CHAPTER 15 — Monte Camurcina and San Michele
Monte Camurcina and San Michele
FromArce, Rome leave was granted on a fairly liberal scale, but the outstanding event of the four weeks' stay was an ‘Aquatic Derby’ held on the Liri River. Races for canvas assault boats with crews of nine were taken more or less seriously, but the ‘Napoli Nebelwerfers Nudge’ (thus described on the programme) was an event for 18-crew barges, with no holds barred, in which the spirit of comedy prevailed. Naval engagements on the grand scale took place, and various modes of aggression came into play. ‘At the end of one race’, writes Captain Borrie, ‘an orange smoke grenade landed in one boat, and there was rapid evacuation of everyone as fumes filled the [vessel].’
Meanwhile the enemy was standing firm south of Arezzo in order to delay our advance up the Arno valley and gain time to consolidate the Gothic Line, which ran from the Gulf of Genoa, passing north of Florence, to Pesaro on the Adriatic. The 13th Corps, now including 2 NZ Division, was to displace the enemy from his position and advance upon Florence. On 10 July 6 Brigade began its northward journey to join the concentration of forces. Passing by the outskirts of Rome, 24 Battalion arrived close by the southern shores of Lake Trasimene on the 11th and moved on forty-eight hours later to the vicinity of Castiglion Fiorentino, where a conference was held and instructions given for the coming operation.
A composite British force known as Sackforce protected the right flank of 6 British Armoured Division, which was preparing to advance through Arezzo into the Arno valley. Having relieved Sackforce, 6 Brigade was to capture the wooded heights dominating Route 71, from which the enemy might threaten the right flank of any force advancing towards Arezzo. The 25th Battalion had already relieved 1 King's Royal Rifle Corps (of Sackforce) and its companies were strung out in depth on the slopes rising towards the summit of Monte Lignano, while page 263 three miles to the south-east, 26 Battalion had relieved the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders on the ridge south of Monte Cavadenti, towards which feature patrols were being sent forward.
Monte Camurcina had twin summits, joined by a low saddle and thickly covered with scrub. Crawshaw had learned from the platoon commander he relieved that Point 844, nearest of the twin summits, was either unoccupied or very thinly held. Nevertheless, when setting out at 5.30 a.m. to discover whether or not it was clear of the enemy, he took every precaution, deploying one section on either side of the ridge with scouts in advance, and keeping the remaining section some way in rear. All went smoothly until one of the scouts was fired upon from an enemy weapon pit about 200 yards from the summit of Point 844. Crawshaw ordered his right and left sections to make an encircling movement, but on attempting to advance they were fired upon from newly-disclosed enemy positions and sent to ground. The reserve section moved forward to assist but was also pinned down before making much progress. Concluding from the volume of enemy fire that the position would be too strong for a single platoon to assault, Crawshaw reported his situation to Company Headquarters and was ordered to await the arrival of 14 Platoon, then on its way to his assistance.
Company advanced headquarters was being heavily mortared when Lloyd set off with his platoon at 7.30 a.m. The men were heavily loaded for this kind of country, with blankets and gas capes in addition to full battle order. On nearing Point 844 Lloyd came upon three men of 15 Platoon, who were unable, however, to give him any exact information about the position of their comrades. Lloyd went on ahead with a runner to try to find Crawshaw, and found instead a section-leader who gave him 15 Platoon's position, saying at the same time that there had been some casualties and that Crawshaw's men were pinned down. Lloyd then sent the runner back to bring his men forward, but as they came on they were fired at, in consequence of which he withdrew them farther down the ridge and reported back to Company Headquarters. He also was told to consolidate; while he was doing so, Crawshaw's men came down the ridge to the vicinity of his position. Some while after having gone to ground, 15 Platoon had been counter-attacked by the enemy with grenades and automatic weapons. The attack had been beaten off, but with the loss of two killed and five wounded. Crawshaw then gave orders for the withdrawal, in the course page 265 of which he lost three more men killed and one wounded. There were not enough stretchers, and an extra one had to be made from the branches of a tree and a blanket. The journey back to the RAP took over three hours.
Shortly before 10 a.m. Major McGruther had been badly wounded by shellfire. Sergeant Thompson promptly came up from the RAP to carry him out, only to find on arrival that he had died in the meantime. The second-in-command, Captain Casling-Cottle,2 then went forward to take over the company.
