Italy Volume II : From Cassino to Trieste
III: The Pian dei Cerri Hills
III: The Pian dei Cerri Hills
The Paula Line, the last of the enemy's planned delaying positions south of Florence, followed an eastward course from Montelupo, at the confluence of the Arno and Pesa rivers, across Route 2 towards the Arno valley between Florence and Arezzo. When 1 Parachute Corps withdrew to the Paula Line on the night of 26–27 July, the adjacent left wing of 14 Panzer Corps went back to the same line, and the point of contact between the two corps was moved eastward (to about two miles west of Cerbaia) to give 1 Parachute Corps a smaller sector, which enabled the enemy to thicken the concentration of armour, artillery and infantry opposing the two divisions—the New Zealand and South African—most closely approaching Florence.
As a result of this contraction of 1 Parachute Corps' front the New Zealand Division, which had been opposed from the start of the advance by 4 Parachute Division, now faced its western neighbour, 29 Panzer Grenadier Division, whose sector included the high ground of the Pian dei Cerri. From the crest of these rolling wooded hills, rising in places over 1000 feet, both the Pesa valley to the south and the Arno valley and Florence to the north could be dominated by fire.
The New Zealand Division's front had widened sufficiently to permit a two-brigade attack against this high ground. General Freyberg was confident early on 27 July that an advance over the Pian dei Cerri would drive the enemy back and clear the way to Florence. He discussed plans for the opening of a New Zealand club in the city. By the evening, however, it was obvious that the Division had run up against more determined opposition than it had yet encountered in the campaign, and that something more in the nature of a set-piece attack would have to take the place of the probing advances by single companies which had succeeded up to this stage. The plan for that night, states the GOC's diary, was ‘modified and qualified and modified again in the usual page 138 manner.’ Finally it was decided that 4 and 6 Brigades should make independent attacks with limited objectives.
On the left of the New Zealand sector 8 Indian Division had entered Montespertoli unopposed on the morning of 27 July and, before the day ended, had drawn level with 5 NZ Brigade, whose role of protecting the New Zealand Division's left flank therefore was no longer necessary. On the right of the New Zealand sector 6 South African Armoured Division had found Mercatale, south-east of San Casciano, vacated by the enemy, but had been able to advance only a short distance beyond the village against stiffening resistance and under fire from guns on the high ground around Impruneta, and also had come up against strong enemy positions on Poggio Mandorli, south of Strada. Thus, until such time as the South Africans should draw level, 4 NZ Armoured Brigade, which was proposing to push north from San Casciano, had an unprotected right flank and was exposed to counter-attack and to fire from the guns around Impruneta.
The plan on which 2 NZ Division acted on the night of 27–28 July evolved from the earlier orders, which had given less importance to the occupation of San Casciano than to the formation of the bridgehead over the Pesa by 6 Brigade. After establishing the bridgehead 6 Brigade was to have occupied the line La Romola – San Michele (this bound being given the codename ATLANTA) and then the crest of the Pian dei Cerri hills (brooklyn).1 As San Casciano would have been untenable by the enemy once 6 Brigade was on these heights, the capture of the town had been left to Armcav. Fourth Brigade's original role had been to pass through 6 Brigade on the capture of brooklyn and make a dash to the Arno in three bounds, while Divisional Cavalry made a similar advance on the left flank. Because all three brigades of the Division would have had to use the single route gained by 5 Brigade's advances west of the Pesa, precise priorities had been allotted for the movement of fighting and maintenance vehicles.
1 Many codenames were given for bounds and objectives in subsequent plans, which eventually involved all three brigades of the Division. The objectives denoted by atlanta and brooklyn were cancelled on 29 July.
When it was realised that the South Africans were unlikely to keep pace with the New Zealand advance the scope of the plan was modified by a message sent by Divisional Headquarters at 7.35 p.m., by which time 4 Brigade had absorbed Armcav and 6 Brigade had tested the opposition on its front. Fourth Brigade now was given the task of attacking the eastern portion of the objective BROOKLYN, from a road fork south of Poggio delle Monache to La Poggiona, and 6 Brigade the crest of the Pian dei Cerri, which it was to gain in three stages.1 The two brigades were to attack independently. A further modification, issued at 10.40 p.m., limited 4 Brigade's objective to the high ground from north of Faltignano to La Romola, and 6 Brigade to its first objective (Poggio Cigoli to Torri). Divisional Cavalry was made responsible for the road leading north-east from Geppetto, on the left flank.
Sixth Brigade, in a message issued at 11.30 p.m. on the 27th, instructed its units2 that the ‘intermediate objectives’ were to be attacked that night, Poggio Cigoli (Point 281) by 26 Battalion and La Liona (Point 261) by 24 Battalion; the advance to the ‘final objectives’, Poggio Valicaia (Point 382) and La Sughera (Point 395), would not be carried out until 4 Brigade had ‘completed tasks on right flank’.3 This second phase was expected to take place on 28 July. The 25th Battalion was to remain in reserve and protect the bridgehead over the Pesa River and the left flank.
