Italy Volume II : From Cassino to Trieste
VII: Down to the Arno
VII: Down to the Arno
The capture of Poggio delle Monache by 21 Battalion and the occupation of Poggio Montanino on the right flank by the First City/Cape Town Highlanders permitted 5 Brigade to continue the advance towards Florence on the morning of 3 August.
General Freyberg told the corps commander by telephone at 6.37 a.m.: ‘We pushed him off the top of the hill last night and we are now pushing through into the valley. In an hour's time I will tell you whether he has gone.’2 Both generals were of the opinion that the enemy had gone. Already the GOC had given orders for Divisional Cavalry to be ready to move forward at 7 a.m. and the reserve armour of 4 Brigade an hour later; troops of 6 Brigade were to follow on wheels through La Romola. At 6.45 a.m., however, a message was received from 5 Brigade saying that it would have to fight for its bridgehead.
2 GOC's diary.
They made steady progress against only light opposition, mostly from the right flank, where the tanks dealt with machine-gun posts. The leading tanks and infantry were at Villa Bombicci by 8 a.m., and as they went on ahead, Tactical Headquarters was set up there and B and D Companies took up positions forward of this point. C Company swung to the right on the road to Giogoli, and A took a track leading towards the north-western end of vino.
The GOC was eager for information about the advance. When Brigadier Pleasants gave him the latest known situation at 9.15 a.m., he asked, ‘Why are they not getting on?’ Pleasants said the country was not easy, and was urged, ‘You have to push on.’ He replied, ‘I am pushing Sir. I am going as fast as I possibly can.2
As they approached Giogoli C Company and the tanks of 6 Troop came under strong fire from the ridge at Villa Capponi, about half a mile farther to the north-east, where the enemy had tanks, anti-tank guns, mortars and machine guns. The attacking force went beyond Giogoli to a place where there was better cover and where fire could be brought to bear on the enemy. When his tank was hit, the troop commander (Lieutenant Heptinstall3) alone managed to get clear; his crew of four were killed. Later, armed with a tommy gun, he took prisoner two Germans manning a light machine gun by the side of the road.
C Company made no further progress that day, although the tanks, the artillery and other weapons engaged the enemy pocket. Heptinstall's troop was reinforced by two more tanks from B Squadron, followed by two M10s, one of which was soon knocked out; two of its crew were killed and two injured. The other M10, because of the crew's inexperience, was ordered to the rear. Subsequently it was found that two Tiger tanks had been destroyed, probably by the artillery.
1 Various map references were given for the western end of vino. It may have been intended that the objective should be an orthodox east-west line from Giogoli, but whether it was an error or whether it had been decided that the line should run from south-east to north-west, this was accepted by 28 Bn as its objective.
2 GOC's diary.
By this time both 28 Battalion and Divisional Cavalry had been instructed to attempt to cross the Vingone stream north-west of Giogoli and move on Florence through Scandicci and a bridge over the Greve River about two miles north of Giogoli. D Company of 28 Battalion, with tanks of A Squadron, 20 Regiment, was directed to advance between B and A Companies. The infantry made good time and by 6.30 p.m. were passing A Company's position at i Cipressi, but the tanks were held up in a traffic tangle with armoured cars of B Squadron, Divisional Cavalry.
Fifth Brigade had directed the armoured cars to go through on the left and reconnoitre the route through Scandicci to see if the Capponi ‘pocket’ could be outflanked. Given priority over the tanks, they overtook D Company and searched for a crossing over the Vingone. A shell, probably from an anti-tank gun, set fire to a car, killing two and gravely wounding two of the crew. This blocked the withdrawal of five cars which had gone ahead, but apparently the enemy gun could be depressed only far enough to fire a shot which damaged the top of another car. The crews baled out and were pinned to the ground by machine-gun fire until D Company came through and overran the enemy position.
D Company then occupied Villa Franceschi, between the Vingone stream and Scandicci.
News of 6 South African Armoured Division's progress on 2 August indicated it would soon draw level with 2 NZ Division's front, in which case protection of the Division's right flank was no longer needed. The First City/Cape Town Highlanders group, therefore, was ordered to return to its parent command; it crossed the Greve River and joined up with other South African forces on Route 2 next day.
In the evening of the 2nd 23 Battalion had been informed that, if 21 Battalion's attack that night broke the enemy's line and he fell back on Florence, it (the 23rd) was to embus and give chase. As 28 Battalion already had been given the role of passing through 21 Battalion, this task of exploitation by 23 Battalion was additional, apparently based on the assumption—or wishful thinking—that the enemy might disappear across the Arno and abandon Florence overnight. But if 21 Battalion's attack should fail to page 183 induce the enemy to do this, 23 Battalion was to replace the 22nd under 4 Brigade's command.
