28 (Maori) Battalion
CHAPTER 15 — Advance on Florence
Advance on Florence
TheIsernia locality in the upper Volturno valley some 20 miles inland from Cassino was an ideal rest area; spring was in the air, the ground was dry, the hills were green and sheltering trees were plentiful. The YMCA put on a picture show nightly and each company had a leave day with three three-tonners for transport to Naples, Pompeii, and Caserta. Platoon commanders and all NCOs down to lance-corporals did four one-hour periods of squad and arms drill daily while jobs were found or invented for any other ranks not away sight-seeing, swimming, or on local leave. And just in case the troops should find the spectacle of their military superiors engaged in elementary drill too great a magnet, there was authority in Routine Orders whereby ‘Provost to have power to co-opt all interested spectators into drill squads.’
It was a happy, carefree fortnight in which everybody enjoyed himself in his own way—company seconds-in-command deplored the untidiness in the lines; Captain Logan, acting second-in-command to Colonel Young while Major Henare was having a spell at Base, bewailed the standard of drill; troops not on leave attended afternoon concerts by the 5 Brigade Band which included in its repertoire a number of Maori items; a brigade sports meeting was held, and 23 Battalion sent invitations to a day of donkey racing. The only occasion for regret was the marching out of Captain D'Arcy for duty in No. 2 General Hospital. ‘Doc’ D'Arcy had been with the unit since August 1942 and had endeared himself to the Maoris, many of whom had known him since that first day in the desert. Captain Miller1 marched in as RMO in his place.
Large-scale troop movements had been going on during this time of relaxation. Tenth Corps of Eighth Army was taking over the Apennine mountain sector from 2 Polish Corps, which was being deployed for yet another attempt to break through the German defences around Cassino. The New Zealand Division was to man the left of 10 Corps' line and protect the right flank of 2 Polish Corps. Sixth Brigade had already moved in and 5 Brigade was scheduled to relieve 28 (British) Brigade in the page 376 Terelle sector; 28 Battalion, in brigade reserve, was to take over from 2/4 Hampshires on the Belvedere ridge and begin the movement on the night of 19-20 April.
Belvedere was difficult of access and the move entailed a considerable amount of planning, but the Maoris were content to leave that to those responsible while they concentrated on a ‘shipboard’ race meeting which was to be held on Sunday afternoon (16 April). Six ‘horses’ were to be entered for each race, one from each rifle company, Battalion Headquarters, and Headquarters Company. None of the pedigrees supplied with the nominations will be found in New Zealand stud books. Some of the more pointed ones were—Half Caste by Maori out of Pakeha; Chaos by Detail out of Orderly Room; Hangover by Plonk out of Jerry Can; Disgraceful Lines by 2 I/C out of Inspection; Wishful Thinking by Soldier out of Italy; Brown Off by One-stop-two out of Isernia. There was a tote, tickets cost 20 lire, and to be quite sure everything was above board the dice officers were Padre Huata2 and Mr N. Perry of the YMCA staff. Racehorses, even artificial ones, are very popular with the Maori at peace or at war and an enjoyable time was had by all.
The battalion left for the new sector in the late afternoon of 19 April, stopped for tea at Ceppagua, made good time along Route 6, negotiated the Mad Mile safely and turned off to Cervaro, whence a narrow track wound up a ridge to Portella.
Guides from 2/4 Battalion, The Hampshire Regiment, were waiting to lead the men down a five-mile track to the Rapido river crossing at Sant 'Elia and thence to the lying-up area at the foot of a steep and rocky hill, the Colle Belvedere. While the men were marching there the cooks and QM staff were unloading their gear at Hove Dump, situated in a deep ravine near Portella. This was the end of the truck supply line, and from there jeeps filled up nightly for their trip along the ‘Terelle Terror Track’ which writhed down to the Rapido and then by ten twists up the Colle Belvedere to the jeep-head. All supplies forward of the jeep-head were carried by Indian mule trains.
Up in the FDLs the Hampshire Battalion crouched behind sangars of rocks on the forward slopes of its ridge while the enemy on a higher ridge sniped at anything that moved. If he did not snipe he mortared and if he did not mortar he shelled, page 377 but on this occasion the Maoris had a reasonably comfortable area in brigade reserve—when they got there.
The troops rested in the lying-up area until the following night. B Company (Captain Anaru) had all the luck because it stayed where it was. A Company (Captain Wordley) clawed its way over loose rocks up the main gully and into casas strewn about and wondered why the Italians lived in such precipitous places; C Company (Captain Jackson) climbed higher to a locality near the jeep-head and hoped that Jerry's persistent attempts to blow the jeep-head off the hillside would be strictly confined to that area; D Company (Major Matehaere) went still higher to the top of Colle Belvedere.
The enemy indicated that he was not unaware of what was going on by slamming two shells, luckily without causing any casualties, into a casa housing Battalion Headquarters. The casa, as a house, was thereafter valueless and another one was selected.
At first light the troops were rewarded for their climb with a nice view of Cassino and the monastery; elsewhere there was nothing to see except hilltops dominated by the steep and snowy Monte Cairo behind the German lines, but towering above Colle Belvedere in the same manner as Montecassino towered above the town at its base. The relief was completed the next night and the Maoris, after minor shufflings, passed a comparatively uneventful few days in brigade reserve.
It was the unit transport drivers who had the worst of it, for each night food and ammunition had to be carried down the Terelle Terror Track and up the zigzag to the mule-head. Almost every chain of the road was under enemy observation at a distance of not more than two air miles; and even though it was not practicable to shell all the road all the time it was possible to shell some of the road most of the time, and with traffic going on throughout the night the question was who was going to be unlucky. The Maori drivers' luck was in, for jeeps were blown off the road nightly without harm coming to them.
At the end of April the Maoris were relieved. The relief, by 25 Battalion, was also spread over two nights and by 2 May the unit was reassembled in the Montaquila area at the head of the Volturno valley. The 28th Battalion was now a counter-attack reserve to 2 (British) Paratroop Brigade, which was holding a mountain sector facing Monte San Croce about three miles to the north-west.page 378
Summer comes quickly in Italy. The blackened stumps of grape-vines sprouted greenery and full and tiresome anti-malaria precautions were put into force. Down in the valley the frogs were in good voice and nightingales sang. An identification parade of Headquarters Company and A Company was held because a local civilian had apparently lost a pig. All villages were put out of bounds. Te Rau Aroha came into the lines and biscuits and tea were served before the nightly screening of pictures. Concerning the programme presented on 5 May, Lance-Corporal Nepia3 wrote:
The evening's programme by the Mobile Cinema Unit was, perhaps, the most memorable ever attended by the Maori Battalion throughout its long service overseas. Films depicting the Ngarimu VC investiture were shown, and the eyes of these battle scarred warriors lit as they heard and saw, once more, their native land before their very eyes. Brief and perhaps too momentary in character some of these scenes might have been, yet there was sufficient to carry them away from the sordidness of the battle fields to the realms where dwelt those whom they prized most.
For a few moments Maori girls, their own flesh and blood, danced and swayed, twisted and twirled the ceremonial poi. Brothers saw their sisters, fathers saw their daughters so close and yet so far away. With one voice they called for a repetition and the operator obliged—in slow motion. It was the main topic of conversation for days afterwards.
