Italy Volume II : From Cassino to Trieste
I: A Change in Plan
I: A Change in Plan
THE capture of Arezzo by 13 Corps on 16 July was followed by other successes: 2 Polish Corps broke through to Ancona on the Adriatic coast on the 18th and 4 United States Corps entered Leghorn on the Ligurian coast next day. These advances gave the Allied armies possession of two vital ports of supply—both of which had to be cleared of extensive demolitions before they could be used—and in Arezzo an administrative base for the planned offensive against the Gothic Line. The next objective was Florence, which was wanted as an operational base for such an offensive.
Thirteenth Corps' sector offered the easiest terrain for an advance to Florence—north-westwards from Arezzo down the valley of the Arno River. This valley, however, was dominated from the east by the rugged and almost unroaded Pratomagno massif and from the west by the comparatively gentle ridges of the Monti del Chianti. The corps advanced on a front of three divisions, with 6 British Armoured Division in the Arno valley, 6 South African Armoured Division on the western side of the Chianti mountains, and 4 British Infantry Division keeping contact between them. It soon became apparent that the enemy was determined to resist strongly in the Arno valley, where he had concentrated some of his best troops.
The widening of Eighth Army's front, when the French Expeditionary Corps of Fifth Army departed to prepare for the anvil expedition, gave another possible approach to Florence: west of the Chianti mountains. Thirteenth Corps, extending westwards, took over the French Corps' sector on Fifth Army's right flank, astride Route 2, which led northwards from Siena through Poggibonsi page 114 (captured by the French on 14 July) and San Casciano to the city. It was a region of rolling hills and many secondary roads and tracks, and according to Intelligence reports and the experiences of the French, was not as strongly defended as the Arno valley.
To take advantage of the expected lighter resistance in this sector, therefore, General Kirkman moved the weight of 13 Corps' attack westward. On the corps' right flank 6 Armoured Division was to continue its thrust down the eastern side of the Arno valley and 4 Division was to push down the western side of the lower slopes of the Chianti mountains; these two divisions were to contain the enemy facing them, maintain constant pressure and be prepared to take advantage of any opportunities. The 6th South African Armoured Division, which earlier had the subsidiary role of making down the valley of the River Greve (a tributary of the Arno), an outflanking move to assist the attack down the Arno, was now to take part in the major assault, with the Arno west of Florence for its objective. After the New Zealand Division and 8 Indian Division had relieved the French Expeditionary Corps, the New Zealanders were to share with the South Africans in this assault, and the Indians were to conform with the advance and cover the left flank.
The New Zealand Division was to relieve 2 Moroccan Division and pass through the leading troops as early as possible after dawn on 22 July; it was intended to thrust northwards from Castellina in Chianti (east of Poggibonsi), cut across Route 2 by San Casciano and occupy the Arno crossings at Signa, six or seven miles west of Florence. The Division's sector was only about three miles wide; it led north-north-westwards and included the secondary road running in that direction from Castellina, a short stretch of Route 2 and a network of minor roads and tracks beyond San Casciano.
In instructions issued on 21 July to the five divisions of 13 Corps General Kirkman directed that every effort should be made, with the help of Italian partisans where available, to secure bridges intact over the Arno, form bridgeheads north of the river, and even take advantage of any opportunity given by the enemy's weaknesses or disorganisation to penetrate the Gothic Line. He thought it more likely, however, that the enemy would withdraw in orderly bounds and be found firmly deployed in prepared defences in the Gothic Line. The corps commander also said that it was not his intention to become involved in serious street fighting in Florence, but to bypass the city if necessary. Florence was not to be shelled without sanction from Corps Headquarters.
General Kirkman informed General Freyberg in the afternoon of 20 July that the New Zealand Division would be called on for the assault on Florence. Orders were given and preparations made for the move of the Division's 4855 vehicles to Castellina, a distance of about 60 miles. The Division was divided into 14 convoys which, with the exception of 150 tracked vehicles of 4 Armoured Brigade, went by a route from Castiglion Fiorentino past Siena to Castellina; the tracked vehicles' route was from Castiglione del Lago past Sinalunga and Siena. The first convoys left on 21 July and the last two days later; they completed the journey with few mishaps. The usual security precautions were taken of not displaying New Zealand badges, titles and fernleaf signs, and wireless silence was enforced.