Early on 3 August it was understood that 23 Battalion was to pass to 4 Brigade when 28 Battalion reached vino (the Giogoli line). Later in the morning, however, Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas was called urgently to join Brigadier Pleasants at Poggio delle Monache and was instructed to move his battalion on the right flank. By that time 28 Battalion had come up against the Germans at Villa Capponi. The 23rd, with A Squadron, 19 Regiment, under command, was to go to San Cristofano (east of Giogoli) and then to Point 122 (nearer the Greve), where it was to ‘hold fast. Deny the right flank, bring pressure and fire to the front’1 (the Villa Capponi ridge).
Thomas directed B Company, with half a squadron of tanks, to lead the advance, take both objectives and consolidate at Point 122, and C Company to follow with the other half-squadron and consolidate in San Cristofano. B Company left Poggio delle Monache about 2 p.m., and after some delay caused by taking a wrong turning, occupied the crossroads at Cristofano without opposition. The tanks were held up by breakdowns in the leading troop, which blocked the road. The infantry carried on unsupported towards Point 122, but after going only a few hundred yards were pinned down in the open on a forward slope by machine-gun, mortar and tank-gun fire, mostly from the Villa Capponi ridge, across a gully to the north. Among about 20 casualties were all three platoon commanders, who were wounded. The tanks found a way around the road blockage, but were halted again by a mined demolition. Meanwhile C Company and the other half of A Squadron arrived at San Cristofano.
Fifth Brigade ordered that every attempt should be made to reduce the Villa Capponi ‘pocket’, and instructed 1 MG Company to send forward some Vickers guns to assist. About 5.30 p.m. Thomas called for another effort to gain Point 122, but the tanks could not get past the demolition, and despite supporting fire from the battalion weapons, tanks and Vickers guns, B Company could make no further progress. As the company was under fire on open ground and suffering casualties to no purpose, Thomas obtained permission from Brigade Headquarters for it to move back to a less exposed position.
1 War diary, 23 Bn.
Meanwhile 4 Brigade (except for the tanks of 19 and 20 Regiments supporting 5 Brigade) and 6 Brigade remained in reserve.
The 22nd Battalion, after ascertaining that the enemy had gone from the northern slope of La Poggiona, was withdrawn by 4 Brigade and bivouacked with C Squadron, 20 Regiment, between La Romola and Cerbaia, where they were rejoined later by two platoons of 3 Company and a troop of tanks which had been left in occupation of La Poggiona.
In 6 Brigade's sector hostility had ceased except for sporadic long-range shelling. Armoured cars of C Squadron, Divisional Cavalry, struggled over narrow roads, on which the enemy had left many mines and demolitions, and found that he had gone from Santa Maria and Pian dei Cerri. Patrols from 25 Battalion also encountered mines, booby traps and demolitions but no enemy. It was possible to move freely between San Michele, Cerbaia and La Romola without drawing fire. Everywhere the Italians were returning to their homes.
Divisional Cavalry assumed responsibility for this part of the front while 6 Brigade concentrated, 24 Battalion in Castellare and 25 and 26 Battalions and 18 Regiment in or near Cerbaia, together with NZASC transport ready to carry the three battalions should 6 Brigade be called upon to continue the advance.
This concentration of troops was almost complete when, about 4.30 p.m., shells began to fall on Cerbaia. The shelling continued with hardly a break for two and a half hours, although the medium guns and fighter-bombers were directed on the places from which it was thought to come. Casualties in the crowded village were not as heavy as they might have been, probably because most of the men, on arrival, had sought out shelter in the buildings in which to sleep. An officer was killed and about 30 men wounded; six vehicles and a six-pounder gun were destroyed, and a dozen or more trucks damaged. At Castellare 24 Battalion escaped the shell-fire.
The Germans claimed on 3 August that the Allied forces ‘ignored the fact that Florence is an open city’1 and shelled the Piazza Museo Instituto d'Arte (south of the Arno), the Ponte della Vittoria (the westernmost of the city's six bridges) and the south-western suburb of Bellosguardo. They also claimed that Allied aircraft attacked the piazza and streets in the southern part of the city. ‘Considerable damage was caused to buildings.’2
When he heard an Italian report on 3 August that the enemy had prepared the Arno bridges for demolition and intended to hold the other side of the river, General Freyberg said, ‘He is a dirty dog. Knowing that we won't shell it [Florence] he's used it as a billet and now he sits there and hopes we will knock it down.’3 Next morning the GOC noted in his diary that the enemy had snipers in the south of Florence, and that ‘he is said to have announced that we are shelling the city which is not true.’ Later in the day, when Brigadier Pleasants said that his troops were being shot at from Florence, the General replied, ‘I can't help it’, and confirmed that Florence was not to be shelled or mortared.
