Italy Volume II : From Cassino to Trieste
II: The Pesa Valley
II: The Pesa Valley
The New Zealand Division was now in the Chianti country, famous for its wine, a closely settled region of undulating ridges, slopes and gullies, where thickly wooded land alternated with olive groves, vineyards, crops of wheat and cereals, and where innumerable stone-built farmhouses and hamlets were interspersed with handsome villas. Many of these buildings were to become strongpoints for defence and targets for attack.
This became known as the ‘Tiger country’ because of the many German Tiger (Mark VI) 60-ton tanks encountered there. The Sherman was considered no match for the Tiger.2 ‘From the moment the Tiger appeared it became a kind of bogey, and the air was full of rumours of more and more Tigers lying in wait just ahead; just as in the desert every German gun was an “eighty-eight”, so here every tracked vehicle heard over in German territory was a Tiger. The natural result was that, quite suddenly, the New Zealand tanks became more cautious than they had ever been before…. The high mutual regard of New Zealand tanks and infantry was in danger.’3 The Chianti country appeared to offer no advantages for the attacking armour: it was intersected by shallow watercourses and narrow roads which could be obstructed by mines and demolitions. Much of the advance would have to be made across country, where the tanks would have to grope almost blindly among the trees and vines.
2 Although twice the size of a Sherman and armed with an 88-mm. gun, the Tiger had its disadvantages. In Neither Fear Nor Hope, pp. 263–4, General von Senger says that ‘dozens of these monsters had fallen out of the fighting because even when only slightly damaged we had no means of dragging them away…. If a Tiger became temporarily immobile, it could only be towed away by another Tiger. Such targets were very conspicuous to the enemy with his good air and artillery observation and were soon under fire, which inevitably caused further damage to their propelling mechanism….’
3 18 Battalion and Armoured Regiment, p. 521.
Fifth Infantry Brigade was to start the New Zealand Division's advance towards the Arno. The intention was that on the right 23 Battalion was to follow the axis of the secondary road leading north-west from San Donato in Poggio into Route 2, and from Sambuca was to continue on the eastern side of the Pesa River; on the left 28 (Maori) Battalion was to take the side road which turned off westward just south of San Donato and swung north-westward to join Route 2 by Tavarnelle in Val di Pesa, and was to follow Route 2 as far as Strada and then turn left on to the side road which ran north-westwards along the west of the Pesa valley.
The first objective (codename buffalo) was about three miles north of San Donato, the second (montreal) another mile and a half, and the third (quebec) a further mile and a half.1 These were phase lines rather than objectives; they were intended to indicate the rate and extent of the advance. Both battalions were to keep in contact with the enemy and force him to continue withdrawing; until they met a strong defence needing a set-piece attack, they were to conduct their own advances, with Brigade Headquarters co-ordinating times and objectives. Until relieved by 18 NZ Armoured Regiment, the tanks of 757 US Tank Battalion were to stay in support of 23 and 28 Battalions. Provision was made for the field and medium artillery to move forward as required in support.
At daybreak on the 22nd troops of 23 Battalion prepared to advance against the enemy posts identified by patrols the previous night, and the artillery was asked to fire on Point 337, a mile and a half beyond San Donato, and to harass all likely defences on the route to Sambuca. The 5th Field Regiment began firing at 6.20 a.m.
C Company pushed westward along a ridge towards Point 357, which a platoon quickly occupied, and took a few prisoners from 4 Parachute Division. B Company had a more difficult task. About a mile north of San Donato a side road led off to the north-west towards Morocco and Tavarnelle, and near the road fork the settlement of San Martino a Cozzi would have to be occupied before the battalion could advance up either the road to Sambuca or the road to Morocco. Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas therefore ordered B Company to capture San Martino.
