Documents Relating to New Zealand's Participation in the Second World War 1939–45: Volume II
330 — General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence
General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence
Except for two of the armoured regiments, your Division did not take part in the May offensive of Fifth and Eighth Armies which page 297 broke the Gustav and Adolf Hitler Lines. Early in April regrouping of the Armies was carried out, and we handed over our hard-won gains at Cassino to other formations and took over a sector in the north in the lower slopes of the Apennines which French troops had captured earlier in the year. The mountainous front gave little scope for offensive action except active patrolling at night. During the day all movement ceased as the high peaks gave both sides excellent observation over the other's positions and approach routes. Our job was to keep as many troops as possible occupied, and this I think we did in company with the British, Canadian, and South African brigades which were under our command.
Your Division was on the right of the Polish Corps when the main battle opened, and we were in close touch with them and our artillery supported the Polish Corps. Their attacks against the stony peaks north of Cassino and the assault by British divisions across the Rapido River, south of the town, were carried out with the greatest gallantry and skill, and after bitter fighting Cassino and the Monastery were outflanked and captured. The gains won by your Division in the Battle of Cassino during March proved of great value in these operations. In the outflanking movement which cut Route 6 our 19th Armoured Regiment supported the British infantry, and during the further advance the 18th Armoured Regiment played a distinguished part in the operations which broke the Adolf Hitler Line and drove the enemy back down the road to Rome.
Hard fighting along the whole front finally broke through Kessel-ring's defences and forced him to withdraw. From our mountain sector we also advanced. Infantry and tanks never lost contact and the enemy rearguards were driven in one after another. Demolitions were repaired and mines cleared, and our whole force deployed in the plain north of Atina. Moving north again, the enemy was driven into the high country north of Sora.
Rome fell on 5 June. The campaign to capture the Italian capital was long and hard but in the end a great victory was won, the enemy losing large numbers of prisoners and much equipment. Driven from ideal defensive country, the Germans have suffered a severe defeat both to their arms and their prestige.
After the fall of Rome the Allies pressed on their advance and in two months the enemy has been driven back north of the Arno River. For security reasons the part played by the 2nd New Zealand Division in these subsidiary operations did not receive any public notice until after some of the operations were over. Your force has actually been in action on two sectors of Eighth Army's front, first in the battle for Arezzo and then in the attack to drive the enemy north of Florence.page 298
After a fortnight's rest and training south of Rome, the Division was called forward to rejoin Eighth Army in the line. On the night of 8 July the Division began to move. The columns passed through the outskirts of Rome and northwards to an assembly area not far from Hannibal's battlefield at Lake Trasimene. By 13 July the 6th Infantry Brigade (under Brigadier Burrows) had taken over its sector of the line. The country facing them overlooked our positions. This Lignano feature had to be taken to cover the flank of the British Armoured Division and the Guards Brigade on our left, which were to drive through to Arezzo.
On the night of 14 July the 6th Brigade attacked under artillery bombardment. The 26th Battalion had already occupied high ground on the right. The 24th Battalion went forward in the centre and the 25th Battalion attacked Lignano peak itself. The attack was a complete success and by daybreak Lignano was firmly in our hands. While the infantry consolidated, armoured cars of the Divisional Cavalry Regiment and engineers pushed up the road on the enemy flank. Meanwhile, on our left the British attack went in and made good progress. The enemy did not counter-attack, and that night withdrew from Arezzo and our advance north was resumed.
The enemy continued to offer stubborn resistance wherever the nature of the country favoured defence, and on 21 July your Division was switched to another sector farther west on the left of the 6th South African Division, who had reached this area in their advance from south of Rome. Our role was to take over a narrow front and drive a wedge through to the Arno River, south-west of Florence. Florence itself is not a military objective as the city lies in a valley dominated from the north and south, but the object of the operations was to clear the enemy from the last high ground before his so-called Gothic Line is reached.