Several roads led into the hills from the vicinity of Cerbaia, one north-eastward along a ridge to La Romola and beyond to join the San Casciano – Giogoli road; another from Castellare up a ridge to San Michele and over the Pian dei Cerri; and another, also from Castellare, up a ridge between La Romola and San Michele. Sixth Brigade's first objectives (Points 281 and 261) were on this middle ridge.
1 Although the orders from HQ 2 NZ Div gave 6 Bde three successive objectives, the brigade orders refer only to two: the ‘intermediate objectives’ to be attacked in the first phase and the ‘final objectives’ in the second phase, short of the final objective of the divisional orders.
2 Under 6 Bde's command, in addition to the three infantry battalions, were 19 Armd Regt less one squadron, 33 A–Tk Bty, 39 Hy Mor Bty, 2 MG Coy and 8 Fd Coy; a troop of M10s of 31 Bty was in support. The artillery was under the direct command of the CRA, but 5 and 6 Fd Regts were given tasks in support of 6 Bde, and 70 and 75 Med Regts also were to assist.
3 War diary, HQ 6 Inf Bde.
The tanks of B Squadron which were to support 24 Battalion did not arrive until much later. As soon as dusk obscured enemy observation, they left the Talente area (south-east of Cerbaia), where they had arrived earlier in the day, but could make only slow progress because of demolitions, mines, scattered fire and mechanical troubles. About 10 completed the journey, the leaders reaching Castellare not long before dawn on the 28th.
C Company, 26 Battalion, advanced up the road from Castellare on the middle ridge (between La Romola and San Michele), but owing to the difficulties of the going and the need to sweep for mines, the infantry soon outdistanced the tanks. As early as 2 a.m. the company reported back that it had covered the two miles to Poggio Cigoli (Point 281) and was beyond that point, but had not been able to make contact with 24 Battalion on its left flank. Brigade Headquarters learnt at 3.30 a.m. that C Company's leading men were on the road some 500 yards north of Point 281, but the tanks, having been held up by a demolition, were well to the rear.
The Vickers guns were unloaded and the anti-tank guns unhitched, and while two tanks returned to bring up more guns, five managed to get past the demolition and push on to join the infantry. They overtook part of the reserve platoon (14 Platoon), which had been given the task of covering the sappers and guiding the tanks, and about daybreak were in a position from which they could cover the infantry ahead.
As the light improved, C Company, which had dug in hastily on both sides of the road, came under mortar and shell fire, and by the time the tanks arrived the whole area was under constant fire from almost all quarters. Obviously the company had penetrated well into the enemy's lines. Anti-tank guns were firing from the La Romola ridge, almost due south, and other fire came from the north-west, west and south-west along the San Michele ridge.
1 The GOC's diary says that 6 Bde's commander (Brig Burrows) reported at 8.30 a.m.: ‘Right well forward beyond original objective …. further forward than meant.’ 26 Bn's war diary suggests that the CO (Lt-Col Fountaine) on his own volition had decided on a deep unsupported exploitation; it reports at 4.30 a.m. that he ordered a strong platoon of B Coy to move to C Coy's ‘original objective Pt 382’ (Poggio Valicaia) and C Coy to ‘exploit to Point 395’ (La Sughera—24 Bn's final objective).
A detachment from B Company of platoon strength followed in C Company's tracks but did not get as far as Point 281; it met men of 24 Battalion about dawn and remained with them. Meanwhile A and B Companies of 25 Battalion joined the 26 Battalion troops at Cerbaia.
A Company, 24 Battalion, after getting away to a late start along the route on the ridge taken by C Company of the 26th, found a house occupied by five Germans, who were taken prisoner, and released two men of 26 Battalion who had been captured by this party. Continuing its advance, A Company met men at the tail of C Company who had just overcome a German machine-gun post near the road, and also stopped and captured an enemy truck which had driven through C Company. As dawn approached, A Company was well short of its objective, Point 261, which was separated from the road by a wooded gully. The OC (Major Howden2) then gave orders for a defensive position to be taken up with two platoons covering the road and the third with Company Headquarters in a house. The company made contact with C Squadrons tanks and was joined by the machine-gun section which had been carried on them. Three of B Squadron's tanks reached A Company's house just as day was breaking; others took up positions farther back to cover the San Michele and Geppetto roads.
