27 (Machine Gun) Battalion
CHAPTER 21 — Florence
After about a month at Arce the Division was ordered unexpectedly to an assembly area near Lake Trasimene, over 200 miles away, preparatory to reinforcing 13 Corps for an attack to break through the German defences south of Arezzo. On this secret move 2 Company, departing with 6 Brigade very early on 10 July, drove through Rome, across the Tiber and along Route 3, which was dotted at intervals by wrecked German vehicles, and staged for the night near Civita Castellana. Next day the road climbed into the hills before descending to Narni, in a gorge. ‘Yawning gaps had been torn in three huge arched bridges by the Jerry engineers but most of the road damage had been caused by our own bombing. At least once in every mile or so the road and railway had been straddled by sticks of bombs…. At Orvieto, which the bombers had ploughed into earth and rubble, we left Route 3 and turned up the metalled Route 71…. every few hundred yards lay the burnt-out rusting skeletons of Jerry transport…. we caught glimpses of the blue Lago Trasimeno….’ Beyond the lake 6 Brigade was to clear the hills overlooking the Chiana valley, through which 6 British Armoured Division was to advance on Arezzo.
The machine-gunners joined the infantry they were to support, and in the evening of 12 July 5 and 6 Platoons accompanied 25 and 26 Battalions up Route 71 past Cortona and Castiglion Fiorentino. The Vickers and other equipment were loaded on mules, and the troops climbed up into the wooded hills. On Monte Castiglion Maggio, where the 26th relieved a battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, 6 Platoon was in position before midnight. Two or three miles farther to the north-west, where 25 Battalion relieved the King's Royal Rifles on the slopes rising towards the summit of Monte Lignano, No. 1 Section 5 Platoon was shelled and mortared next day; Private Marshall,1 in action for the first time, was killed, and two men wounded.page 420
The 26th Battalion attacked Monte Spino, to which No. 2 Section 6 Platoon completed a long carry. ‘Couldn't harass Lignano from where we were as it was out of range,’ wrote Lieutenant McLennan, ‘We got in position with all the gear, but not dug in, when Jerry counter-attacked. The Inf left us on our own, bullets were whistling all round, a devil of a stonk came down, we couldn't use our guns, & as we were only 13 (!!) strong withdrew to the previous feature. Then it rained! We stood by for the rest of the night waiting for the position to stabilize so that we could move forward & get on with the job.’ In the morning the peak was firmly in New Zealand hands.
The 24th Battalion, with 4 Platoon in support, was brought into the line to attack Monte Camurcina, between Spino and Lignano, but was unsuccessful until 25 Battalion had captured Lignano, which gave a view of Arezzo and made the enemy's withdrawal inevitable. The way was now clear for the British armoured division to enter Arezzo. Sixth Brigade withdrew through Castiglion Fiorentino, and the New Zealand Division again went into reserve. By this time the remainder of the machine-gun battalion had arrived near Cortona.
Some long-service men, mostly 4th Reinforcements but including two (Captains Pleasants and Newland) who had left New Zealand with the First Echelon's Advance Party, were marched out to Advanced Base (at Bari) on the first stage of their homeward journey with the TAUPO furlough draft. ‘There has been so much hand shaking and back slapping in the past few days,’ reported the battalion news sheet (The Emgee Express2), ‘that we found it rather confusing as to who really was going.’ Sergeant-Major Cato of 2 Company was a harassed man: ‘The root of the trouble seems to be that only two 4ths from the Coy made the TAUPO grade, and now he has to administer to the wants of a band of 15, known as the Furlough Platoon.’
