Italy Volume II : From Cassino to Trieste
VI: Breaking the Paula Line
VI: Breaking the Paula Line
‘Terrific fighting took place,’ the German Fourteenth Army reported on 29 July. ‘The enemy … was stopped at the village of S. Michele by a series of counter attacks by our last local reserves…. Army advised Army Gp that the days of hard fighting, the heavy casualties and extreme exhaustion of the troops had considerably decreased the fighting value of 1 Para Corps, particularly 29 Pz Gren Div. The Army was not in a position to give the Corps any more relief by narrowing down its sector any more, as 14 Pz Corps' sector was now so thinly held that any attack there could not be held without help from Army Gp or … 10 Army.’3page 168
Army Group C therefore gave orders for the transfer of a sector on Fourteenth Army's eastern flank to Tenth Army, which was to take over about three kilometres from 1 Parachute Corps. While the Germans were making this boundary alteration on the night of 29–30 July, 4 British Division, advancing on the east of 6 South African Armoured Division, fought its way to the crest of the 2500-foot Monte Scalari, which it held against counter-attack. This caused Fourteenth Army to pull back its left wing ‘a few kilometres’ and to instruct 1 Parachute Corps, ‘without prejudicing the orders to hold the Paula Line,’1 to reconnoitre a support line about five kilometres behind the present point of contact with Tenth Army.
During the night of 30–31 July ‘the enemy fired a very heavy preliminary barrage’ on 1 Parachute Corps' positions. ‘Before and during the attack about 50,000 rounds were counted in 29 Pz Gren Div's and 4 Para Div's sectors. This even surpassed the weight of the fire during the heaviest days of the Cassino fighting. Very early this morning the enemy attacked 29 Pz Gren Div and the right wing of 4 Para Div, supported by tanks. The attacks came in waves, and were beaten off for the most part, but the enemy took the village of La Romola and gained some ground at S. Andrea….
‘A large-scale battle of attrition was inevitable if our troops held on any longer in their present positions, and so during the night 31 Jul – 1 Aug the left wing of 14 Pz Corps and the whole of 1 Para Corps withdrew to a new line between the old one and the Florence bridgehead position. At the same time 14 Pz Corps took over about 1 km from the western flank of 1 Para Corps….’2
After this withdrawal 1 Parachute Corps still held the dominating heights of the Pian dei Cerri hills on the New Zealand Division's front and at Impruneta on 6 South African Armoured Division's front. The main task specified by Fourteenth Army was to prevent a breakthrough to Florence, although orders already had been given to prepare the bridges in the city for demolition. The Ponte Vecchio alone was to be spared ‘for its artistic value’,3 but houses were to be blown up at each end to block its approaches.
The expenditure of ammunition was very high. In three days, 29–31 July, the New Zealand ammunition point at Strada (on Route 2, five or six miles south of San Casciano) issued more than 100,000 rounds for the 25-pounder guns, as well as the requirements of all other weapons. As 13 Corps' normal ammunition supply system would not be able to keep the New Zealand guns fed and also bring up a reserve of 600 rounds for each gun demanded by the CRA (Brigadier Parkinson), arrangements were made for New Zealand transport to assist. All the vehicles that could be spared—210 3-ton trucks from NZASC,2 artillery and other units—were despatched on 31 July to a corps dump east of Lake Trasimene, over 100 miles away, and returned next day with 38,640 rounds of 25-pounder ammunition. This, in addition to the loads hauled daily by NZASC convoys, provided the Division with a more than sufficient reserve.
Meanwhile, on the night of 31 July – 1 August, a South African battalion group (The First City/The Cape Town Highlanders, with a Sherman squadron of the Prince Alfred's Guards, a machine-gun platoon of the Royal Durban Light Infantry and a troop of M10s) came temporarily under New Zealand command to guard the right flank until such time as the South African division should have advanced sufficiently to make flank protection unnecessary. By midnight the South Africans had relieved 23 Battalion, which retired to the Casa Vecchia area.
