CHAPTER 21 — Pursuit to Florence
Pursuit to Florence
The namesFilignano and Montaquila, on their native tongue, are lovely liquid words which sound like springtime. They sound like the little streams which rustle off from the hills round these villages looking for their parent, the Volturno River. They are names which suggest the delicate green of new buds on the olives, the oaks, the chestnuts, and the shy pink of the almond or cherry blossom. They suggest clean air, and violets and primroses among the new grass. And to the Divisional Cavalry they will always suggest happy days of rest, and a nightingale singing in the late evening.
The New Zealand Corps was disbanded and the Division went into the Apennines. The 6th Brigade was placed high up in the hills as protection for the right flank of 2 Polish Corps, and Div Cav, under command of the brigade, was allotted rest areas near these villages in the western catchment of the Volturno.
For protection, two troops from C Squadron were sent well forward along the Venafro–Atina road to the villages of Cerro Grosso and La Selva, and the majority of the regiment was put to work turning the track between Filignano and Montaquila into a reasonable road. Six of the officers, all of whom had seen continuous service since the forming of the First Echelon, left for furlough in New Zealand. They included Lieutenant-Colonel Bonifant, and command of the regiment went to Major Wilder, who was promoted lieutenant-colonel. A new second-in-command was appointed, Major Burns,1 who was imported from 18 Armoured Regiment. All the cars equipped with 3-inch howitzers held practice shoots which were most successful and every car got a smart new coat of paint.
By the end of April the spring weather had come to stay. The snow on Monte Cairo had gone well back and the frosts were out of the nights. It was now the time for the horrid page 339 little anopheles mosquito to be singing round in the night air and paraphernalia for anti-malarial precautions were issued. The malaria squads issued forth and cleaned out with commendable fervour all ditches and damp places. The MO, not to be outdone of course, then issued dire warnings against the local snakes, which were nasty little ones of a viper variety.
The enemy was not backward in reminding everybody, however, that there was a war going on beyond La Selva. Three times in the first week of May the regiment's forward guards in and around these villages were shelled and mortared. On one of these occasions the enemy followed up with an attack on the platoon of 2 Independent Parachute Brigade just along the road. On another occasion an A Squadron troop, which had also been sent there, suffered heavy shelling for two hours, during which time the house where they were living was hit eight times and so badly damaged that the troop had to find another home.
There was a full moon on the 8th which the Luftwaffe put to use for night bombing, dropping some butterfly bombs round Filignano. And the next day the little garrison in La Selva had to find another house as shellfire scored a direct hit on the roof of the one they were in.
Some officers of the Royal Canadian Dragoons visited Div Cav one day to discuss working experiences with the Staghounds. It was a pity that they were not there a week later because, during a night change-over in garrison duty between A and C Squadrons, there was a collapse of the road which let one car over the bank. The car rolled over and fell about thirty feet but, other than a few bruises, no one was hurt.
By 10 May General Clark was ready to make his next attempt, his successful one, to break the Gustav Line and drive for Rome. He now had both the Fifth and Eighth Armies poised on the one front, the former on the coastal side and the latter reaching from the Liri valley right up into the mountains further back than Monte Cairo. The New Zealand Division, with 6 Brigade in the forward line, held this extreme right flank.
The CO held a conference on the 11th and warned the squadrons that they were due for a difficult move straight across the watershed between the Volturno and Rapido rivers to take up positions held by the Kimberley Rifles, 12 South African Brigade, round Vallerotonda. This village lies about six miles north-east of Cassino.page 340
The countryside here is wild and mountainous and slashed with deep gorges and ravines. Supply was going to be difficult and mules would have to be used. The mule trains were under the care of some 700 Italians who were to come under command. They were a mixture of Commandos and Marines known as the Bafile Battalion and, to quote the war diary, ‘appeared more exotic than martial’. To add to the difficulties, the road from Casale to Vallerotonda was under the strictest traffic control, with movement subject to passes issued only by Divisional Headquarters, for this was the main supply route for the Polish Corps and for 6 Brigade further forward across the Rapido towards Terelle.
Opening with a tremendous artillery barrage on the night of the 11th, the last battle for Cassino began on a 20-mile front with both the Fifth and Eighth Armies fighting to establish bridgeheads simultaneously. The break-in succeeded but the dog-fight part of the battle was to last for nearly a week. The break-through was made in the first instance by the Moroccan Spahis, who accomplished a brilliant and deep penetration along the heights of the Aurunci Mountains to outflank the German defenders facing the Eighth Army. The British 78 Division, supported by 6 Armoured Division, was then thrown in and smashed its way through to Route 6 well beyond the town. Up on the Eighth Army's right flank the Poles had made a two-brigade attack to descend upon the ruins of Montecassino but had been thrown back. They came down again, linked up with the 78th on Route 6, and the hill was now theirs once and for all.
Full praise must go to the Spahis. These goumiers—the New Zealanders invariably knew them by the collective word ‘Goums’—were wild, fierce Arabs who wore the burnous and fought, for preference, with a knife. Many blood-curdling tales about them did the rounds of the Division; how they carried a satchel containing what appeared to be dried apricots but which turned out to be the ears they lopped off their victims! Such tales were easy to believe in Div Cav, which had been next door to the Goums during early April. Moreover, they were tremendous thieves and sometimes violent in their robbery.
After all, similar tales about New Zealanders were told both by enemy and friend. Back in the desert, when there was always a chance of collecting a gazelle, one Div Cav man always wore on his belt, no doubt as part of his pre-war trade, a shepherd's skinning knife and steel. This knife was seen and coveted by a page 341 British sailor, whom nothing would convince that it had not been issued for slitting enemy throats at night-time and who eventually stole it. That knife now probably lives in a glass case in some little English parlour. Well; similar tales were not hard to believe of the Goums.