A looming ceremonial parade at which the GOC would present ribbons to recipients of honours and awards brought the Maoris back to the business in hand, for an inspection by General Freyberg was not to be taken lightly. There were practice marches past, a very great deal of cleaning and oiling of weapons, and positively microscopic inspections of clothing and equipment. The General spoke to each company commander and to each of the other officers whom he remembered and was pleased to express his approval of the appearance and bearing of the battalion. Nineteen officers and men, headed by Colonel Young, were decorated. Routine Orders the next day (9 May) began:
I congratulate all ranks on the concentration shown on the Ceremonial Parade. I believe that every man tried.page 379
I wish it to be known that I regard my own award as a Bn award. It is not practicable to divide the ribbon into 700 parts, so I will instead turn on ‘700 pints of Vino’.
Most men need some sleep. Not all wish to be kept awake by all night parties.
Commencing Tuesday, 9 May, ‘lights out’ will be at 2300 hours each night, followed by silence. Coys will enforce in their own areas. Application for late nights for parties may be submitted by Coys to Bn HQ and will receive favourable consideration.
As for sharing his award, the CO was even better than his word, and seldom has a DSO been more loudly acclaimed.
To resume. The need for less defensive armament in a battalion fighting under Italian conditions was met by a divisional instruction, to take effect forthwith, which abolished the anti-aircraft platoon and reduced the strength and weapons of the carrier and anti-tank platoons by one half, thereby adding to the strength of the rifle companies.
A brigade sports meeting on the 11th, at which most of the events were won by 23 Battalion, was followed by an intricate ‘operation’, the salient features of which were that the Brigadier (now Brigadier Stewart),4 his staff, and the senior officers of 21 and 23 Battalions were entertained by the senior officers of 28 Battalion, while the junior officers of 28 and 21 Battalions were entertained by the junior officers of 23 Battalion. An extremely complicated table of guests and hosts ensured that NCOs and other ranks of the three units entertained or were entertained, while the ‘movement orders’ instructed the Maoris to move with their mugs clasped firmly in their right hands. There was a considerable number of pakehas in the Maori breakfast queues the following morning.
The entertainment was at its height when Eighth and Fifth Armies opened fire, with two thousand guns, against the enemy denying the road to Rome. The result of the attack was limited page 380 gains held against fierce counter-attacks on the Polish Corps' front, the seizing of a bridgehead over the Rapido by 13 Corps, and a deep penetration by the French Algerian troops in the unroaded and precipitous Aurunci Mountains near the coast, where the Germans had made the mistake of underrating the capacity of the Algerian Highlanders to climb ‘impossible’ country.
Fifth Brigade, due to move into the FDLs in the near future, carried on with its training programme by day, and by night listened to the Kiwi Concert Party, newly returned from furlough. The Maoris relieved 24 Battalion on the night of 15-16 May and when the troops regained their wind after an arduous climb, for the line lay along the top of Colle Belvedere with O Pips on the crest and the FDLs on the reverse slope, it was evident that any uneasiness regarding the position around Cassino was not shared by the enemy opposite Colle Belvedere.
The German right flank was still being forced back although his left was as yet securely anchored on Monte Cairo. Sixth Polish Brigade attacked again during the night 17-18 May and by daylight the Polish Sztandar was flying above Cassino Abbey. The only difference in the Maori sector was a bigger and better rain of mortar bombs to which the battalion replied in kind.
Colonel Young wrote later:
Our posns on the Belvedere sector were on the reverse slope of a very steep hill (Mt Belvedere), entailing a stiff climb and precipitous, from BHQ to the FDL's near the top. An ideal site for mortars, both for the en and for our own and one of the greatest problems was to get adequate supplies of bombs up to the guns. These came up by mule train after dark each night with the rations and, though we fired many hundreds of bombs we had to leave a large dump when we vacated the area at short notice as we had neither the time nor the mules to remove them.
The air became more electric daily as the ‘sitreps’ disclosed the enemy right reeling backwards, the centre collapsing with the Eighth Army pushing up the Liri valley and the hold on Monte Cairo weakening. By the 24th the whole German line across Italy was thinning out preparatory to a fighting with-drawal northwards; that night patrols from 23 Battalion met no opposition and then 21 Battalion, with the road to Terelle as its axis, entered the hilltop village, from which their positions had been overlooked for so long, without a shot being fired.page 381
It was the job of 2 NZ Division to secure the right flank while the attack gained momentum after being stalled for so long, and in pursuance of this directive 5 Brigade was to move down mountain valleys to an important road junction at Atina. Beyond Atina the narrow valley widened into the upper Liri valley, to where Sora guarded the entrance to the valley leading to Balsorano and Avezzano. Avezzano, east-north-east of Rome and about half-way between that city and the Sangro battlefields, had been the objective of the Sangro-Orsogna fighting.
The Maori Battalion stayed perched on Colle Belvedere while the Poles cleared up pockets of enemy on the base of Monte Cairo and 21 and 23 Battalions slid down the ridges to the Belmonte-Atina valley. Two days later (27th) the Maoris marched down the track from which the ‘Terror’ had been eliminated, parked for the night in casas at the Sant ‘Elia crossing, and were picked up the next afternoon by a platoon of 4 RMT trucks.
The route from Sant 'Elia was up the Rapido valley then over a ridge and down to Belmonte. From Belmonte the narrow, dusty, and winding road led to Atina, beyond which by a few miles the enemy rearguard was being worried by 21 and 23 Battalions and a squadron of Divisional Cavalry.
It was not possible to debus south of Atina and the convoy continued on until the valley widened north of the town. The sun shining on the lorries' windscreens heliographed the arrival of the column to the observant enemy. A sighting smoke shell was followed by high explosive and there were a dozen casualties, including Captain Lambert and Lieutenant Mataira, before the troops scattered. The companies were disposed among the cover of olive trees and in spite of searching shells many of the battalion took a quick swim in the nearby Melfa. The Italians call the Melfa a river, but actually it is only a creek by New Zealand standards. Enemy shells claimed one more victim before darkness ended the firing. Captain Ornberg had just left the CO when his jeep was hit and he was fatally wounded.
Later the same night the troops were moved forward in close support to 21 Battalion, which was about to attack the hilltop villages, Alvito and Vicalvi, and occupy Monte Morrone. The latter feature was too heavily defended and remained in enemy possession, a thorn in the side of everyone within artillery range, but the other objectives were taken before the day ended.page 382
The position then was that 23 Battalion was sealing off all roads leading to Atina, 21 Battalion had formed a line along a side road from Vicalvi to Alvito with a detachment of Divisional Cavalry prolonging the line to the right, and the enemy was holding the Morrone hill immediately in front. Sixth Brigade, not yet required, was making leisurely progress along a well-cratered road.
The next morning the battalion marched a couple of miles under cover of the trees lining the road to the crossroads where the branch turns to Alvito, and there it waited for the Melfa bridge and other demolitions to be put in order for wheeled traffic. The enemy was still holding Monte Morrone but, according to prisoners of war, had orders to break contact before pressure became too great. And that would be any time now.
The cavalry threw a screen between Morrone and the Maoris on the Atina-Sora road and Colonel Young was directed to secure the crossing of the Fibreno by seizing the Monacesco feature across the river. The Fibreno was twenty yards wide at this point, and of course the bridge had been ruined. Jerry was very thorough about such matters.
The valley which the Maoris had been following widened considerably beyond the Fibreno, with fairly level country on the left and hills on the right. The strategically important town of Sora on Highway 82 lay four miles further on.