The Division took over its new sector on 21 July, and the next day the 5th Brigade (under Brigadier Stewart) advanced, supported by tanks of the 4th Armoured Brigade and covered by our artillery. For the next four days the 5th Brigade pushed the enemy gradually back in stiff fighting. As soon as an enemy position was taken by tanks and infantry attacking together, the tanks went on until they reached the next inevitable demolition, mined and covered by anti-tank guns and heavily armoured Tiger tanks armed with 88-millimetre guns. These enemy rearguards had to be driven back by artillery and infantry while the engineers built bridges or bulldozed tracks round demolitions. Action followed action. At every point where the enemy could fight a rearguard he held on grimly. The 6th Brigade (under Brigadier Burrows) and the 4th Armoured Brigade (under Brigadier Inglis) came into the line with the 5th Brigade, and for a fortnight the battle went on. The enemy tried hard to prevent page 299 a wedge being driven into his line south of the Arno River. He deployed all his available reserves and faced our advance with regiments of the 4th Parachute Division and 29th Panzer Grenadier Division. He kept our position under constant shellfire. He counterattacked our gains with infantry and tanks. In putting in counterattacks the enemy had to expose his forces, not only to our infantry and supporting weapons but also to the thousands of shells of our artillery (under our CRA, Brigadier Parkinson). The battlefield itself, as well as reports from prisoners, testified to the heavy losses the enemy suffered. Our policy in this operation was to deploy all our artillery, then attack and drive the enemy from his organised defences. This forced the enemy to hold unprepared rearguard positions on successive ridges with his infantry. We then hammered him with the full weight of our artillery, tanks, and close-support aircraft. We had over 150 field and medium guns for this operation capable of firing over 40,000 shells a day. Altogether the softening-up process proved very successful and we eliminated large numbers of the enemy.
On 26 July the 5th Brigade were held up short of Casciano town, which was on a spur dominating Route 2, the main road to Florence. That afternoon Casciano was dive-bombed by the Royal Air Force, and next morning it was occupied after slight opposition. The attack put us in a much stronger position, and from the tower of Casciano, Florence was clearly visible ten miles to the north. Farther west the 6th Brigade and tanks advanced the same day, won a bridgehead over the Pesa River, and captured the village of Cerbaia. Tanks were unable to cross at Cerbaia, but armoured cars of the Divisional Cavalry reconnoitred other crossings of the river and tanks were got across ready to meet enemy counter-attacks. The same day infantry and tanks of the 4th Armoured Brigade began to move through Casciano.
Heavy fighting ensued. The 6th Brigade advanced on the night of 27 July and captured the high ground beyond Cerbaia. This success caused violent enemy reaction, as the whole enemy position south of Florence was threatened. Strong counter-attacks were launched against the 6th Brigade one after another and we were forced to yield ground. Heavy counter-attacks continued throughout the 28th, the Germans throwing in their best troops, supported by Tiger tanks. Communications were cut and for a long time the situation was obscure. Then messages came through from one company that they were holding firm and then from another asking for more ammunition.
We were now in a most difficult situation as the village of San Michele, situated on a ridge on our left flank, dominated our new page 300 positions, and before any further progress could be made it was necessary to capture and occupy the village. An attack was staged on the night of the 28th when the village was taken by frontal attack.
On the 29th plans were made to attack again as soon as guns could be deployed forward of the Casciano Ridge. It was another day of heavy shellfire and activity along the whole front. That evening the enemy launched a strong surprise attack on San Michele with tanks and infantry rushed up in lorries. They came in so quickly that they got into Michele before defensive fire from the guns could be brought down. Again the fog of war descended over the town. Then enemy tanks were reported coming through south of San Michele, but their infantry were repulsed. We sent fresh tanks and infantry into the counter-attack in the early hours of the morning and San Michele was cleared of the enemy. When our counterattack closed on San Michele, they found our infantry holding on in demolished buildings just as the enemy paratroops did at Cassino. This dogged defence prevented the enemy infantry from getting possession of the village. Although enemy Tiger tanks had possession of the street of the town and had smashed the buildings in which our infantry had strongpoints, they could not clear the area, and without infantry support they had to withdraw when darkness came. This most gallant defence of San Michele discouraged any further counter-attacks and inflicted heavy losses on the enemy.
