Italy Volume II : From Cassino to Trieste
IV: San Michele
IV: San Michele
Neither 4 nor 6 Brigade had fully gained the first objectives of the New Zealand Division's plan for capturing the high ground of the Pian dei Cerri, and much of the armour, instead of being kept in reserve for exploitation when the high ground had been secured, had joined in the battle. For the New Zealand commanders 28 July was a day of conferences and the issuing of fresh directives, mostly verbal, for continuing the offensive.
General Freyberg, having earlier given permission for 23 Battalion to provide flank protection for 4 Brigade, agreed to Brigadier Inglis's proposal that this battalion should hold on the right of the brigade's sector while 22 Battalion closed to the left, with the purpose of thickening up the infantry screen on the brigade's front so that much needed armoured reliefs could be carried out. The General, who visited both 4 and 6 Brigades in the afternoon, approved plans for limited attempts to gain the first objectives that night. Fourth Brigade was to get into La Romola if possible, and 6 Brigade was to attack San Michele.
Sixth Brigade's advance to San Michele was to be made by a company of 24 Battalion in two stages, the first to a German strongpoint at Mezzocolle, about half-way along the Castellare – San Michele road, and the second to the straggling village of San Michele itself. The artillery was to support this advance with timed concentrations from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. on 29 July.page 148
That night 6 Brigade relieved some of the troops in the salient, and strengthened its right flank. A Company, 24 Battalion, stayed forward, about half-way along the road between Castellare and Poggio Cigoli (Point 281), but the survivors of C Company, 26 Battalion, were relieved by B Company of the same unit and withdrew across the river. D Company, 26 Battalion, with mortars and anti-tank guns in support, took up a position astride the La Romola road less than a mile from Cerbaia, and D Company of 25 Battalion set up a strongpoint with a platoon each of infantry, machine guns, 4·2-inch mortars and carriers in the Montepaldi area (farther to the south-east than was intended). About midnight C Squadron of 18 Armoured Regiment arrived at Talente and came under the command of 19 Regiment for operations in 6 Brigade's sector.
Headquarters 24 Battalion moved back across the Pesa to the vicinity of the headquarters of 25 and 26 Battalions south of Montagnana, but left a tactical headquarters under Major E. W. Aked at Castellare to keep in close touch with the advance to San Michele. D Company (Major Macdonald1) was given the task of capturing the village, and 12 Platoon (Lieutenant Rawley2) of B Company came under Macdonald's command to take the intermediate objective.
Rawley's men had little difficulty in occupying Mezzocolle; they killed two Germans and captured five. D Company passed on the right of Mezzocolle, and at some houses (Poggetto di sotto) well forward of San Michele 16 Platoon (Lieutenant Lea3) took the enemy by surprise and in a brief struggle killed six and captured six for the loss of three men wounded. The company entered San Michele without opposition, capturing one or two more Germans, and completed its occupation about 3.15 a.m. Lea's platoon made strongpoints in three houses at the southern end of the village; two sections of 17 Platoon (Sergeant Dynes4) held a three-storied building known as the school in the centre, and Company Headquarters and 18 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant R. N. Smith5) a church at the northern end. The third section of 17 Platoon had been left at Poggetto di sotto to guard prisoners and care for the wounded.
The occupation of San Michele had been accomplished with surprisingly few casualties, but two men from D Company, the driver and the five prisoners taken by 12 Platoon were all killed and an officer wounded when their grossly overcrowded jeep ran over a mine on the way back to Castellare. This happened after the road had been searched for mines.
As dawn broke on 29 July activity began across the whole front. Shortly after 7 a.m. D Company of 26 Battalion called urgently for fire on Il Monte, a small hillock on the northern side of the Cerbaia – La Romola road, where, it was later realised, the enemy had set up a strongpoint which included mortars and machine guns and probably dug-in tanks or self-propelled guns. Although the New Zealand artillery was asked repeatedly to fire on this point, and several of the concentrations were observed to fall right on the target, Il Monte remained a troublesome spot throughout the next two days.
San Michele was heavily shelled and mortared, and movement on the roads and tracks north of the village warned that a counter-attack was impending. D Company, 24 Battalion, called for defensive fire, which was directed on tanks, self-propelled guns, mortar positions and vehicles. At first the Shermans in the village and the artillery discouraged the approach of the German tanks, which probably numbered no more than three or four. The mortars at Mezzocolle, although under fire themselves, helped to thicken up the defensive fire, while A Company, 24 Battalion, and the section of 6 MG Platoon across the gully to the east assisted with fire and with observation of the enemy.