At this time, also, Private Hodge,3 who had been captured at Ruweisat Ridge two years earlier, returned to 2 Company after having escaped twice from the Germans. After two or three months in prison camps in Cyrenaica he had been taken to a small camp near Latisana, in northern Italy, where he had been employed on agricultural work among civilians and had page 421 learnt to speak Italian. He had escaped after the Italian armistice and, dodging from farm to farm at night, had lived with the peasants. Heading towards the Allied lines he and a companion reached Padua, where they had asked the wrong man for a meal—a captain in the fascist Republican Army who hada a section of infantry billeted in his home. After much interrogation Hodge had been sent to barracks in Trieste which the Germans used as a collecting depot for recaptured PWs, displaced persons and forced labourers before taking them to Germany. Luckily he had arrived just after a draft had left
‘I realised that this was my last chance of getting out again,’ he writes. The barracks were surrounded by a high stone wall with a steel netting fence on top of it, and the building in which he was imprisoned was enclosed by a heavy barbed-wire entanglement. Some fifty servicemen of all ranks and nationalities were confined in part of the basement, and civilian internees occupied the upper floors. Hodge and his fellow prisoners, by forcing doors and locks, gained access to the rest of the basement and set up a chain of listening posts and lookouts to study the habits of the sentries who patrolled the wire entanglement. Hodge made a pair of wire clippers with which he cut a hole in the wire, through which he, another New Zealander, three South Africans and a Russian escaped. The next man, a New Zealander, was surprised by the guards and mortally wounded. Hodge's party got clear of the barracks wall and headed out of the city into the mountains, where they met a patrol of Tito's partisans. After a security check at a British military mission they were despatched down a courier route in Yugoslavia and then flown to Bari.
The enemy was preparing to stand for the winter on the Gothic Line, in the mountain barrier across the Italian peninsula from the Gulf of Genoa to Pesaro on the Adriatic. Eighth Army's immediate objective was Florence, required as a base for an offensive against the Gothic Line. Florence had been declared an open city but the Germans had defences about 20 miles south of it.
The New Zealand Division was to attack northwards from Castellina in Chianti towards San Casciano in the Val di Pesa and was to seize crossings over the River Arno at Signa, a few miles west of Florence, while 6 South African Armoured Division, on the right, was to strike straight for the city, and 8 Indian Division was to give flank protection on the left.page 422
The Division began to move up to Castellina, about ten miles north of Siena. Fifth Brigade, with 1 Company among its supporting arms, left on 21 July; 2 Company with 6 Brigade and the rest of the battalion4 in a divisional group followed next day. The road was extremely dusty. ‘Vehicles and occupants were covered with a chalky grey powder which gave them a ghostly unnatural appearance. Occasionally we had to drop to crawling speed because the swirling clouds limited visibility to the end of the bonnet. The route took us through the foothills of the Chianti mountains which were thickly wooded at first later becoming barren and wind eroded as we made towards Siena … enclosed by a high and massive wall of brick… over the top we could see several domes and spires.’
Fifth Brigade advanced rapidly on a two-battalion front, 23 Battalion to Sambuca, on the Pesa River, and the Maori Battalion to Tavarnelle, on Route 2, west of the Pesa. The 23rd crossed the river at Sambuca, but was repulsed at Fabbrica, which Italian civilians had said was unoccupied. From its position on a forward slope overlooking the river valley 1 Platoon saw the infantry pulling back. The Vickers fired at long range at enemy movement in the village. Some tanks nosed over the hill behind the platoon and also did some shooting, which attracted the enemy's attention. In the shell or mortar fire which ensued Corporal Hendra5 and Lance-Corporal Barlass6 were killed, Private Gower7 fatally wounded, and four others, including Lieutenant Rollinson, wounded.
Advance to Florence, 23 July–4 August 1944
The Division's flank east of the river became the responsibility of Armcav (a composite force of tanks, armoured cars and infantry, with 1 Platoon among the supporting arms). By 25 July Armcav, 21 Battalion (which had taken over from the 23rd) and the 28th were on the line of the San Casciano-Montespertoli road.
At dusk and again later in the evening parties of Germans counter-attacked the Maoris at Podere Belvedere (near Poppiano, midway between San Casciano and Montespertoli), and were beaten off each time. The CO (Lieutenant-Colonel Awatere9) reported: ‘As D Coy reached the objective after much fighting, hand to hand, in the open among the olive trees, the enemy immediately counter attacked from the right flank, with tank and inf. The MMGs [2 Platoon, under Lieutenant Hutchinson] fired very severely at the enemy killing many…. It stopped and completely broke up the counter attack.’