Colonel Young had under his command for the operation B Squadron of 20 Armoured Regiment, a detachment of 8 Field Company, and on call one platoon of machine-gunners. The tanks were to be in position by first light.
The four-mile advance to the river, which began about 9 p.m. as soon as it was sufficiently dark, was an anxious affair owing to the darkness of the night and the lack of information on the strength of the enemy. C Company, right, and D Company, left, with the raod as the axis of advance, felt their way carefully forward, but difficulties of terrain and poor wireless reception made it hard to keep direction. Company commanders were thankful that there were no enemy to add to the uncertainties of the night.
The enemy rearguard was not very far away, however, and as soon as daylight disclosed the presence of engineers working along the river heavy mortar concentrations forced a serious delay in the provision of bridges. The enemy effort was ably assisted by two Spitfires which strafed Battalion Headquarters and set nearby casas on fire. Aircraft recognition signals only page 383 seemed to annoy them for they came back and fired some more houses before they left for home. The supporting tanks were parked along the road close to Colonel Young's headquarters and their presence seemed to infuriate the enemy mortar teams. Taken by and large, Battalion Headquarters was a very tumultuous locality until the tanks moved back out of sight.
The second phase of securing the crossing was carried out by the same two companies. C Company, working under good cover, found a ford and the men waded the waist-high river with their rifles held above their heads. They met no opposition and were soon in possession of Colle Monacesco. A rather one-sided engagement occurred later in the day when an enemy party about forty strong made a leisurely approach; the enemy clearly expected to find nobody in the vicinity and nothing was done to disabuse them until they were very close. A volley from rifles and automatics mowed them down; very few escaped.
D Company's objective was Brocco village, situated on a hill-side to the west of Colle Monacesco. It had a commanding view of the approach to Sora and of the Fibreno bridge site. Like 21 Battalion's Monte Morrone, it was clearly a rearguard post and there would be no peace for the sappers until it changed hands.
The river at the bridge site was too deep to wade but a crossing was effected by borrowing a flat-bottomed boat from a very reluctant Italian. It did not take the Maoris long to convince him that their need was greater than his. Maoris have a way with them in such a situation.
Eight men could cross at a time, and with the good cover the company was soon safely across and deployed. About ten in the morning the advance towards Brocco began over stone terraces, through half-grown grape-vines, and around scattered houses. Fire was heavy but wild and there were some neat tactical problems for the section in attack. There were diversions also, such as when an Italian rushed down the hillside and warned Major Matehaere that there were eight or nine Germans in a house straight ahead and that they had taken all his poultry earlier in the morning. The troops closed in on the casa only to find that the occupants had left hurriedly without having their breakfast, which was laid out on the table. The Maori platoon stayed long enough to repair the omission.
Major Matehaere writes:
The attack from this stage became very sticky and the going was tough. I lost three very good soldiers who had seen page 384 a great amount of fighting through the desert and Italy. We were held up for a while in a small group of buildings at the foot hill of Brocca, pushed on that evening and the village was in our hands before morning.
There was no further movement elsewhere during the afternoon but after last light two companies of 23 Battalion relieved A and B Companies south of the river, whereupon they took up positions along a creek at the bottom of Brocco hill preparatory to the advance on Sora.
The brigade plan was to widen the front by bringing 23 Battalion forward, and from a base on Colle Monacesco to exploit into the hills east and north of Sora while cavalry Staghounds took care of the left flank.
The bridge was not ready until mid-morning when the battalion, with the armour in close support, moved towards Sora. There was no opposition at first and little later owing to the vigilance of the tanks, which shot up any likely strongpoint, and to the fact that D Company was moving along the hills parallel to the road. According to D Company's commander it was an interesting day:
At this stage we were really enjoying this war business. Not since the desert battles had we seen anything like this. It was like a day out shooting rabbits. Germans were going in all directions and my company was enjoying every minute of this part of our advance. There were casualties among the other companies.
C and A Companies passed through Sora without much trouble and took up positions covering the western and northern approaches; B Company, to whom fate had again allotted a railway station as part of its objective, was held up for some time by a strong post. The road into Sora at that point is very open and the tanks using that axis drew fire from the hills north of the town. There was also a large hole in the road which the engineers did some good work in repairing under fire so that the armour could get at the opposition holding up the Maori advance. The GOC was up with the troops at this time and witnessed a smart action best told in the terse 20 Regiment manner:
Leading tank of No. 5 Tp fired at by SP gun from rd junc G. 668474. Tank retaliated with AP and HE. A patrol of Maoris was contacted and sent forward. Patrol reported page 385 SP gun KO'd and A.tk gun by house one hundred yds from SP gun. Tk fired HE and inf patrol went in and collected 3 PW. Tank was KO'd by A.tk gun, posn unknown. No casualties in tank.
This patrol was commanded by Lieutenant Rogers.5 It silenced the anti-tank guns and collected in all ten prisoners. Lieutenant Rogers was wounded, apparently lightly, in the leg and expected to be back with his unit quite soon. News of his death, however, was received a few days later.
Battalion Headquarters settled into a three-storied house on the outskirts of Sora where it was visited by the GOC and the Prime Minister, the Rt. Hon. Peter Fraser. The 23rd Battalion was having a tougher time in the hills around Campoli and it was not until the morning (1 June) that its men were securely in possession.
The intentions for Thursday, 1 June, were for 28 Battalion to exploit for two miles along the road to Balsorano while 23 Battalion pushed on across the hills to Pescosolido and secured the flank. Sixth Brigade would occupy Sora and push forces along the western side of the Liri valley.
A Company, right, and C Company, left of the road, each with a section of carriers under command, and D Company in close support with the battalion anti-tank platoon in a mobile role were not molested, and the troops dug in for the night and reconnoitred the area. Late that night 23 Battalion was reported to have pushed on to Forcella.
B and D Companies took the lead the next day and covered a very long four miles towards Balsorano. The way was across foothills criss-crossed by secondary roads and tracks which had to be investigated, and separated by small streams running down to the Liri. The enemy, on high hills to the north-east, had an excellent view of the exploitation and from time to time signified his disapproval with field guns.
The first mile was done at a fairly fast pace because the tanks had good going and the troops had to sacrifice some caution to keep up, but a ‘blow’ in the road at an awkward spot gave everybody a couple of hours' rest.
The unit objective for the day was the Colle Prospero and there the troops settled into casas on each side of a creek that would be an obstacle to wheeled traffic until the bridge was page 386 repaired. The 23rd Battalion had been halted in the Forcella area, leaving a considerable gap between the two units, but of course it was tougher going in the hills.
The plan was to push on again the next day, but upon representations from the CO that the troops were footsore after three days' hard marching and climbing the order was countermanded and 21 Battalion took over the probe towards Balsorano. The position was strongly held and 21 Battalion, under orders not to get involved in heavy fighting, did not make much progress. This was one of the few times that a hot breakfast failed to arrive, but the Maoris were not unduly put out, for with time on their hands and a plentiful supply of vegetables and live-stock around the abandoned houses, no great demands were made upon the unconsumed portion of the day's rations carried on the man.
The 21st Battalion was to make another attempt to enter Balsorano that night (3–4 June) and 28 Battalion was warned to be ready at short notice to support it, but the order was later cancelled. Sixth Brigade had by this time advanced along the western side of the valley and the job was handed over to it as having the easier approach. The COs of the leading units had made their reconnaissances and were on the point of opening their thrust when their operation was also cancelled.