It was mid-summer. During the journey a man who had served in North Africa declared that ‘never before in all my life have I travelled over such a dusty road. The endless stream of vehicles had ground the surface into a light feathery dust which was six inches deep in places. There was little wind, and although the road wound up and down over broken hills and was only visible at scattered points, its whole length could be traced by the pall of dust hanging over it. Vehicles and occupants were covered with a chalky grey powder which gave them a ghastly unnatural appearance. Occasionally we had to drop to crawling speed because the swirling clouds limited visibility to the end of the bonnet. The route took us through the foothills of the Chianti mountains which were thickly wooded at first, later becoming barren and wind eroded as we made towards Siena.’ The convoys drove round the high, massive brick wall of the town, ‘but over the top we could see several domes and spires and some large buildings. A little further on we turned off the main route … down a side road to our new bivvy area, on the estate of some Italian count….
‘We have the trucks parked along a line of white mulberries bordering a lucerne paddock in the characteristic setting of wheat and maize patches crisscrossed by grapevines supported on topped maples…. A very striking thousand yard avenue of upright Italian cypresses runs from the main gates up to the residence…. The long line of sombre dark green spires forms a striking contrast with the yellow brown background of rolling hills. The final two hundred yards leading to the house is flanked on either side by groves of fine old ashes, beeches and maritime pines…. The place has been very pretty but is now in a state of neglect.’1
1 Diary, B. C. H. Moss.
Divisional Headquarters issued an operation order in the evening of the 21st which said the intention was to advance and capture crossings over the River Arno at Signa. Fifth Brigade was to relieve 2 Moroccan Division and then advance against the enemy as early as possible next day. The remainder of the Division was to remain south of Castellina on three hours' notice until called forward. Three Royal Artillery regiments came under the Division's command—70 and 75 Medium Regiments and 142 Army Field Regiment1 (self-propelled)—and in support was B Flight of 655 Air Observation Post Squadron. The Division also took over temporarily some armoured and artillery units which had been supporting 2 Moroccan Division.
On the night of 21–22 July 5 Brigade relieved two battalions of 2 Moroccan Division five or six miles north-west of Castellina, with 23 Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas2) on the right at San Donato in Poggio and 28 (Maori) Battalion (Lieutenant- Colonel Young) on the left between the Castellina – San Donato road and Route 2. Each battalion was supported by two platoons of medium tanks and one of light tanks from 757 US Tank Battalion; in addition, 23 Battalion had two troops of A Squadron, Divisional Cavalry, and a platoon of 7 Field Company under command, and 28 Battalion had one troop of A Squadron, Divisional Cavalry, a platoon of 7 Field Company and 5 Brigade Heavy Mortar Platoon. The 5th Field Regiment was deployed two and a half miles north-west of Castellina.
The 23rd Battalion completed the relief of 2 Battalion, 8 Moroccan Infantry Regiment, before midnight and sent out patrols, one of which met opposition on a ridge (Point 337) a mile and a half to the north along the road to Sambuca. The Maori Battalion, whose sector was farther from the road, took until dawn to complete the relief of 2 Battalion, 5 Moroccan Infantry Regiment.
The codeword (skegness) for the start of 5 Brigade's advance was circulated by Divisional Headquarters by a signal timed 1.30 p.m. on 22 July; this allowed units operationally engaged to use their wireless sets, and also permitted the display again of New Zealand titles, badges and fernleaf signs.
1 142nd Royal Devon Yeomanry Field Regiment, with 105–mm. howitzers on tank chassis.
2 Brig W. B. Thomas, DSO, MC and bar, m.i.d., Silver Star (US); Germany; born Nelson, 29 Jun 1918; bank officer; CO 23 Bn 1944–45; 22 Bn (Japan) Oct 1945–Nov 1946; wounded and p.w. 25 May 1941; escaped Nov 1941; returned to unit May 1942; twice wounded; British Army, 1947–; comd 12 Inf Bde, Germany, 1964–.