Owing to the hilly nature of the country and the winding roads, it was not possible to advance to any great depth. Instead each brigade had to push forward on a narrow front along the three ridges in separate though co-ordinated attacks. On 29 and 30 July limited advances were made, and on the night of the 30th the 5th Brigade attacked again to take the last high ground in front of Florence. This attack made excellent progress, and on the following night (31 July) the Maori Battalion and tanks got close to the top of the ridge. They held on there during 1 August and that night all three brigades again attacked. The 4th Brigade in the centre and the 6th Brigade on the left gained their objectives, but the 5th Brigade were themselves counter-attacked in assembly before their attack commenced and no progress was made. During 2 August our advanced positions held and that night the 5th Brigade also reached the top of the hill, the last dominating feature overlooking Florence. During 3 August tanks of the 4th Armoured Brigade fanned out and drove in the last enemy rearguards, who withdrew over the Arno, blowing the bridges behind them. In this final series of attacks infantry of the 5th Brigade and tanks of the 4th Armoured Brigade never gave the enemy any rest, and in skilfully executed attacks the wedge was driven right through to the river.page 301
When we attacked down the axis of the main road, Indian and South African divisions on our left and right respectively had con formed along the edge of our wedge, working through very difficult country and driving in enemy rearguards in their path. The South Africans and ourselves converged on the main road in the closing stages and South African tanks and infantry were the first to reach the outskirts of Florence. Kesselring's forces now occupy a portion of Florence north of the River Arno. They have blown all the bridges over the River Arno (except Ponte Vecchio) and appear prepared to fight in spite of their own declaration that Florence was an open city.
During this fighting your Division has played a notable and gallant part in Eighth Army's advance. I have just received the following message from General Kirkman,1 Commander of 13th Corps, which pays tribute to our troops:
Now that we have entered Florence, I should like to say how much 13th Corps owes to 2nd NZ Division during its recent fighting. In the battles for Arezzo and Florence your troops, as always, fought magnificently, and gave us the extra punch that was necessary to eject the enemy from his chosen positions in the very difficult country south of the River Arno.
The 2nd NZ Division has undoubtedly inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy, and I congratulate all ranks on their great success.
Since writing this report I have received the following message from General Leese:2
I must write to thank your Division for their great achievement in gaining the high ground before Florence, to which our recent success is so largely due.
The spirit they showed in their gallant attacks against determined opposition, their steadfastness under repeated counter-attacks and heavy shell and mortar fire, were beyond praise. This is the more noteworthy after their hard fighting earlier before Arezzo.
The recent feats of the New Zealanders will have added to the pride which their people at home feel in the Division, and to the laurels it had already won in Greece, Crete, and in the African campaign.
My best thanks to you, your staff, and the Brigade Commanders, and all my best wishes.
(Signed) Oliver Leese
We have now been fighting hard for nearly four years. Notwithstanding this, your Division continues to carry out the missions page 302 assigned to them. They never falter, or fail to capture an objective or hold a position once gained. Their conduct in these operations, as always, has been well up to the standard that is expected of them.
We have moved to a relatively quiet sector which will give us time to absorb our reinforcements. All goes well here in Italy and the men have recovered from the strain that these operations have imposed on them.
1 General Sir Sidney C. Kirkman, KBE, CB, MC; GOC 50th Division, 1943; commanded 13th Corps (Italy) 1944; GOC-in-C Southern Command, 1945; Deputy Chief of Imperial General Staff, 1945–47; Quartermaster-General to the Forces, 1947–.
2 Lieutenant-General Sir Oliver Leese, KCB, CBE, DSO; succeeded General Sir Bernard Montgomery as GOC Eighth Army in Jan 1944; previously commanded in turn West Sussex, 15th (Scottish), and Guards Armoured Divisions, 1941, and 30th Corps, 1942–3; GOC 8th Army, Jan–Oct 1944; commanded Allied Land Forces, South-East Asia, 1944–45; GOC Eastern Command, 1945–46.