This apparently pusillanimous decision was the result of information not available to the lower formations—the Americans were on the point of entering Rome, so that the enemy rearguard would have to move northward with some rapidity and without any prodding by 2 NZ Division.
During the day (the 4th) word was flashed to London, to Washington, to Wellington that the Americans had occupied Rome, and the next day 5 Brigade was relieved by the Divisional Cavalry and the Maoris went back to B Echelon area in the positions they had occupied before they crossed the Fibreno. It was thought that they would be there for three days before joining in the pursuit of the retreating enemy, but it was not until the 13th that word came to move and then only to the divisional concentration area near Arce, ten miles or so north-west of Cassino. The whole situation had been altered by the opening of the Second Front and the landing of the British and American forces on the coast of France on 6 June. In the mean-time, 6 Brigade had passed through a deserted Balsorano and entered Avezzano—seven months behind the original schedule and from the opposite direction.page 387
The Maoris' casualties in the advance from Terelle were 9 killed, 10 died of wounds, and 54 wounded.
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The Eighth Army reserve area was in the Liri valley around the junction of the Route 6 which the Maoris had thankfully departed from in front of Cassino and the Route 82 which they had cut at Sora and followed towards Avezzano. They were located on a flat facing Route 6 and, with the exception of one or two platoons, were in bivvies, no hardship in the height of an Italian summer. After the capture of Cassino, and with the spread of the fighting northward, the area had been fought over and many of its houses had suffered damage.
Opportunities occurred from time to time to renew acquaintance with the former battleground, and the number of destroyed German tanks and vehicles strewn along the road, more plentiful nearer Cassino, was heartening evidence that Jerry had found Route 6 as uninviting as the Maoris had themselves found it.
After action comes reaction; discipline under fire is natural to well—trained troops—and so is mischief in a reserve area where amenities are not plentiful. Colonel Young clamped down hard on the practice which was creeping in of treating tattoo reports as something of no consequence, and saw to it that, at least by day, his command had plenty to occupy its time. During the next four weeks the Maoris ‘square-bashed’, route-marched, weapon-trained, mine-detected, and manoeuvred unceasingly; a daily leave quota of three men per company supervised by an officer left for Rome, a battalion swimming team practised in the Fontana Liri baths and the troops turned on concerts for themselves at night. A brigade swimming carnival, witnessed by General Freyberg, no mean swimmer himself in his day, was won by the battalion with 51 points, but it must be admitted that Corporal Whareaitu,6 an outstanding swimmer, was responsible for a large number of points secured by the unit. The 23rd Battalion was runner up with 20 points.
Meanwhile the German line was receding northwards as slowly as an energetic advance would permit towards the Gothic line stretching from Rimini on the east coast, along the Apennine Mountains, and thence to Pisa on the west. General Alexander was aiming at a quick break through the partially page 388 prepared Gothic line into the Po valley, and the New Zealand Division was for the third time in Italy cast in an exploitation role—and for the third time the exploitation did not happen.
The city of Florence on the River Arno was the immediate objective, but stubborn resistance north of Rome, including a stand south of Arezzo, 40 miles south-east of Florence, upset the timetable. Thirteenth Corps had used up its reserves and 6 Armoured Division was in urgent need of supporting infantry in its coming full-scale attack on that mountain-encircled rail and road centre. The New Zealand Division was the brick most immediately available and it was thrown at very short notice.
Sixth Brigade left for the fight on the night of 9–10 July and 5 Brigade, under orders to concentrate in reserve near Lake Trasimene, followed the next night. The travelling under cover of darkness and the obliteration of vehicle signs and the removal of all titles, badges, and other identification marks was done in order to keep the Kiwis' move a secret. How successful was the ruse is a matter of opinion—the Italians were certainly not deceived and they were not all on our side.
The first staging area was 30 miles north of Rome, the second 100 miles further north, and the last leg of the journey a daylight drive around the western side of Lake Trasimene, a little smaller than Taupo, to the foot of a high hill on which perched the town of Cortona.
The situation in front of Arezzo was that the commander of 10 German Army had forbidden further withdrawal and 305 Division had been ordered to hold firm on Monte Lignano. To hold Monte Lignano, Monte Camurcina and subsidiary peaks had also to be held. Sixth Brigade proceeded to chase the enemy off these hills, thereby clearing the flank of 6 British Armoured Division and enabling it to drive through to Arezzo.
The 28th Battalion found its situation among the hills of Tuscany, one of the most fertile districts of Italy where wine was of the most palatable and as plentiful as water, extremely easy to endure. The CO prescribed another session of intense training, lengthy route marches, confinement to battalion areas and the stoppage of all leave for both officers and men.
This corrective programme was relaxed when the Taupo leave scheme was announced—all married men of the 4th Reinforcements, plus a proportion of the single men (already drawn by ballot), were to march out to Advanced Base forthwith en route for New Zealand. Major Logan, Captains Wordley and Anaru, page 389 and twenty-seven other ranks were farewelled and there were sounds of revelry by night. The battalion war diary for 18 July ends:
2000 hrs. A party was held in HQ Coy lines as a farewell to Capts Anaru and Wordley and also to Major Logan. CO and all offrs attended … the party lasting to 2330 hrs. As the Bn had a late night tattoo was at 2359 Hrs. Weather: Fine and hot. Visibility good. No sign of rain yet.
There was, of course, soldierly work ahead and the farewell with its appropriate concomitants was just an episode in the life of 28 (Maori) Battalion. Captain Wordley's successor in command of A Company was Captain Mitchell, and Major H. P. Te Punga succeeded Captain Anaru in command of B Company.
Sixth Brigade had cleared the way for the British armour at Arezzo and 2 NZ Division was in the course of being switched to another sector further west where, under command of 13 Corps and flanked by 6 South African Armoured Division, right, and 8 Indian Division, left, it was to take a narrow front of three to four miles and drive through to the River Arno. The main thrust line was the road from Castellina to San Casciano, thence across broken country direct to the Signa crossing about six miles west of Florence. The country was eminently suitable for the German purposes—hilly, wooded, thickly populated, and with innumerable buildings to serve as strongpoints. The weather was fine and hot and the roads inches deep in dust, so that movement by day was signalled to the enemy on the high country north of the Arno.
During the night 21–22 July the battalion was carried 60 winding, dusty miles through Siena to the area held by 2 Morocco Division, and then, after a two-mile march over hill and dale, took over the FDLs before dawn. The troops found themselves in a country of low hills, small valleys and many streams. Roads and tracks wound along the tops of ridges, mostly tree-covered, to villages only a mile or so apart. The brigade dispositions were 23 Battalion on the right, 28 Battalion, left, and 21 Battalion in support at Castellina. The enemy was conducting a fighting withdrawal, the result of the fall of Arezzo, and the New Zealanders' instructions were to seek out his rearguards and ensure that the withdrawal continued. Brigade would detail times and distances but each unit would deal with its own local situation.page 390 page 391
The 23rd Battalion was sent off soon after the Maoris had settled in; its first objective was San Martino a Cossi and it had a hard fight to take and hold the village. Colonel Young was directed towards Tavarnelle, about three miles away along a highway running north-east. Patrols reported that the country in front was almost deserted and it was thought that 23 Battalion had scared the enemy away. One enemy party was located and dealt with. Lieutenant Hubbard7 (B Company) was returning from a fruitless quest when he saw suspicious movement in a two-storied house near by. Private Bluett8 volunteered to go and look the place over and disappeared into the undergrowth. He wormed his way into the house and on the ground floor surprised a German who was sent out with his hands in the air. An officer appeared on the stairs, fired at Bluett and missed; Bluett fired his tommy gun and did not miss. He then ran up the stairs, burst through a hastily closed door, wounded two more Germans and killed a third.