When the New Zealand Division went into the line for the assault on Florence, the Polish Corps, in the Adriatic coastal sector, had crossed the Esino River, between Ancona and Senigallia, and was steadily pushing the enemy back towards the main defences of the Gothic Line, the eastern flank of which rested on Pesaro. In 10 Corps' mountainous sector armoured car patrols were operating on a wide front east of 10 Indian Division, which was working its way northward along the Tiber valley, and 4 Indian Division was in the rugged country north-east of Arezzo.
On 13 Corps' right flank 6 British Armoured Division, advancing in a north-westerly direction from Arezzo to clear the eastern side of the Arno valley, had not progressed far beyond the southern end of the Pratomagno massif, and 4 British Division, on a narrow front extending into the foothills of the Monti del Chianti, was less than half-way along Route 69 (the road from Arezzo to Florence).1 Farther west 6 South African Armoured Division was clearing the defences on the main features of the Monti del Chianti to permit an advance along a secondary road to Greve, south of Florence. Thirteenth Corps' front continued westward through the New Zealand Division's sector to where 8 Indian Division relieved 4 Moroccan Mountain Division, which had reached a line stretching north-westwards along the Elsa River to Castelfiorentino. The command of the part of the front taken over by the New Zealand and Indian divisions passed from the French Expeditionary Corps of Fifth Army to 13 Corps of Eighth Army at midnight on 22–23 July.
Fifth Army, reduced to a front of four divisions to release troops for the landing in southern France, penetrated over Route 67 (the road from Florence to Pisa and Leghorn), entered the southern part of Pisa on 23 July, and began to regroup along the Arno.
East of the boundary between the two German armies, 76 Panzer Corps held the line from the Monti del Chianti across the Arno valley between Florence and Arezzo with seven divisions, one of which was in the process of relieving the Hermann Goering Division, destined to leave the Italian front, and another (1 Parachute Division) was to be withdrawn to Rimini on the Adriatic coast. The line from the Tiber valley through the mountains to the coast was held by 51 Mountain Corps with four divisions.
The enemy had few reserves behind the front line he could call upon if necessary. North of Pisa two German Air Force divisions were being converted into one formation. Spezia, on the Ligurian coast, was garrisoned by a fortress brigade; the coast east and west of Genoa was covered by a German division, and another was guarding the Franco-Italian frontier with the Italian Army Liguria. Tenth Army had one division in reserve at Bologna. A Turcoman division of doubtful reliability was watching the Adriatic coast south of Ravenna, and 1 Parachute Division, as it was withdrawn from the Arno valley, went into position south of Rimini, in rear of the Adriatic flank of the Gothic Line. The German High Command was still apprehensive of seaborne landings behind the front.
Field Marshal Kesselring knew from experience that the mobility of the Allied armies enabled them to attack with little warning at widely separated parts of the front. His own Army Group C, on the other hand, was handicapped by its lack of transport and the continual interruption of communications by the almost unopposed Allied bombing, and therefore had difficulty in transferring formations rapidly from one sector to another. To guard against a breakthrough which might cut in behind and encircle part of his forces, he had to cover as wide a front as possible and fall back evenly across that front. As he could not expect to receive sufficient reinforcements for use as a mobile reserve or as a counter-attack force, his tactics could be only a step-by-step withdrawal under pressure to keep his line intact.
The Advance to Florence, 14 July – 4 August 1944
1 The German withdrawal towards the Arno was based on a series of phase lines known by girls' names, which included Irmgard, Karin, Maedchen, Nora, Olga and Paula. These were not connected areas of fortified or even dug-in defences, but merely lines of withdrawal marked on the map where the topography seemed to offer advantageous delaying positions. The Heinrich Line appears to have been the name given to the line of the Arno River from the sea to about the Elsa River confluence; later, when it was extended eastwards across the north of Florence, it was referred to as the Heinrich Mountain Line.