As the left front of the battle began to show some general forward movement, the Divisional Cavalry, with 22 and 24 Battalions and No. 2 Company, 27 MG Battalion, was formed into ‘Pleasants Force’, which was ordered to come up and take over the positions from the Kimberley Rifles.
The day before moving out from Filignano the regiment held an athletic sports meeting organised by Second-Lieutenant Best.2 The meeting contained the usual track events up to a mile, field events, and an invitation relay race with other units. On a points system, C Squadron had a comfortable win, whilst some of A Squadron did themselves just as well by running a totalisator.
‘Stopped at Mule Point at Acquefondata, & then about 8 miles over the most winding road I have ever seen. Our truck had no reverse and had to be towed backwards before we could get round some of the corners….’
B Squadron continued on to the village of Sant' Elia Fiumerapido. From here, as from Vallerotonda, all further movement to the squadron positions was by foot along mule tracks.
C Squadron, on the right, linked up now with the flank of 2 Independent Parachute Brigade; A Squadron carried the line from here to Valvori; and B Squadron carried it down along the very headwaters of the Rapido. B Squadron had its headquarters on top of a conical hill and the route there, when Colonel Wilder visited it, earned the name of ‘Perspiration Col’. A Squadron Headquarters found a house to take over in the village, and the war diary records:
‘Reports have it that this house is equipped with hot and cold water and a tiled bath—but so far no invitations have been forthcoming.’page 342
Perhaps with such a rare luxury, if it did exist, excuse may be found in the reasoning of: ‘Invite the few and offend the many.’
Forward movement in the Apennines lagged behind the general advance. So long as this went on straight for Rome there was no point in forcing vigorously in the hills. Until the 26th things were reasonably quiet on the Pleasants Force front. The Divisional Cavalry suffered a little shelling and mortaring and did a little patrolling at night. Life could have been worse with the first of the cherries ripening, and fresh peas and beans to be had—by purchase or stealth.
A soldier never realises how far his thoughts get from home during his work-a-day routine until he suddenly finds a civilian from home beside him, and realises with a shock just what a stranger he has really become to his native land. On the 25th the Prime Minister arrived with Generals Freyberg and Puttick, to talk to Div Cav. Everyone stood in a ring amid the dusty green olive trees listening to his speech and straining to put minds back into civilian life for a short while. To the young men watching him through the pale young grape vines that waved lazily in the oppressive heat of mid-afternoon, it all seemed so strange in their present surroundings.
At the same time Mr Fraser must have thought that some of the regiment were rather wild young men. A troop of Staghounds had been detailed to go back to Divisional Headquarters to take him forward near the ‘sharp end’ of the war. The headquarters was dispersed in a quietly pleasant spot and, while waiting for their passenger, one of the crews was, as usual, deep in an interminable Div Cav argument: gunnery. To prove a point somebody stamped on a trigger, and Divisional HQ went to ground at the ear-splitting crack of his 37-mm. gun. The culprit had completely forgotten about the standard practice of always having ‘one up the spout’. However, the only damage done was the sudden cessation of the argument.
That day C Squadron was withdrawn to pick up its cars and was sent to Sant' Elia at the entrance of the Belmonte valley, where it was to be followed by the other two squadrons the next day ready to make a drive up the valley to Atina, the Division's immediate objective. The enemy was now on the run.
Some weeks later this troop had occasion to go back there and the locals, who were most impressed, showed them the results of their marksmanship, even ‘dis lettle bambino one’, a 37-mm. solid shot embedded in the inside wall directly opposite the door-catch.
By evening the troop, which had temporarily lost two cars and been augmented by another troop, making four cars in all, had passed through Atina. The troop leader himself was over the crossroads beyond, when there was a tremendous explosion behind him. When the smoke and dust had subsided, there was the car behind standing with both front wheels blown off. It had hit a double Teller mine. Mack then realised that he himself was right in the middle of a minefield so he naturally took some time to get out, as he preferred to clear the way himself rather than call for the sappers whom he knew were hard-pressed. Though perhaps slow, his system was effective and safe. As each mine was found, a piece of wire was attached to it and it was dragged clear by the car so that it could be disarmed without the danger of a booby trap going off.
By the 28th RHQ had moved to Atina, whilst C Squadron Headquarters was just beyond the town and troops were probing down every road. Another composite troop was now made up of Mack's and Best's and this worked its way towards Vicalvi. Not far beyond Atina there is a straight stretch of road, about three-quarters of a mile long, that dips steadily down and rises again. Well along this stretch could be seen a lot of camouflage nets at the side of the road. The patrol kept these under intense observation for well over half an hour before hopefully deciding that they were there against air observation. The road itself was the only way forward so, when the patrol finally decided to advance, they did this one car at a time and at full speed. Before it was abreast of the nets the first car, all 15 tons of it, was registering 50 m.p.h. About the very bottom of the dip there was another minefield. There was a mighty explosion and one front wheel, shorn clean off, bounded down the road in two or three great leaps and flew over the fence a good fifty yards away. Still expecting the nets to be hiding anti-tank guns, the crew clambered out and took cover. Armed page 345 only with .38 pistols and with a Tommy gun between them, they expected to be rushed at any minute and at least made prisoner. Nothing happened, and after a while they plucked up enough courage to emerge, and then marched back, quite unscathed, to the troop.
It had been all of five months now that Div Cav had been in action with the Staghounds and nowhere had they been able to make much appreciable use of them. Now this kind of work was bringing back to the troopers their old dash and their gay spirits. Furthermore, though the expenditure of armoured cars was proving heavy—two cars had even been put out of action by slipping over banks—their crews were able to forget their old dread of going back to B Echelon and missing the fun, because vehicle replacements were now coming forward at anything down to twelve hours' notice.