No. 13 Platoon remained at rear company headquarters during the attack, its men acting as stretcher-bearers and providing ration-carrying parties. The other two platoons of C Company maintained their positions below Point 844 throughout 14 July. That night 25 Battalion captured Monte Lignano, while 26 Battalion, which had pushed on to the east of Cavadenti, was counter-attacked and forced to give some ground. The 1st Guards Brigade was pressing northward towards the junction of Routes 71 and 73; but Camurcina was likely to be a thorn in the side of any advancing force, and at 7 p.m. A Company of 24 Battalion was ordered to move up the ridge through C Company's position and dislodge the enemy from the mountain summit. Captain Howden, now commanding A Company, sent back word at 3.30 a.m. (15th) that he was moving steadily forward without opposition and hoped to be on his objective by dawn, but after passing through 14 and 15 Platoons his men were fired upon by spandaus from the summit and held up in the identical spot from which the C Company troops had lately withdrawn. Howden thought it possible to capture the position with the aid of an artillery concentration, but certainly not without casualties. Otherwise the only alternative would be to wait until darkness and put in a night attack in concert with C Company. However, nothing more was done for the time being and Howden's men lay up all day before Camurcina, forward of the two C Company platoons. B Company had gone to support 25 Battalion on Monte Lignano, when orders were received for a brigade attack on Camurcina and the adjacent Point 832, to be carried page 266 out by 24 Battalion with the 26th on its right. A Company withdrew 400 yards below Point 844 before the artillery opened up at 2 a.m. on 16 July, and it began to move forward half an hour later. By half past three Point 844 had been occupied without opposition, and soon afterwards D Company passed through to take possession of Point 846, also found to be deserted. On the right 26 Battalion met with no resistance on Point 832. There were signs that German casualties, caused no doubt by our bombardment, had been evacuated from Camurcina. A patrol from A Company, sent to make contact with 25 Battalion, came in later with two prisoners. The whole mountain was now in our hands, and Arezzo, entered by our tanks a few hours later, could be clearly seen from the summit.
At midday 24 Battalion withdrew from the line and went back to an area west of Castiglion, where it remained resting for the next few days.
On 22 July it was again on the move. Passing by stages through Siena, Castellina, and San Donato, it arrived on the 26th in the vicinity of San Pancrazio and debussed on a forward slope with little cover, in full view of the enemy. The men were told to dig trenches, but no sooner had they begun than German artillery opened fire, causing in all eleven casualties, one officer and one other rank being killed. All three battalions of 6 Brigade were now grouped in this area, west of the Pesa River and three or four miles south of San Casciano, a small town lying on the main north road to Florence.
The 13th Corps' main thrust to the Arno had shifted westward into easier country, and 2 New Zealand and 6 South African Divisions were being employed to break the enemy's defence line traversing the low range of hills between the Greve and Pesa rivers. For the past three days 5 Brigade had been fighting its way north-east along the Pesa's left bank, and by 26 July had reached a point west of Casciano, while a composite armoured force (Armcav) was east of the river threatening Casciano itself. The line of this advance was directed north-west and away from Florence, but 6 Brigade now received orders to establish a bridgehead at Cerbaia as soon as 5 Brigade should have reached La Ripa and Casciano should have fallen page 267 to Armcav. Once across the Pesa, 6 Brigade, having swung to the north-east, would move up the ridges of La Romola and San Michele in a straight line towards Florence.
At 1.30 a.m. on 27 July A Company of 26 Battalion, with tanks of 19 Armoured Regiment in support, advanced from its position in the region of San Pancrazio, passed beyond 5 Brigade's right flank at La Ripa, and by 6.20 was moving towards Cerbaia along the left bank of the Pesa. By ten minutes to nine the company had crossed the river south of Cerbaia, only to be met by small-arms and mortar fire. The tanks had found the bridge west of the town to be demolished and at first were unable to cross, but later four Stuarts and twelve Shermans of B Squadron managed to cross lower down the stream. Thence they moved north-west, clearing houses and pockets of resistance. On the left 5 Brigade had reached San Quirico and Poppiano. B Company 24 Battalion started at 4.15 a.m. for La Ripa and, on arriving there, joined up with three companies of the 26th which were putting the village in a state of defence. D Company set off an hour later and halted 1000 yards south of the same village. Before midday both these companies received orders to move on up the Pesa's left bank and take up a position west of Cerbaia, thus filling the gap between 5 Brigade on the left and A Company of 26 Battalion, which was now north of the village. Early in the afternoon they were both in position, with B right and D left. A and C Companies still remained at Pancrazio. San Casciano fell to Armcav at 11 a.m. (27th) and 4 Armoured Brigade was sent across the river preparatory to thrusting towards Faltignano and Giogoli along the Division's right flank. The Divis ional Cavalry was to cross at the Cerbaia bridgehead and exploit along the river's north bank.