1 The codenames of subsequent objectives of 5 Bde's advance were savannah, Concord, douglas, hamilton, vancouver, omaha.
1 Lt-Col J. A. Worsnop, MBE; born Makotuku, 31 Jan 1909; Regular soldier; 1 Army Tk Bn 1942–43; CO Div Cav, Japan, 1946; wounded 22 Jul 1944; Area Officer, Christchurch; died Christchurch, 24 Jul 1957.
This action was considered invaluable in permitting the later advances on 23 Battalion's front, but it had not been intended that the infantry should attack without tank support.1 Several American Sherman tanks were in harbour close to San Donato, but their commander had been unwilling to become involved in 23 Battalion's attack as he was waiting for the New Zealand tanks to take over. He said his instructions had been ‘not to lose a tank or risk one.’2 Later, however, the Americans ignored these instructions.
While B Company was dealing with San Martino, A Company did not go beyond the road fork. Its objectives were Point 337 and the settlement of Ginestra, farther along the road to Sambuca. A Company, also without tank support, captured Point 337, but was counter-attacked and forced to withdraw. Thomas ordered the company commander (Major Hoseit3) to regain the point. Some of the American tanks, a troop of New Zealand tanks and two troops of A Squadron, Divisional Cavalry, went forward to assist, and 5 Field Regiment gave supporting fire. By dusk A Company had retaken Point 337 and occupied some of the houses at Ginestra.
When D Company, accompanied by two troops of A Squadron, 18 Armoured Regiment, started an advance to Morocco, the leading troop of tanks, either by mistake or through receiving a request to help A Company, continued along the Sambuca road instead of turning on to the Morocco road and took part in the counter-attack which regained Point 337. These tanks then wheeled left across country to join the other troop of tanks with D Company on the Morocco road.
D Company and the tanks spread across the fields bordering the Morocco road and made excellent progress. ‘The country was gently undulating and we went sweeping forward beneath the scattered olive trees, with farmhouses showing up here and there at the end of lanes running in from the main road…. When a house, appearing through the trees, looked to house the enemy, the tanks blazed away with their 75s as they advanced. The enemy was on the run. Without the armour I don't expect we should have got very far,’ says one of the platoon commanders.4
1 The GOC's diary says: ‘Policy was not to push on until the tanks were up.’
2 23 Battalion, p. 362.
3 Maj W. Hoseit; born Oamaru, 5 Dec 1911; manufacturer; killed in action 23 Jul 1944.
4 R. T. Street, quoted in 23 Battalion, p. 365.
5 Codename for a method of fire in which each gun was laid against a pin-point target with the object that each round should hit the target.
When Thomas heard of D Company's success, he changed the plan he had made for C Company with tanks and engineers to attack up the Sambuca road through A Company next morning, and ordered C with all available support to go immediately to Morocco. C Company was relieved at Point 357 by a platoon from 28 Battalion and, travelling on seven of A Squadron's tanks and other vehicles, set off to join D Company. The combined force advanced to a road junction a short way beyond Morocco and laagered overnight. The engineers cleared the road through Morocco, which had been partially blocked by demolitions.
Meanwhile, during the morning of 22 July, 28 (Maori) Battalion concentrated on the road which led westwards from just south of San Donato and then north-westwards towards Tavarnelle. In the afternoon patrols, reconnoitring the ground over which the battalion was to advance, exchanged fire with parties of the enemy, took a few prisoners, and reported that the enemy was occupying the village of Tignano, less than two miles from Tavarnelle, but apparently not in any strength. Before the advance began 5 Field Regiment laid down fire on positions where the enemy had been observed.
The Maoris set off shortly after 7 p.m. with B Company covering the right flank east of the road, C in the centre, D west of the road, and A in reserve. Half of B Squadron, 18 Armoured Regiment, joined C Company; the other half was in reserve. Machine-gun and mortar fire was met on rising ground leading to Tignano, but under cover of fire from the tanks and mortars, C Company converged on the village, overcame the opposition and took a few more prisoners. B and D Companies passed on each side of Tignano and converged on Spicciano, farther along the road, where they stopped after dislodging small groups of the enemy. The sappers of 7 Field Company cleared a passage for the tanks past demolitions and mines.