Army Group C gave permission for the withdrawal of 1 Parachute Corps during the night of 3–4 August to the Heinrich Mountain Line, on the northern outskirts of Florence, and also authorised the demolition of the bridges, except the Ponte Vecchio, which was to be blocked by the demolition of houses at both ends. The main body of 1 Parachute Corps withdrew during the night ‘according to plan’, but very early in the morning of the 4th the rearguards left south of the city ‘were attacked in strength. To avoid fighting in the town, which might well have resulted in the rearguards being cut off among the maze of houses and lanes, they were withdrawn across the Arno…. The enemy followed up fast, guided by civilians through the obstacles and minefields at the entrance to the city. The prepared demolitions in Florence were blown according to orders…. Partisans cut the fuzes leading to the houses south of the Ponte Vecchio, but they were repaired, and when the houses blew up the partisans were buried among the ruins.’4
1 War diary,Fourteenth Army.
3 GOC's diary.
4 War diary, Fourteenth Army. New Zealand observers reported explosions, which must have included the demolition of the bridges, from about 2 a.m. onwards on 4 August.
The South Africans were the first Allied troops to enter Florence. The Imperial Light Horse crossed the Ema at Galluzzo, on Route 2, and patrols going on foot through the southern outskirts of the city reached the Arno at dawn on 4 August; they found that five of the six bridges had been demolished and that the approaches to the Ponte Vecchio—which in any case was too weak except for the lightest traffic—had been blocked. As the South African Division closed up to the river, German snipers and machine guns opened fire from the north bank.
The New Zealanders arrived later in the morning. C Company, 23 Battalion, discovered that the enemy, except for 15 men who were taken prisoner, had gone from Villa Capponi. One platoon crossed the Greve at La Gora to make contact with the South Africans; another platoon of this company and the three of D, mounted on the tanks of A Squadron, 19 Regiment, forded the Greve and raced ‘through farmyards, across fields, straight through one stone wall and then pell-mell along a secondary road….’1 Determined to be the first New Zealanders in the city, they pushed through Marignolle and entered the southern suburbs about 11 a.m.
‘In no time,’ says Colonel Thomas (who was riding on Major H. A. Robinson's tank), ‘there were thousands in the streets, cheering frantically, throwing flowers and fruit onto the tanks. Wine, champagne, and even whiskey were passed up in glasses and bottles. It was a great moment. We approached the Arno and I called up Brigade on the wireless set and reported our success—they said “Good Show but withdraw immediately!”’2 This ‘was a shattering blow to the troops after having come so far, but later events proved the message could not have arrived at a more appropriate time’.3 As they retired, the tanks with the infantry still sitting on them came under sniper, machine-gun and shell fire. Thomas, wounded in the wrist by a shell burst, was the only casualty. The withdrawal was continued to the area between Villa Capponi and Giogoli.
1 23 Battalion, p. 379.
3 G. R. Blampied, quoted in 23 Battalion, pp. 379–80.
After 23 Battalion discovered that the enemy had gone from Villa Capponi, C Company of 28 Battalion advanced beyond Giogoli and also crossed the Greve. Unable to contact Battalion Headquarters by radio, Captain Baker decided on his own initiative to carry on to Florence—which was in accord with the wishes of his men, who made a triumphant entry into the southern suburbs. Their progress, however, was cut short when Colonel Awatere ordered the company to concentrate by Monticelli, on a road to the west.
The Maori Battalion was instructed to consolidate on the south bank of the Arno west of the Ponte della Vittoria and to act as a firm base through which engineers and patrols from other units were to reconnoitre possible crossing places in preparation for continuing the advance. At nightfall, therefore, the battalion was disposed with B and D Companies near the river bank and A and C in reserve. Tanks of A Squadron, 19 Regiment, completing the relief of the 20th (which returned to 4 Brigade), supported the forward companies.
The enemy shelled the positions near the river and movement on the roads during the afternoon and into the night; his machine-gun posts continually swept the south bank and its approaches.
The 21st Battalion, instructed to reconnoitre the bank and crossing places with a view to establishing a bridgehead across the river, went into position behind 28 Battalion in the evening. A patrol of an officer and 10 men from B Company waded across and went about 100 yards beyond the river without meeting the enemy, but while returning was fired on by South African posts farther upstream. Another patrol of the same size, from D Company, found a good ford for tanks a short distance downstream from the Ponte della Vittoria, and saw Germans digging defensive positions in a park on the far bank.
Meanwhile Divisional Cavalry patrols swept the low ground near the river on the Division's left flank, while farther west 8 Indian Division approached the suburban area of Lastra a Signa, opposite Signa.
