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in the crypt of the church the men were shaken but secure; and from the third strongpoint the occupants had been safely withdrawn.
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.
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.