side of the hilltop.
During the attack the enemy pockets had resisted strongly, using phosphorus bombs. The tanks gave valuable support, especially by shooting up houses occupied by the enemy. The Divisional Cavalry kept in touch with the battalion and left a liaison officer to co-operate in crushing any resistance on the left of 24 Battalion towards S. Maria, a mile to the westward of Point 382. About 8 a.m. a fighting patrol under Second- Lieutenant Linklater18 went out on the right flank of 25 Battalion and returned after a couple of hours without encountering the enemy. While the companies and tanks were advancing, the enemy artillery and mortars had concentrated on the road up the hill, and the corner of the road alongside the house occupied by Battalion Headquarters was under accurate fire; the tanks found it difficult to turn the corner but suffered no casualties there. After the objectives had been taken the companies came under heavy mortar fire from Point 395 near S. Maria and both it and Point 373 (1300 yards to the north), suspected OPs, were blinded by smoke. Half an hour later the situation was much easier.
An hour or so later a 17-pounder anti-tank gun, which had been placed behind a stone wall on the forward slope of Point 337, had a signal success when it knocked out with a single shot an enemy Mark IV tank which a few minutes earlier had page 468 been reported by B Company to be approaching its forward positions. Lance-Corporal Gordon19 of 10 Platoon reports:
‘On 1–2 August the attack on Pt 382 near Cerbaia, B Coy 25 Bn occupied the left flank, with 10 Pl over the ridge on a forward slope guarding the road. The ground was too rocky to dig-in before daylight and the platoon was caught at first light in the open in view of the enemy and was subjected to fire from rifle grenades, Spandaus, and mortars from a house across the wadi, 300 yards away. With two men killed and three wounded and the fire increasing, the position became untenable, and I was sent back across the ridge to get a stretcher. Here I found a tank officer who was eventually persuaded to send a tank up the road over the ridge to shoot up the enemy strongpoints. This was done and nine shots completely silenced the enemy house. I returned to the platoon but found that they had returned over the ridge to positions above the road, leaving only the dead and wounded. I got an assistant and we brought three back to our casa. While there we saw a Mk IV German tank come up the road over the ridge and round the bend heading for the casa and looking for our tanks which were hidden below the bank of the road. One in a hull-down position opened fire and fired four shots which had no effect but my impression was that they missed altogether.
‘The German tank, however, stopped and began to back along the road. We were watching all this from our casa, in which was also the crew of a 17-pr A Tk gun which was in the yard behind a stone wall about a chain in front but not dug in. As soon as the tank began to back out, two of this crew ran out, slapped a round into the breech, and let her go at only 300 yards range. It required only one shot which was most spectacular. The shot hit just below the turret which was thrown about 6 feet in the air and the tank split open, then a sheet of flame enveloped the lot, followed by the explosion of ammunition.
‘Later in the afternoon I had to go round the road to help evacuate some wounded and was caught by a mortar stonk and took cover in a hollow in the shelter of the burnt-out tank. When it died down I went on but later in the day the Padre and a party went to bury the German crew and one man picked up a German wallet containing 26,000 lire from the same hollow where I had been sheltering for some 20 minutes.’page 469
Later that morning, 2 August, S. Maria was bombed by Allied dive-bombers and a couple of hours afterwards the aircraft attacked the crossroads at Pian dei Cerri, 1200 yards north-west of B and D Companies. These places were the suspected positions of the enemy mortars, or of their OPs, which earlier in the morning had been so active, and this form of retribution was viewed with much favour by the men in the forward positions.
Twenty-fifth Battalion was still to be troubled by short-shelling, both B and D Companies reporting during the afternoon that artillery concentrations they had called for were short and asking that they be raised 300 yards. Generally throughout the day the artillery harassed all observed enemy movement, and the battalion's position, as was to be expected, received similar attention from the enemy's guns and mortars. Between 8 and 9 p.m. both the forward companies experienced very heavy mortar fire, causing B Company to move some troops to the right to avoid the worst of it. Shortly after 9 p.m. the 17-pounder anti-tank gun on Point 337 was knocked out by enemy shellfire. About the same time A Company 26 Battalion occupied Point 281, one of the two features on the first objective taken by A Company 25 Battalion.
