2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
The Montelupo–Empoli Front
The Montelupo–Empoli Front
The new positions, stretching south-westwards from a point eight miles west of Florence, were worse in every respect than the former ones. The hills north of the Arno gave splendid observation over them and all routes leading to them. The roads were narrow, and even heavy showers did not interrupt for long the great clouds of white dust which marked the passage of vehicles. By day shiny black flies bit gunners through their shirts or socks and by night mosquitoes tormented them. Even many of the local Italians were unfriendly if not downright hostile, and there were several instances of sabotage of telephone cables.
It was supposed to be a quiet sector and there were sardonic comments when the 4th Field gun positions suffered their heaviest shelling of the war (according to the 5th Reinforcements). All other gun areas, too, were shelled or mortared and sometimes single vehicles moving by day attracted heavy concentrations of fire. Ammunition restrictions did not permit the usual massive retaliation and much of this fire had to go unanswered. Such was the shortage of 25-pounder ammunition that, when the New Zealanders took over the sector, Sherman tanks of the armoured brigade were deployed for indirect fire and were given some of the existing artillery tasks.page 635
The enemy was still clinging to ground south of the river, especially in the Empoli area, and the New Zealand FDLs were from half a mile to two miles from the Arno. C and G Troops of the mortar battery were well forward on the right, a mile and a half from the riverbank. In the centre, from 8 August, two companies each of three 30-man platoons of infantillery from 32, 33 and 34 Batteries of the 7th Anti-Tank held the front as part of ‘Steelforce’. They faced across the river near Montelupo, did their best to keep out of sight by day, and were sharply alert at night to guard against enemy patrols. P Troop heavy mortars supported them. The 17-pounder troops, H, M and Q, supported the infantry and the two M1o troops, A and D, stayed in the rear for further training, which they badly needed.
The routine for the field guns was to fire 10 r.p.g. per day on observed shooting or HF tasks and 10 r.p.g. per night on HF tasks detailed by Artillery Headquarters. It was a quiet routine indeed after the enormous exertions of the advance on Florence. page 636 The 5th Field registered six targets on the 9th under the control of B Flight of 655 Air OP Squadron. They were all road junctions and were incorporated into the HF programmes. On the 10th the OP staff of A Troop of the 6th Field was enthralled by an officer of 1 AGRA who engaged targets from their OP with 7.2-inch howitzers.
By this time the New Zealand infantry had begun to clear enemy from the Empoli area and the field guns fired in support. The enemy was reluctant to go, and as the pressure on him increased the hostile batteries across the river reacted with intense shelling of the New Zealand gun areas, including those of G Troop of the 14th Light Ack-Ack in the Montagnana area. This fire reached a crescendo on 12 August and at lunch time two gunners of F3 of the 4th Field were killed.36 Several fires were started at gun positions and three or four men suffered cordite burns. In the afternoon the OP of E Troop of the 4th Field was so heavily engaged by enemy artillery that it had to be evacuated. A Troop of the 4th Field came under a heavy bombardment the following night and lost a good deal of ammunition. The propaganda shells which all three field regiments fired across the river in this period seemed to some of the dazed and shaken field gunners to be carrying Christianity a little too far. The heavy mortar battery had a more generous allotment of ammunition than the field batteries and responded vigorously, causing much loss to enemy posted south of the river.
With enemy artillery, mortar and nebelwerfer activity increasing in weight and accuracy, the preliminaries to the relief by the Americans were welcome. One of the infantillery platoons, of 34 Battery men under Lieutenant Champtaloup,37 had manned positions around a farmhouse and by keeping out of sight had escaped harm. The nearest shot was a solitary 88 which burst a quarter of a mile away. These 28 men were relieved on the 14th by 42 Americans, new to battle and keyed up to a high pitch of excitement. The New Zealanders assured them that this was a quiet sector indeed and that they might maintain it so by a policy of silent watchfulness and a minimum of daylight movement. As the infantillery marched off into the night they could hear plainly the jingling of accoutrements around the farmhouse, and when they had gone less than half a mile page 637 they heard mortar bombs exploding in great profusion on their former position. The surviving Americans must have wondered what would count among New Zealanders as a noisy sector.
36 Gunners W. E. Hitchon and D. McGregor.