The following night, when 2 Platoon (reinforced by a section of 3) supported the advance with harassing fire, 21 Battalion occupied Poppiano and 5 Brigade's other objectives south-west of the Pesa, and 26 Battalion, leading 6 Brigade, crossed the river to secure a bridgehead at Cerbaia. In the morning (the 27th) Armcav entered San Casciano, against which 1 Platoon had been firing.
About a hundred members of the battalion paraded for the King on 26 July. Parties of ‘incredibly clean and washed looking Kiwis’ went to the assembly area. ‘Representatives of the various units were spaced along one and a half miles of road at 200 yd. intervals. We lined each side of the road, and after [we had been] waiting for a long time, a jeep full of redcaps drove past announcing that the King would pass in half an hour. We fell out and then in again, as the sound of cheering was heard further down the road.’ The King stopped to shake hands with the CO, with whom he spoke for several minutes.
The men returned to camp to learn that they were to move in about half an hour. By the evening of the 27th 3 Company was established in San Casciano, which was severely battered by shellfire. All three platoons fired harassing tasks.
The final barrier to the advance on Florence, the Paula Line, was based on the semi-circle of wooded hills fronting the city. Sixth Brigade was to attack northwards into these hills from its bridgehead at Cerbaia, while 4 Armoured Brigade was to thrust up the right flank from San Casciano.
Several roads led into the hills from Cerbaia: one north-eastwards to La Romola, two miles away; another to San Michele, a straggling little village which overlooked Cerbaia from the north; another up the ridge between La Romola and San Michele. Sixth Brigade's first objectives were to be reached by this middle road. The attack on the final objectives, on the hilltops between La Poggiona and Pian dei Cerri, was to be postponed until 4 Brigade should have made sufficient progress on the flank.
The 24th Battalion crossed the Pesa and moved into Castellare on 26 Battalion's left, and was joined there by No. 1 Section 4 Platoon. ‘After crossing the river,’ writes Lieutenant Freeborn,10 ‘We struck a road running to Castellare where we halted under cover of a high bank which protected us from the high velocity stuff which was flying about. Going ahead on page 426 foot to find out where 24 Bn HQ was round the next bend I walked into one of our Armoured Cars who was having a point blank duel with a German tank…. I was directed off the road up a drive to a big isolated house where I found 24 Bn busily engaged in fighting round the other side of the building. After things became stabilised the trucks moved up and were dispersed round the rear of the building.’
Delayed at the start of its attack, which was scheduled for 1 a.m. on 28 July, A Company 24 Battalion was unable to reach its objective in the hills before dawn and halted on the ridge about half a mile east of San Michele. C Company 26 Battalion, on the other hand, went beyond its objective, but could not hold an isolated position in daylight and later withdrew to the vicinity of the house which the 24 Battalion men had occupied.
No. 1 Section 6 Platoon was intended to support C Company 26 Battalion. ‘Got mortared, and one truck bogged on the way, but by 0230 hrs had our guns loaded onto a Sherman just North of Cerbaia,’ wrote McLennan. ‘Followed the tks after the Inf and just before first light ran into a small Jerry patrol. Our guns were off loaded, & we went to ground until the trouble was cleared up. Then moved forward to a house with A Coy of 24 instead of C Coy 26 who had pushed further on. This was fortunate, as they were forced to withdraw—we'd never been able to bring out our guns. The rest of the day & night were simply hell. We were particularly severely stonked & c/attacked—at one stage were completely surrounded. However we killed and wounded many Weiner—our Arty couldn't give us much sp—the whole posn was very grim.’
No. 1 Section 4 Platoon was ordered back across the Pesa from Castellare to assist in breaking up this counter-attack. ‘We could see the road on the other side of the river being regularly stonked but took the chance and ran the gauntlet unharmed,’ says Freeborn. None of the trucks was hit, but while reconnoitring for gun positions Freeborn and his signals orderly were pinned down in the open by a stonk which also caught and wounded Corporal Walsh11 and Private Davidson.12 The page 427 section was unable to get its guns into postion and returned to Castellare after dark.