The push was on again the next day, the 29th, and two more cars went up on mines round Vicalvi. No. 1 Troop (Lieutenant Cooke4), with the help of a bulldozer to work on the road, made an effort to outflank Vicalvi on the left. This troop managed to get to the little village of Tillaroco abreast of it, thus opening up a route for the Maori Battalion to make a night assault on the hill, Colle Mastroianni, to wade across the Fibreno River, and to take Colle Monacesco. At the same time Cooke was sent forward in support, together with a troop of Shermans. Vicalvi meanwhile fell to 21 Battalion and by the 30th, B Squadron was forward, its headquarters being established on the far side of the town.
Though the regiment's forward patrols were now within three miles of Sora, the road they were on was not yet serviceable as the bridge over the Fibreno had been destroyed. So B Squadron covered the site until another bridge could be brought forward. At the same time one troop was sent back along a side road to Posta at the head of the river, about a mile across country from Vicalvi, and two others managed to find their way across the river and make their way in the direction of Campoli, thus providing a flank guard as well as lengthening this right flank of the Maoris' advance across country to take Brocco, just short of Sora.page 346
However, the nature of the country precluded this and the Maoris went on their way merrily without the support. For wheeled vehicles the going was made most difficult by a succession of vineyards and gardens laid out amongst irrigation ditches. The two troops were being attended by spasmodic mortar fire, not enough to worry them, from a wooded hill on their right, when the leading car got its front wheels bogged in one of the ditches. Second-Lieutenant Gee5 hooked on the tow-rope of his car to pull the other one back, and immediately got bogged as well. In next to no time all five cars of both troops were stuck, either from trying to tow or in trying to get by to keep up with the infantry. The enemy mortar fire was intensified as soon as anyone appeared on foot to hitch on a rope or dig at a wheel. Here again a car collected a hit on top without much ill effect, but when eventually one NCO received a scalp wound it was thought advisable to stay in the cars or take cover in a nearby house. The wounded man was sent back on foot to Squadron Headquarters and on the way he met Brigadier Stewart, who called down an artillery ‘stonk’ in the general area of the mortars. This thoroughly discouraged them.
Since no car was able to get out without help, and no infantry protection was available overnight, the crews were forced to walk back to Squadron Headquarters. By morning, with Brocco in the Maoris' hands, the enemy round Campoli had retired and the cars were able to be recovered at leisure.
While B Squadron was discovering that there was still plenty of fight in the enemy, C Squadron was doing the same. One troop was sent back to the north-east of Vicalvi, through Alvito to San Donato. On getting there this troop ran into quite a pretty little battle and was lucky also to suffer only one casualty. It was estimated that the enemy were 300 strong in the hills above, and here also an artillery ‘stonk’ had to be called down to cool their enthusiasm. After that effort it was considered wise to leave C Squadron in the area, with a patrol right in the town, for the 31st.
A Squadron was given the responsibility of holding Posta until the RAF Regiment came up to take over the area. Once the bridge over the Fibreno was completed, RHQ was able to move forward to Brocco and B Squadron to Sora, thence back along Route 82 towards Isola. It was given instructions to make con- page 347 tact with 8 Indian Division which was reported to be coming up from the south. At Brocco, RHQ suffered a casualty when it came under shellfire and Trooper Simpkiss6 was killed.
B Squadron kept working away on 1 June. Its headquarters was now half-way between Sora and Isola and various troops were working along all the roads south and south-west of there, like ferrets in a rabbit warren until, during the day, the first elements of 8 Indian Division arrived in Isola.
The Gustav Line was now history.
North-west of Sora the valley of the Liri River runs back some 25 miles, with high mountains on either side, to the town of Avezzano. This valley carries the main road and rail routes from Naples to meet Route 5, which, as described earlier, runs right across Italy from Rome to Pescara. Rome was due to fall any day. In fact, once the Gustav Line was breached and the offensive had broken out of the Anzio beach-head, General Clark was developing quite a race for the capital. The right flank of the armies was therefore naturally to make its pursuit up the Liri valley to Avezzano. The first objective of the Division was now Balsorano. There was no scope, in such a narrow valley as this, for a whole regiment of armoured cars.
A Squadron was put under command of 5 Brigade to travel along in case it was needed, and the balance of the regiment, joined now by HQ Squadron, went into laager near the banks of the Fibreno to sleep and sun-bathe, and refresh themselves with swimming.
The advance up the Liri valley was slow. The roads were heavily mined and there were many demolitions. The enemy had still plenty of sting and fought a hard rearguard action before Balsorano. On 4 June word came down that the Fifth Army had entered Rome, so any more rearguard actions would surely be out of the question. But it was a case of pushing on and making sure. Two troops were able to report Balsorano clear by the 6th and, in their turn, learnt that the Second Front was opening up in Normandy. It was still a case of pushing on, even if it was just for the sake of tidying up.
Patrols of 24 Battalion had also entered Colle Piano and there they had found four seriously wounded civilians shot by the enemy by way of registering thanks for hospitality. These four were given morphine and evacuated as quickly as possible.page 348
By the 9th, the enemy having now succeeded in breaking clear, the road had been opened as far as Civitella Roveto and many escaped prisoners were beginning to come down out of the hills —British, South African, Indian, a New Zealander from the LRDG, Russians. Many of them had been at large for anything up to nine months.
The main part of the regiment had enjoyed only a short respite. On the 5th ‘Wilder Force’ came into existence. It consisted of the Divisional Cavalry, less A Squadron, with under command two companies of infantry and a squadron of tanks, and with the whole 6 Field Regiment in support. The job had been to take over from 5 Brigade whilst 6 Brigade was still fighting for Balsorano.