Very early the following morning, 3 August, D Company was told that a patrol from A Company would report to it to establish contact with 22 (Motor) Battalion, which was in position on the forward slope of Point 381 on the right flank of the company, 1400 yards east of Point 382. The patrol was to fight its way through any opposition encountered, provided it was not too strong, and pay particular attention to a house on Point 321, about halfway across. The patrol encountered thick scrub and difficult gullies which made its task very trying:
‘The patrol sent out by A coy on Aug 3rd to contact 22nd Motorised Battalion was commanded by Cpl H. J. Wootton with C. Hutchison21 and L. ’Goodin,22 states one account. ‘No contact was made with the enemy which was most fortunate as the going was extremely hazardous, and instead of the patrol page 470 taking an hour it took four, before contact was made with 22nd Battalion, and from this patrol it was observed that the Germans had retreated before first light to a defensive position nearer Florence.’
During the morning patrols reported Pian dei Cerri, one of the dive-bombers' targets the previous morning, to be clear of the enemy. Private J. M. Shinnick of C Company, a member of one of these patrols, gave the story of its experiences. He had been on a day's leave to Rome and did not find his platoon till 2 a.m.:
‘…at 4 a.m. we took up new positions and it was breaking day by the time we had settled in our freshly-dug slit trenches. Perhaps I might have had a sleep even then, but unfortunately the company commander decided that as I had been on leave and was fresh (he thought), I would be the one for the patrol.
‘24 hours before, Jerry had been driven off his Pisa line positions after a 7-day slogging duel that saw the fall of, first, Cerbaia, S. Michele, and several smaller villages, and now the powers that be wanted to know just where he was and whether he still wanted fight.
‘I was none too happy about the prospect and couldn't but help compare my position with that of a worm on a pin in a trout pool. The patrol consisted of two others and after I had received instructions we pushed off. We had two tanks and a platoon of Brens giving us covering fire, but ironically enough, they neither saw us go nor return. It was 7 a.m. as we worked our way down a steep gully passing several enemy slit trenches that showed signs of recent habitation. Our first objective was the village of Pian dei Cerri across the gully and some 800 yards away.
‘Deep in the gully we came across a house and skirted it, but thought it best to investigate the interior. I was creeping under the window when I heard voices. I reached the door and eased my gun into position. The door was off latch and I pushed it open and bounded into the room to confront a very startled Italian and his wife. They hadn't seen an Allied soldier before and just stood gazing with open mouths until all of a sudden they both started jabbering and gesticulating and crying and laughing. From it all I gathered that Jerry had pulled out that morning. This was good news and I felt very relieved.
‘Pian dei Cerri could only be reached across open country but it contained narry a living thing except a few war fowls that by some masterly cunning had avoided Jerry's cook pots.page 471
‘The second objective was some 500 yards away on a small knoll. On the way we passed another small village and here we were besieged by the family of one house. Poor old “Dad” with his three-weeks’ growth was hardly much catch, but his daughter was exceedingly comely, and his vino of the best vintage.
‘From here we had our first view of Florence some 4 miles away and nestling in the wide valley below us. It indeed looked beautiful still faintly haloed in a morning mist, with church spires and the outline of tall buildings rearing their architectural beauty in the sky. But somewhere between us and this city was Jerry, because now he was mortaring the hills on our right and behind us.
‘We completed our assigned recce and decided to push further out. A highway ran in the valley below us and passed a large villa. We joined it here and were besieged by more Italians who had used the villa as a communal refuge. Nearby was a large dump of enemy mines that gave testimony of the area being well booby-trapped. We continued down the road and met no opposition though way behind, mortars were falling continuously. We estimated the enemy's positions and having learned that we were only three kilometres from Florence, we set out on the return journey.
‘Rather than pass through the old area being mortared, we skirted around it and checked up on the highways. Having located and pin-pointed mines and possible booby-traps, we continued back to the FDLs, after being away 2½ hours.
‘Two hours later the result of our labours could be seen in the form of “Staghounds” armoured cars and trucks moving forward through Pian dei Cerri, and that afternoon we were withdrawn.’
At 11 a.m. (3 August) the battalion received a warning order stating that the Divisional Cavalry had crossed 25 Battalion's front from the left and would assume responsibility for the sector; the battalion was to withdraw to Cerbaia. By the late afternoon the companies were in their old positions in and near the town and found it was still under intermittent fire from enemy guns, which early in the afternoon had commenced shelling the place. The companies had no casualties but Battalion Headquarters was not so fortunate, the IO, Lieutenant J. B. M. Coombe, being killed and three men of the Intelligence Section wounded in Cerbaia. Battalion Headquarters itself was page 472 in the RAP building in S. Andrea, 1000 yards north of the town. The hostile guns at 6.30 p.m. were dive-bombed, obviously efficacious treatment as the shelling ceased within half an hour and a quiet night followed. Casualties on the 3rd were one officer killed and four other ranks wounded.