C Company (Captain Jackson) led the attack along the road with A Company (Captain Mitchell) and a troop of 18 Armoured Regiment tanks following. B Company (Major Te Punga) spread down the hillside, covering the right flank, and D Company (Captain Tomoana) conformed on the left and open flank.
Tignano was unoccupied but there were enemy in a nasty frame of mind not far away. The road had been so thoroughly cratered that the tanks could not get into the village until an alternative route had been found, so the troops were halted for the night with C Company forward of Tignano, A in the village, B near Spicciano and D in la Fornace. The tanks were through by daylight and the battalion, still in the same order, moved on Tavarnelle. The enemy had left during the night after blowing the road. The march was unopposed but was held up until the craters were filled in. The inhabitants of Tavarnelle did not seem very enthusiastic over their deliverance, but the men of C Company were not put out by the lack of reception committees for they found something there more to their liking. There was a shop in the village with a nice display of piano-accordions, and the next phase of the operation saw Maoris with slung rifles emitting noises from their new toys that would page 392 have put a team of novice bagpipe players to shame. The flanking companies were by this time well ahead. A Company remained in Tavarnelle and C Company, with accordion accompaniment, moved on until it arrived at some fallen trees, where it was halted.
B Company met slight opposition past Spicciano and after reporting the incident, which had resulted in eight prisoners, one of them wounded, went off the air. Battalion Headquarters heard nothing more from it for some time but Lieutenant Maika9 fills the gap:
The advance went smoothly. Bedded down that night with rumours going around—Tigers ahead. Met opposition following morning [already referred to] Tiger tank at point approx. ½ mile NW of Tavernelle. Could hear it firing as we approached villa on a knoll. Trigger happy soldier fired at villa. Tiger heard it and saw us. Plastered the area—shells bursting all round. Went to ground except Major Te Punga coolly striving to locate it. Yelled out to bolt for the villa. Orders from Te Punga to press on and take advantage of copse on left of villa to a house on the other side of the knoll. Tiger was now plastering the copse. Casualties here. Wounded some of C Coy which was on B Coy's left. Shells cutting tree tops. Arrived at house: open country ahead: ordered to stay put. Tiger still firing but not in our direction. Could now see it silhouetted against white wall of a cemetery on ridge immediately in front—800 yds. Major Te Punga endeavouring to raise BHQ for Arty. Tiger firing a few rounds to the right and then swinging barrel hard left and firing a few rounds there. Believe it was responsible for knocking out a few Shermans. Suddenly swings barrel in our direction and drops smoke shell in front of our house. ‘Scram,’ says the Major, ‘We'll go back to the villa up the top; safer there.’ We all agreed. Unexplainably Tiger stops firing. From villa we see it moving forward away from the wall; disappears behind olive trees, the tops of which could be seen against the white wall.
We are now observing at leisure. With the naked eye could see Jerries getting out of slit trenches—some of the Jerries had divested themselves of their jackets and we could plainly see the whites of their singlets against the dark patches of soil from their trenches, sunbathing. Sigs still can't raise BHQ and Major Te Punga has gone off there…. Pongo Major page 393 arrives in a Sherman and believe it or not he's opipping for the Long Toms. We tell him there's a Tiger ahead but he is very sceptical. After all, we can't see it, so neither can he. But when we pointed out the sun bathers to him he immediately contacted his guns and asked for 50 rounds, paused—‘Fire’! Jerries, olive trees and cemetery disappear in a cloud of smoke and dust, and above all a red flame shoots up followed by dense black smoke. The Tiger had had it I presumed.
The company passed the cemetery in the morning and the Tiger had ‘had it’ right enough.
Meanwhile D Company had pushed on past Palagione but was halted until the tanks got around some demolitions and silenced a few spandaus firing from a group of casas ahead. The next delay occurred soon afterwards at a place where trees had been felled across the road, and while a track was being sought through some hastily laid mines a shower of shells fell into the area. The troops left the tanks to find a way around the obstacle, for once past the fallen trees they could see where the opposition had been coming from. Sergeant Patrick10 sketches the scene:
From here we could see a huge casa or villa11 across the gully from us and close to the road. There was a plantation of trees to the right of this building and from the bottom of the gully which was very steep the land sloped fairly gently. A spandau was firing from one of the windows and there was a fair amount of activity in the trees around the casa too. We fixed bayonets and went down the gully and up the other side pretty well worked up too. But 18 Platoon beat us to it. The en. must have seen them coming for they left their defences and scampered back to the building. The trees seemed alive with running men, and the yelling of the Maoris added to the din created by the shouting of the Jerries. We killed a few but the rest disappeared and we presumed they had entered the casa. We searched but found no one in it. It was a tremendous building and I remember a beautiful piano in it. I think it was one of the most beautiful that I have ever seen or heard. Tom West12 tried his hand at it and managed to belt a fairly good tune out of it. Aussie Huata, our Pl Comd, told us to get out and continue the advance. page 394 Outside some of our men had located two a. tk guns, one a stepped up 75 mm which must have been responsible for the damage to our tanks earlier. These guns were well concealed in the trees.
It was dusk by this time and C Company was sent forward to fill the rather wide gap between B and D Companies. Some of the Maoris occupying the Villa Bonazza, more thirsty or more persistent than D Company, found their way to the cellars and returned with about two dozen Germans who, with the benefit of local knowledge, had hidden there when they left the shrubbery.
Fifth Brigade had now forged ahead of the flanking units and, though 23 Battalion had felt most of the opposition to date, 28 Battalion did not have a very easy night with enemy troops and two Tiger tanks reported in the vicinity. Both troops and tanks, however, had departed when the advance was resumed in the morning (24th). The CO had been instructed to make for Podeste del Sodo, about a mile away, and the dispositions were C Company, right, D left, and B in support; A Company was to remain in Tavarnelle in the meantime, and the Divisional Cavalry was looking after the open left flank.
Platoon commanders and section leaders had need of their fieldcraft this day for the country was very rough with enemy on every forward slope, but the troop of 18 Armoured Regiment excelled itself in traversing the hillsides and earned the approval of the Maoris by its marksmanship. D Company, on the open flank, worked along the road towards a large house, the Villa Cantuccio, the centre of the usual small crossroads village. The enemy had left during the night and all the civilians were crowded in the church. Goodness knows what stories they had been told and what treatment they expected. C Company made contact with 23 Battalion, which was having trouble in chasing a reluctant enemy off a high hill. When he had been constrained to depart, C Company carried on to Podeste del Sodo.
Meanwhile D Company was directed towards il Pino, just outside the divisional boundary. There it met a platoon of A Company, the carrier platoon, and elements of the Divisional Cavalry who had come up by the road through Noce. D Company then struck for Cellole, the last objective for the day, about a thousand yards north along a narrow track. The day's operations ended with D Company in Cellole, C at Podeste del page 395 Molino, B at Podeste del Sodo, and A Company with Battalion Headquarters on the unit's axis. Colonel Young picked a large and palatial villa with a tower as his headquarters, but in the morning he wished he hadn't because an enemy shell scored a direct hit on it, bringing the whole structure down, killing one British artillery officer and wounding another who had made it their OP.