The Germans had observed on 21 July that the Allies were bringing up reinforcements on 1 Parachute Corps' front, particularly in the area south of Tavarnelle, and next day that the Allied page 124 preparations had increased still further. Guns and many vehicles could be seen, especially in the area east of the Poggibonsi-Florence road. Statements by prisoners of war indicated that a new formation, ‘presumably 2 NZ Div’,1 had come into the line. Fourteenth Army ordered 1 Parachute Corps to hold the Nora Line (Strada- Fabbrica) until at least the evening of 23 July.
On the 22nd 4 Parachute Division extended its front eastwards by taking over part of 356 Division's sector, an alteration which brought the New Zealand Division's line of assault exclusively against the parachute division. Fourteenth Army reports describe the attacks on 1 Parachute Corps' front, including those south and south-east of Tavarnelle, where ‘after fierce fighting our battle outposts withdrew to the FDLs.’2 The 23rd Battalion of the New Zealand Division was identified by the capture of five men from B Company.
C Company of 23 Battalion, accompanied by half of A Squadron, 18 Regiment, left the road junction near Morocco at 4.30 a.m. on 23 July and within an hour and a half had occupied the hamlet of La Rocca. Beyond La Rocca the enemy withdrew behind demolitions, one of which he blew little more than 100 yards in front of the leading tank. C Company crossed Route 2 to the village of Strada, on a secondary road leading to the north-west. There the defence included spandau, mortar and ofenrohr fire, but the tanks ‘hammered the buildings with all their weapons while the infantry moved in, and Jerry fled, abandoning one of his bazookas.’3 C Company was in possession of Strada by 7.15 a.m., and another group of buildings called Case Poggio Petroio about midday.
The artillery engaged a German tank reported at Point 322, by Villa Strada, a large house (known to the New Zealanders as the Castle) not far to the north of Strada. One of A Squadron's tanks was hit by an anti-tank shell from somewhere near Villa Strada, and burst into flames before the crew could get clear. Early in the afternoon C Company was directed on Point 322, but was forced to fall back. So intense was the fire from this locality that it was decided not to renew the attack that afternoon.
2 Fourteenth Army's diary says on 22 July that the ‘enmity of the Italian civilian population in the forward areas was observed to be greatly increased; it showed itself mainly in support given to the enemy—guiding patrols, giving away our positions, etc. In one divisional sector 26 Italians were shot as a reprisal.’
3 18 Battalion and Armoured Regiment, p. 504.
The Maori Battalion resumed the advance from the Tignano area at 5 a.m. on the 23rd and in a little over two hours entered Tavarnelle without opposition. It was then learnt that 23 Battalion, by attacking Strada, had crossed 28 Battalion's axis of advance (Route 2). Brigadier Stewart therefore directed the Maori Battalion to take a road north of Tavarnelle instead of Route 2, with Villa Bonazza as its immediate objective. After some delay caused by machine-gun fire and mines, C Company moved up this road, followed by half of B Squadron, 18 Regiment, with B Company keeping level on the right. Both companies were fired on by guns and mortars located mostly in the Villa Strada area, where tanks were also seen.
From the direction of Villa Bonazza ‘fast tank shells came whistling down the road…. [B Squadron's tanks] began to shoot up the villa and its grounds, but this brought on a savage reaction from Jerry, and a Tiger tank beside a little cemetery on the right flank hit and burnt two Shermans in quick succession.’1 A third troop of B Squadron came up to join in the battle with the Tiger, which left the cemetery and, while heading across a gully towards Route 2, was damaged beyond repair and finally blown up by its crew. This was the first Tiger tank claimed by the New Zealand Shermans.
During the day 18 Regiment's padre (Captain Gourdie2) pulled the men out of two burning tanks, and repeatedly exposed himself to shell and machine-gun fire to take carrier loads of wounded men back to the RAP.