The evidence of enemy brutality amongst civilians had proved somewhat disturbing and had given rise to a series of vague reports that other wild men were loose round the countryside filling the abdomens of various residents with lead in an excess of Nazi exuberance. This added excitement to an alarm in RHQ in the early hours of one morning. The profound stillness was shattered by several bursts of Tommy-gun fire. In less than no time everybody was stalking about armed to the teeth. The pale blue moonlight of romantic Italy proved capable of turning a collection of male legs and issue underpants, as various ‘patrols’ flitted from tree to tree, into a spectacle truly reminiscent of Les Sylphides. Moonlight can do wonders. So, too, can the thought of vipers amongst the grass do a lot for choreography. But there was no occasion for anybody to prove his valour, for the disturbance turned out to have been made by two very drunk ‘Kiwis’ who had fired into a cave. They said there were Germans in there, smoking. Perhaps they were fireflies with a slight Tedeschi look about them.
It was a melodramatic Italian interlude. Many of the escaped prisoners seemed very reluctant to leave this beautiful countryside with its affectionate people. The lack of any restrictions, together with the fun of chasing the odd Fascist spy, was in many respects an ideal existence. A sociable Indian dropped into RHQ for a chat. He spoke good English and better Italian. Captured in France, he had been loose in Italy the following year. Now he was, if you please, escorting four red-lipped signorinas to church, dressed in his Sunday best with a pale blue shirt and a sports coat, from the pocket of which protruded a Luger pistol. The Church Militant indeed!
Though the countryside is always dangerous with mines and booby traps and delayed demolitions, liberating is great fun. The squadron collected a very smelly bunch of Germans of 85 Mountain Regiment whom the partisans had locked in a house while they worked themselves up to murder pitch. One of the Germans had already been shot—from behind of course— by a brave partisan. The squadron also picked up a South African WO II in a very weak condition who was evacuated through the ADS,7 and two Indian Army officers, captured at Tobruk, who had been at large since the Italian collapse and who were dressed as locals with forged Italian passports, the speciality of a Greek naval officer.
But by the middle of the month the enemy had retreated so far to the north that any further advance along the central axis was unprofitable. The Division was withdrawn to Arce, about 20 miles north-west of Cassino, to go into training again.
For the next four weeks, life in the Divisional Cavalry differed little from that of any other unit. Parties visited Cassino to gaze with awe at the wreck that had so long denied them passage. Day trips were made into Rome where, to quote one of the more phlegmatic, they ‘saw the Pope, appreciated the small high breasts of the ladies, and missed the truck home.’ B Squadron found several German timing devices for delayed action demolitions which were greatly appreciated by Divisional Headquarters. There were trucks running daily down to the Liri for swimming and, at the 4 Armoured Brigade swimming sports, Div Cav managed to score a narrow win from 22 Battalion. page 350 There was a training scheme with 26 Battalion, as a result of which it was decided to equip some of the cars with the infantry radio sets for closer communication with the battalions.
All this came to an end by 10 July, when word came down that the Division was moving forward again. The next day the regiment began a two-day trip of over 200 miles to near Cortona, just north of Lake Trasimene. Elements of the enemy were forward of Arezzo but steadily retiring.
B Squadron was put under command of 6 Brigade and sent forward to Castiglion Fiorentino, on the road to Arezzo, with a view to clearing a secondary road between Castiglion and Palazzo del Pero, which is about five miles south-east of Arezzo. Some of this patrolling had to be done on foot, but with the support of a troop of Shermans from 18 Armoured Regiment, some wheeled patrols gave protection and coverage to 144 Field Squadron, RE, of 6 British Armoured Division, which managed to open up two-thirds of the road by 14 July and glean evidence that the opposition was coming from elements of the Mannitz Battle Group, remnants of 94 Infantry Division. By the next day they had reached their objective, the crossroads on Route 73 about five miles from Arezzo, but were clearly well out on a limb and had to pull back. The 26th Battalion had not yet established itself at a point, nearly three miles behind, which was to be used as a jumping-off place to take Usciano, close to this same spot.
Early on the 16th a B Squadron patrol was able to report that Palazzo del Pero was clear of enemy but under fire from the high ground beyond. The 10th Corps, however, was about to take over the sector and 6 Brigade Group was able to pull back, but not before B Squadron had lost a man. Trooper Angus8 was killed near the crossroads by stepping on an ‘S’ mine. Some sort of definite front was beginning to establish itself again for the battle for Florence. Arezzo was going to be a job for 6 Armoured Division.
The front that was now resolving itself on the maps was really a series of outposts of the Gothic Line which the enemy was preparing with the intention of holding it the following winter. If this were to fall before then—and by the condition of the ripening fruit, autumn was approaching—then Florence had to fall into Allied hands as soon as possible. It had been declared an open city but there were defences in the hills eight or ten page 351 miles south of it, north of the Pesa River. The attack on these, and the subsequent capture of Florence, was ordered of the New Zealand Division, with 8 Indian Division on its left and 6 South African Division on its right.
During the Division's move to face up to these Florence defences, the Paula Line, the Divisional Cavalry drove due west from Castiglion through San Savino to Siena, where it turned north to Castellina. On the trip one of the C Squadron cars had a spectacular fall over a bank.
It appears that the Staghounds had one mechanical defect in the form of a steering drop-arm which was not strong enough, and which sometimes broke under the strain of fast convoy driving. In this instance Sergeant Eivers's9 car came to grief and was thrown completely out of control on a bend and shot over the side. It did a complete somersault sideways while it fell forty feet, and disappeared through the roof of a factory below. It landed on its wheels on the ground floor in a room only large enough to accommodate it. The wall had to be knocked down later to get it out.