In support of the reserve battalion (the 25th), which was made responsible for the existing bridgehead at Cerbaia, 5 Platoon was unable to go into position south-east of the village in daylight. ‘Leave about six o'clock for positions but Jerry chases us out,’ wrote Private Ross. ‘As we go up hill shells land behind. Fortunately don't get hit…. Stay in village rest of day. Leave about 9 o'clock in carriers & get into position. Bed down in large villa [at Montepaldi]…. About 200 refugees also taking shelter.’ The platoon fired harassing tasks during the night.
San Michele would have to be captured before the advance could be continued. In the very early hours of 29 July, therefore, D Company 24 Battalion fought its way in and set up strongpoints in the church, the school and some houses. ‘Though we did not know it at the time,’ says Freeborn, ‘the infantry had moved in direct from Castellare to San Michele and had not cleared the road which ran to the left and made a semicircular approach to the village. Consequently the vehicles [including those of No.1 Section 4 Platoon] must have driven through enemy held territory because at one part we came under close spandau fire. At dawn I looked for gun sites on the ground but was told that there would not be any infantry in support so because of this & lack of time for digging in the section took up a position in the school which was better suited for Light Automatic weapons.’ Platoon Headquarters was with D Company Headquarters in the church.
The Germans counter-attacked San Michele repeatedly; they mortared and shelled it continually, and their self-propelled guns and tanks engaged the occupied buildings at close quarters. The two or three Sherman tanks which entered the village were driven back, and the four six-pounder anti-tank guns which arrived were knocked out.
Nevertheless the men in San Michele beat off all assaults. They were helped by heavy artillery stonks on the enemy forming up outside the village and by flanking fire from No.1 Section 6 Platoon. ‘Jerry c/attacked D Coy [24 Battalion] with Inf & tks, and my guns opened up on him,’ wrote McLennan. ‘Though we didn't know at the time, we've been told now that we must have killed at least one hundred. Was a murderous fire, range only 1000 yards. Our Arty also got among him, & the total dead is reckoned to be 300/400. [The Germans actually page 428 had fewer casualties.] Nett result is that though most of us area little bomb happy all posns are held firm. We're nearly out of amn though.’
The Germans made several determined attempts to enter the San Michele church. Some of the artillery defensive fire whistled uncomfortably close, and when one shell nicked a buttress, the wall of the room occupied by the headquarters fell out. When a Mark IV tank approached, an infantryman, although concussed, staggered up from the basement, manned a Piat gun and fired four shots at the tank at a few yards' range, compelling it to back away out of sight. Eventually the front of the building collapsed and formed an effective barricade.
All communications were cut and the strongpoints were isolated. The commander of the infantry platoon in the lower part of the village ran the gauntlet to the church to report verbally to Company Headquarters. ‘A move to get out of San Michele was suggested and it was then that I slipped down into the basement and burnt any papers which might have been of use to the enemy,’ says Freeborn. ‘When I came back he had gone and then it was decided to hold on. Some of the infantry from lower down the village did get away and checking up afterwards I think that must have been when Pte Davidson was taken prisoner.’
The strongpoint in the school held out against persistent attacks. About 9 p.m., when thirty Germans and a tank closed in, Sergeant Burgess13 and Private Herbert14 carried a Vickers gun upstairs and mounted it on a marble table. While the NCO held onto the legs of the tripod, Herbert, ignoring the machine-gun and tank fire, opened up from a window; he wiped out all the enemy within sight and silenced three spandaus. This won him the MM.
San Michele appeared to have been lost, so was attacked again, this time by a company of 25 Battalion. The preliminary bombardment fell heavily on the village. ‘The Church got its fair share,’ says Freeborn, ‘and the only consolation we got as we huddled for shelter under a stone staircase was that it would not be for long and that having sampled the enemy's shellfire it could not compare with ours.’ Under this bombardment the school soon began to crumble and collapse. The occupants, most of whom were in the cellar, had to dig their way out. By page 429 the time 25 Battalion arrived the Germans had gone from San Michele.
The New Zealand casualties in this miniature Cassino were remarkably few, less than thirty, including only one machine-gunner; the German losses were estimated to be at least two or three times that number.