For the operation in hand both 24 and 26 Battalions had under command a squadron of 19 Armoured Regiment less one troop, a platoon of 2 Machine Gun Company, a troop of six-pounders and a section of 17-pounders of 33 Anti-Tank Battery, a troop of 39 Heavy Mortar Battery, and a detachment of 8 Field Company.
Nos. 9 and 7 Platoons advanced up the line of the road leading from Castellare towards the hamlet of Poggio Cigoli. On their right was La Romola and on their left the ridge of San Michele. Company Headquarters and 8 Platoon came next, followed by engineers who swept the road for mines to allow the passage of the supporting tanks. A thousand yards had been covered when Lance-Sergeant New,3 a section leader of 9 Platoon, ran into an enemy machine-gun post near a house by the road. A veteran of almost every battle in which his unit had been engaged, he at once opened fire with his tommy gun, but the weapon jammed. The mischance might have daunted a man of ordinary courage, but, quite undismayed, New attacked the enemy in the darkness with only his fists and then escaped in the turmoil to warn his own men of their presence.4 No. 9 Platoon at once attacked, while 7 Platoon moved round behind the house to prevent the enemy escaping. Rather unaccountably, the Germans appear to have been taken by surprise and made little resistance. Five of them were made prisoner, and at the same time two recently captured men of 26 Battalion were released. As dawn was approaching, Howden decided to go no further towards Point 261 for the time being. Directing 7 and 8 Platoons to dig in in a semicircle 100 yards forward of the house, he planted Company Headquarters and page 270 9 Platoon in the building itself. An officer of the Royal Artillery set up his observation post in the same place—a fortunate chance for A Company, as his guns gave invaluable support later in the day. Supporting tanks, which came close up to the house and began firing on San Michele, soon drew down such heavy mortar fire in reply that the two forward platoons had to be withdrawn, but not before several of their men had been killed or wounded. The whole company now occupied the house, which was fortified as strongly as possible.
Having left its start line one and a half hours before Howden's men, the 26 Battalion company on the right had moved forward alone, passed well beyond its objective, and reached a point north-east of Poggio Cigoli; but after daylight this isolated position became untenable and the company withdrew to Howden's defence line. As the house was already crowded, the 26 Battalion men dug in further down the ridge, leaving the attached machine guns to increase A Company's fire power. A counter-attack threatened to develop late in the morning, but the concentration of enemy infantry was broken up by gunfire. A real counter-attack came at 2.30 p.m. and was beaten off with considerable loss to the enemy, while A Company escaped without casualties. Later in the afternoon the house was badly knocked about by a self-propelled gun, and two of the supporting tanks were put out of action. Holes had to be picked through the ground floor walls to avoid using exposed doorways, and two Browning guns from the knocked out tanks were added to A Company's already considerable fire power. Undoubtedly Howden's men passed a trying day, but when night fell they still presented a bold, unshaken front to the enemy.
On 2 NZ Division's left 8 Indian Division had reached Pulica and Bottinaccio; on its right 6 South African Armoured Division moved up the Greve valley, while 4 NZ Armoured Brigade, advancing from San Casciano, seized the ridge of Faltignano. The South Africans, however, could expect to make little further progress until the heights on their left should be cleared. The New Zealand Division prepared to assault on a three-brigade front, but this operation could scarcely be undertaken with hope of success while the Pesa crossings near Cerbaia were still dominated by the high ridge of San Michele.page 271
As a preliminary measure, then, the front required to be straightened, and D Company (Major Macdonald) crossed the Pesa on the night of 28 July with orders to capture and hold San Michele. In addition to the battalion's anti-tank mortar platoon, 12 Platoon of B Company (Lieutenant Rawley5) also came under Macdonald's command and was given the task of taking the first objective—a house about 400 yards short of the village itself. The line of advance followed a ridge rising north- eastward from the Pesa; bestriding the ridge's narrow back at its highest point stood San Michele, a mere clump of houses scattered sparsely along either side of a road. On its eastern side more especially the ground fell away steeply and was not practicable for tanks. At the further end of the village a road junction formed the shape of a badly crossed T. A Company occupied a parallel ridge to the east, and the German positions could be brought under its fire across the intervening valley.