Eivers's troop leader, following next in the convoy, missed him at the corner and, seeing the marks where the car had left the road, stopped and looked over. What had happened was obvious, and he scrambled down the hill fully expecting to find one-third of his troop dead. He got to the car to find the whole crew, somewhat dazed, climbing out unscathed except for patches of skin knocked off them. One of Eivers's first comments was: ‘My whisky! Oh, my precious whisky! I only got it up with last night's rations.’ Welded on the outside of the car was a tucker box, and when they looked in it, there stood the bottle right way up, but broken off at the neck. There was only one thing to do with that whisky and by the time the four of them had done it they were suffering from neither shock nor depression.
The enemy was making full use of every suitable bit of cover and was lying low until the advancing forces were right on him before opening up with everything. In this instance he had even caught the 23 Battalion men riding on the outsides of the cars.
No. 2 Troop, together with two troops of 18 Armoured Regiment, went forward through Tarnavelle and Noce as support to an engagement by 28 Battalion, but the armoured cars were unable to give much active help here as the countryside could only be traversed by the tanks. So they had to be content with covering the Maoris' open left flank and preserving themselves intact for the hard fighting that was obviously coming any day.
The next day did not produce very much progress but it was one of very heavy shellfire for the whole regiment. An A Squadron troop was sent out to the right to make contact with the South Africans. This trip started with a difficult period of waiting while a demolition was made passable. The work was carried out under steady shellfire; in fact it turned out to be just the first of several similar incidents that day. One car got a near miss which cleared its engine covers only by a foot, and hit the wall of a house against which the car was sheltering. It was lucky to get away with just a puncture. At another place, held up again by a demolition, the troop leader, Lieutenant Purchase,12 was investigating on foot when he was engaged by machine guns. He managed to get back to his car unhurt in time for the whole troop to return the fire with considerable vigour. They finished the day with all the gear normally stowed on the outsides of the vehicles, bedrolls, water tins and everything, well and truly riddled.
The advance on Florence was beginning to show signs of accelerating and the General decided to try a quick thrust, using the speed of Div Cav to catch the enemy off balance. Thus page 354 6 Brigade could follow up quickly into positions dominating the city. Orders were given for B and C Squadrons to prepare for this. At the time this plan looked feasible but, in the light of later events, the taking of Florence did not prove so easy. Even by that afternoon, stronger enemy resistance was making itself felt. The 23rd Battalion had silenced the enemy in the village of Sambuca and part of A Squadron crossed the Pesa River to lend support in the advance to the next village, Fabbrica, a mile or two away. There were two demolitions along the road, the second of which could not be passed, so an attempt was made to get forward across country. The enemy rearguard in the village, however, had been withholding fire until our troops were well within range. When it did open up it put the forward infantry platoon to ground and fired on Company Headquarters, killing Major Hoseit.13 Having been pinned by plunging fire from the village, the forward platoons were forced to pull back under cover of the Staghounds, which were later able to retire without help.
Next morning, the 24th, C Squadron came under command of 5 Brigade, which constituted a force known as ‘Armcav’ in conjunction with A Squadron of 19 Armoured Regiment, No. 2 Company of 22 Battalion, 1 Troop of 31 Anti-Tank Battery, some engineers and signallers, a bulldozer and a bridge-layer tank. This little force, a sharp spearhead for the brigade, moved out from near San Donato the next day, took Fabbrica, and pressed onwards towards Bibbione. Regimental Headquarters, in the meantime, came up to la Fornace and B Squadron replaced A, which was glad of a breather.
San Casciano, the key to the jumping-off place for the fight for Florence, was now within reach, but the enemy was also fighting hard for every furlong of the way. Armcav battled its way into Bibbione the next day against this increasing resistance, mortars and shellfire taking its toll of the infantry. After securing the crossroads beyond Bibbione, C Squadron pushed up Route 2 for another half mile. The other two squadrons worked forward in support of the Maoris. They took one road each, north from Tavarnelle, and by the end of the day their patrols had met at the crossroads round San Pancrazio. Forward elements of 28 Battalion were still with them. It takes a lot to stop the Maoris. At the crossroads the B Squadron cars were held up by mines, which could not be lifted by the 6 Field page 355 Company sappers attached, owing to the heavy fire from the houses beyond. So the troopers took to blasting these about and finished up with the inevitable embarrassment—prisoners, some thirteen of them, which they gladly handed over to the Maoris. Of the A Squadron advance, Davie comments:
‘On pulling up beside a house [we] got a hell of a surprise to see a Jerry sneaking round one side of it about 75 yards away and a few seconds later another. A third one noticed us and came back for a second look just as we let off the How. Next the Maoris arrived and I was very interested to see the way they went about storming it. Result; 1 dead and 2 prisoners…. Several mortar stonks on us when we advanced further.’
This left flank of the advance had now got a little ahead so, on the 26th, it remained a little more static. The 21st Battalion was to come up and take Poppiano and an air attack had been asked for on San Casciano. On the other side of the Pesa, Armcav too was waiting for the air support but remained well in touch with the enemy. With no need in the meantime of the thrusting strength of the Staghounds, and since they were difficult to tuck away out of sight against the walls of buildings, Major Poolman sent his Dingo troop (Lieutenant Monckton14) forward to keep constant observation. This must have been a particularly nerve-racking job because any form of armoured vehicle will attract fire, and to remain stationary expecting it all the time is particularly hard in the open-topped Dingoes. The crews not only had to suffer the fears that come with inactivity, but also they would be aware of possible plunging fire, or of grenades, on top of them from some daring or desperate enemy soldier who may have been hiding in, or had sneaked into, the buildings against which they were sheltered.
In order to maintain the close contact, one Staghound troop had to move forward a little way. Sergeant Flynn's15 car went first, but since it was about to enter a tree-covered defile leading to a crossroads, Flynn stopped to take a good look before going on. Lieutenant Nicol16 walked forward to him to discuss the move, but unfortunately he got caught by a burst of machine-gun fire and was killed.