As the church commanded the northern entrance to San Michele, the enemy concentrated much of his fire on it and launched infantry and tank attacks against it. The German infantry came right up to the building, but were repelled by 18 Platoon and the crews of the two anti-tank guns. By mid-morning at least one German tank had worked its way very close to the northern edge of the village and infantry had infiltrated into the southern part. Much of the hostile fire came from the ridge to the west of San Michele, where the enemy appeared to have self-propelled guns or tanks. The German effort began to weaken, however, and by 10.45 a.m. page 150 D Company could report that ‘We are quite happy at the moment.’1
The enemy became more aggressive again about midday, and at 12.30 p.m. 5 Field Regiment, firing on the directions of one of the tanks in San Michele, was laying its shells in the northern end of the street. By this time there were so many gaps in the walls of the church that ‘the only method of defence left was to build a parapet from the rubble at the rear of the long chapel and cover the gaps with brens and rifles. This effectively stopped the Germans from entering the church.’2 The wounded were placed with Company Headquarters in the crypt, which was ‘practically 100 per cent safe’.
Another troop (No. 5) of B Squadron, 19 Regiment, was ordered from 26 Battalion's sector to reinforce the two tanks of 7 Troop in San Michele. Two tanks of 5 Troop arrived in the southern part of the village in time to assist 16 Platoon, some of whose men had been pinned in a barn by German infantry who were occupying the loft above them. One of the tanks overturned down a bank while manoeuvring into position to engage the loft. Nevertheless Lea's men got clear of the barn, and the whole platoon set up a strongpoint in one house. The other tank blasted the loft off the barn. Lea sent a patrol to clear another building so that the tank could take up a position there to support his platoon. The patrol overcame slight opposition and took three prisoners, but as soon as the tank arrived at the building it was knocked out by a self-propelled gun.
The fire from German self-propelled guns, tank guns and mortars, and shells from the New Zealand guns which fell short, were gradually reducing buildings in San Michele to rubble. The anti-tank guns were disabled, and the vehicles parked in the street were either destroyed or immobilised. Late in the afternoon the hostile fire died down, but shortly after 5 p.m. much movement was observed to the north and north-west, and a renewal of the attack was anticipated. The artillery and heavy mortars fired on numerous targets, and fighter-bombers twice attacked the Santa Maria area, over a mile to the north. By 7.20 p.m. the enemy had approached so close that D Company called for artillery fire on the northern edge of the village.
1 War diary, 24 Bn.
2 Report by R. N. Smith.
The only two Sherman tanks in the village still in running order, having sustained damage which rendered their guns useless, withdrew to the rear. Two German tanks entered the village, and when one of them came to the rear of the church, 18 Platoon took cover in the crypt. D Company's three strongpoints were no longer in touch with each other. When Lea saw the two Shermans retreating past 16 Platoon's house, he decided to make his way to Company Headquarters and find out what was happening. ‘As the position looked hopeless at this moment,’ says Macdonald, ‘I decided to withdraw the company from the village and instructed Mr LEA to rejoin his platoon and get them away to safety.’2
Lea managed to leave the church, but could not reach the house occupied by 16 Platoon because it was covered by a German tank. He therefore continued on to a rendezvous at Poggetto di sotto, where the section of 17 Platoon had remained, and where he expected to find the rest of the company. Smith had started to lead 18 Platoon out of the church, but only he and one other man got away; the third man to emerge was hit and captured, and the remainder stayed in the building. Smith and his companion also reached the rendezvous, and after waiting there for a while, returned with Lea and the section of 17 Platoon to Tactical Headquarters at Castellare.
Macdonald realised that it was impossible to get the remainder of his men out of the church and ‘decided to fight it out to the end, ordering everyone back to their posts both in the crypt and on the first floor.’3 The German tank had moved off into the village. German infantry made another attempt to get into the church, but were beaten back with the assistance of machine-gun fire from 17 Platoon's strongpoint. Again the tank came in close to the church. Private Swann,4 although suffering from the effects of concussion, took a Piat5 gun within a few yards of the tank and fired four shots, which forced it to withdraw. Nevertheless the tank continued to fire at the church, and the German infantry made two more attempts to enter. Eventually the front of the building collapsed and barricaded the entrance.
1 Report by B. W. Dynes.
2 Report by K. H. Macdonald.
5 Projector, infantry, anti-tank.
Meanwhile plans were being prepared for the relief of D Company. B Company, 25 Battalion (Major Finlay2), placed under 24 Battalion's command for the purpose, assembled near Castellare with a supporting force including nine tanks (one troop each from B and C Squadrons of 19 Regiment and A Squadron of 18 Regiment), and began to advance shortly before the artillery and heavy mortars opened fire at 1 a.m. on 30 July.
The artillery's target for the first half hour was just north of the church, and for the next half hour the road north-west of the village. As the guns were shooting from ground lower than the village, many of their shells either skimmed the buildings or exploded among them. Headquarters D Company and 18 Platoon were given some protection from shells falling short by the ruins of the church above the crypt, but 17 Platoon's building, ‘after about ten minutes of almost continual pounding … commenced to collapse. For the next fifty minutes we were kept busy extricating men from the fallen debris….’3 Two men died before they could be released from the rubble.