The artillery opened up at 1 a.m. (29th) on the first objective, and 12 Platoon moved forward close behind the barrage until obliged by one of the guns firing short to stop for a time under cover. Eventually the house was taken without much difficulty. Fortunately for Rawley's men the German machine-gunner covering their line of advance had been wounded by the barrage and his gun did not come into action. Two Germans were killed and five made prisoner. An hour or so later two sections of the Mortar Platoon under Lieutenant Kelly came forward and took up positions from which to fire in support of D Company.
While 12 Platoon attacked the house, D Company moved forward on the right of the road. The enemy troops holding San Michele were all occupying houses lying on the forward slopes of the ridge. In spite of the warning barrage they were taken unawares by 16 Platoon (Lieutenant Lea) and after a short resistance the houses were taken. Six Germans were killed and five captured, while three of Lea's men were wounded. No further opposition was encountered and D Company moved into the village, where strongpoints were set up. No. 18 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant Smith) occupied the church page 272 at the north-eastern end of the village; 17 Platoon (Sergeant Dynes6) held the school some way farther back, and 16 Platoon was posted at the southern extremity, where Lea made strongpoints of three houses. On first reaching the church Smith had intended advancing to the crossroads at the north end of the village, some 250 yards farther on, as soon as the supporting tanks should come up. When they arrived, however, the troop commander flatly refused to move beyond the church. Major Macdonald, who came on the scene with Company Headquarters soon afterwards, agreed with Smith's idea of occupying the crossroads, but having also failed to persuade the tank commander to go further forward, he moved his headquarters into the crypt of the church occupied by 18 Platoon.
During the night Colonel Hutchens moved his headquarters back some two miles beyond the Pesa, leaving Major Aked at Castellare with the support weapons, in immediate control of A and D Companies' operations. Just before dawn four 6-pounder anti-tank guns and two guns of 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion, together with the two Sherman tanks of 19 Armoured Regiment, arrived in San Michele to strengthen the forces of D Company.
Having got his guns sited, Second-Lieutenant O'Brien, the Anti-Tank Platoon commander, started to return to Castellare. Calling on his way at 12 Platoon's position, he offered to take Rawley's five prisoners down with him in his jeep. He already had two wounded men of D Company, and with himself and his driver the jeep was crammed with passengers. It had gone scarcely more than thirty yards down the road when it struck a Teller mine, everyone in it being killed with the exception of O'Brien. The road, which had been previously reported safe, was thoroughly searched, but nothing was found and it could only be concluded that a German patrol had drawn the mine over the road by means of a wire.
Soon after it grew light the enemy began to plaster the village with shell and mortar fire, damaging some of the houses and forcing the garrisons to move out. Headquarters page 273 of 16 Platoon and one of its sections were driven to leave the houses they occupied and shift into a concrete barn nearby. There, at midday, they were attacked by a small body of Germans, two or three of whom climbed up a ladder into the barn loft. For a time these Germans had it all their own way, as they could not be reached from inside the building and were able to drop grenades on anyone attempting to move out from below. Two more Sherman tanks had advanced into San Michele and one of them came to 16 Platoon's assistance, but while manoeuvring so as to fire at the loft it overturned down a bank. Lea, however, contrived to release his imprisoned section by directing a machine gun in the remaining house to keep the Germans' heads down while his men made their exit, and soon afterwards another Sherman blasted away the barn's loft by gunfire. The whole platoon now occupied a single house, where it remained for the rest of the day. At 3 p.m. Lea sent out a patrol to seize a wrecked building fifty yards away so that one of the tanks might take up its position there. The patrol was successful, capturing the house and three prisoners, but no sooner had the tank arrived upon the scene than it was knocked out by a self-propelled gun firing from the ridge west of 12 Platoon's position.