When he heard shortly after midnight that 28 Battalion had a standing patrol on a road junction about half a mile beyond Villa Balbani, General Freyberg said, ‘He [the enemy] has hooked it. Get bulldozers up.’3 He told the AA & QMG (Colonel B. Barrington) to organise provost control for the bridges over the Arno. The South Africans were to go through Florence and the New Zealanders round it.
1 GOC's diary.
3 GOC's diary.
Fifth Brigade's intention was that D and B Companies of 28 Battalion were to pass through A and C at dawn on 1 August and advance to Poggio delle Monache and La Poggiona, on the line of the brigade's final objective; 21 Battalion was to be ready to pass through the Maoris on this objective, which it was hoped they would have reached by midday.
D and B Companies, supported by two troops of A Squadron, 20 Regiment, began to advance after 8 a.m. and soon met stiff resistance. A detour was found for the tanks around a demolition and trees which had been felled across the road, and D Company continued towards Villa Treggiaia, about 500 yards from the objective. A Tiger tank—there probably were at least two Tigers and one or two other tanks on the battalion's front—set fire to one of the Shermans, whose crew took shelter with some Maoris in a house near Villa Treggiaia.
1 War diary, Fourteenth Army.
2 Brig C. L. Pleasants, CBE, DSO, MC, ED, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Halcombe, 26 Jul 1910; schoolmaster; CO 18 Bn and Armd Regt Jul 1942–Mar 1944; comd 4 Armd Bde Sep– Nov 1944; 5 Bde Nov 1944–Jan 1945, May 1945–Jan 1946; twice wounded; Commander, Fiji Military Forces, 1949–53; Commander, Northern Military District, 1953–57; Central Military District, 1957–60; Senior NZ Army Liaison Officer, London, 1964–65.
General Freyberg asked to be kept closely in touch with developments on 1 August as he had set 6 p.m. as the deadline when he would have to make his decisions for the final breakthrough plans. When encouraging reports were received of the Maoris' progress, it seemed that it might not be necessary to make a set-piece attack, or that in any case heavy artillery concentrations instead of a barrage would be sufficient to support the advance. Later, however, it was obvious that the enemy intended to hold the high ground still ahead of the Division.
At a conference at Divisional Headquarters at 6 p.m. plans were co-ordinated ‘for a rather complicated series of attacks… a sort of three-brigade attack on a three-battalion front at different times with different artillery programmes.’1 The plan for 5 and 6 Brigades to converge on the Pian dei Cerri ridge and squeeze out 4 Armoured Brigade in the centre was replaced by what was to be in effect a partial right-wheel for the Division, pivoting on 5 Brigade on the eastern flank, to bring the front to face north along the line Poggio delle Monache – La Poggiona – Poggio Valicaia, the three eastern crests of the hills, possession of which would open a short and indefensible route to Florence.
Fifth Brigade on the right would need to advance slightly over 1000 yards, 4 Brigade in the centre 2000 yards, and 6 Brigade on the left nearly 3000 yards. The method outlined in the divisional operation order was for 6 Brigade, joined shortly afterwards by 4 Brigade, to advance to the first objectives and after a short pause continue to the second objectives; after another pause all three brigades were to advance side by side to the final objectives. This operation was given the codename plonk.
1 GOC's diary.
Although the divisional operation order was signed at 4.45 p.m. on 1 August, and divisional and brigade conferences revealed to commanding officers the general outline of the plan, the really important details—the traces showing the areas and timings of the artillery barrages, the preparation of which was a complicated, lengthy task—did not reach the battalions until after 8 p.m., when copies had to be sent hurriedly to companies. The fire plan was one of the most complicated devised by the New Zealand Artillery. The constant changes in the reported locations of friendly and enemy troops caused many alterations in the plan, some of them after it began.
