Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

New Zealand Medical Services in Middle East and Italy

The Paula Line

The Paula Line

The Paula line was based upon the semi-circle of hills surrounding Florence. In the New Zealand sector the line of summits curved north-west from the valley of the Greve River to the Arno and lay page 586 across the path of the advance. The Division now set out to clear the enemy from the dominating summits. Sixth Brigade, supported by 19 Armoured Regiment, established a bridgehead across the Pesa River at Cerbaia on 27 July. From Faltignano ridge, La Romola ridge, and the hilltop of San Michele the Germans made the most determined efforts to drive the New Zealanders back across the Pesa. With the support of artillery capable of firing 40,000 shells a day, the Division beat off a series of enemy counter-attacks during 28 July. Though communications were cut and the situation at times seemed precarious, 6 Brigade held on.

San Michele was a vital objective, and on the night of 28–29 July D Company, 24 Battalion, with strong support, managed to establish three strongpoints in the village despite fierce opposition. The Germans made desperate counter assaults with lorried infantry, self-propelled artillery and Tiger tanks, but with the help of fighter-bombers of the Desert Air Force, which made over one hundred attacks, and concentration of New Zealand artillery fire, the company held on in an epic battle. On the night of 29–30 July a crushing weight of shells compelled the enemy's withdrawal. One of the company's strongpoints had collapsed on top of its defenders, who had to be dug out; in the crypt of the church the men were shaken but secure; and from the third strongpoint the occupants had been safely withdrawn.

An account of events given by Private Kirk,1 medical orderly in D Company, 24 Battalion, records reaction under stress:

At 3 o'clock in the morning D. Coy. 24 Bn. moved away from Bn. HQ, stationed at the bottom of the hill, towards their objective, a small village occupied by Germans, some distance up the hill. After the artillery had plastered our objective, we followed in, discovering afterwards that we had gone through a minefield in the process. The bursts of machine gun fire offered very little resistance. The attack was a great success, the German prisoners actually complimenting us. Quite a few prisoners were taken. This action was all over before daylight. At approximately 6 a.m. tanks came up to give us support, casualties at this stage being practically nil. Morale was extremely good. Coy. HQ were established in a church and cellar. Machine gunners were also attached to us; the other platoons were in buildings close by. During the morning we communicated with each other quite freely, and when the shelling became severe, wireless was used quite successfully. In the morning the tanks gave us confidence and kept morale high. During this time there were several light attacks by German artillery and infantry. In the afternoon the attacks became more frequent and heavier. At 2.30 p.m. approximately, after particularly heavy artillery fire well supported by enemy infantry our tank crews…left us.

The morale at once dropped especially when a German Panther tank appeared in our vicinity and came slowly towards the church with machine gun firing rapid bursts; small arms fire was frequent but to no avail.

1 Pte G. S. Kirk; Mosgiel; born Dunedin, 9 Jan 1920; farm labourer; wounded 26 Mar 1943; p.w. 1 Jan 1945; repatriated Apr 1945.

page 587 Enemy artillery fire increased in intensity and our own artillery were attacking fairly consistently. At 4 p.m. our Coy was pretty badly shaken; all windows were closely guarded, men were being knocked over right and left by shell blasts. Everyone very quiet and tense with no expectation of survival. Someone raised a white flag. But he was told immediately to withdraw it or be shot. We were still in touch with Bn. HQ, although communication was very difficult, owing to the noise of the motor of German tanks, and unfortunately the wireless operator in one of the platoons suffered mental collapse and smashed his radio. Several of our chaps were captured by German infantry. Shortly before this Alan Swann1 was standing on guard at an open window when a tremendous blast from shell burst sent him spinning backwards. Fortunately I managed to break his fall, which would otherwise have smashed his head on the concrete. Although he was badly concussed, I managed partly to revive him with luke warm tea; by this time the German tank had approached very close to the church and Coy. commander called for a volunteer to operate the Piat gun. Alan Swann in a very dazed and shocked condition volunteered and had to be guided to his position. The general morale by this time was very low, and everyone badly shell shocked, as the German gun was being manoeuvred into position, to fire point blank on the church. Alan Swann opened fire with the Piat gun, managing to jam the tank gun completely. The tank was forced to withdraw and German infantry advanced giving us all they had. Word was then radioed to our own artillery, for a murder stonk minus medium, on our own position. Shells rained incessantly on our own position for the next 3 hours. The cellar of the church sheltered a very anxious and strained Coy. of men. Although nerves were badly shattered, casualties were amazingly light, only 2 being killed, but not one man came through unscathed. The German Bn. were completely annihilated, enemy dead littered the scene of battle. The silence which reigned when firing had ceased was tense. At midnight we left the village, with nothing but what we stood up in. It was a bomb happy but relieved crowd which returned to Bn. HQ in the early hours of the morning. After several days' complete rest no one was any the worse for the intense shelling.

This account was confirmed by Captain Borrie, RMO 24 Battalion, who commented: ‘Intensive artillery bombardment of buildings after a few hours can cause acute exhaustion among troops even in a basement but with the right environment, exhaustion soon turns to exhilaration.’ After a few days' rest the men affected returned to the front line but quickly tired in other actions under shellfire later. No case of shell wounds was recorded in spite of the successive bombardments.

1 Pte A. G. Swann, MM; Te Aroha; born Frankton, 8 Aug 1914; wounded 30 Jul 1944.