The shelling died down for a while but broke out again with renewed intensity at 7.15 p.m., and soon afterwards Lea saw our two remaining tanks retreating past his position. As communication with Company Headquarters had been off since three o'clock, he decided to go personally and visit Macdonald. Posting his men in the basement of the house with only sentries above, he set off accompanied by a runner. Throughout the day enemy patrols, coming mainly from the north-east, had been making attempts on the village under cover of heavy shell and mortar fire, but all these attempts had been defeated, largely by flanking fire from A Company's position. But enemy mortar fire had driven our anti-tank crews with their guns into the church for shelter, and at 7.15, in spite of the thickness of its walls, the church began to collapse under the renewed bombardment. The anti-tank guns were already out of action when Tiger tanks were reported to be approaching, and our two remaining Shermans moved back. An enemy page 274 Mark IV came close and fired at point-blank range, driving 18 Platoon into the church crypt. It was at this stage that Lea arrived. Concluding that the village could no longer be held, Macdonald ordered him to rejoin his men and withdraw them. Soon afterwards Smith began to lead 18 Platoon out of the crypt. On gaining the courtyard behind the church he was fired upon by a spandau; his men stayed behind in the building, but Smith himself, accompanied by one man only, made his way safely back to the house occupied by 12 Platoon. Lea had also got away unhurt from the church, but on reaching the house his platoon was holding he found it covered at close range by an enemy tank. Since it was impossible to rejoin his men, he also went down to 12 Platoon's house, expecting to find the remainder of D Company, but Smith and one man were all who had arrived. After waiting half an hour the party returned to Castellare, taking with them a section of 17 Platoon that had been left to guard prisoners.
Returning to an earlier period of the battle, at 9 a.m. Lieutenant Kelly's mortar sections in position near 12 Platoon were called upon for a defensive shoot. As the area was already under enemy shellfire, Kelly decided to fire a mortar from one of the carriers so as to afford some protection for the gun crew. Three groups of ten rounds rapid were fired thus when enemy mortar shells began to fall round the carrier, and before long the crew was driven to take shelter in a barn nearby. The carrier was hit and caught fire. Corporal Jones7 made a brave attempt to drive it away, but the heat was too intense. Next, the hayloft of the barn was set alight, and our tanks in rear began to fire on it, imagining for some reason that it was held by the enemy. When the walls began to fall in Kelly withdrew his men and equipment to the house occupied by 12 Platoon. Nevertheless, the remaining mortar was not allowed to be silenced and an ingenious method for keeping it in action was soon devised. ‘The enemy shooting, which was very accurate’, writes Kelly, ‘made it impossible to mount and fire the mortar on the ground as its crew would have been exposed to shell fire. The carrier was therefore driven under the lee of 12 Platoon's house and the mortar mounted upon it. When a request page 275 for a shoot was received an NCO, driver, and one man would take the carrier into the courtyard of the house, line the mortar up, fire the required number of rounds, and then pull back to the house.’ By nightfall only ten rounds were unspent, and these were kept in reserve against some possible emergency.
Two sections of 17 Platoon, with two machine guns and an anti-tank gun, under command of Sergeant Dynes, held the school situated near the centre of San Michele. The anti-tank gun was knocked out by a shell early in the morning, and soon afterwards a light mortar opened fire on the building. This was soon silenced, but at 7 a.m. enemy self-propelled guns and tanks put down a heavy concentration, after which a body of Germans approached from the north-east, only to be dispersed by fire from A Company and the troops holding the church. Throughout the day 17 Platoon suffered the same sporadic shelling as the rest of D Company, and after the intense bombardment beginning at 7.15 the school was attacked persistently by infantry coming in from the west. All assaults were beaten off, but at nine o'clock, when ammunition was running low, New Zealand troops were seen running down the road from the church.8 Communication with Company Headquarters had broken down and Dynes could only assume that the village was being evacuated, but as shelling was still heavy and he had several wounded men on his hands he decided to hold on. Meanwhile Corporal Haar,9 who had behaved with great courage all day, undertook to go back to Castellare for instructions.