Preceded on the 5th by the usual advance parties, the battalion next day took over its new sector, the relief of 1 Battalion Royal Fusiliers of 17 Indian Infantry Brigade being completed by 10 p.m. The dispositions were unusual, the battalion being strung out about 2000 yards along a road running north and south on a narrow ridge, with the Turbone River, a tributary of the Pesa, on the east, and the headwaters of several tributaries of the Arno along the western side of the ridge. The battalion was on a one-company front, with A Company forward within 1400 yards of Montelupo, a town of about 7000 people, situated in the valley of the Arno 11 miles south-west of Florence. The other companies were in position at intervals of 500 to 800 yards along the road to the south, in the order C, B, and D, while Battalion Headquarters, 800 yards south-east of D Company, was 2400 yards from A Company. The ridge sloped down easily to the river at Montelupo, which was 600 feet below the altitude of Battalion Headquarters, and gave good all-round observation except for the very good cover afforded by the grape-vines, fruit trees, and other vegetation which covered the countryside.
Fighting and reconnaissance patrols were sent out, both by night and day, by all companies and by Battalion Headquarters, without actual collision with the enemy, though a good deal of movement was observed; a patrol from A Company also encountered machine-gun fire from posts on both banks of the Arno 400 yards east of La Torre, a village on the south bank 1200 yards west of Montelupo. Civilians informed one patrol that a party of Germans, dressed as civilians, crossed the river each night to occupy houses in the vicinity of S. Quirico, 400 yards south of La Torre. On the afternoon of the 8th a reconnaissance patrol from 10 Platoon had an unusual experience when it investigated a large building with a very high wall, near the river bank between Montelupo and La Torre. Singing and movement were heard within and civilians said that the place was an asylum for criminal lunatics, some of whom were chained; it had a staff of 150 medical and administrative per- page 474 sonnel and all the inmates were classed as dangerous. A patrol from 9 Platoon consisting of Second-Lieutenant Mitchell, Sergeant Corlett,23 and Private Smith (all dressed as Italian civilians) also visited the asylum area and confirmed reports that Germans were in and around that vicinity.
Apart from a little shelling and mortar fire from both sides and occasional exchanges of rifle and machine-gun fire, the sector was quiet. The patrols made a thorough examination of all the houses and other buildings and the engineers, guarded by fighting patrols, searched the roads for mines. The opposite bank and country beyond were kept under close observation and the presence of a number of rubber boats, including several floating down the river, suggested an absence of fords.
On the night of 8 August C Company came under command of 26 Battalion on the right of the brigade sector and, crossing the Pesa River, occupied Montelupo. No. 14 Platoon was in a group of houses on the north-east side of the town, 13 Platoon in a house about a hundred yards to the west, and Company Headquarters with 15 Platoon nearby was about the centre, 150 yards back. The houses occupied by 14 Platoon adjoined, forming one building, and it was necessary to burrow through the walls to establish contact.
The following day four American officers, escorted by a C Company patrol, which included Corporal Mortleman,24 Privates Christensen,25 Moorcock,26 Morris,27 O'Malley,28 Player,29 and six others, left Montelupo at 9.30 p.m. to reconnoitre for crossings over the Arno for American tanks. The party proceeded about 1200 yards to the north-east and on the way back was ambushed about 400 yards from Montelupo by a German patrol, which had crossed the river in boats and had hidden in the shelter of the embankment just below the road on the river side. The reconnaissance party was forced to take cover in a two-foot ditch on the east side of the road and returned page 475 the fire. After five minutes the enemy withdrew. The casualties were one American officer and Moorcock and Player killed, Morris died of wounds, and Mortleman and Christensen wounded. This tragic incident, while showing commendable enterprise on the part of the Germans, emphasised the importance of one of the lessons taught in patrol training, namely, never to return by the same route as the outward one if it could be avoided, and also to guard against surprise by the use of scouts and by a suitable patrol formation. In this case, the route out was followed on the way back and the party was caught by a sudden burst of Spandau fire.