Once the air attack was completed, on the 27th, Armcav went forward to mop up, after which it was disbanded. C Squadron page 356 remained under command of 4 Armoured Brigade on the right flank. It lost a car on a mine near Caserotta. There were three casualties in the crew, fortunately only wounded.
A further two cars were lost that day, one destroyed by a mine and the other by shellfire, when A and B Squadrons were sent up on the left of the river near Cerbaia. B Squadron produced a prisoner from 71 Panzer Grenadiers. This was valuable information because it was the first indication that 29 Panzer Division was committed to this area.
‘There was a bad demolition still under enemy fire and the work was held up. This holdup seemed unexpected, since before long all the armoured cars plus sundry MT from other units approached nose to tail down a narrow road in full view of the enemy….Banks on either side of the road made dispersal impossible.
‘Presently an airburst exploded above us…and for the next half hour every five minutes brought its hail of shells…. Wireless messages rattled back and forth: “Can you move forward?” “No!” “Can you move back?” “No!” “Try to disperse!” We were bound to be hit sooner or later if we remained on the road, so my car smashed its way through a hedge and out on to the open slope. Attempting to take cover behind an olive tree in full view of the enemy seemed rather like the act of an ostrich. Other cars had also managed to disperse a little and though we seemed to be in the centre of a turmoil of bursting shells only one car was hit and from this the crew escaped unhurt….’
Once his troop had been extricated from this it continued searching for crossings. They were looking for a way round yet another demolition when an infantry officer asked for help. Lewis continues:
‘… it appeared that 20 Germans were holding out in a nearby house watched from a safe distance by a couple of dozen or so assorted Partisans…. He wanted us to put a few shots into the house while the infantry approached it on foot…. We drove the cars over and began to fire on the house with all the guns we had, a 3” howitzer, two 37m.m. guns, and several machine-guns. The last we saw of the Germans was as they disappeared into the bushes with the Partisan forces in hot pursuit….’page 357
Yet again, on the 28th, another car went up on a mine. The job for the day was to find suitable crossing places over the Pesa between Cerbaia and Geppetto. There were none; not without considerable bulldozing, and this would be quite impossible against such accurate enemy gunfire as was coming down at the time.
But San Casciano was well in our hands now and the Division had at least a foothold on that side of the river. C Squadron, still under command of 4 Armoured Brigade, did not make so much progress. It had been working along the same Geppetto— Cerbaia—San Casciano road but coming up from San Casciano. Extensive demolitions were blocking the way and it was obvious that it was going to take a day or so before the Division could be poised ready for the final attack. In the meantime A and B Squadrons continued ferreting around this way and that. On the 29th they continued patrolling on either side of the river, in the vicinity of Cerbaia and Castiglioni, constantly engaging— and with some effect—mortar and machine-gun posts. Though they were under considerable shellfire all day they steadily pushed the protection for the enemy guns out of the way. And as the protection was pushed back, so went the guns.
Late that afternoon word came down that the regiment had to take over the responsibility of the left flank from 21 Battalion, so B Squadron HQ moved up to Montegufoni.
Montegufoni is a property that has been owned by the English family of Sitwell for many years. Naturally none of this family was in residence at the time and the house had been taken over by the Italians to store what was a most priceless collection of paintings from Northern Italy. Apart from being structurally a suitable storage place, by happy chance its situation also preserved its treasures for, during that afternoon, in the heat of battle one Div Cav troop leader, faced with three houses amidst difficult country to clean out, had shot at and set fire to two of them and, on second thoughts, only because it was in a hollow and therefore not so likely to be a defended position, had spared the third.
That happened to be Montegufoni. But the story of how the war passed over it is best told in the words of B Squadron's Intelligence Corporal, Bob Cotterall.18 His was a common christian name and he was invariably known by the nickname ‘Ponsonby’ after that suburb of Auckland.page 358
‘It was a lovely evening with the sunset all pinks and blues when Collins19 interrupted me by saying: “Ponsonby, old boy, do you realize that in that castle place over there is an absolute patrimony of art? You've read about the Sitwells? Well, that's their house.” I followed him, and the place certainly looked English with the Lion Rampant on the battlements and—well, I always had a soft spot for the Auckland Grammar. So we went in. The only occupant seemed to be a gentle old Italian with the air of a Major Domo. We felt rather like Barbarians in this house with its aristocratic atmosphere and we in our common army boots. Stacked around the walls were dozens of pictures and the largest of all was leaning against a table. This huge dark canvas commanded our attention. There it was! I knew it! The original! I'm no art connoisseur, but I knew that this was Botticelli's Primavera. We were rather awestruck. Naturally we didn't know that UNRRA were waiting to take care of the place, but we knew it should be reported immediately.’
The New Zealand Division was full of personality surprises. Here were two men, a junior NCO and a trooper, instantly aware that they were in the presence of some of the world's most famous art and that it must be protected immediately. They gave it the respect it deserved; more than its previous viewers, the Germans. But in return for this they demanded just one small thing. They knew of the Sitwell visitors' book. In one room was an antique revolving set of drawers. Cotterall's story continues:
‘We pulled out one drawer and looked at a letter. It was from old Sir George who had been tearing a strip off his son, Osbert, for not paying his bills. We were rather embarrassed for reading private correspondence and put it back. Presently we found the book: not a very big one: vellum covered. It seemed to contain the signatures of all the blue blood of Europe. The English peers had signed with their surnames, and I particularly remember the signature of the Princess Bibesca. I turned to Collins and demanded his pen. Whoever stole that book afterwards will be intrigued with the last entry, for I handed back the pen with the comment: “Collins old boy, the culture of the New World is now irrevocably joined to the culture of the Old.” In a firm but not flamboyant hand I had written: “Ponsonby Cotterall”.’page 359
This peaceful place did not return to its unwonted quiet as quickly as some. The end of the month came with savage fighting still in progress. The dense grape vines all over the country provided excellent cover for dug-in infantry, who took advantage of it until the last possible moment. A Squadron patrols found themselves right in the thick of it on the 30th. Whilst B Squadron maintained touch with the Indians on the left flank, three troops of A Squadron, together with tanks of C Squadron, 18 Armoured Regiment, had been working their way forward to probe between Geppetto and San Michele. A demolition held them up and No. 2 Troop (Second-Lieutenant Stace20) was trying to get across country with the tanks. To add to their difficulties, vines were growing on the terraces along which they were working, and Stace had just made a brief halt for observation to the front, when slight movement on his immediate right, amongst the vines, caught his eye. It was the business end of an ofenrohr.21 His urgent command ‘Gunner-traverse right-on- fire!’ gave him the split second to get in the first shot and, though it was a 37-mm. shell, its blast created enough delay for Stace to follow it up with a couple of hand grenades which killed both Germans in the pit.