1 18 Battalion and Armoured Regiment, p. 508. Dawson gives the regiment's casualties for the day as six killed and 11 wounded.
2 Rev. R. McL. Gourdie, DSO, ED; Shannon; born Ashburton, 21 Apr 1913; Anglican minister; SCF J Force Nov 1945–Jun 1946.
3 Lt P. W. Patrick; Auckland; born Waerenga, 15 Nov 1921; clerk.
Brigadier Stewart gave 23 Battalion orders in the morning of 23 July to occupy Sambuca, but not to continue beyond the bound montreal (the junction of the Sambuca road and Route 2). Also, Divisional Cavalry's armoured cars were to establish contact with 6 South African Division's troops on the right flank. Lieutenant- Colonel Thomas therefore instructed A Company to continue to Sambuca and Fabbrica with supporting arms and an additional troop of A Squadron of Divisional Cavalry under command.
This force came under increasing shell and mortar fire as it approached the western bank of the Pesa; it found that the bridge had been destroyed at Sambuca, but took the village, crossed the river, and continued towards Fabbrica, a village on a hillside more than a mile to the north. The impression was gained from Italians that the enemy had left Fabbrica,2 and this seemed to be confirmed when no fire came from the village.
The vehicles were held up at a demolition where the road crossed a stream, but about 7.30 p.m. the infantry continued to the foot of the hill on which Fabbrica stood, where they were within easy range of the buildings overlooking them. At this point mortars and machine guns opened fire on the men in the open, who went to ground, and artillery fire was directed on the road around Company Headquarters. A request was sent back for a stonk on Fabbrica, but some of the artillery fire fell short. The house in which Company Headquarters had been set up received a direct hit by an enemy shell, which killed Major Hoseit and wounded several of his men. Orders were given for the company to withdraw, which it did with the assistance of covering fire from the Staghounds.
1 28 (Maori) Battalion, p. 393.
2 The Italians may have given false information because of the threat of German reprisals, but there is no proof of this.
3 General Lemelsen had replaced General von Mackensen as the commander of Fourteenth Army.
Late on 23 July Fourteenth Army issued orders that 1 Parachute Corps was to delay the Allies as long as possible after they had launched their expected attack on Florence. To enable the Paula Line south of the city to be prepared for a prolonged defence, 1 Parachute Corps was to hold another line (the Olga Line) several miles farther south until the evening of 25 July at the earliest.
Fourteenth Army's evening report on 23 July states that the New Zealand and South African divisions had attacked the centre and left of 1 Parachute Corps in strength. ‘Very hard fighting took place, in which 4 Para Div particularly distinguished itself. Both sides lost heavily. All attacks were beaten off, and a decisive success was gained….’ In a discussion with Lemelsen, General Alfred Schlemm (commander of 1 Parachute Corps) reported that ‘Terrible fighting was in progress on 4 Para Div's front; the division had New Zealanders opposite it.’1
On the morning of 23 July General Freyberg was so satisfied with the way the advance was developing that he anticipated a speedy collapse of the German defences. He therefore decided not to bring 6 Brigade into the attack at that stage, but instead to send Divisional Cavalry through 5 Brigade when it had reached the bound quebec (about 12 miles in a straight line from Florence) with the intention of driving to the Arno to try to save some of the bridges. Later in the day the reports of the opposition on 5 Brigade's front indicated that there was no immediate prospect of Divisional Cavalry accomplishing this task.
Nevertheless the GOC continued to be hopeful of the enemy's early withdrawal behind the Arno, and he wished to be fully prepared to follow up such a withdrawal as closely as possible. He considered bringing up 22 (Motor) Battalion and an armoured regiment with Headquarters 4 Armoured Brigade on the right, but it was felt that until 5 Brigade got further ahead there would not be enough room.