Evidently 6 Brigade's advance had penetrated into a thinly held sector of the German defences between the strongpoints at La Romola and San Michele. Shortly after dawn on the 28th the enemy, who appeared to have a large concentration of guns and heavy mortars on the Pian dei Cerri hills, brought down heavy fire on the salient and the roads to the rear. He had often used shellfire to cover his withdrawal, and as he had not seriously counter-attacked for some time, the New Zealand commanders apparently were expecting him to fall back, as he had been doing during the last few days. They therefore took little immediate action to ease the isolation of the two companies in the salient.page 143
There were signs, however, that the enemy was preparing to counter-attack from the high ground to the north, where movement was observed and on which the fire of the New Zealand guns was directed. The tanks of B Squadron in the salient were finding it difficult to avoid the fire of enemy self-propelled guns or tanks on the San Michele ridge, while those of C Squadron were exposed to fire from tanks and anti-tank guns on the La Romola ridge. Of the seven C Squadron tanks supporting C Company, 26 Battalion (the original five plus the two which had gone back to bring up more anti-tank guns), two were knocked out and four damaged. Those mobile enough to avoid the fire from La Romola withdrew down the road past Point 281, which left C Company without support.
Under fire from three sides, C Company's men gathered in the house north of Point 281 where Company Headquarters had been set up. A Company of 24 Battalion also drew in its platoons and concentrated around a house south of Point 281. About 10 a.m. German infantry began to close in on C Company's house. Kain ordered his men to drop back by sections, well dispersed, which they did, taking their wounded with them. On the way they were joined by some men of C Squadron whose tanks had been immobilised. At A Company's house the combined group (which also included the platoon from B Company, 26 Battalion) took up positions.
Having forced C Company to withdraw, the enemy seemed to pause in his counter-attack, but maintained steady fire across the whole front. The three tanks of B Squadron which had gone to the support of A Company, 24 Battalion, were knocked out or badly damaged, and one or two more of the same squadron were put out of action on the left flank. Late in the morning the tanks of B and C Squadrons still in running order retired down the ridge to refuel and replenish, evacuate the wounded and reorganise their crews. All the surviving tanks of the two squadrons were then placed under the command of B Squadron, and went back up the road.
Early in the afternoon the enemy appeared to be renewing the counter-attack from the north under shell, mortar, anti-tank and machine-gun fire, but was held off by 6 Brigade's infantry, artillery, tank and heavy-mortar fire. The tanks engaged in duels with enemy tanks. The artillery shelled Points 281 and 261 and San Michele, as well as targets in the La Romola area, where the enemy appeared to be forming up as if he intended to counter-attack from that direction.
The German activity steadily increased towards evening, and page 144 about 7 p.m. A Company, 24 Battalion, was attacked from the north and north-west. The enemy came close to the road (he may have crossed it) south-west of A Company, but did not threaten C Company and the platoon of B Company, 26 Battalion, on the eastern slope of the ridge. A Company reported at 7.15 p.m. that it was ‘completely surrounded’, and two minutes later that it was ‘in good strategical position. We will do our best….’ At 7.50 p.m. the company was ‘still fighting hard, posn a little easier, tanks engaging SP gun and MG posts.’1
Other enemy troops probed westward from the Tattoli area (about midway between La Romola and Cerbaia), and in an encounter with a platoon of A Company, 26 Battalion, which had taken up a position near Cerbaia di sopra covering the road to La Romola, captured two New Zealanders and wounded three.
Headquarters 24 Battalion received a message from A Company at 10.10 p.m. that the position was ‘still grim’2 but by that time other troops of 6 Brigade were on their way forward to renew the advance.
Whatever success 6 Brigade might gain, it was unlikely that resistance on the Division's right flank would lessen until the South Africans assaulted Impruneta. A long exposed flank would be too much of an imposition on 4 Armoured Brigade's only infantry, 22 (Motor) Battalion, which would have to carry out both an assaulting and a protective role, even if the armoured regiments managed to break through the Paula Line. Brigadier Inglis therefore had asked for a battalion from 5 Brigade to guard this flank, and 23 Battalion, which the GOC agreed should be on temporary loan for the task, was waiting south of San Casciano early in the morning of 28 July.
Fourth Brigade's role was to maintain pressure on the right flank to assist 6 Brigade's assault on the left. After the various modifications of the Division's plans on the evening of the 27th, 4 Brigade's objective was an east-west line about two and a half miles north of San Casciano and, at its western end, some 300 yards south of La Romola; an intermediate objective was just over half-way to this line.3
1 War diary, 24 Bn.
3 At that time 4 Bde had at its disposal 20 Armd Regt (with A Sqn of 19 Regt under command), 22 (Mot) Bn, C Sqn of Div Cav, 31 A-Tk Bty, 3 MG Coy, and detachments of 39 Hy Mor Bty and 7 Fd Coy. Direct artillery support was available from 4 Fd Regt and 142 Army Fd Regt.