Sixth Brigade, which was to be the first to advance, listed its objectives in an operation order signed at 8 p.m.: the first objective was to be the Points 281, 282 and 261 (Poggio Cigoli – La Liona), the second Point 337 (about half-way between Poggio Cigoli and Poggio Valicaia), and the third Point 382 (Poggio Valicaia). The first step of the advance was to made by 25 Battalion on the right (Points 281 and 282) and 26 Battalion on the left (Point 261), while 24 Battalion guarded the left flank; 25 Battalion alone was to go on to the second and third objectives.
C Company, 26 Battalion, had relieved B Company during the previous night (31 July – 1 August) in positions along the Castellare – Poggio Cigoli road, and subsequently had occupied houses farther along the road, after artillery fire had been brought down on them, and had taken 19 prisoners. Plans to capture another group of buildings still farther along the road were cancelled when preparations were begun for the attack that night. The artillery traces showed that C Company's foremost positions were over the opening line for the barrage and would have to be evacuated.
The guns opened fire at 11 p.m. and on their first lift 20 minutes later 25 Battalion sent off its companies in line along the road. Shortly after midnight, when A Company, in the lead, was closing on Point 281 (Poggio Cigoli), the supporting tanks of B Squadron, page 173 18 Armoured Regiment,1 were halted by a minefield on the road. While the sappers were clearing the mines, the tanks fired on a house at Point 282 (just to the north-west of 281) and other posts which were preventing the infantry from occupying the first objective. D Company of 26 Battalion, advancing on the left against slight opposition, occupied Point 261 (La Liona).
C Company of 25 Battalion passed through A (which soon reported Points 281 and 282 clear), occupied the second objective (Point 337) and captured about 30 prisoners;2 D and B Companies, carrying on towards the third objective, met vigorous resistance from a house close by the road. The enemy withdrew under fire from the tanks, and the two companies moved on to the slopes of Poggio Valicaia, where they met little opposition. One post holding out in a building withdrew when the tanks approached. By 5.30 a.m. D Company on the right and B on the left were in possession of the final objective with a troop of tanks in support; C Company and another troop were at Point 337, A Company and a third troop at Point 282, and a reserve troop on the road south of Point 281 (which was occupied next night by A Company, 26 Battalion).
There had been a sharp earthquake during the advance, at 2.33 a.m. As the light improved on the morning of 2 August the men digging in on the objective came under fire, mostly from mortars; this was especially annoying on Poggio Valicaia, where it seemed to come from La Sughera and Poggio al Pino, to the north-west. When the artillery laid concentrations of smoke on these two hilltops, the accuracy and volume of the mortaring diminished, which permitted the anti-tank guns to be sited. An M10, a 17- pounder and four six-pounder guns were placed well forward, the Vickers guns and 4.2-inch mortars some distance to the rear.
1 Under 6 Bde's command were 33 A-Tk Bty, a troop of M10s of 31 A-Tk Bty, two troops of 39 Hy Mor Bty (in addition to the brigade's own heavy mortar platoon), 2 MG Coy and 18 Armd Regt; 6 Fd Regt and a battery of 57 Fd Regt, RA, were in direct support; 8 Fd Coy also was in support.
3 H. C. G. Gordon, quoted in 25 Battalion, p. 468. This was the first and only German tank definitely known to have been knocked out by one of 7 A-Tk Regt's guns in Italy. German records say it was a Tiger, New Zealand records that it was a Mark IV camouflaged to resemble a Tiger.
During the day (2 August) the artillery harassed all observed enemy movement, and 25 Battalion received similar attention from German guns and mortars. Allied fighter-bombers attacked targets at Santa Maria and Pian dei Cerri. The hostile fire increased in the evening (the 17-pounder anti-tank gun was knocked out by mortar fire) and then gradually died away.
While 6 Brigade, on the Division's left flank, gained its objectives with unexpected ease,1 the assaulting troops of 4 and 5 Brigades were surprised by the determined resistance they encountered, and took longer to gain their objectives. Sixth Brigade, therefore, was directed by Divisional Headquarters to hold its positions during the night of 2–3 August and until such time as the centre and right brigades should reach a line from which the final breakthrough could be staged.