In the evening of 23 July Stewart arranged with Thomas that 23 Battalion's D Company at Strada should send a patrol at 3 a.m. to Point 322 (near Villa Strada), where the enemy had resisted most strongly, to discover if he was still there. If he appeared to be thinning out, D Company was to stage an attack. If not, 21 Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Thodey1) was to pass through the 23rd with fresh tanks and take up the advance.
D Company's patrol reported that enemy troops were still around Point 322 but vehicles and tanks had been heard withdrawing. Thomas called for artillery fire on the objective, and about 6 a.m. sent D Company forward. The infantry infiltrated across country under cover of a heavy mist, and tanks of A Squadron, 18 Armoured Regiment, followed along the road. When the mist lifted the company came under machine-gun fire. The tanks encountered demolitions, and two were blown up on mines. Mortar and artillery fire swept the road. The attack was called off, and arrangements were put in hand for 21 Battalion to relieve the 23rd, which was to go back to the vicinity of Morocco to rest. This relief was completed late in the evening of the 24th.2
Meanwhile a patrol from B Company, 23 Battalion, reconnoitred along Route 2 from Strada to the Pesa River and found that the highway had been much damaged by demolitions. As might be expected, the bridge over the river had been blown.
The Maori Battalion, having gained the bound montreal, resumed the advance north of Villa Bonazza on the morning of 24 July, with C Company on the right, D on the left and B in reserve, and with two troops of B Squadron, 18 Regiment, in close support. A platoon from A Company (which was at Tavarnelle), two Staghounds and some Bren carriers worked along the road north of Noce to protect the left flank, where 8 Indian Division had not yet drawn level.
1 Col J. I. Thodey, DSO, m.i.d.; Perth; born Gisborne, 8 Dec 1910; life assurance officer; CO 21 Bn Jul–Oct 1944, May–Dec 1945.
2 The 23rd Bn's total casualties during the three days 22–24 July were 94, including 21 dead.
A Company of 21 Battalion, having relieved D Company, 23 Battalion, after dusk on the 24th, set off along the road from Strada, supported by two troops of C Squadron, 18 Regiment (which had replaced A Squadron), and with C Company following in a reserve role. The leading infantry was reported on the line of the bound quebec about 2 a.m. As 28 Battalion was cutting in ahead on the Strada – San Pancrazio road, 21 Battalion was directed on to the road leading off to the north from the crossroads secured by the Maoris. A Company followed this road down a long spur towards the Pesa River. Mines and demolitions had to be cleared to allow the tanks through, and in the afternoon the company was brought to a halt by enemy in buildings near the end of the ridge, from which the road descended to a bridge, already demolished, on the Pesa. Route 2, on the other side of the river, turned at right angles not far from the wrecked bridge to climb a spur to San Casciano.
A Company laid on an attack which at first went well, but as the infantry and tanks approached the river they came under mortar and artillery fire, mostly from the San Casciano spur. A Sherman was knocked out. The infantry took up positions along the road leading to the demolished bridge, and stayed there next day.
1 The Panther (Mark V) tank weighed about 50 tons and mounted a 75–mm. gun.
2 18 Battalion and Armoured Regiment, p. 512. Dawson says ‘A self-propelled “tank buster” [an M10] from 7 Anti-Tank Regiment had a crack at it but was knocked out.’ There is no mention of this in 7 A-Tk Regt's records.
Meanwhile changes took place on the Division's right flank, east of the Pesa River. A Company of 23 Battalion, after being repulsed at Fabbrica, was replaced on the night of 23–24 July by B Company, 21 Battalion, which in turn was withdrawn next night when 21 Battalion relieved the 23rd at Strada. The front east of the Pesa was then taken over by a composite force called Armcav, under the command of Major H. A. Robinson1 and comprising A Squadron of 19 Regiment, C Squadron of Divisional Cavalry, 2 Company and a section of carriers from 22 (Motor) Battalion, a troop of M10s, detachments of engineers, machine-gunners and signalmen, a bridge-layer tank and a bulldozer.