B Squadron, Divisional Cavalry, which had been ambushed while attempting to cross the Vingone the previous night, forded this stream and the Greve on 4 August. Some of its cars accompanied the Maoris and tanks to Florence; some made contact with South African patrols and helped comb the southern suburbs for any enemy who might still be there.
C Squadron made slow progress northwards from Pian dei Cerri and Santa Maria because of demolitions and the many trees which the enemy had felled across the road. After fording the Vingone the squadron's cars engaged the enemy in houses by Route 67 (the highway from Florence to the west), from which he was not dislodged until shelled by the artillery.
Next day A and B Squadrons investigated the river bank west of Florence, engaged snipers and machine-gun posts on the far side, and reported several places where the river could be crossed; C Squadron covered the Division's left flank and made contact with patrols from 8 Indian Division working towards Lastra a Signa, where German patrols were still active.
The New Zealand Division's destruction of the German defences on the hills commanding the city's southern approaches had been the turning point of the battle for Florence.
‘At times the enemy fought almost fanatically,’ wrote the Eighth Army Commander (General Leese). ‘They had, apparently, been ordered to hold on south of Florence at all costs. Eventually, the general advance came to a halt about 5,000 yards south of Florence and the River Arno. Owing to the necessity to take over the French front, 13th Corps was very extended. It was doubtful whether we could break into the defences until we had brought up more reserves. However, determined attacks by the New Zealand Division against the Poggio al Pino and Poggiona high ground S.E. of Florence gained the day. The New Zealand Division fought magnificently over a period of four days. If it had not been for their effort it would have been necessary to check along the whole front until we could bring in fresh divisions. In con- page 189 formity with the New Zealanders, progress was made all along the line….’1
‘Now that we have entered Florence,’ said the corps commander (General Kirkman), ‘I should like to say how much 13 Corps owes to 2 NZ Division during its recent fighting. In the battles for Arezzo and Florence your troops as always fought magnificently, and gave us the extra punch that was necessary to eject the enemy from his chosen positions in the very difficult country south of the River Arno….’2
When the commander of 6 South African Armoured Division (Major-General W. H. E. Poole) told General Freyberg in the evening of 4 August that ‘You have done a magnificent job,’ the latter replied, ‘It had to be done. We had a better chance than you did. It has probably saved you a lot of casualties.’3
The previous day Freyberg had sent a short report to New Zealand giving the Division's known casualties at that stage. He felt ‘this was necessary in view of rather horrific picture of stern actions being fought by the New Zealand Division south of the Arno.’4 During the Division's advance of over 20 miles which began on 22 July, its casualties were almost a thousand: 214 were killed or died of wounds, 710 were wounded, and 29 became prisoners of war, a total of 953.5 While the Division remained on the south bank of the Arno (until the night of 15–16 August) a further 34 were killed and 107 wounded, which brought the total to 1094. Between 22 July and 16 August, also, 52 of 4 Armoured Brigade's tanks, the strength of one whole regiment, were put out of action, many of them permanently.
The Division undoubtedly had grown in efficiency. Co-operation had improved between infantry, armour, artillery, engineers and the other arms. Without such co-operation there could have been little or no progress at times. For example, the Division would not have been able to get on as it did without the sappers' skill and speed in erecting bridges, trimming demolitions and clearing the way through minefields.
2 GOC's papers.
3 GOC's diary.
4 Ibid. By the ‘rather horrific picture’ the GOC meant the impression that might have been given by BBC reports on the Italian campaign. The figures he quoted in the cable were 126 killed, 575 wounded and 39 missing.
5 In the same period, according to incomplete reports to Fourteenth Army, 1 Parachute Corps' casualties were about 1700 killed, wounded and missing; 29 Pz Gren Div and 4 Para Div each had at least 500 casualties.
The Division, with one armoured and two infantry brigades, was better constituted for the mobile warfare it had known in North Africa in 1941–43 than for the type of fighting which it now encountered in Italy in 1944. It did not have enough infantrymen; the two infantry brigades could not find the rested and fresh troops to relieve those in need of respite. Consequently, instead of being employed as the motorised unit of an armoured brigade, for which it had been specially trained, 22 (Motor) Battalion went into the line alongside the infantry units.
This handicap was reduced in the winter of 1944–45 by changing each of the two infantry brigades from three to four battalions, which was accomplished by converting Divisional Cavalry and 22 (Motor) Battalion to infantry. Before the offensive in the spring of 1945 the infantry strength of the Division was further increased by converting the machine-gun battalion to infantry and forming an extra brigade. The Division then had an armoured brigade of three regiments, and three infantry brigades, each of three battalions.