After Lea and Smith had gone Macdonald decided that it would not be possible to get his men out of the church. The only alternative being to stay and fight, he ordered everyone back to his post. An infantry attack was beaten off, and a Mark IV tank that came close in to fire was dealt with by an astonishing exploit. Private Swann10 had been badly concussed earlier in the day and at the time in question was lying in the basement, apparently helpless, but on the tank's approach he at once became alert in every faculty. Manning a Piat gun page 276 he fired four shots at the tank at a few yards' range, damaging it to an extent that sent it backing away out of sight. Again and again the church was hit by shells. Infantry made two more attempts to get in but on each occasion were driven off. Eventually the front of the building collapsed, forming a barricade across the doorway so effectually that when the Germans finally drew off at 11 p.m. it was no longer possible for Macdonald's men to get out.
Back at Castellare the responsibility for co-ordinating all supporting arms fell upon Major Aked. For two days and nights he had been without sleep or rest, as the officer detailed to relieve him had been unable to do so. Assuming from reports coming in that San Michele must be in German hands, he proposed to organise a counter-attack with the battalion's carrier platoon and Lea's men who had recently got back to Castellare. A liaison officer, however, arrived from 6 Brigade and told Aked that the counter-attack would be carried out by a company of 25 Battalion. Accordingly, at 1 a.m. on 30 July this company went forward after a preliminary bombardment and occupied San Michele without meeting any resistance.
Our bombardment fell heavily on the house occupied by 17 Platoon, whose men left the second story and sheltered as best they might in the ground floor. The house soon began to collapse, and several men were buried by falling rubble. Already wounded earlier in the day, Corporal Court11 performed gallant work in digging them out, and only desisted when knocked unconscious by a shell burst. He was awarded the MM. When at length B Company of 25 Battalion arrived on the scene, two men had been buried and killed by falling masonry.
When released from the church crypt Macdonald returned with his men to Castellare, and two hours later Turnbull led B Company forward into San Michele to share in its defence. Having held its advanced position since 28 July, A Company had suffered a number of casualties, and Private De Lury,12 an attached medical orderly, had risen magnificently to the page 277 occasion, tending wounded men under fire and carrying them to safety in a manner that earned him the MM. After being relieved by a company of 26 Battalion on 31 July, Howden took over from C Company at Castellare, thus allowing it to move up into San Michele and relieve the 25 Battalion company that had counter-attacked the village.
Meanwhile the Division had regrouped for the attack about to be undertaken now that San Michele was ours. Fifth Brigade had moved round to the right flank and now lay west of Route 2, slightly in advance of Cigliano and Casa Vecchia. Fourth Armoured Brigade was in the centre at La Romola, on the right of 26 Battalion, which still held the ground captured by A Company. B and C Companies of 24 Battalion held San Michele with the Divisional Cavalry on 6 Brigade's left. An hour before midnight on 1 August the attack went in. Next day 25 Battalion stormed Point 382, and with the capture of commanding heights on either side by other units of the Division on 3 August, the rampart of fortified hills protecting Florence was pierced. The high country lying west of the Greve valley was no longer tenable, and South African armour, moving along the line of Route 2, entered Florence on the morning of 4 August. The 24th Battalion, having had its share of action for the time being, was not engaged in the attack, its allotted task being that of establishing a collecting post for prisoners of war at Cerbaia.
On the fall of Florence the Division moved down the Pesa valley to the south of Montelupo, where 6 Brigade relieved 17 Indian Brigade. The enemy had withdrawn beyond the Arno, but he still sent fighting patrols across the river periodically. Sixth Brigade held the Division's central sector, and 24 Battalion had its headquarters at Villanova. The immediate object was to dominate all ground as far as the Arno's banks by means of strong fighting patrols, and at the same time to reconnoiter the river crossings. During the succeeding week this was successfully accomplished, and when 85 United States Division relieved the New Zealanders in mid-August, German patrols and listening posts had all been harried back across the Arno.
For ten days 6 Brigade stayed in the region of Siena, from page 278 where 24 Battalion sent off its men in three successive parties to a rest area at Cecina on the coast. Then, towards the end of August, the New Zealand Division left Siena at short notice, taking the usual unavailing precautions to ensure secrecy, crossed the Apennines in two long days' journey, and came to Iesi, near Ancona, on the Adriatic.
|Died of wounds
|Prisoners of war
4 He was awarded the MM for this exploit.
8 Presumably Lea, Smith, and the two men with them.