The following night No. 1 Section 4 Platoon, which had lost all its gear, both guns and three trucks,15 returned to B Echelon, and No. 2 Section relieved the forward section of 6 Platoon. ‘Our blokes wonderful but done at end … looked dreadful…. Huns must have good troops to fight like they did,’ Captain Aislabie wrote in his diary.
‘We've had no sleep, no rations, & very few smokes,’ wrote another. ‘Have come out of a little undiluted hell where we lived with farm animals in the stable, & existed on vino and Jerry cigarettes…. One sense of gratification though is that we did a good job, and from Bde down are in receipt of fulsome praise. And the loot we got!!’
While 2 Company assisted 6 Brigade in the hills beyond Cerbaia, 3 Company came under command of 4 Armoured Brigade to support 22 (Motor) Battalion. Its three platoons went into position at San Casciano on the night of 27–28 July, when they fired some 24,000 rounds, and during the next few days supported the advance to La Romola. The company came under some heavy shell and mortar fire. Sergeant Tanner was killed, Sergeant Mayfield mortally wounded and several others wounded in 8 Platoon.
On the right flank, across the Greve River, the South Africans were held up about eight miles south of Florence; on the left flank the Indian Division had reached the south-west bank of the Pesa. Preparatory to continuing the advance into the hills south-west of the city, the New Zealand Division regrouped on a three-brigade front: 5 Brigade was brought across to the right; 4 Brigade was then in the centre and 6 Brigade on the left.
Accompanying 5 Brigade on this move, 1 Company went into positions in the Casa Vecchia area south of Faltignano, on a ridge between La Romola and the Greve. Both 1 and 3 Companies supported the attack by 4 and 5 Brigades on a narrow page 430 front on the night of 30–31 July; between them they fired 108,000 rounds in conjunction with the artillery barrage.
Captain Halkett, who took command of 3 Company at very short notice when Major Snedden was invalided out, says that 22 Battalion's CO (Lieutenant-Colonel Donald16) gave him a free hand to co-operate direct with the company commanders. ‘Arranged concentrated fire on targets selected and timed by the Inf Coys,’ he writes. ‘This concentrated fire by the Coy's 12 guns under direct control of 3 Coy HQ was very effective and was the pattern for the remainder of this battle and was very encouraging to the Vickers Gunner.’
After some very fierce fighting 22 Battalion broke into La Romola and 23 and 28 Battalions took the Faltignano ridge. Major Hutcheson,17 a company commander in the 22nd, saw many dead Germans whom he said were ‘mute testimony to the effectiveness of the overhead fire of 27 MG Bn.’ Another company commander, Major Hume, who had transferred from 27 to 22 Battalion, observed that ‘many dead Huns found next day were bullet (not shell) casualties.’
‘During the attack…,’ wrote 28 Battalion's CO, ‘MMGs [2 Platoon] first fired direct flank support for A Coy on the left because that flank was open.’ Later they were given the task of harassing by indirect fire the likely routes of withdrawal or escape for the Germans. ‘After the A Coy inf passed over these routes and after the attack, many enemy casualties, including dead, were discovered among the olive trees.’
During the morning of 31 July, says Halkett, ‘22 Bn had its patrols out trying to locate enemy [positions] preparatory to their next attack. These had progressed as far as prudent, but further information was required. [The CO] called up 3 Coy by W/T and with an improvised code requested fire to be brought in 2 areas. We promised it in 15 minutes and 3 Coy opened up with concentrated fire of 12 Guns. This caused Jerry to cut loose with his spandaus and disclose their positions to the infantry patrols…
‘This shows the pitch to which 3 Coy had brought its training … a standard that was seldom reached, requiring co-operation with the infantry and high standard of signals personnel and of course map shooting.’page 431
So much 25-pounder ammunition had been used in this phase of the battle that the next attack, intended for the night of 31 July–1 August, had to be postponed twenty-four hours.
The men of 7 Platoon, attached to 22 Battalion, were billeted in a mansion whose lavish furnishings included a Bechstein Grand piano ‘beautiful in appearance and tone’. A huge dugout near the gun positions sheltered at least forty Italians, among them a singularly attractive girl who was said to be an opera singer from Florence. How she came to be there remained a mystery, but she readily accepted an invitation to sing.