The third day of the thrust towards Florence opened with C Company clearing a party of enemy from a crossroad on the route and then, with B Company in close support, going on to take temporary possession of the Villa del Corno. D Company bypassed del Corno and established itself in Villa Arrighi, near the road junction at San Pancrazio. The country was still heavily wooded, its hills rolling to steep; small mobile—very mobile—parties of enemy held strategic locations and again the Maoris were full of admiration for the tank crews, who worked their vehicles across gullies and over hills, shooting up everything that looked like an enemy hideout.
At midday A Company and Battalion Headquarters were established in a casa near del Corno. C Company was told to remain in del Corno and B was passed through to the left rear of D Company. That flank was wide open, with the Indians somewhere in the rear, and needed strengthening.
Opposition was mounting, and D Company on resuming the advance had a very sharp fight and took twenty-three prisoners at the road junction Belvedere, near Lucignano. That was the limit of the day's programme and nightfall found the battalion with D Company at Belvedere, B in support in Villa Guicciarno, C in Villa Arrighi, A Company and Battalion Headquarters still in del Corno.
During the day Colonel Young, who like Colonel Love at Sollum had been fighting an attack of jaundice, was evacuated to hospital and when Major Awatere arrived to take over from Captain Jackson, temporarily in command, he brought the news that 21 Battalion was relieving the Maoris that night. More accurately, 21 Battalion was coming in to the area with the intention of attacking Poppiano, but the Maoris were to stay in their present positions until daylight.
For D Company, which had had a very arduous day, there was more to come. Major Awatere was showing Major Dymock13 of 21 Battalion the D Company dispositions when quite a sharp page 396 counter-attack came in and the two senior officers found steady employment filling magazines for the automatics. Captain Tomoana went from post to post encouraging his men, and when the position seemed serious took up a Bren and showed how they were used in the Western Desert when he was a private soldier. The company was fired on periodically during the night and it was comforting to know that D Company 21 Battalion was in the vicinity. At first light a pakeha platoon went out to test the enemy dispositions but found more enemy than it could deal with and returned with half a dozen casualties.
B Company was relieved by A and returned to the Villa del Corno, followed by C Company. The villa, typical of the homesteads in Tuscany, where the landowning class maintained itself in feudal style, was large enough to hold the whole battalion, tanks included. Flower gardens, vegetable gardens, orchards and vineyards acres in extent surrounded the villa, while green paddocks and cultivated fields divided by lines and thickets of poplar trees must have needed an army of peasantry to keep them in order. D Company, among similar surroundings, still stayed with 21 Battalion under orders to follow up and occupy Poppiano when it fell to that battalion.
Meanwhile San Casciano was blasted from the air and then captured by a mixed force of tanks, armoured cars, and 22 Battalion. San Casciano was on one end of a ridge and Poppiano on the other, so when 21 Battalion cleaned out Poppiano and subsidiary points on the night 26–27 July and D Company of the Maoris moved in to occupy the village, the way was cleared for 6 Brigade and 4 Armoured Brigade to move in on the right of 5 Brigade.
The Maoris were given the task of protecting the divisional left flank until the Indians drew level. This they did the following morning, and the unit was then concentrated around Poppiano and the men did some much-needed washing and mending.
Sixth Brigade was striking at Cerbaia through a tangle of wooded ridges and in the face of a desperate defence, for any deep penetration would open a short and indefensible route to Florence. Fiercely pressed counter-attacks slowed and finally stopped 6 Brigade and 5 Brigade was switched from the left to the right of the divisional front.
The 28th Battalion, with C Company Commanded by Captain J. S. Baker in place of Captain Jackson, seconded for duty at page 397 Advanced Base, left by truck after dark for the San Casciano area to take over a part of 23 Battalion's line. The 23rd Battalion had already taken over a part of 22 Battalion's front and when 21 Battalion followed in a reserve role, covering the right flank until the South Africans got up, 5 Brigade was again ready for work.
While the Maoris were settling in, 23 Battalion tried for Sant' Andrea about a mile away but found it too strongly held. The 23rd returned to the attack in the morning and this time occupied the village but had a tough time holding it. It was now the usual story of waiting for the support arms to get past the demolitions while the field guns tried to keep enemy tanks at a safe distance.
Colonel Awatere was warned that 5 Brigade was attacking again that night with 28 Battalion on the left of 23 Battalion. He was told that he might have to fight for his start line. For the main attack he had the assistance of a half-squadron of 20 Regiment tanks, a machine-gun platoon, a troop of 39 Mortar Battery, a detachment of 7 Field Company and a bulldozer. A seventy-minute artillery programme would precede the attack, which would commence at 10 p.m.
The CO issued his orders: the battalion axis was the road San Casciano-Cigliano-Faltignano and the advance of about 1000 yards was to be made by C Company, right of the road, and A Company on the left; Sergeant Matchitt14 would take 13 Platoon to clear the start line half an hour before the zero hour. This was done in workmanlike style with six enemy killed for no loss to the platoon.
The start was delayed by the barrage opening too close to the start line and by the enemy's defensive fire, but after half an hour's delay the troops got away without casualties but also without the benefit of the barrage. The country was rough and heavily wooded and the two companies were soon out of wireless contact.
C Company made fair progress against light opposition—only ten enemy were killed and one wounded prisoner, who died later, was taken—and two, perhaps three, tanks were encountered. Support arms were waiting for demolitions to be filled so the company was withdrawn to a more favourable position about 300 yards back.page 398
A Company, meeting similar light opposition, was roughly in line although the tanks firing on C Company were a worry to it. The 23rd Battalion was largely on its objective with support arms in position.
The axis road was very badly cratered and all vehicles were re-routed through 23 Battalion's area and the attackers told to wait until they arrived. Meanwhile the engineers with the bulldozer were working on the Maoris' road. The engineers were under fire and were having an awkward time.
One 17-pounder was through before daylight and B Company, ordered to fill a gap between the forward troops, was in close support. Patrol reports indicated that the enemy was pulling back again and the advance was resumed. The objective, a ridge top (Point 250), was but 100 yards away when a tank duel ended with the loss of one Sherman and C Company was again withdrawn to the protection of some houses. A Company reported that it was sheltering in a wadi a quarter of a mile further back.
An artillery stonk induced the Tigers to depart but not to any distance. Captain Baker, quite fed up with the prospect of further delay, decided on a bold and hazardous move. No. 13 Platoon had lost its commander (Sergeant Matchitt) and five others who had been wounded by a shell or a mine while crawling through a line of grape-vines and was drawn into reserve with 15 Platoon (Lieutenant Mahuika). No. 14 Platoon (Lieutenant Paniora),15 with the help of two tanks still with the company, was directed to work around the enemy and cut the road behind them.
The Tigers recognised the danger and departed, this time for good. No. 14 Platoon, accompanied by the tanks and supported by machine-gunners, ended the movement by a 500-yard attack with the bayonet towards the road. Germans behind rows of vines were trapped and killed, some twenty of them, and the road was reached without a casualty.