Armcav, under 5 Brigade's command, was to follow up the enemy's withdrawal on Route 2 and maintain contact with the South Africans on the right. It was hoped that, with 5 Brigade advancing fast on the western side of the Pesa and the South Africans pressing forward on the east, the enemy holding across Route 2 would fall back under the threat of encirclement.
Early on the morning of 25 July Armcav occupied a deserted Fabbrica and reached the road junction near the Route 2 crossing of the Pesa without opposition. While the main part of Armcav continued northward along Route 2, a detachment including armoured cars took a more easterly route through the hills from Fabbrica. The main part of the force entered Bargino on Route 2 about midday, but was delayed in the afternoon by demolitions and mines and came under long-range shellfire. The bridge over the Terzona stream (which flowed into the Pesa) had been blown, and movement in the vicinity before nightfall brought shell and mortar fire from German positions at San Casciano.
1 Robinson had relinquished command of 18 Armd Regt on 18 July.
Sixth New Zealand Infantry Brigade, having fought in the Arezzo sector, had been held in reserve during the initial stages of the advance to Florence, but had been kept well forward so that, when required, it could pass through 5 Brigade and maintain the impetus of the advance. Divisional Headquarters issued orders at 7 p.m. on the 25th that 5 Brigade was to continue the advance during the night to a line running through Montagnana to a bridge over the Pesa west of Cerbaia. When this objective had been secured, and at a time to be decided by the two brigade commanders, 6 Brigade was to pass through the 5th, establish a bridgehead over the Pesa in the vicinity of Cerbaia and advance northwards to a line west of the Pian dei Cerri hills3 and about half-way to Signa. On the same night Armcav was to capture San Casciano and remain responsible for the protection of the Division's right flank. Next day (the 26th) 5 Brigade was to patrol to the north-west and 4 Armoured Brigade was to be prepared to operate to the east and north-east of 6 Brigade's objective.
3 Pian: small plain or plateau. Cerri: Turkey (southern European) oaks. The name is loosely applied to the group of wooded hills in the vicinity of the Pian dei Cerri.
As 5 Brigade's front was gradually narrowing between the Pesa River and the Division's western boundary, Brigadier Stewart decided to let 21 Battalion alone continue the advance while 28 Battalion protected the axis road from the west until 8 Indian Division drew level on the flank.
Shortly after midnight on 25–26 July B and D Companies of 21 Battalion were sent up (on foot, because 6 Brigade's transport, now on the way forward, had priority on the road) to relieve the leading troops of 28 Battalion. The enemy counter-attacked the Maoris that night, and Major Awatere1 therefore decided to leave his men forward with 21 Battalion's. A platoon from the 21st and one of C Squadron's tanks went along the road to the north-west and soon met strong opposition. Three enemy machine-gun posts were silenced, but fire from mortars and what was claimed to be a Tiger tank forced the party to retire with half a dozen casualties.
The GOC gave orders that there was to be no infantry attack in daylight on the 26th. The forward positions were shelled and mortared throughout the day. A Company, 21 Battalion, still near the demolished Pesa bridge, was under fire from the San Casciano spur. This slackened towards evening, but when three of C Squadron's tanks attempted to reconnoitre a possible ford, they were caught in a fresh outburst of shelling; all three were hit and one was set alight.
1 Lt-Col A. Awatere, DSO, MC; Rotorua; born Tuparoa 25 Apr 1910; civil servant; CO 28 Bn Jul–Aug 1944, Nov 1944–Jun 1945; twice wounded. Lt-Col Young was forced by illness to relinquish command of 28 (Maori) Bn on 25 July and was succeeded by Awatere.
The fire from San Casciano was sufficient to prevent Armcav from making any progress beyond the Terzona stream, about a mile and a half south of the town. Reports were received that Tiger tanks and anti-tank guns were defending San Casciano, which was shelled and twice raided spectacularly by fighter-bombers. Patrols sent out eastward in the afternoon met South African patrols and learnt that the enemy was still holding strongly in the Mercatale area.