At the end of four days in the position information regarding the area south of the river and the activities of the enemy, obtained from patrols and civilians, was fairly complete, and on the evening of the 10th there was a general move forward by the battalion. C Company in Montelupo was relieved by B Company and took over the position held by A Company, which then occupied La Torre with 7 and 8 Platoons and S. Quirico with Company Headquarters and 9 Platoon; D Company headquarters and 17 Platoon moved up to the vicinity of important crossroads at l'Erta, about 1000 yards north of the position originally held by A Company. No. 16 Platoon was forward on the right and within 200 yards of the river, while 18 Platoon was on the river bank 350 yards to the left. Battalion Headquarters moved forward 800 yards and was joined in its building by the RAP. There was no enemy interference during these movements though Major Finlay, commanding B Company, had a curious experience which could have compromised the password. During a visit to each post of his company he discussed the password and challenge with one of his platoon commanders, and on his departure from the post saw a bare-footed German depart hurriedly from close by and disappear before he could be fired on. The possibilities were obvious, and on the matter being reported to Battalion Headquarters the password was changed.
In A Company's position at La Torre No. 3 Section of 7 Platoon, in a house close to the stopbank of the Arno, was able on two occasions by machine-gun fire to prevent Germans crossing the river some distance down stream, the sun creating a glare on the water which made them plainly visible.
On the night of the 13th officers from an American unit arrived at Battalion Headquarters and were taken out to C and D Companies. The next day was rather lively, a good deal page 476 of enemy movement being heard in the early morning, when there was considerable Spandau fire which to a large extent was silenced by the artillery. Shortly afterwards a large enemy patrol passed up the far bank of the river and just before dawn nebelwerfer fire against D Company resulted in sharp counter-action by the supporting artillery. During the night the asylum was shelled, resulting in a request from the authorities in the institution for permission to move the inmates.
Early on the 14th the battalion learnt that the Division would be relieved that night and the following night by 85 US Division; 6 Brigade was to be relieved by 339 US Infantry Regiment and 25 Battalion (less B Company in Montelupo) by a company from that regiment, B Company being relieved separately. The relief was completed about midnight on 15–16 August and the battalion moved back to its trucks three miles south of the river en route to the rear assembly area, five miles south of Castellina. Casualties in the Montelupo operations from 6 to 16 August were three killed, two died of wounds, and four wounded.
The battalion remained eleven days in the Castellina area, resting, training, absorbing reinforcements and reorganising, changing kit and replacing deficiencies, visiting places of interest, and between times enjoying the cinema and other recreation. But the 24th was by far the most notable day, though B Company, spending two days at the beach at Vada, could not take part. Mr Churchill, alias Colonel Kent, was to visit the locality, and shortly after noon, accompanied by General Freyberg, he drove along the one and a half miles of road lined each side by the battalion. This was of course his third visit to the New Zealanders, the previous occasions being at Alamein and Tripoli, though he also saw the Second Echelon in England, but at this date there were a great many men who had never seen him. Dressed in khaki-drill uniform with many decorations, the Prime Minister waved to the troops or gave the ‘V’ sign, standing in the back of the car, but he looked a very tired man and was unable to meet the various groups.
The day ended with a memorable sports meeting, ‘the best ever held and the whole Battalion is unanimous in its praise for those who organized and ran the meeting’, said the battalion newsletter. ‘The evening concluded with the inevitable “Plonk” party to finish off one of the most pleasant days the Battalion has yet experienced.’ C Company with five wins out of fourteen events came out on top, with Administrative Com- page 477 pany four wins second; A and D Companies, two wins each, third; and Support Company, one win, fifth. B Company, of course, was absent at the beach.
A Company also had two days at the beach, but the next move came before the other companies could follow suit. On the day preceding Mr Churchill's visit, orders for another secret journey across Italy, this time to the Adriatic coast, had been received and the next two days were spent in the now very familiar preparations, the final day concluding with an entertainment by the Kiwi Concert Party.
3 Brig J. T. Burrows, CBE, DSO and bar, ED, m.i.d., Order of Valour (Gk); Christchurch; born Christchurch, 14 Jul 1904; schoolmaster; CO 20 Bn May 1941, Dec 1941–Jul 1942; 20 Bn and Armd Regt Aug 1942–Jun 1943; comd 4 Bde 27–29 Jun 1942, 5 Jul-15 Aug 1942; 5 Bde Mar 1944, Aug-Nov 1944; 6 Bde Jul-Aug 1944; Commander, Southern Military District, 1951–53; Commander K Force, 1953–54; Commander, SMD, 1955–60.