The girl's father accompanied her at the piano. ‘It would be impossible to comment on all her songs,’ writes Private Gain,18 ‘but the item which stirred us most was her rendering of that lovely prayer, Schubert's “Ave Maria”. It was magnificent and, before the lads were in any way satisfied, she had to repeat it twice. Her whole performance—and she was very liberal with her items—was flawless and it was not hard to realise that we had in our midst a singer of note….
‘Now and again it was necessary for our artiste to have a breather and “fill-ins” were provided firstly by trios from Vic, Scotty, and Butch, and later by the platoon choir whose efforts seemed to please our guests not a little. The inimitable Scotty provided further items and, altogether, the evening was a huge success…. our snowy-headed cook, George…. provided our guests with a tasty supper. Coffee, served in a set which was probably next to priceless, was thoroughly enjoyed by all who were fortunate enough to secure a cup and the tomato sand wiches were a very popular addition to the fare of army biscuits….
‘While all this was going on, the war continued to be fought all around us and, on occasions, the exploding of a shell nearby almost blotted out the singer's efforts, but she carried on with a disregard for Heinie seldom seen amongst the local inhabitants and she appeared so wrapped up in her singing that she became oblivious to everything except her song.’
That night (1–2 August) the Division attacked the hilltops which were the last obstacle before Florence. Five infantry battalions, advancing on a narrow front between the Greve River and San Michele, were assisted by creeping artillery barrages, timed concentrations and counter-battery programmes, page 432 and by machine-gun fire wherever possible. During the night and the following day 1, 2 and 3 Companies expended over 200,000 rounds (3 Company nearly half of this total) to supplement the artillery and harass the known positions of German mortars and machine guns.
‘The previous support of 3 Coy had been so encouraging to everybody that during this attack 3 Coy expended 94000 rounds,’ says Halkett. ‘We again repeated our closely controlled concentrated fire on Infantry selected targets at times which they stipulated and again we had the satisfaction of hearing the infantry of 22 Bn express their appreciation. Later received a letter of thanks from their Col. which was read to the Coy when they withdrew from the line for a rest.’
On the right, between the Greve and La Poggiona, 2 Platoon gave overhead fire for the Maori Battalion's advance. ‘I took my truck forward in search of the 28 Bn, having placed my guns on a rise,’ writes Hutchinson, ‘& on rounding a bend in the road came under small arms fire. We sheltered our truck behind two tanks, & only by a fluke noticed some Maoris running into a house up a long driveway just up the road. This was lucky for us, as we would have done what Brig Stewart19 did….’ The Brigadier had set out at daybreak to visit the battalion, but had seen no sign of its headquarters and had gone too far. Later the German wireless announced that he was a prisoner.
The 21st Battalion, which was to have gone through the Maoris, did not succeed in its attack and had to make another effort the following night. In the meantime 2 Platoon did a direct shoot on some Germans who could be seen digging in— they dispersed in a great hurry—and engaged other targets with excellent results.
The 22nd Battalion, advancing from La Romola towards La Poggiona, and 25 and 26 Battalions, advancing from near San Michele towards the neighbouring heights, reached the hilltops which gave a view over the lower ground around Florence. This success finally decided the battle for the city.
Before dawn 3 Company went up to La Romola, where its three platoons continued their harassing role. Going out beyond Cerbaia in daylight, 5 Platoon, according to one of its gunners, page 433 was ‘right under Jerry's nose. Goodness only knows why he didn't go us, but [we] get dug in without drawing fire. Shot all afternoon and night.’
On the night of 2–3 August 1 and 2 Platoons gave supporting fire for 21 Battalion's attack, which secured the hills east of La Poggiona; 3 Platoon, which went up to support the battalion against the counter-attack expected at dawn, did not have to shoot. Already the enemy had begun to retreat. The 28th and 23rd Battalions and tanks of 4 Armoured Brigade passed through to exploit down the road to Florence, but were impeded by rearguards and demolitions. In the evening 2 Platoon was sent up to support the Maoris.