General Freyberg, feeling that he should not leave the Division at this time, deputed Brigadier Inglis on 26 July to receive His Majesty the King when he passed through the New Zealand sector while visiting the troops in Italy. Only men from the units not in action, which included part of 4 Brigade and 23 Battalion, were available to line a road about 20 miles from Florence to cheer King George, who sent the General a message that he was sorry he had not been able to see him but quite understood.
Fifth Brigade's plan for the night of 26–27 July was for 21 Battalion to continue the advance north-westwards to the village of Montagnana, while 28 (Maori) Battalion guarded the western flank until 8 Indian Division drew level.
With strong artillery support, D Company of 21 Battalion, accompanied by some 17-pounder guns and sappers with a bulldozer, and joined later by tanks of C Squadron, 18 Regiment, led the advance along the road past San Quirico to where it forked about a mile and a half from Montagnana. B Company, without support, went along tracks and across rough country to the nearby village of La Ripa, which it reached unopposed. Word was sent back immediately that the way was clear for 6 Brigade.
When troops of 26 Battalion, coming up for the attack across the Pesa River, reached La Ripa, it was decided to pass B Company, 21 Battalion, through D Company to continue the advance to Montagnana. B Company was joined by a party of tanks, 17-pounders and engineers, and set off before dawn on the 27th. The enemy offered little resistance, but left freshly-blown demolitions and mines, which kept the sappers busy clearing a passage. As the light improved the company found that it was following a road along a spur in full view of the enemy on the high ground across the Pesa. Although several salvoes of shells were directed on the road, the German gunners appeared to be more concerned with the 6 Brigade troops gathering near the river. A report that Tiger tanks were in Montagnana was found to be incorrect, and B Company entered the village without opposition.page 134
The havoc in a large mansion in Montagnana suggested that its owner might have incurred reprisal for pro-Allied sentiment, ‘for everything possible, furniture, glass, earthenware and oil paintings had been destroyed, presumably by the enemy. Even the wine casks in the cellar had been broached.’1 In the neighbouring village of Montegufoni, however, a property owned by the English family of Sitwell happily had escaped this fate. None of the family was in residence and the house had been taken over by the Italians to store a priceless collection of paintings. Apart from being structurally suitable for storage, it was situated in a hollow unlikely to be a defended position, which no doubt helped to preserve its treasures.
Two Divisional Cavalry men discovered that the only occupant of the Sitwell's house ‘seemed to be a gentle old Italian with the air of a Major Domo. We felt rather like Barbarians in this house with its aristocratic atmosphere and we in our common army boots. Stacked around the walls were dozens of pictures and the largest of all was leaning against a table. This huge dark canvas commanded our attention…. I'm no art connoisseur, but I knew that this was Botticelli's Primavera. We were rather awestruck. Naturally we didn't know that UNRRA2 were waiting to take care of the place, but we knew it should be reported immediately.’3
The occupation of Montagnana brought 5 Brigade to its final objective, the bound OMAHA.4 The Maori Battalion occupied positions along the open western flank. Because 6 South African Armoured Division had been unable to keep pace on 5 Brigade's other (eastern) flank, it was necessary for the New Zealand Division to clear Route 2 and make a frontal assault on San Casciano while 6 Brigade exploited 5 Brigade's success and crossed the Pesa to make a left hook round the north-west of the town. The enemy was expected to resist stubbornly at San Casciano, which was a centre of communications on commanding ground.
1 21 Battalion, pp. 357–8.
2 United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration.
4 5Bde had taken 136 prisoners during the advance.
The town, at the junction of several roads, had been abundantly mined and booby-trapped, and the roads badly blocked by a combination of British bombing and shelling and German demolitions. When one of 22 Battalion's carriers following the infantry struck a mine, two men were killed and three wounded. A house-to-house search by infantry and tanks cleared the town of snipers. The engineer detachment from 6 Field Company, with a bulldozer, worked hard to make the road passable up to and through the town, but this work became extremely hazardous about midday, when the enemy laid shell and mortar fire on the roads and their junction in the town. Much of this fire came from the east.