On the night of 31 July – 1 August 22 Battalion, in the centre, sent a patrol to search the road leading along the ridge from La Romola, with orders to occupy Point 305, about 1200 yards to the north-east, if not too strongly defended. The patrol, 29 men altogether, was met by machine-gun and mortar fire when close to Point 305 and was ordered to return. The following afternoon a section of carriers led an infantry platoon and two tanks along the road, while other tanks of C Squadron, 20 Regiment, and Vickers guns of 3 MG Company gave supporting fire, but this party also came under fire and withdrew. Plans to make a third attempt on Point 305 during the night of 1–2 August were amended to fit in with the divisional plan for Operation plonk.
Fourth Brigade's start line was just north of La Romola, its first objective short of Point 305 and the next just beyond; the attacking troops then had to swing to the left to face up to the final objective, La Poggiona. The artillery barrage was to open at 11.35 p.m. and stand for 20 minutes about 300 yards ahead of the infantry start line before creeping forward; it was to stand for an hour from 1.55 a.m. just beyond the second objective and then lift again and finish beyond the infantry's final objective at 3.45 a.m.
1 Nevertheless 25 Bn's casualties on 1 and 2 August were nine dead and 30 wounded.
At the start 1 Company suffered casualties from what were thought to be shells falling short from the supporting artillery, but which might have been the result of overrunning the barrage. ‘Though scattered and dazed and also hampered by wire—grapevines strung across the line of attack—the survivors pushed on’1 to Villa Tavernaccia on Point 305, cleared the building on the hill, and were joined there by 2 Company.
After advancing in good order about half a mile along the road from La Romola, 3 Company was on a small ridge north of Point 305, where the shells from the supporting guns seemed to be hitting the treetops and bursting. The company halted to allow the barrage to lift clear of the trees, but after resuming the advance was held up by fire from a group of houses. These were captured, with assistance from 10 Troop of C Squadron, and a few prisoners taken. By this time dawn was approaching, the barrage had stopped, and La Poggiona, across about 400 yards of open ground, was still in enemy hands.
1 22 Battalion, p. 326.
2 E. B. Paterson, quoted in 22 Battalion, p. 331.
The GOC approved a plan to renew the attack on La Poggiona at 6 p.m. on 2 August by 2 Company under a short but heavy concentration of fire from the artillery, tanks, Vickers guns and mortars. To give the infantry close support, 9 Troop of C Squadron was to take over from 10 Troop; 11 and 12 Troops also were to assist the attack and protect the right flank.
When two platoons of 2 Company were assembling on the start line, ‘we were subject to one of the bitterest shellings I have ever experienced,’ wrote Major Hutcheson. ‘Someone said they were our own shells and indeed it seemed to be true…. my two platoons came staggering back, shocked and disorganised, and with heavy casualties….’2 The men may have arrived on the barrage line as the guns opened fire, or may have been shelled by German artillery. On the right flank some 12 Platoon men, under Corporal Tsukigawa,3 not knowing that the others had retired, set out across a gully towards the objective, came under spandau fire and pulled back into cover in the gully while Allied aircraft attacked the ridge in front.
Encouraged by the news of the advance by Tsukigawa's section, other 2 Company men were gathered together by Hutcheson and led towards the objective. At the foot of the hill they met Tsukigawa, who said La Poggiona was clear of the enemy. By this time, however, the barrage had stopped, and apparently the enemy had returned. Hutcheson's men climbed the hill under machine-gun fire, and were mortared when they probed over the top; they dug in, 24-strong, just behind the crest. When it was learnt some time later that La Poggiona had been captured, two platoons of 3 Company were rushed up to reinforce Hutcheson's party, followed by tanks of 9 Troop. The enemy still held posts on the northern side of the hill, and a counter-attack at dawn was thought possible.
When daylight arrived on 3 August and the morning mists dispersed, almost all local firing ceased, and the men on La Poggiona found themselves looking down on a magnificent view of Florence.