The troop then worked further forward to a position where the terraces ended abruptly. Here there was good observation of the enemy positions amongst the houses on the other side of the valley and the troop spent a good fifteen minutes shooting AP and HE into the buildings, and machine-gunning any likely positions in the open. The guns began to get hot. Stace writes:
‘During this firing Jim Copland22 was on my left. Guns were hot and his Browning co-ax. jammed badly. He dropped back a few yards under cover from his immediate front to clear the gun. He was apparently not under cover from the higher ground across the valley and to the right, and while in this position, the Staghound received a direct hit on the turret by a 50-mm….’
Copland was killed outright and Trooper Linnell23 mortally wounded. The driver, Trooper Begg,24 took one look back at the shambles in the turret and set off to the forward infantry page 360 positions several hundred yards behind, where he could set about getting the wounded out and under the car to give them first aid. But he was badly hampered by heavy mortar fire and was eventually wounded himself.
There is no doubt that the enemy discipline and concealment was of the highest order, and so was his respect for the Red Cross. These defending troops remained well hidden and withheld their fire until the last minute and, on this occasion, having scored heavily, they then held it again to allow the stretcher jeeps to evacuate the wounded.
This spirited fighting embroiled even the A Squadron commander, Major Cole. Since it was holding up the progress of his patrols he decided to go forward himself to direct the attack personally. Because of its smallness and flexibility, he elected to go by jeep. But on the way he got caught up by fire from an enemy tank and was blown out on to the ground, suffering badly from blast and a wound in the eye. He stuck to his original intention nevertheless and stayed forward until the position was cleared; and even then he preferred to stay with his headquarters and have his wound treated there than be evacuated to hospital.
The general axis of advance, once it reached San Casciano, swung a little to the right, aimed at the western outskirts of Florence, and the final assault was intended to employ all three brigades. The 11th South African Armoured Brigade, on the Division's right, was aimed at the centre of the city. Beyond it was 24 Guards Brigade. To the left of 6 NZ Brigade, 21 Indian Brigade was coming forward since 8 Indian Division intended crossing the Arno round Signa. The start line of the New Zealand Division was therefore more or less a line through the villages of San Michele and la Romola to Sant' Andrea against the Greve River. On the ridge about a mile ahead were San Maria and la Poggiona, and once these had been gained, the country would fall away to the Arno River and Florence.
A Squadron was held in reserve on 1 August and B Squadron sent patrols northwards from Montegufoni towards the Pesa. But shellfire denied much advance to all except one of these. One troop managed to cross the river and linked up with patrols of C Squadron which were working towards Geppetto. Then, during the day, B Squadron was also brought back into reserve with A to be used in what the General expected would be a break-through of the main defences that night.page 361
This left only C Squadron to cover the left flank of 6 Brigade and, though various civilians told its patrols that the enemy had cleared out of Geppetto, they took half the morning to negotiate demolitions and clear mines, and even then they could not get into the town itself. So they concentrated on working towards San Michele, pushing aside opposition in the form of mortar and machine-gun fire. They had arrived there by mid-afternoon and were under shellfire from San Maria; but they were unable to stay there overnight since they had no infantry protection.
Major Poolman had his patrols at it again next morning. This time they managed to get into Geppetto, where they met their right-hand neighbours from the Indian Division, and also were able to make use of another route northwards to Pian dei Cerri, which was the immediate objective. Neither of the routes was a particularly good one, the one through San Michele being not much more than, in places, a grassy farm track. Apart from the demolitions and mines, the going was made hazardous as the track was inclined to crumble at the outside verges. Early in the afternoon, patrols were pushed forward through 24 Battalion's positions near San Michele, with a view to provoking some fire from around San Maria. This was successful as they managed to open fire on some enemy at Baggiolo, though at the cost of one car which was disabled on a mine.
A patrol coming up from Geppetto with the same intentions managed to reach to within less than a mile of Pian dei Cerri and almost up to our own 25-pounder fire being put down in front of 25 Battalion. It was quite obvious that the enemy's heavy weapons were being steadily pulled back as the Staghounds applied pressure on their infantry protection.
Early in the day a German Tiger tank had been spotted, and the report to Major Poolman was that it appeared to be slowly retiring. He sent Lieutenant Mack forward to shadow it with his troop. This he did and presently realised that it was being used as cover to minelaying parties. So he advanced steadily, lifting the mines again as he came to them, disarming them, and tossing them to the side of the road. He even ran across something new in the form of a mine made of a circular plastic ring, rather the shape of a motor tyre, with a centre firing charge, covered by a glass cap, holding the detonator. By the end of the day the troop had lifted over a hundred mines before orders found their way down through RHQ to the effect that page 362 all mines were to be left strictly alone as the enemy was now wishing some brand-new form of hatefulness on them! Mack was rather amused.
