Italy Volume II : From Cassino to Trieste
III: Monte Lignano
III: Monte Lignano
The Allied armies were checked right across Italy before they reached the ports of Ancona on the east coast and Leghorn on the west, and in the middle of the peninsula, the road and rail centre of Arezzo.
A broad and fertile valley, the Val di Chiana, leads northwards from the western side of Lake Trasimene towards Arezzo, a town four miles from the Arno River. Route 71 runs at the foot of the mountains on the eastern side of the valley and joins Route 73 (the Siena-Arezzo highway) at a defile less than three miles from Arezzo. Eighth Army advanced from the Trasimene Line with 13 Corps in the Chiana valley and the hills to the west, and with 10 Corps in the broken country of the Tiber valley to the east.
On 13 Corps' right 6 British Armoured Division, which had taken over from 78 Division, found the enemy defending the mountain heights east of Route 71, from which he had observation over the Chiana valley. The armoured division succeeded in gaining a foothold on Monte Lignano, due south of Arezzo, and on Monte Castiglion Maggio, farther to the south-east, but failed to clear the enemy from the crests. In the corps' centre 4 British Infantry Division and on the left 6 South African Armoured Division were unable to break through the hills west of the Chiana valley and so reach the Arno valley west of Arezzo. A major action would be necessary to dislodge the enemy and capture Arezzo, and for this 13 Corps would need reinforcement. It was decided, therefore, to bring up ‘the most readily available formation,’2 the New Zealand Division. The attack was postponed until 15 July to give the New Zealanders time to move up to the front from the Liri valley, and in the meantime a heavy preliminary artillery and air assault was made on the German gun positions.page 101
It was 13 Corps' intention to attack the enemy in his positions west and south-west of Arezzo and continue the advance to Florence. The 6th Armoured Division was to capture the high ground south-west of Arezzo, cut the roads north and west of the town, secure crossing places over the Arno River, and occupy the town when the chance occurred. The British armoured division's right flank was to be protected by the New Zealand Division, which page 102 was to relieve a group named Sackforce1 and occupy the heights from Monte Castiglion Maggio to Monte Lignano; on the left, west of the Chiana canal, 4 Division was to give supporting fire.
Sixth New Zealand Infantry Brigade group2 was ordered to relieve Sackforce on the night of 12–13 July. Brigadier Burrows instructed 25 Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Norman3) to take over the positions of 1 King's Royal Rifle Corps on the south-western slopes of Monte Lignano, and 26 Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Fountaine4) to relieve 1 Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders on the slopes of Monte Castiglion Maggio. These peaks, together with Monte Camurcina and Poggio Cavadenti, which lay between them, rose about 2000 feet above the Chiana valley and gave excellent observation of 13 Corps' activities to the west as well as commanding the approaches to Arezzo.
The convoy carrying 25 and 26 Battalions and their supporting machine guns and mortars left the south-western side of Lake Trasimene early in the evening of the 12th, drove up Route 71 to Castiglion Fiorentino and halted for half an hour until darkness fell. The 25th Battalion's vehicles then went to a debussing point three miles farther up the road, where the machine guns and other equipment were loaded on mules. Shortly before midnight the battalion, using the mules and jeeps, set out to climb to the positions occupied by the KRRC on Monte Lignano. The relief was completed by 4.30 a.m. without casualties, despite some shelling and mortaring. Meanwhile, by midnight, 26 Battalion had relieved the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in the Monte Castiglion Maggio sector.
1 Sackforce, under command of 6 Armd Div for right-flank protection, comprised KDG, 1 KRRC, a battery of 5 Med Regt, a self-propelled anti-tank battery and a platoon of engineers; it was strengthened on 8 July by 1 Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders temporarily detached from 8 Ind Div.
2 At this stage 6 Inf Bde had under command two troops of 17/21 Lancers, B Sqn Div Cav, 33 A-Tk Bty, 43 Lt AA Bty, 39 Mortar Bty less two troops, 5 Inf Bde Hy Mortar Pl, 8 Fd Coy, 2 MG Coy, a detachment of 2 NZ Div Provost Coy, and 5 Fd Amb, and in support 5 and 6 Fd Regts.
4 Col D. J. Fountaine, DSO, MC, m.i.d.; Westport; born Westport, 4 Jul 1914; company secretary; CO 20 Bn Jul–Aug 1942; 26 Bn Sep 1942–Dec 1943, Jun–Oct 1944; comd NZ Adv Base Oct 1944–Sep 1945; wounded 26 Nov 1941.