The troops not participating in the drive on Florence pulled back out of the hills. Some of them, crowding into Cerbaia, were shelled by long-range guns in the afternoon of 3 August. ‘At approx 1630 hrs Jerry started in suddenly and did over the village well and truly,’ wrote McLennan. ‘Caused quite a few casualties, and burnt & KO'd many vehicles. My [6 Platoon's] only knock was a poco hole in [a truck]—very lucky indeed.’
‘Take cover in large shop & have to stay there as Jerry pounds show for three hours solid…. Trucks hit everywhere,’ wrote Ross (5 Platoon). ‘Wally [Frohlich20 our rangetaker wounded pretty badly. Our trucks knocked about a bit with shrap…. Leave in hurry about 8 oclock & very glad to do so.’
The South Africans, whose progress had been assisted by the New Zealanders' capture of the dominating hills, were the first to enter the outskirts of Florence before dawn on 4 August. The Maoris appear to have won the race with 23 Battalion to be the first New Zealanders there. They were joined by 1 Platoon just short of the outskirts. The machine-gunners and a troop of tanks had some difficulty in crossing a canal south of the city. ‘Gerry opened lock gates somewhere and lifted the level of the water,’ says Knowles. ‘As a start only one of my trucks got over and I left the Pl Sgt and the drivers battling with the others. Moved 4 guns onto the one truck and caught up the Maoris in time to join Peter Awatere's triumphal entry into town. Altho’ Florence was technically an open city there was spasmodic shooting and the two sections spent the first night in large buildings right on the river giving cross fire defence. At dawn I moved to the grounds of the Villa Bellosguardo and from my page 434 vantage point on the rise kept up a steady harassing fire on escape routes to the N and NW of the city. To help out the Maoris “stole” some Mk VIIIZ ammunition … to keep me going.’
All the bridges over the Arno had been destroyed except the Ponte Vecchio, the approaches to which had been blocked by the demolition of some houses. An attempt to force a crossing in the neighbourhood would have made a battlefield of the city. An Italian partisan woman, with a covering scout from 1 Platoon, showed the South Africans where the Germans had placed mines in the approaches at both ends of the Ponte Vecchio.
The New Zealand Division relieved 8 Indian Division, which had secured the high ground above Montelupo and opposite Signa, west of Florence. All three brigades went into the line, and except for 1 and 2 Companies, which remained with 5 and 6 Brigades, 27 Battalion was under 4 Brigade's command.
Facing Signa, which was held by the enemy, 3 and 4 Companies (the latter being given a job for the first time since leaving Arce) took up positions with 22 (Motor) Battalion. A day or two later 4 Company moved with Steele Force (27 Battalion less the other three companies, a company of infantry, three anti-tank batteries in an infantry role, and detachments of tanks, mortars and engineers, under the CO's command) to 26 Battalion's position in a bend in the river east of Montelupo, to permit that battalion to strengthen 5 Brigade's sector farther west. The Vickers did harassing shoots at night—one night 7 and 8 Platoons fired 35,000 rounds—and were slightly involved in one or two skirmishes with German patrols which came across the river. The enemy, with good observation from high ground, accurately shelled the roads and tracks.
South of Montelupo 2 Company placed its guns well forward with 6 Brigade. At Fibbiana, a deserted village only 200 or 300 yards from the enemy, 4 Platoon spent an anxious time without local infantry protection. The silence of the empty village was uncanny, while nearby in no-man's-land the inmates of an asylum were heard yelling at night. Fibbiana had little to recommend it.
Empoli, a town on the southern bank of the Arno about 15 miles west of Florence, was strongly held by the enemy. While with 5 Brigade, which relieved an Indian brigade in this sector on the night of 7–8 August, 1 Company expended large - page 435 ties of ammunition, sometimes well in excess of 50,000 in a night, harassing supply routes and river crossings.
‘Early one evening,’ writes Knowles, whose 1 Platoon was about 3500 yards from the river, ‘I went to chat the infantry and in doing so reached a listening post overlooking the bend in the river at dusk. The light was still fair and I could see a number of Gerries walking on the water. It dawned on us that it was a sunken bridge. From the map I switched the guns and we caught what must have been a company crossing. The slaughter was terrific and proved to me once again that map shooting with MK VIIIZ was the most advantageous system of shooting to adopt.’