That night the Division began its final lunge forward with 28 and 23 Battalions in the lead. Poolman decided to push a troop forward on the left flank of the Maoris. They were headed for Scandicci, the southernmost suburb. He aimed at San Martino, further west. The road forward contained much cover on either side, and a number of houses. For light armoured vehicles this was going to be a harrowing trip as, made in the dark, it removed all chances of getting in first shot if the cars were to be attacked at short range. The whole 6 Brigade had been pulled back to be ready to establish itself beyond the Arno if required, so there was no spare infantry. Flank cover for the cars had to be supplied by sending forward one troop dismounted. Mines were also a problem since the usual counter, acute eyesight, was no use at night. Sappers therefore undertook to lead the way, sweeping the whole road with mine detectors. Mack comments:
‘If it was hard on the nerves, then I can't express too much admiration for those Sappers. We at least had steel round us, and flank cover, but they walked forward as large as life with earphones masking their ears, concentrating absolutely on the job in hand. That's what I consider bravery. They never did refuse when we asked for them. I suppose it was that they knew we always lifted our own mines if we possibly could.’
As 5 Brigade's advance gained momentum, RHQ moved up to Tavernaccia behind the Maori Battalion headquarters, and B Squadron was ordered up with the forward companies to reconnoitre a route on their left front, since their right was temporarily held up. A Squadron of 20 Armoured Regiment was sent forward at the same time to give support, and for a while there was a certain amount of crowding and delay between the two. However, the cars were needed first and so were given priority, and in the late afternoon managed to get ahead of the infantry as they reached i Cipressi.
No. 4 Troop (Second-Lieutenant Gee) took the lead and scampered down a hill to the banks of the Vignone stream. Here he found the bridge on the road to Scandicci was blown and reported back that some reconnaissance along the bank would be needed to find a suitable crossing for the tanks. These were waiting at the top of the hill and, though they warned page 363 the troop following, No. 2 (Lieutenant M. H. Dickie), that it would run into anti-tank fire, there was only the one way down, the road; and they had to go. A suitable crossing had to be found as soon as possible: and that was that. No sooner had the last car arrived at the bottom of the hill than it collected a shell right through the turret and the motor, killing Troopers McDowell25 and Pengelly,26 gravely wounding Trooper Washer27 and Corporal Coleman,28 and setting the car on fire. The wounded managed to get out, and off the road, on their own, even though Coleman's leg was virtually amputated and he was seriously burnt. Washer, though he was able to be evacuated on foot, succumbed to his wounds the next day. Coleman survived. As Bob Pinney puts it: ‘Don was just too obstinate to die.’ In point of fact it was Pinney's first aid, though he would deny it, administered under small-arms fire at close range which really saved Coleman's life.
By immobilising the last car the enemy prevented the escape of all five others. Fortunately the gun could not be depressed any further than to fire a shot which gouged a deep scar along the top of Sergeant Scott's29 car, and that only a second or two after he had jumped down to order the other crews to bale out. They were all pinned to the ground by machine-gun fire and other cars could not get down to rescue them; but they were saved from capture by D Company of the Maoris, who came through in the dusk and overran the enemy position.
B Squadron formed a laager for the night amongst 28 Battalion whilst C Squadron still struggled to come forward on the left to link up. By dawn it was within a few hundred yards, after having slaved away to remove great numbers of trees which had been felled across the track as far back as Mosciano. And it had got almost into San Martino as well. By nine o'clock this flank had reached the village, but the right-hand patrol was held up by a demolition short of the B Squadron positions. B Squadron was now getting across a ford through the Vignone.page 364
The last dash for Florence was on. D Company of the Maori Battalion was headed for the town through Scandicci, over the Greve River by a ford ‘dozed beside the inevitable blown bridge. B Squadron went with it.
But not the whole squadron headed for the city. There was still the responsibility of the flank. Some patrols were directed down the east side of the Greve to fan out and cross Route 67 to the banks of the Arno. C Squadron cars, coming down the road from San Martino to Casellina, found the Vignone bridge blown, but got through a ford. While they were looking for this, some civilians told them that there were still two bridges intact over the Greve near Mantignano. This was reported to RHQ and B Squadron was told to guard them. This it did with the help of some partisans.
C Squadron, once it reached Casellina, turned west along Route 67 and eventually ran into opposition in the vicinity of Grioli and Granatieri. The strength and dispositions of this had been made easier to assess by information gained from two escaped prisoners who had been discovered by a flank-guard patrol sent out west of San Martino. The forward patrols spent much of the afternoon trying to dislodge a post set up in houses on Route 67, and finally had to pull back a little and direct gunfire from 4 Field Regiment on them to clear them out.
During the afternoon A Squadron also came forward to Scandicci and from there fanned out west and north. One patrol relieved the B Squadron guard on the Mantignano bridges, and the other struck west to tidy up pockets of enemy that had been by-passed by C Squadron round Rinaldi.
The enemy had been pushed over the Arno once and for all. Florence was in the bag and the string was tied. The luckier troops of B Squadron had been in the city with the Maoris and 23 Battalion, and had tasted its welcome. They had done a little searching about in the old narrow streets and had met up with the South Africans.
The one man who would have dearly liked to have been there was now long since dead, and not half a dozen of the present regiment would even have known him. In the fighting for Florence, Div Cav had been the true modern cavalry: with dash, with spirit, vigour, speed and thrust. It had behaved as it was always meant to behave, just as had been visualised by its first commander, the late Charlie Pierce. He would have been proud of it.
7 Advanced Dressing Station.
11 The ‘Runflat’ tyres fitted to all the Staghounds had reinforcing inside the walls and were capable of anything up to 100 miles of running when punctured.
21 Short-range German anti-tank rocket launcher.