Tenth Army had ordered 76 Panzer Corps to hold its existing line but to swing back its left (east) wing. It had been intended that 44 Infantry Division of 51 Mountain Corps should occupy Monte Favalto, a high peak about eight miles east of Monte Lignano, but this had not been done. Instead, troops of 4 Indian Division (10 Corps) reached the slopes of Monte Favalto on 12 July. The commander of 76 Corps (General Herr) then told Tenth Army that 305 Division's left flank was ‘in an untenable position, and must draw back and lose control of the commanding heights. That may mean that the Corps cannot hold on for long in the rest of the sector….’1 Tenth Army gave orders that 305 Division's right was to hold firm on Monte Lignano, and the rest of the division could take up a line extending over Monte Camurcina and towards Monte Favalto.
The capture of Monte Favalto by 4 Indian Division was a threat to Arezzo from an unexpected direction, and also placed the left flank of 305 Division in a dangerous salient, from which it began thinning out on the night of 12–13 July. Monte Castiglion Maggio, at the southern tip of the salient, was abandoned completely. Thus 10 Corps' advance assisted 13 Corps.
At dawn on 13 July a three-man patrol from A Company, 26 Battalion, climbed to the top of Monte Castiglion Maggio and found it unoccupied. The patrol pushed along a high saddle for about a mile to Poggio Cavadenti without meeting any enemy. There was more activity in 25 Battalion's sector on the slopes of Monte Lignano, which the enemy shelled and mortared. At least two of the houses the battalion was using received direct hits. That night 24 Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Hutchens) moved into the line on the western slopes of Monte Camurcina to fill the gap between 25 and 26 Battalions.
1 26 Battalion, p. 412.
When C Company approached Point 671, the nearer of the two peaks of Poggio Spino, it came under fire from a farmhouse. A forward observation officer from 6 Field Regiment who was with the company put through a call on his wireless to the guns, which laid a heavy concentration on the enemy-held position. No. 14 Platoon charged in after the concentration, and the enemy retired down the reverse slope. The other two platoons took up position on the other peak (Point 691), which they found deserted. The company was still digging in at nightfall when, following a mortar concentration, the enemy counter-attacked 14 Platoon and forced it back about 80 yards from the farmhouse. The other two platoons stayed on Point 691 and returned the enemy's fire. The artillery FOO called down another concentration, which fell in the company area. This, or possibly simultaneous enemy fire, caused four casualties, including two men killed. The enemy made no attempt to press home his advantage, and 14 Platoon later reoccupied its position on Point 671 without opposition.
Monte Camurcina, like Poggio Spino, had twin summits: the main peak (Point 846) and Colle de Luca (Point 844), farther west, were joined by a low saddle. C Company, 24 Battalion, had taken over a position from a platoon of 25 Battalion at Podere Rigutinelli, a group of farmhouses less than a mile to the south-west of Colle de Luca. The commander (Second-Lieutenant Crawshaw2) of 15 Platoon, which was occupying this position, had been informed by the commander of the platoon he had relieved that Colle de Luca was either unoccupied or very thinly held. He set out at 5.30 a.m. to discover whether or not it was clear of the enemy. The platoon advanced cautiously with a section on each side of a ridge, scouts out in front, and the third section some way in the rear. One of the scouts was fired on 200 yards from the summit. Crawshaw ordered the two leading sections to make an encircling movement, but they were fired on from newly disclosed positions and sent to ground. The reserve section, going to assist, was also pinned down.
Some of the opposition encountered by C Company had come from spandau posts on Monte Camurcina, Point 781 (between Monte Camurcina and Monte Lignano) and Poggio Altoviti (to the south-east). C Company estimated there was a company of the enemy on Colle de Luca, and reported three machine guns in the saddle between the twin peaks. Lieutenant-Colonel Hutchens decided that A Company should relieve C Company and capture both peaks of Monte Camurcina. That night A Company advanced about the same time as 25 Battalion made its attack on Monte Lignano.
The plan to break through the German defences at Arezzo was for 1 Guards Brigade of 6 British Armoured Division, supported by the tanks of 17/21 Lancers, to capture the high ground at the head of the Chiana valley, south-west of the town, after which 26 Armoured Brigade was to pass through into the Arezzo plain and capture crossings over the Arno River. Concurrently with the first phase of this attack, 6 NZ Infantry Brigade was to clear Monte Lignano and protect the right flank of the Guards Brigade.
‘It was recognised that the precipitous nature of the country made the task of the artillery very difficult….’1 The field regiments were warned that care was to be taken in the computation of correct angles of sight for individual guns during the fire plan.