All three platoons supported an attack by 23 and 26 Battalions on the night of 10–11 August to gain possession of the approaches to the river near the town, and paid particular attention to the bridge. Subsequently 23 Battalion captured three Germans from a company of panzer grenadiers which was intended to counter-attack but had lost twenty-two killed and forty wounded by machine-gun fire while crossing and forming up. Lieutenant-Colonel McPhail21 told Major Luxford that one reason why the infantry had had so few casualties was because the machine guns had done so much softening up beforehand.
‘Good results were recorded,’ says the company diary on the 12th. ‘Infantry reported much enemy confusion on the Highway which was harassed. Enemy vehicles were moving in all directions and much shouting was heard…. No. 2 Pl in conjunction with 28 Bn's mopping up process of EMPOLI [next day] fired HF on Northern banks of River ARNO…. All pls carried out further HF tasks as per previous nights. Spasmodic enemy Spandau fire returned.’
The days were beginning to shorten. The fruit was ripening on the trees. ‘We have sampled some delightful pears, peaches and even some apples, and always have fresh stewed fruit for dessert at night,’ wrote a 4 Company man. ‘The grapes are at last making some progress to our impatient eyes, and many of the bunches are deceptively purple already. They are still bitter though and only about half size, but I expect some of the boys will get the gripes through not being able to wait for them to ripen fully.’page 436
They did not get the chance to wait. After the Division had been about a week on the Arno River front it was relieved by an American division. The machine-gun companies went back over the dusty roads to Castellina in Chianti, where they returned to the command of their own battalion headquarters.22
Mr Churchill paid his third visit to the Division.23 As they had done for the King, the troops lined a stretch of the road while the Prime Minister drove through in a staff car. But they had to wait two and a half hours before he arrived. They sat in the hot sun on the roadside and were thickly powdered when each vehicle drove past in a cloud of dust. ‘There was no organised cheering as when the King came and no one felt like starting … so the result was a succession of faint cries like those of drowning men in the distance or Kiwis volunteering for fatigues … no one was going to be the only man yelling. … A jeep full of our provosts which tailed the procession was loudly cheered by the troops who had to give vent to their feelings somehow.’
4 The officers of the battalion were:
Adj: Lt O. J. Hatton
QM: Lt L. Morgan
Sigs: Lt E. T. Couch
TO: 2 Lt J. Wade
MO: Capt J. P. Board
Padre: Rev A. H. Finlay
2 i/c: Capt C. M. H. Gibson
1 Pl: 2 Lt J. L. Knowles
2 Pl: Lt E. Y. M. Hutchinson
3 Pl: Lt W. S. Nicol
OC: Capt W. R. Aislabie
2 i/c: Capt R. J. Mason
4 Pl: Lt J. S. Freeborn
5 Pl: Lt I. R. Watson
6 Pl: Lt I. McLennan
2 i/c: Capt J. T. H. Halkett
7 Pl: 2 Lt C. V. Martyn
8 Pl: Lt E. Sanders
9 Pl: 2 Lt F. Howe
Although slightly wounded he remained with his platoon and was cap- turned next day—the last NZ machine-gunner to be taken p.w. in the Second World War.
15 Within half an hour they were re-equipped, ‘even down to razors, shaving brushes, toothbrushes, etc.’, by the 2 i/c (Capt Mason). ‘Where he got a lot of the items at such short notice is beyond me,’ says Freeborn.
19 Maj-Gen R. L. Stewart, CB, CBE, DSO, m.i.d., MC (Gk), Legion of Merit (US); Kerikeri; born Timaru, 30 Dec 1896; Regular soldier; 1 NZEF 1917–19; GSO 1 2 NZ Div 1940–41; DCGS 1941–43; comd 5 Bde Aug–Nov 1943, 4 Armd Bde Nov 1943–Mar 1944, 5 Bde Mar–Aug 1944; p.w. 1 Aug 1944; comd 9 Bde (2 NZEF, Japan) Nov 1945–Jul 1946; Adj-Gen NZ Military Forces 1946–49; CGS 1949–52.