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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

The Fall of Florence

The Fall of Florence

The 5th and 6th Field found very few targets within range on 3 August; but the 4th Field was active, engaging at very long range transport to the front, towards Florence, and also targets on the front of 6 South African Armoured Division on the right. At 11.35 a.m., for example, the South Africans asked for a ‘murder’ on some anti-tank and machine guns, and A Troop OP of the 4th Field reported that it ‘fell exceedingly well’. In 46 Battery the gun E4 engaged a bridge near the River Arno at the extraordinary range of 14,150 yards. It was a case where the textbook phrase ‘fleeting opportunity targets’ came vividly to life, and the FOOs were firm in their resolve that not one of them should escape unscathed.

The various reports of Tiger tanks had made the infantry sensitive to the danger they presented and the anti-tank 17-pounders and M1os were warmly regarded as they pushed forward on the 3rd. A3 and A4 of 31 Battery, for example, drove up a slope in the morning to a grove of pines stripped of their branches by the 25-pounder barrage. The Maoris followed through 21 Battalion and these two M1os accompanied them. The enemy was still resisting from several vantage points, and the M1os put half a dozen shells each into a stone house from which machine guns were still firing. Then, after passing through the grounds of one of the many large mansions in the region and traversing a valley of olive trees on the way to the main Florence road, A3 and A4 were forced to draw back a little. A Tiger by a large house had fired on the Sherman tanks which led the advance and knocked out one of them. A3 fired page 633 five shots into the building; but a shot from the Tiger caused the M1o to burst into flames, killing two gunners and wounding the No. 1 and a third gunner.35 The Tiger was not visible and A4 was ordered to withdraw.

OP parties of the mortar battery, following through on the right, came upon dismal evidence of the effectiveness of the 4.2-inch mortar fire the previous night. Some 400 rounds had been fired on a feature south-east of La Poggiona—the only fire directed at it. The enemy had been defending a hillside covered with flat-topped trees, and the mortar bombs, exploding in the branches, had killed 67 Germans in their trenches. The battery moved close to this area in the morning of the 4th and some of the mortarmen, when they surveyed their handiwork, felt what gunners have often felt: a sense of grim satisfaction that they had saved their infantry from danger, but a contrary and sorrowful awareness, too, of what it must have been like at the receiving end. The quietness of the morning in surroundings which, but for the marks and memories of battle, would have been idyllic prompted such sombre reflections.

For FOOs who pressed forward with their OP parties over the hills, paused to gather in the splendour of the view over Florence and the misty mountains beyond, and then drove across the pretty valley of the Arno, the war soon came closer. In or near the southern suburbs they came under fire. All bridges but the Ponte Vecchio were demolished, and the approaches to this bridge (famous for its goldsmiths' booths) were blocked by mountains of rubble from buildings almost as precious. The Brunelleschi dome of the great cathedral was intact, but, like all the other treasures north of the river, it was tantalisingly out of reach.

The 4th and 5th Field moved forward on 4 August, along roads tightly packed with vehicles. Once again, in the hills above the city, they dug gun positions and wearily prepared for action. Five times in 13 days the 4th and 5th Field had dug positions. All three field regiments had fired night and day, and the long spells of harassing fire in particular had robbed the gun crews of their sleep. They were feeling the strain and were badly in need of a rest.

The sight of Florence, however, was a tonic and the knowledge that they had contributed handsomely to its capture was a source of satisfaction. The countryside, though dusty from the page 634 passage of lorries and tracked vehicles, was smiling and everywhere there was ripe fruit. Not only headquarters staffs, but those of command posts and many gun crews were able to take up residence in some of the magnificent houses in the neighbourhood. When rain fell heavily in the evening of 4 August there was no question of digging desperately to channel rainwater away from threatened tents or dugouts: most gunners relaxed in carpeted luxury.

It was too good to last. The New Zealanders had to take over from Indians west of Florence and cover the deployment there of Americans preparing to cross the Arno. The diary of 46 Battery for 5 August states baldly: ‘Rather rocked when news came through at 0900 hrs for the Regt to be ready to move at 1500 hrs’. But there was less need for haste than at first appeared. On the way to the new positions the 4th and 5th Field paused for two days in the battered countryside near Cerbaia and the 6th Field came out of action and stayed where it was. All round them was abundant evidence of their efforts in the battle for Florence.

35 Gunners B. Goodwin and J. T. Hitchcock were killed. The No. 1 was Bombardier E. H. Smith, who later became the historian of the 7th Anti-Tank.