There was a thunderstorm about midnight. The artillery bombardment on the New Zealand front and in support of the Guards Brigade's attack on the left opened at 1 a.m. on the 15th, and 25 Battalion's advance began 40 minutes later. A and C Companies had orders to capture Monte Lignano, and D Company to take Point 783, 500 yards to the north-west, and then clear the ridge running 700 yards westward to Point 650; B Company was to occupy the positions vacated by C Company on the southern slopes of Lignano. C Company moved off first, followed at 10-minute intervals by A and D Companies.
All three companies followed the same route, up a fairly narrow ridge. ‘The terrain was such that the start line could only be reached by scrambling on hands and knees in single file,’ a member of 15 Platoon said later.2 C Company was held up some distance from the summit by shellfire which was believed to be from the supporting artillery, but it deployed and moved on when the barrage lifted at 2 a.m. ‘We … 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…. 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…. We made the crest on which was a very badly shattered building and we occupied it…. Prisoners were now being taken…. 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….’3
A Company encountered very little opposition on the way to the summit. Two or three spandau posts were silenced. Some mines with trip wires attached caused no casualties because the wires were too slack to explode them. D Company passed through on the way to its more distant objective, where it overcame a more stubborn resistance than the enemy had offered on Lignano.
1 Sir Edward Puttick, 25 Battalion, p. 451.
‘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.’1 A report from the battalion gives 14 instances on 15 July of the shelling of A, C and D Companies by the supporting guns, which caused 16 casualties. On six occasions, from 2.25 a.m. to 3.25 a.m., the shells fell on the summit of Lignano, which was the target for concentrations timed to end at 2 a.m. There should have been no fire after that hour on the peak, but despite the battalion's attempts to rectify this, the shells continued to fall there.
The guns believed to be responsible were reported to be on a bearing of 155 degrees, which passed through the area occupied by the supporting artillery and, if projected beyond the summit of Monte Lignano, ran through one of the artillery target areas 750 yards north-west of the peak. It appears, therefore, that either the guns firing the concentrations on Monte Lignano failed to lift at 2 a.m. as they should have done, or those that were to have fired concentrations on targets 750 yards beyond Lignano shelled that peak instead. Nevertheless, the bearing cited by 25 Battalion as the source of the shelling, if extended in the opposite direction, passed through the site of a German battery just west of Arezzo. It is quite possible, therefore, that this battery or some other German long-range guns were responsible for at least some if not all of the damaging fire while the attack was in progress. ‘The German artillery had the area well surveyed…. and [was] easily able to bring down fire on the ground over which the New Zealanders attacked.’2
1 25 Battalion, p. 459.
The loss of Monte Lignano, the dominant peak in the Arezzo defence system, meant that the Germans would have to withdraw. Tenth Army reported to Army Group C during the morning of 15 July that ‘we have lost M. Lignano. From there the enemy has a view of Arezzo. Therefore we cannot remain there much longer…. A counter attack would be very costly and is out of the question….’ Field Marshal Kesselring agreed that ‘with M. Lignano in the hands of the enemy we must withdraw.’1 Permission was given for 76 Panzer Corps to make a delaying withdrawal, lasting two days, to the Arno River.
Although the Germans had been compelled to yield Monte Lignano, they still held Monte Camurcina and other points on the high ground in the New Zealand sector. The previous evening (14 July) Hutchens had ordered A Company, 24 Battalion, to relieve C Company on the slopes of Colle de Luca and take first that peak and then the other peak of Camurcina. A Company had moved up during the night and passed through C Company, but had been brought to a halt by machine-gun fire at the locality where C Company had been engaged on the morning of the 14th. A Company attempted no further action on the 15th. Much enemy activity was observed on Colle de Luca in the afternoon and, at the company's request, the artillery fired on the peak.
Brigadier Burrows decided to stage an attack on the remaining features in the New Zealand sector believed to be still in enemy hands, and gave orders in the afternoon of the 15th for an attack which was to begin at 2 a.m. next day: 26 Battalion on the right was to capture Poggio Altoviti, and 24 Battalion on the left was to take Colle de Luca and the main peak of Monte Camurcina. The 23rd Battalion, having passed temporarily to 6 Brigade's command, was to be in reserve.
The three field regiments were to support this attack with a series of concentrations on the objectives and other targets. The 4.2-inch mortars also were to give support by firing on Point 812 (north of Colle de Luca) and at dawn were to carry out observed bombardments of the valleys north of the objectives.