1 The German battalion at La Poggiona (III/71 Pz Gren Regt of 29 Pz Gren Div) was recommended for ‘Mention in Armed Forces Report’. On 2 August this battalion was claimed to have ‘faced 5 attacks by strong forces of infantry and armour, with heavy artillery support, launched by 2 NZ Div. It beat off all attacks and inflicted terrible losses on the enemy, thus foiling the enemy's intention to break through to Florence.’
2 22 Battalion, p.332. The battalion's casualties on 1 and 2 August were two dead and 39 wounded. W. E. Murphy says in the Artillery history that several allegations by the infantry battalions that 25–pounders were firing short were investigated and no evidence was found to support them.
On the Division's right 28 Battalion had been brought to a halt on 1 August while attempting to drive to Poggio delle Monache and La Poggiona, and it therefore fell to 21 Battalion, which already had received orders to pass through the 28th, to carry out 5 Brigade's share of Operation plonk.
Fifth Brigade's barrage was to begin at 2.15 a.m. with a 20- minute concentration on the start line, then creep forward and finish with a 15-minute concentration to cover consolidation on Poggio delle Monache. After dark on 1 August 28 Battalion withdrew its men clear of both 4 and 5 Brigades' barrage areas. A platoon (No. 16) was sent forward from D Company, 21 Battalion, to cover the start line, astride the road by the junction near Podere Nidiaci. After the advance began this platoon occupied houses at Massanera, on the right flank, and subsequently was replaced by a platoon from 28 Battalion, whose role it was to guard this flank (north of the positions held by The First City/The Cape Town Highlanders) until progress by the South Africans made this no longer necessary.
The 21st Battalion attacked with two companies: A Company's objective, Poggio Issi (Point 243), was just to the south-east of C Company's objective, Poggio delle Monache. The troops of B Squadron, 20 Regiment, were in support.
The attack, like 28 Battalion's the previous day, did not succeed. There were several reasons.1 The late arrival of the plan and artillery task traces and the movement of 28 Battalion's men and tanks to the rear delayed the arrival of 21 Battalion's troops on the start line, where the two companies did not assemble until 2.40 a.m., 25 minutes after the artillery fire began. They began to advance 10 minutes later. The artillery and infantry start lines did not coincide: the right-hand end of the infantry's line was set only 100 yards behind the artillery opening line, but the left-hand end was some 500 yards short. The late arrival of the artillery traces apparently did not allow time for this variation to be noted and corrected by moving C Company closer to the opening concentration. This prevented the infantry from being close enough behind the barrage to catch the enemy disorganised; the short time lag of a few minutes permitted him to get into action. Moreover, ground on both flanks, including Poggio Montanino on the right, was missed by the barrage.
1 The reason given in 21 Battalion, p. 360, seems to be in error. This is that the Maoris' foremost troops were reported to have reached a line a kilometre farther north than they actually did, and as a result of this 21 Bn's attack ‘did not succeed because the barrage started behind the enemy lines’. Such a major error in map reading would have been discovered when artillery shoots were called down for 28 Bn during the day.
Undoubtedly the enemy—even if he had not seen the marked map captured with Brigadier Stewart—was bound to fight a strong delaying action on the twin hills which were 21 Battalion's objective, for these were the last hills covering one of the principal roads on which he could withdraw his tanks and transport. Beyond Poggio delle Monache the road led through Giogoli, across the River Greve at Gora, and joined Route 2 about two miles from Florence.
In a divisional plan arranged so that all three brigades should start together on the last leg of the advance (when 5 Brigade began its attack), it probably was unavoidable that some hours should elapse between the time when 28 Battalion began to call in its men and when 21 Battalion advanced to the area where the Maoris' leading posts had been. The enemy must have been aware of the Maoris' withdrawal and had time to occupy the positions they vacated.
A Company, 21 Battalion, advanced in extended order about 10 minutes behind the lifts of the barrage until its right flank came up against the creek bed of the Borro di Tramonti, which curved around the southern side of Poggio Montanino. The company closed up to the left to avoid this obstacle and continued on a narrow front until forced to ground by fire from the lateral road leading eastward from just short of Villa Treggiaia to Villa Benvenuti. To avoid this fire the company drew farther to the left and on to the main north-south road, where the men encountered machine-gun and shell fire from a tank shooting straight down the road.
