Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy
Thrust Towards Florence
Thrust Towards Florence
When the Division was recommitted to the line, it was to be employed with 6 South African Armoured Division in driving a narrow wedge along the general line of Route 2 through to the River Arno, south-west of Florence. The Division relieved French Moroccan troops in the San Donato area north of Siena, between the Indians and South Africans, on the night of 21-22 July, with 5 Brigade in the line, and B Company, 5 Field Ambulance, as its ADS.
The approaches to Florence from the south and south-west were through a ring of hills, with the roads and valleys dominated by page 369 high ground on either side. Stubborn resistance was offered by the enemy, who retired only under heavy pressure from one to another of a series of excellent defensive positions. His best troops, including 4 Paratroop Division and 29 Panzer Grenadier Division, faced the New Zealanders. They were all supported by artillery, mortars, and the Germans' best armour—60-ton Tiger tanks.
From the time of its entry into the line, 5 Brigade made steady progress despite counter-attacks. Support was given by 4 Armoured Brigade, with which B Company, 4 Field Ambulance, moved forward as ADS. Pushing forward ten miles across difficult country, 5 Brigade broke the Olga Line and captured San Casciano on 27 July.
Fifth ADS moved forward from Castellina on the 22nd and set up near San Donato. Some of the shells that whistled over landed uncomfortably close to the dressing station. Once the canvas was up the men lost no time in digging in. The ADS again advanced on the 24th, pushing through San Donato to a point to the north of the town, where it remained for only one day before moving on to Tavarnelle. The staff car entered the selected field without mishap, but the following vehicle, an ambulance car, ran over a Teller mine and the driver was severely wounded. The orderly, though blown clean out of the ambulance, escaped injury. Transfusion and first-aid gear were unloaded immediately, and the driver received prompt attention before being evacuated to 5 MDS. The ambulance car had been completely wrecked. The staff car was towed carefully out of the field, and the ADS convoy moved on to another field a few hundred yards down the road.
Meanwhile 5 MDS, under Lt-Col J. M. Coutts, near Castellina, carried on admitting battle casualties, with A Company open for sick, until the 25th, when the MDS switched to sick only. With roads all around the area, the dust blew in clouds through the tents, and the area soon became known as ‘the dustbowl’. A rocky slope above was the only place suitable for burying the dead, and engineers had to be called in with explosives to blast out the graves.
Great clouds of choking white dust attended all vehicle movement, while the enemy kept up a steady harassing shellfire. By its very presence a numerous civilian population, helplessly caught in the turmoil which destroyed its homes and scarred its lands, made the fighting seem more bitter.page 370
This fighting was in progress when His Majesty the King arrived in the divisional area on 26 July, in the course of his tour of Italy in which he visited troops from all parts of the British Commonwealth. A parade of 140 NZMC personnel assembled at Montecino to see the King. His Majesty stopped and spoke for a few minutes to members of the group. It was impossible for the King to see more than a small proportion of the Division.
At San Donato 6 MDS had begun admitting battle casualties on 25 July. During the morning of the 26th, shells whistled overhead to crash into San Donato, and a party of officers and men, representatives of HQ and both companies who were returning from the parade reviewed by the King, was held up outside the village. The German fire grew erratic. The shells began to fall short, and for two and a half hours in the afternoon they were landing in the MDS area. As everyone was recovering from his astonishment at the first black cloud of smoke and dust among the parked ambulance cars and trucks, another shell hit an adjacent farmhouse. By this time three men were wounded, one seriously. The next shell landed squarely in the area, luckily clear of the casualty-filled tarpaulins, wounding one of the HQ cooks.
Almost immediately another shell burst on the roadway outside. Traffic skidded to a halt in a cloud of dust that rose to the treetops, and then was away again, flat out. In the MDS area a scurrying crowd suddenly appeared. It was a rush to spread the 40-foot Red Cross sign at the forward end of the spur. Steel helmets began to appear, resurrected from long-forgotten corners in the trucks; and in all directions shovel-brandishing men were rapidly disappearing below ground.
The centres of the MDS carried on as best they could in between shells until late in the afternoon, when the shelling ceased and was not resumed. Later the MDS had a ring from our artillery, assuring the unit that that particular gun would not bother them again. But that, welcome as it was, did not put the skin back on the men who had tried to take cover by forcing themselves deep into the stack of sharp-stalked wheat stooks.
On its arrival there on 25 July, 6 ADS found the village of Tavarnelle badly smashed, as much by German demolitions designed to block the road as by shellfire. However, the inhabitants, unlike those of many other places, were busily at work page 371 cleaning up the streets. The ADS remained for two days, handling some 40 casualties, a few Italians who had trodden on mines, and a number of ailing babies brought in by anxious mothers.