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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

Tragedy at La Romola

page 625

Tragedy at La Romola

That night, in support of a major attack to seize the spur on which the small town of La Romola sat and which dominated the centre of the New Zealand front, the guns fired the first creeping barrage of the campaign. It was of 17 lifts and the 4th, 5th and 6th Field and the newly-arrived 57th Field provided it, starting at 10 p.m. on the 30th. At the same time the 4th Field and the 70th and 75th Medium fired concentrations. The 142nd Army Field (SP) was in close support of the New Zealand armour. On the left all went well and La Romola fell; but the Maoris on the right lost the barrage from the start, and there was much talk while it was still being fired that the right-hand part of it might have to be repeated. The concurrent CB fire was effective and the armour reported no shelling during the advance.

A Sub-battery of mortars had also fired in conjunction with the barrage. When the Maoris were still short of their objective in the morning of 31 July, the battalion commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart of the 4th Field, and Major Nathan of 39 Mortar Battery arranged supporting fire for a further Maori thrust in the afternoon. Later 80 rounds of medium ammunition were allocated. With this help the Maoris easily gained their objective; but there was much stern fighting ahead.

What induced caution in the course of the Maori advance in the night 30–31 July and in daylight on the 31st was the presence of German tanks on the front, including Tigers. The 17-pounder H2 of 32 Battery was in support of 21 Battalion; but its crew did not restrict their attention to their immediate front. They saw a Tiger facing the Maoris near Faltignano, south-east of La Romola, and H2 at once went into action at 2400 yards and scored three hits in six shots. The Tiger hastily withdrew. A 4th Field observer thought its turret was jammed.

At La Romola early on the 31st Q Troop 17-pounders drove into the little town, picking up a bewildered German on the way. Q1 and Q3 were sited in the town and Q4 went into position alongside a wall 300 yards farther along the road to Florence. The crew of Q4 were sniped at, and half an hour later they were mortared intensely and forced to take cover. The infantry had been in an arc some distance in front of the gun when it went into position; but they withdrew later without advising the anti-tankers. After more mortar fire in the evening a German patrol reached Q4, disabled it, and drove off the page 626 half-tracked tower. But this was only the beginning of the misfortune of the anti-tankers in this area.

B Troop of 31 Battery had also brought its 6-pounder guns into La Romola and the reserve gun of Q Troop, Q2, also came forward in the night 31 July/1 August. Q2 was sited in the outskirts and the gun crew, together with the crew of a B Troop 6-pounder, tired out, bedded down in a building in the town in the early hours of 1 August. Soon afterwards a violent explosion brought much of the building down and buried them in three feet of masonry and rubble. Nine of them were killed instantly and a tenth died later.27 Two others in another room survived, one of them unharmed. The probable cause was a booby trap similar to one found in a nearby building.

This was the worst disaster experienced by the gunners in Italy; but it was not the end of the anti-tank misfortunes this day. D3 of 31 Battery, an M10 deployed near La Romola, suffered a direct hit by a mortar bomb in the open turret which set it on fire. Sergeant Foley28 and Gunner Chapman29 were killed and another gunner very badly wounded. E Troop 6-pounders were with 23 Battalion on the right and were shelled and mortared all day. E4 and its portée suffered a direct hit and both were destroyed; but the crew were safely under cover. E1 was damaged slightly and a gunner wounded. K Troop 6-pounders and M Troop 17-pounders of 33 Battery were with 6 Brigade on the left, the 6-pounders being towed by tanks and their crews crouching uncomfortably on the back of the tank hulls. The battery had two sergeants wounded by shellfire, but K and M Troops duly went into position covering the infantry.

In all this fighting the OP parties of the field regiments had to keep very far forward if they were to keep in touch with the rapidly changing situation and bring down fire where it was needed. In the course of it they all had hair-raising experiences. page 627 At San Michele on 29 July, for example, Major Maxwell,30 commander of 48 Battery, brought down effective defensive fire time and time again and helped to smash a series of determined counter-attacks. Then, in the evening, he drove to the left flank, the source of much trouble, and his tank was hit and set on fire. This did not deter him, however, and on 31 July and 1 August he was with the foremost infantry, within 100 yards of the enemy FDLs, and was able to call down DF tasks and aid the infantry when they attacked. When 25 Battalion attacked on the left he was able to shoot at any enemy movement on the exposed left flank of the battalion.

Similarly Major Hollis, the new commander of 46 Battery, showed outstanding skill and determination on 30 July. When the leading infantry were halted by machine-gun and mortar fire he went forward on foot to the next ridge with a No. 38 wireless set and directed the fire of 48 Battery to such good effect that the position was taken with relatively few casualties. OPAs and drivers who had to be in attendance on such FOOs needed iron nerves; but there was no lack of volunteers for this work. Between them they were able to sway many a situation in favour of the New Zealand armour and infantry; but it was never easy. The enemy resisted bitterly and counter-attacked with almost religious fervour. But for the repeated and devastating DF concentrations by nearly 150 field and medium guns and the close-range support of the self-propelled field howitzers of the 142nd Regiment, the New Zealand infantry must have suffered very heavy loss. Many a counterthrust was flattened by a torrent of shells before it could do any harm.

The ammunition needed for this profusion of tasks, however, was far more than Corps had allowed for. Towards the end of July it amounted to 18,000 rounds per day for the three New Zealand field regiments alone, to say nothing of the many other units under the CRA's command. Corps offered serious objections, and on one occasion General Freyberg overcame a refusal to supply him with more ammunition by asserting flatly, ‘No ammunition, no attack!’

27 Those killed were Sergeant W. J. Foley, Bombardier F. J. H. White-horn, and Gunners R. J. Clark, W. F. S. Craine, B. R. Curry, W. M. Lennane, J. H. F. Reid, S. G. Shrimpton and K. W. Telfar. Gunner R. V. Davies died of his injuries. A 6-pounder and the M14 tractor of a 17-pounder alongside the building were buried in rubble.

Next day 34 Battery sent a working party forward to recover the bodies. By a coincidence three of the four men who carried the body of ‘Lofty’ Whitehorn out on a stretcher were, like himself, original members of 34 Battery who had been on furlough in the United Kingdom and had returned to the battery in Italy.

28 Sgt W. J. Foley; born NZ 10 Nov 1920; hardware assistant; killed in action 1 Aug 1944.

29 Gnr A. S. Chapman; born NZ 24 Oct 1920; timber worker; killed in action 1 Aug 1944.

30 Lt-Col E. H. L. Maxwell, OBE, MC; Wellington; born Christchurch, 28 Jul 1917; Regular soldier; wounded 6 Apr 1943; Military Secretary, Army HQ (retired May 1966).