On the left of the north-south road C Company advanced well behind the barrage but met only scattered fire until the leading men approached the road to Podere Tavernaccia, where they came under fire from the front, the left (western) flank and the left rear.
By dawn on 2 August most of A and C Companies had fallen back to defensive positions in the vicinity of the start line. With the half squadron of tanks and anti-tank guns in support, they spent the rest of the day under light but consistent shell, mortar and machine-gun fire. A Tiger tank was seen on the road in front of Poggio delle Monache. A concentration from the medium guns forced the crew to leave it, but they returned and drove it into cover. Later this or another tank appeared at the same place and was attacked by fighter-bombers.
Thus, on 2 August, 6 Brigade had gained its objective, Poggio Valicaia, but its sector was not considered suitable for a major breakout, and opposition still came from the north-western hills page 179 of the Pian dei Cerri; 4 Brigade had reached its objective, La Poggiona, but had been forced off it and intended to make another attempt that night; 5 Brigade had failed to take Poggio delle Monache. Methods of continuing the advance were considered, and the plan finally chosen was for 22 Battalion to complete the occupation of La Poggiona (which it did), and for 21 Battalion to advance at 10.30 p.m. on Poggio delle Monache; this would secure the final objectives of Operation plonk. Then 28 Battalion was to pass through 21 Battalion and carry on to vino, a line running north-westwards from Giogoli to a road junction a mile and a half north of Poggio delle Monache. When vino had been secured, it was intended that 23 Battalion, under 4 Brigade's command, should pass through the 28th. As the advance progressed the FC/CTH was to move up and continue its role of guarding the right flank.
The two reserve companies of 21 Battalion (B and D) passed through A and C and advanced under a modified repeat of the previous night's barrage. B Company cautiously negotiated the narrow strip between Borro di Tramonti and the road (down which a tank or 88-millimetre gun was firing) without meeting opposition, and waited south of Villa Treggiaia until D Company, which had been delayed at the start by mortar fire, drew level. The two companies then advanced in extended order on both sides of the road and, meeting little resistance (a small enemy party was overcome at Villa Treggiaia), reached the objective close behind the barrage. B Company occupied Poggio Issi and D Company Poggio delle Monache. The two hills had been prepared for defence with numerous weapon pits and sites for dug-in tanks and guns. Enemy dead, casualties of the barrage, were lying among the pits.1 Fresh tank tracks were observed, and the sound of a tank or tanks withdrawing had been heard. The general impression was that the enemy had been caught by the barrage and the rapid advance of the infantry and had left hurriedly. By 2 a.m. on 3 August the two companies had consolidated on the objective with tank and anti-tank support.
1 21 Battalion, p. 362, says that 30 prisoners were taken and 60 German dead buried, but there is no official confirmation of these figures. 21 Bn's casualties on 2 and 3 August were six killed and 26 wounded; most of these were incurred during the battalion's first attack.
On 2 August 1 Parachute Corps told Fourteenth Army that it would have to withdraw that night. ‘The terrific shellfire during the attacks of the last few days had caused heavy casualties…. Some of the battalions had only 10 or 15 men per company…. No more counter attacks could be mounted to clear the penetrations, because of the casualties they would cause….’1 After consulting Army Group C, Fourteenth Army gave orders for 1 Parachute Corps to withdraw to a small bridgehead south of Florence, and for the left wing of 14 Panzer Corps to withdraw in conformity. Strong rearguards were to be left behind, and the left wing of 14 Panzer Corps was also to hold a bridgehead south of the Arno as long as possible.
East of Route 2 the South Africans crossed the River Greve and entered Impruneta without opposition. By the morning of 3 August the Germans were in retreat on almost the whole of 13 Corps' front: the New Zealanders and South Africans were driving towards Florence on the heels of the enemy; on the right flank 4 British Division, and on the left 8 Indian Division, were also advancing.