On the occupation of San Casciano Armcav passed from 5 Brigade's command to 4 Armoured Brigade, which was to take over this sector and continue the advance. When tanks of 20 Armoured Regiment and the rest of 22 Battalion reached San Casciano, Armcav was disbanded.
Fourth Brigade sent out strong patrols, including armoured cars or tanks (or both), to reconnoitre the roads radiating from San Casciano. They found that movement north of the town was hindered by shelling and numerous demolitions and mines. B Squadron of 20 Regiment and 3 Company, 22 Battalion, attempted to go along the road leading north-westward through Talente to Cerbaia, but were halted by a bad demolition about a mile from San Casciano. One of B Squadron's tanks was set alight by shellfire, another damaged on a mine, and a third halted by mechanical trouble.
Florence, about 10 miles to the north, was visible from a tower in San Casciano.
Sixth Brigade had received orders on 26 July to pass through 5 Brigade with the task of forming a bridgehead over the Pesa between San Casciano and Cerbaia and continuing the advance. After 5 Brigade had occupied La Ripa, 26 Battalion (Lieutenant- Colonel Fountaine) was to advance to the Pesa and establish a bridgehead as close to Cerbaia as 5 Brigade's advance would allow. After crossing the Pesa this battalion was to attack objectives on the high ground to the north. It was to have under command C Squadron (less a troop) of 19 Armoured Regiment, a platoon of machine guns, a troop of six-pounder anti-tank guns, a section of 17-pounders, and a detachment of engineers. The 24th Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Hutchens), with a similar supporting force, page 136 was to follow hard on the heels of the 26th into the bridgehead and was to attack on its left. The 25th Battalion (Lieutenant- Colonel Norman), in reserve, was to form a firm base in the bridgehead.
The three battalions had been brought up to positions along the road south of San Pancrazio. A Company of 26 Battalion took over La Ripa from 21 Battalion at 3 a.m. on the 27th.
At the start of 26 Battalion's advance the artillery, which had been firing on targets ahead of 21 Battalion, turned its attention to previously selected targets in the area of the proposed bridgehead and eastwards from Cerbaia to La Romola. The tanks and other supporting vehicles were unable to get past a mined demolition on the edge of La Ripa until a way had been cleared by the sappers of 8 Field Company. As dawn began to break the infantry and tanks came under shell and mortar fire from across the Pesa. The infantry reached the bank of the river about 7 a.m. and soon discovered that a heavy explosion heard earlier had been the demolition of the bridge.
No enemy was found on the western side of the river, so the tanks were called forward to assist the infantry to cross and attack Cerbaia, from which machine-gun fire was being directed at the men on the bank. A small bridge over a stream collapsed under the weight of the leading tank, which rolled over into the stream, but a bulldozer made a crossing for the other tanks, which engaged in a duel with enemy guns on the high ground behind Cerbaia.
A patrol investigated the demolished bridge, which had so dammed the Pesa that the fording of it appeared feasible. A Company's commander (Major McKinlay1) decided about 8 a.m. to attack across the river. C Squadron's leading tanks tried to cross where the slope of the bank offered a route, but two ran on to mines, and the others temporarily withdrew to cover while the sappers bulldozed a track in an unmined area. Meanwhile the infantry crossed and found that the enemy had gone from Cerbaia.
San Casciano to Florence, 27 July – 4 August 1944
1 Maj A. R. McKinlay; Lawrence; born Lawrence, 21 Mar 1914; assistant company manager.
The New Zealand Division had been able to occupy San Casciano and Cerbaia without opposition and reach its final objectives west of the Pesa on 27 July because 1 Parachute Corps had withdrawn the previous night, as planned, to the Paula Line. The Division now was about to embark upon the final and hardest-fought stage of its advance to Florence.