The artillery opened fire on Poggio Altoviti at the appointed time (2 a.m.). B Company of 26 Battalion, led by 7 Platoon (attached from A Company), advanced to the peak and found it deserted. Soon afterwards the company came under what was believed to be 25-pounder fire. ‘Frantic messages were relayed back to the gunners and the firing soon ceased, but not before two men had been killed and two wounded.’1 It is again possible that the German artillery, which was well placed to fire on this peak, may have been responsible. The enemy could have judged from the New Zealand shelling how the attack was progressing and where to place his fire to best advantage.
Before the bombardment began A Company, 24 Battalion, withdrew 400 yards from Colle de Luca, and half an hour after the guns opened fire, moved forward again unopposed. D Company passed through and found Camurcina deserted. The two companies were ordered to send out patrols at daybreak to search for any enemy who might be lying low. Supplies and equipment, including machine guns, were taken up to Monte Camurcina by a mule team. A patrol from A Company made contact with 25 Battalion on Monte Lignano, and also took two prisoners. Mines and several enemy dead were found.
1 26 Battalion, p. 414.
The column made slow progress on 14 July, being delayed at several places by mines and demolitions, and was halted in the afternoon by a large crater at the junction of a side road which led round the northern face of Poggio Spino (the peak occupied by C Company, 26 Battalion, that afternoon), about two miles from Palazzo del Pero. Enemy shell and mortar fire prevented the sappers of 8 Field Company from repairing the road, and as the shelling had not stopped next morning (the 15th), it was decided to bulldoze a bypass, which was completed before midday. An armoured car patrol then advanced without opposition to the road junction at Palazzo del Pero, where it found more mines and demolitions and came under fire from enemy guns. The tanks, which also moved to Palazzo del Pero, engaged with harassing fire small distant parties of the enemy, who appeared to be pulling back through the hills.
Meanwhile troops of 4 Indian Division, of 10 Corps, which planned to cross Route 73 east of Arezzo and capture the Alpe di Poti, the high ground dominating the east and north-east of the town, came through the mountains south-east of Palazzo del Pero, and early on 16 July—when C Squadron's tanks had just started off along Route 73—the New Zealanders were recalled from what was now 10 Corps' sphere of operations.
The enemy had broken contact on the New Zealand front; he had also gone from 6 Armoured Division's sector, on the left, where a battalion of the Welsh Guards moved unopposed on to the Agazzi hills, across the highway leading to Arezzo. The 26th Armoured Brigade drove through the gap in the hills, occupied the town and crossed the Arno.
The occupation of Monte Camurcina and Poggio Altoviti had ended the New Zealand Division's part in the battle. The Division went into reserve, and orders were given for the withdrawal of 6 Brigade. Equipment was loaded on mules and the various companies came down from the high ground to the road, where they were picked up by the transport which took them back to the brigade's B echelon area, west of Cortona in the Chiana valley.
The New Zealand casualties in the battle for Arezzo totalled 116, including 37 killed or died of wounds; 66 of these (22 killed and 44 wounded) were incurred by 25 Battalion.page 112
Immediately after 6 Brigade's return General Freyberg held a conference of formation and unit commanders to announce the New Zealand Government's policy on furlough. Already most of the men who had left New Zealand with the First, Second and Third Echelons had been granted furlough; the Ruapehu draft of over 6000 had left Egypt for New Zealand in June 1943, and the Wakatipu draft of over 2500 in January 1944. But the 4th Reinforcements, who included men who had fought in Greece, Crete and North Africa, were still serving with the 2 NZEF.
The GOC issued a special order on 17 July stating that replacements were being sent from New Zealand to relieve the 4th Reinforcements, a proportion of whom would be withdrawn forthwith and the remainder later in the year after the arrival of the replacements. The first group, numbering 1500, was to include all the married men of the 4th Reinforcements and a proportion of the single men selected by ballot; and also officers of the first three echelons who had not yet had furlough (except a few in key positions) but no officers of the 4th Reinforcements.
Celebration parties for those who were going—and to drown the sorrows of those who were not—were staged before the departure of the Taupo draft on 20 July. Several weeks later, when the GOC found it necessary to draw the attention of formation commanders to breaches of discipline, he listed as one example of ‘unrestricted consumption of intoxicating liquor’ the occasion when ‘troops from certain units turned up at the parade of 4th Reinforcements in a hopelessly drunken condition, and had to be kept off the parade ground. Numerous men of this draft were in possession of large quantities of liquor which was taken on the trucks with them.’