B Company, 25 Battalion, reached the southern edge of San Michele about 1.30 a.m., and during the next hour or so searched the village and its immediate environs without finding the enemy. The tanks and several anti-tank guns took up positions for defence, and the infantry covered the northern entrance to the village. Macdonald withdrew with the survivors of D Company of the 24th, and their place in the village was taken by 10 and 11 Platoons of B Company, 24 Battalion. Later in the morning two more troops of A Squadron, 18 Regiment, replaced the two troops of 19 Regiment, which was relieved by the 18th under 6 Brigade's command and withdrew to rest and refit.
3 Dynes's report.
4 It is impossible to give exact figures. On 29 July 24 Bn's casualties were 4 killed, 18 wounded and 3 prisoners; 19 Armd Regt's were 1 killed and 13 wounded; and 27 (MG) Bn's were 2 killed, 3 wounded and 1 prisoner; but these did not all occur in San Michele. A German report gives 29 Pz Gren Div's total casualties on 29 July as 4 killed, 29 wounded and 22 missing. Maj K. H. Macdonald's report says: ‘During the action it was difficult to estimate the number of Germans killed, but three weeks later one of my men was in san michele and counted 47 German graves. Our [presumably D Coy's] casualties were 2 killed, 15 wounded, and 2 missing.’
Throughout the day of 29 July A Company, 24 Battalion, had remained well forward on the Castellare – Poggio Cigoli road, with B Company, 26 Battalion, to its right rear; they had assisted in the defence of San Michele and had come under much fire themselves, but had not been directly threatened by the enemy. D Company, 26 Battalion, on the Cerbaia – La Romola road, had been kept constantly alert by enemy activity to the east and also at the Il Monte strongpoint. To replace the tanks which had gone to San Michele from the right flank, extra anti-tank guns were sent to B and D Companies of 26 Battalion. Mines were laid across the road on D Company's front and also across the Castellare – Poggio Cigoli road, where B Company of the 26th relieved A Company of the 24th in the evening of 30 July.
The two B Companies, of 24 and 25 Battalions, were firmly established in San Michele on the morning of the 30th. When HQ 24 Battalion asked, ‘Can you give any indication that yesterday's programme is likely to be repeated’, B Company of that battalion replied ‘Not likely.’1 This surmise proved correct. Although San Michele continued to be the target for the enemy's guns and mortars, he did not counter-attack the village again.
Several times during the day British fighter-bombers strafed the high ground to the north of San Michele. Anti-tank mines were laid on the village's northern approaches. At 6 p.m. B Company, 25 Battalion, reported two German tanks about half a mile to the north. Artillery fire directed on this target fell short, and many rounds landed in the company's positions. The range was lifted and further concentrations landed in the right place. One of the tanks was set alight either by shellfire or by fighter-bomber attack. B Company again reported enemy tanks—a false alarm, it was discovered afterwards—and again the requested artillery fire fell on the company's positions. Later in the night B Company, 25 Battalion, was relieved by C Company, 24 Battalion.
1 War diary, 24 Bn.
A demolition prevented progress beyond the junction of the road to Geppetto and the road which led up the ridge west of San Michele. A German strongpoint on this ridge at Point 136, about 1000 yards to the left rear of San Michele, was a constant source of trouble. Fire from self-propelled or tank guns in this locality knocked out or disabled several of the New Zealand tanks on the San Michele ridge. On the morning of 30 July a patrol of armoured cars and tanks tried to work across country towards the road leading to Point 136, but a Staghound was hit by a shell which killed two and wounded two of its crew, and two of the Shermans ran on to mines. Before the tanks could be recovered, one of them was set alight by an armour-piercing shell. The patrol then withdrew.
Probably because of the tenacity of the defence and the lack of infantry to hold any ground gained, the patrols made no further attempts to advance on the left flank that day or the next. C Squadron of the Divisional Cavalry relieved A Squadron, and the half-squadron of 18 Regiment went back across the Pesa to harass the enemy from the far side, where on 31 July it ‘had a good view over the valley, and at first had a wonderful time, but this was no healthy spot, for soon Jerry opened up with everything he could muster.’2 Two tanks were ‘sitting shots’ at a crossroads where one of them had run on to a mine, and both were knocked out by anti-tank shells.
The German strongpoint at Point 136 was still active at dusk on 31 July, having survived heavy shell and mortar fire. It was proposed that B Company, 24 Battalion, should send a patrol to investigate the locality after dark, but before the patrol set out, a man from 17 Platoon who had been cut off in enemy-held territory since D Company's attack on San Michele, rejoined the battalion with information about the strongpoint. From a close hiding place he had observed a self-propelled gun, three tanks, three mortars and two machine-gun posts in action, and had seen one of the tanks set on fire by a direct hit. Later that night a patrol saw the self-propelled gun withdrawing in the moonlight. Next day (1 August) Point 136 was found to be clear of the enemy.