No. 14 Platoon was in high good humour for the exhilaration of the charge with the tanks and the business at its conclusion was recompense for the days of marching over the Tuscan hills and through the Tuscan timber. Lieutenant Paniora was wounded before Captain Baker arrived and although the objective was passed the Ngatiporou leader had the bit in his teeth. A huge villa set on a small knoll took his attention. He sent 13 and 15 Platoons at it and acquired an enemy RAP page 399 complete with staff, lacking only a doctor. C Company was now a mile ahead of where it should have been and prudence suggested consolidation. No. 14 Platoon was ordered forward to another casa near by and after a sharp fight took possession. The company casualties for the day were twelve for about 30 Germans killed, 6 wounded, and 6 prisoners. For this action Captain Baker was awarded a bar to his MC.
The general position was that 2 NZ Division was still the spearhead of 13 Corps and was about to make a last thrust with all three brigades in an endeavour to push the enemy right back across the Arno. The 23rd Battalion had been relieved by a unit from 6 South African Armoured Division, the Free City of Cape Town Highlanders (FC/CTH for short) under command for the time being of 5 Brigade, who would watch the open right flank while 23 Battalion reorganised in reserve; 21 Battalion was moving up and the Maoris would open the 5 Brigade fight by advancing B and D Companies through A and C as far as the line from Poggio delle Monache crossroads to la Poggiona hill, thereby linking up with 6 Brigade.
The troops were to skirmish forward at 8 a.m. (1 August) but before that hour a minor disaster had occurred; the Brigade Commander, Brigadier Stewart, was missing. He had set out at daybreak to visit 28 Battalion, had missed the Battalion Headquarters sign, and was on the point of turning back when he found himself looking down the barrel of a German gun. The Brigadier was unarmed. Colonel Pleasants16 was sent forward to take command and pick up the threads as best he could.
Both companies, D on the right of the road and B on the left, were under mortar fire from the start, but with the help of the support tanks advanced to the next crossroads about half a mile forward. A group of houses held by the enemy was shot up by the tanks and C Company established itself in the casa le Montanine. B Company, under fire from la Poggiona, was forced to take cover in the Villa Tavernaccia, where three tanks broke up a counter-attack from the direction of la Querciola.
Major Te Punga was then directed not to attempt la Poggiona without further orders but Captain Tomoana was to capture page 400 his objective if at all possible. Sergeant Patrick describes the outcome:
Enemy tanks were located near the road junction close to Poggio Issi. We did not realise this till afterwards. We lined up near the casas and attacked across the flat ground, through trees and vines towards Villa Treggaia. Just before we reached it we saw the tanks. We pulled up smartly and doubled back to the La Montanine group of casas.
We mounted brens in as many strategic points as possible. We watched enemy infantry prepare a set attack on our position. They came through the trees keeping as much as possible to cover. We shot as many as we could see. They reached our casas and we knew we were surrounded. During the fighting our Coy Comd. Capt Tomoana was wounded. It was then that Pte G. Mate17 drove his Jeep RAP up the main road, then swung in along the connecting track to our group of houses. The enemy were all around. He picked up the wounded and drove off with the enemy staring at him.
The enemy kept firing at our windows and doorway. A stonk, ordered by the Coy Comd, came down among the vines and trees. Some of the Jerries raced back out of range. During a lull in the fighting we evacuated the posns and not a man was lost in the operation. The Jerries found out a little too late and kept up a running fight with us. We reached Vla Nidiaci (the start line) without incurring any losses.
The 28th Battalion was ordered to consolidate on its present position and 21 Battalion was warned to take over after dark. It had more than a taste of what the Maoris had been experiencing, plus a slice of really hard luck with a barrage, for its attack was to be a set-piece operation. An error had been made about the locality of the forward positions, either through an inaccurate ‘sitrep’ or through not realising that D Company (Second-Lieutenant McRae)18 had pulled back from its furthest crossroads, or perhaps through one of those things that sometimes happen to signal messages. The barrage opened behind the enemy lines and 21 Battalion was turned back. The following night (2–3 August) there was no mistake and 21 Battalion was digging in on la Poggiona before dawn. Elsewhere the page 401 battle was going according to plan and Colonel Awatere was ordered to pass 28 Battalion through and carry on. The 23rd Battalion was coming up again and Florence was just over the hill.
A and D Companies led the unit in the morning along the road to Giogoli, a small village about two miles ahead. They were on the top of the last hill now with a tree-lined road and heavily timbered valleys dropping down to the flat country along the Arno. Enemy gunners still had the road in their range, but the rapidity of the onfall had upset the German engineers' demolition timetable and the Maori support arms were not hampered from carrying out their protective duties. Two hours' scrambling through the thickets saw the troops down on the flat and in Giogoli, where they found no enemy but cellars full of civilians.
The 23rd Battalion had its own axis of advance, and between the two units a strongpoint had been bypassed and was giving Giogoli its undivided attention. B Company was disposed to cover the unit flank and the companies dispersed into casas around Giogoli. Scandicci, an outer suburb of Florence, lay barely three miles away on the western bank of the Greve.
Orders for the next day's operation were that C Company was to push on to the River Greve, with B in close support, and establish a crossing; D Company was also to move forward and seize a crossing. Early in the morning Lieutenant McRae rang through to Colonel Awatere—Jerry was pulling out from Scandicci and what about following him?
Permission was granted and Sergeant Patrick describes the result:
Early next morning we saw some Jerries moving through the trees in the direction of Florence. We followed after them. We passed Scandicci and reached the River Greve. The bridge as usual was a mess. We crossed over and saw the tram lines. We were thrilled for we knew that these must surely lead in to the town proper. We were tempted to carry on without the tanks. We decided to wait for them and when they came up we mounted and went as far as the American Countess's villa. Here we dismounted and advanced on foot to the River Arno reaching it at the site of the Ponte della Vittoria. The enemy was still sniping from across the river from among the trees in the park. Our tanks however fired a few HE into the trees silencing the opposition.page 402
B Company was also quick off the mark. Lieutenant Maika tells a vivid story:
We were just sitting down to a breakfast of Galinas when we were told to move, and fast. Two or three times during the push we were caught like this, but this time I was determined. I told my batman to bring the pot with him…. And so we swept down to the plain that was Florence. There was evidence all around that Jerry had completely broken off and even now was sitting on the high hills just north of Florence. The road was now getting lined by civilians and the nearer we approached the city the larger the crowd got and the louder the cheering. We were being showered with flowers, offered fruit, bigger and more luscious than any we had acquired along the long march from Siena. In all it was a great welcome, spontaneous, warm and genuine. By this time we had reached the outskirts of the city. The crowd had completely disappeared. A loud crash of a Jerry shell down one of the streets promptly brought our minds back to the job on hand.
C Company also encountered no opposition. It crossed the Greve and, when Battalion Headquarters could not be contacted by radio, Captain Baker decided to carry on to Florence. The men were in complete accord and an occasional shell did nothing to slow up their private entry into Florence via Route 2. The Germans had evacuated all civilians from a two-kilometre strip south of the river, or rather they thought they had, for the ‘Vivas’ and waves from windows indicated that the order had not been completely obeyed.
Where the unauthorised occupation of Florence might have stopped is a matter for conjecture for at this juncture Colonel Awatere received urgent orders to halt the battalion in its tracks. It was then concentrated in the Monticelli suburb and made itself at home in houses while it did some plain and fancy souveniring and waited for the next move, which, it decided, would undoubtedly be across the river into the city proper.