The force advancing northward met no direct opposition, but came under machine-gun, mortar and shell fire in the vicinity of Casa Vecchia. The infantry reached the intermediate objective near Spedaletto well ahead of the tanks, which had to contend with demolitions. Although the leading infantrymen were reported at one stage to have penetrated much farther to the north, 2 Company's ultimate positions were not beyond Spedaletto.
The force on the left also was delayed by demolitions. The infantry, going on ahead of the tanks, met opposition beyond Pisignano and withdrew about 400 yards to rejoin the tanks near the village, which was on a ridge overlooking the deep valley of the Sugana stream, on the far side of which was the La Romola ridge.
Before daybreak 4 Brigade was under the impression—as was 6 Brigade—that the enemy was withdrawing. On hearing about 5.30 a.m. of 26 Battalion's almost unopposed advance up the Poggio Cigoli road, 4 Brigade instructed 3 Company and B Squadron to push on in an attempt to draw level with 6 Brigade's right flank. At the same time orders were given for the formation of two parties, each of a troop of A Squadron, 20 Regiment, and a platoon of 1 Company, 22 Battalion, to search and mop up areas missed in the advance.
To investigate the route beyond Pisignano a troop of B Squadron and a section of infantry descended a steep track into the Sugana valley directly below La Romola and stopped short of a huge hole in the road which ran along the valley. About 7 a.m. all three tanks were set alight by shells thought to come from a self-propelled gun or Tiger tank. ‘Suddenly like a broadside from a huge battleship, the whole hillside opened fire simultaneously— 88 mms, mortars, spandaus, small-arms fire—everything seemed to come out at once from the whole area of the hill opposite.’1 The hostile fire continued ‘intermittently heavy or light almost without let-up’ all that day and night and the next.
Meanwhile, early on the morning of the 28th, the mopping-up parties entered the area between Spedaletto and Pisignano without opposition; one drove up the road through Cigliano to the crossing of the Borro Suganella, a creek which flowed into the Sugana stream below La Romola, but as it was then daylight and the tanks were exposed to fire coming along the valley from the direction of La Romola, they withdrew to cover.
1 E. B. Paterson, quoted in 22 Battalion, pp. 312–13.
The enemy did not counter-attack immediately—as he did on 6 Brigade's front—perhaps because 22 Battalion actually had not penetrated the main positions of the Paula Line, but during the day he shelled, mortared and machine-gunned the forward positions, and heavily shelled San Casciano and the roads north of the town. Counter-battery fire, directed on the sources of this fire when they could be located, ‘occasionally caused diminution’.1 Nearly a dozen ‘murders’ or ‘stonks’ were laid on La Romola and its immediate approaches by 4 and 142 Regiments, which also engaged targets elsewhere on the front and east of the Greve River.
In mid-afternoon 2 Company asked for defensive fire to the north-east because of the likelihood of a counter-attack. Such an attack, supported by a self-propelled gun, appeared to be in progress at 3.45 p.m., but ‘the situation was well in hand’2 after some well-directed defensive fire by 4 and 142 Regiments and the engaging of the self-propelled gun by tanks of A Squadron, 19 Regiment.
The enemy undoubtedly was pleased with the performance of 29 Panzer Grenadier Division on 28 July. Fourteenth Army reported in the evening: ‘Fighting was extremely hard and confused, particularly on 29 Pz Gren Div's front, where the enemy forced a penetration this morning at Cerbaia. All further attacks … were beaten off with heavy casualties to the enemy. We committed our last reserves. This evening the FDLs were still in our hands all along 1 Para Corps' front….’3
At 10 a.m. 15 Panzer Grenadier Regiment (on 29 Division's right facing 6 NZ Infantry Brigade) counter-attacked north of Cerbaia and ‘came up against fierce defence by the New Zealanders and extremely heavy shellfire,4 but attacked again and again and pushed the enemy back with very heavy casualties and equipment losses. After 8 hours of fighting in tropical heat the FDLs were completely in our hands once more….’ In the sector where 71 Panzer Grenadier Regiment faced 4 NZ Armoured Brigade, attacks ‘were beaten off after stubborn fighting … with heavy casualties to the enemy.’
1 Report in HQ 4 Armd Bde's war diary.
Nevertheless the commander of Fourteenth Army (General Lemelsen) reported to Army Group C that, despite the successful defence, 1 Parachute Corps ‘could not continue to hold its present line unless it received fresh reserves, which Army did not have. … The high ammunition expenditure of the last few days was also causing ammunition to run out, as petrol was so scarce that ammunition could not be brought up in adequate quantities.’2
1 Fourteenth Army report, which claims that on 28 July 29 Pz Gren Div knocked out 18 tanks and five troop-carriers, captured two tanks and a gun, and blew up three guns. ‘All the knocked-out vehicles are inside our lines.’