It was mistaken. The New Zealand Division had finished its job in that locality and was to move west and shield a reorganisation of forces; the Americans were moving in and the Indians moving out preparatory to the next thrust against the Gothic line.
The battalion, on one hour's notice, put up with a little desultory fire from across the Arno while a Canadian brigade page 403 selected quarters for itself, and the next day (6 August) 5 Brigade moved back to the Poppiano area where B Echelon had bivvies erected and showers working. That night, with the pressure off once more, the troops gave themselves a party; the officers also held a party in honour of Major Matehaere, who was marching out to a tour of duty in England.
Coincidental with the fall of Florence were large-scale troop movements designed to expedite the enemy withdrawal. Except for patrols, the Germans had retired behind the Arno and 2 NZ Division was to winkle out any remaining posts, reconnoitre the river for crossing places, and cover the changeover between the Indians and the Americans. The Maori Battalion, being in brigade reserve, was not greatly interested beyond marching a few miles nearer the scene of operations. This was done in the evening of 7 August and the unit found itself facing Empol, 15 miles west of Florence. Empoli, a communication centre about the same size as Cassino, was the ultimate objective of night-time 5 Brigade probes towards the river.
B Company was put under command of 21 Battalion for the final clean-up and moved into battalion reserve during the night of 9–10 August. The following night the whole Division surged up to the riverbank but did not risk any heavy fighting in Empoli—if the Germans stayed there they would be blasted out by the Air Force. No. 11 Platoon (Lieutenant Maika) was asked to work along the western outskirts of Empoli and see if there were any tanks there. The platoon kept off the streets and progressed via the backyards. No tanks were found and no civilians encountered, but the troops had a lesson in the art of booby-trapping a building. At a school they came upon, one of the Maoris, on peeping through a shell hole through the wall, saw a wire tied to the back-door knob and disappearing behind the oven door of a large coal-range on the far side of the kitchen. A second look disclosed a Teller mine fixed to the wire; all you had to do was to open the door. The platoon felt that it had seen enough of Empoli.
B Company was ordered to enter Empoli the next afternoon (11th) while C Company 21 Battalion stood by to reinforce if necessary. Major Te Punga's plan was to attack up the centre of the town by three parallel streets and to keep going until held up. No. 12 Platoon (Lieutenant Francis) right, 11 Platoon, centre, and 10 Platoon (Lieutenant Ransfield)19 on the left page 404 moved cautiously forward, with half a platoon on each side of the street very carefully watching the windows on the other side.
The three side-streets joined a main street near the river, and it was not until the platoons were nearly there that they were straddled by a salvo of shells and took shelter in convenient buildings, carefully avoiding those which were not partly demolished, as the best way to dodge booby-traps. Notwith-standing these precautions there were some casualties.
Lieutenant Maika, at the head of his platoon, had an exciting few moments:
We could not go on any further as there was a demolition right on the cross road and it was impossible to climb it. The corner building was partly demolished so I took the Sigs bloke with me (Pte Apanui)20 and wormed ourselves under and through the rubble into a room the door of which opened out on to the street crossing ours. I came out. By now it was getting gloomy. Looked up the street to my left and saw a group of blokes at the far corner; naturally I thought it was Johnny's [Ransfield's] platoon. I yelled out in Maori, ‘Johnny, it's us.’ Just as well the light wasn't the best because the reply came back in the form of spandau bursts. I couldn't get back through the door quick enough. However I had a Yankee automatic rifle so I emptied the magazine in their general direction, taking pot shots.
While this one-man war was being conducted, C Company 21 Battalion was moving through the Maoris to take over for the time being. The 28th Battalion was to occupy the town the following night. Back in the unit area a muster parade heard some very pithy remarks from the Colonel concerning its bizarre taste in civilian headgear; bell-toppers vied with Homburgs while women's bonnets were not unpatronised. The light-hearted Maoris regretfully discarded their grotesqueries and prepared to move into Empoli.
The 21st Battalion moved back into reserve as its companies were relieved by 28 Battalion, and the dispositions then were that D Company held the right half and A the left half of Empoli, C was in support at Cortenuova, and B in reserve at la Moriana.page 405
A Company, with two troops of tanks assisting, was to mop up remaining enemy pockets during the afternoon (13th) and proceeded to do so in the face of considerable mortar fire from across the river. Twenty-five Germans were killed for the loss of two wounded and the company established itself in the street overlooking the river. A warning order from Brigade that 338 Regiment of 85 US Division would take over 5 Brigade's front on the night 15–16 August, whereupon the brigade was to move to a non-operational area, was received with acclaim.
The changeover took place in due course and the Maoris staggered to the trucks, not from exhaustion but because of the weight of the souvenirs they were carrying. B Company, being under command of 21 Battalion at the time, had escaped the CO's strictures regarding unauthorised dress, but Major Te Punga had to take action when one of his toas appeared wearing a top hat and an overcoat with a fur collar. He had on a pair of shiny topboots and carried an umbrella in one hand, a mandolin in the other, and his rifle slung over his shoulder. The Americans thought he was a partisan who had joined the Maoris, for one was heard to remark, ‘That guy's a civilian I guess, but he sure is black.’
Some reorganisation in the battalion command occurred before this move: Major Te Punga transferred to D Company, Second-Lieutenant Harris21 relieved Lieutenant Hayward as liaison officer at 5 Brigade and the latter took command of B Company. Lieutenant Hayward had commanded the battalion carriers from Alamein to Tunisia and had recently rejoined the battalion after furlough.
|Died of wounds||8|
|Prisoners of war||4|
2Rev W. Te T. Huata, MC; Hastings; born NZ 23 Aug 1917; Anglican minister.
4Maj-Gen K. L. Stewart, CB, CBE, DSO, m.i.d., MC (Greek), Legion of Merit (US); Kerikeri; born Timaru, 30 Dec 1896; Regular soldier; 1 NZEF 1917–19; GSO 1 2 NZ Div 1940–41; Deputy Chief of General Staff Dec 1941-Jul 1943; comd 5 Bde Aug-Nov 1943, 4 Armd Bde Nov 1943-Mar 1944, 5 Bde Mar-Aug 1944; p.w. 1 Aug 1944; comd 9 Bde (2 NZEF, Japan) Nov 1945-Jul 1946; Adjutant-General, NZ Military Forces, Aug 1946-Mar 1949; Chief of General Staff Apr 1949-Mar 1952.
52 Lt Te W. Rogers; born Rotorua, 24 Jun 1914; civil servant; wounded 8 Dec 1943; died of wounds 8 Jun 1944.
62 Lt W. Whareaitu; Ohinemutu; born Okauia, 15 Aug 1908; labourer; twice wounded.
12WO II T. B. West; Bluff; born Bluff, 4 Mar 1909; oysterman; twice wounded.
152 Lt S. Paniora; born NZ 18 Feb 1919; labourer; three times wounded; killed in action 15 Dec 1944.
16Brig C. L. Pleasants, CBE, DSO, MC, ED, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Halcombe, 26 Jul 1910; schoolmaster; CO 18 Bn Jul-Oct 1942; 18 Armd Regt Oct 1942-Mar 1944; comd 4 Armd Bde Sep-Nov 1944; 5 Bde 1–22 Aug 1944, Nov 1944-Feb 1945, May 1945-Jan 1946; twice wounded; Commander, Fiji Military Forces, 1949–53; Commandant, Northern Military District, Oct 1953.