2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
The Final Attacks
The Final Attacks
As the enemy was pushed back beyond San Michele and La Romola to the Pian dei Cerri hills, the last high ground before Florence, he gathered all his resources, including many SP guns, page 628 page 629 for a last stand. Only a ‘set-piece attack’ could be expected to dislodge him from these positions and drive him back across the River Arno, which flows through the city. Planning for such an attack therefore went ahead rapidly.
The 6th Field had begun to move forward to positions two miles south of La Romola on 31 July and completed the move next day. On 1 August the 4th Field and 27 Battery of the 5th Field also advanced, and in the new positions 26 Battery was well forward, within 1000 yards of Faltignano on the right, and 46 Battery (‘for a change’, according to the battery diary) was in the rear. These moves had to be fitted into heavy programmes of HF and DF tasks, in the course of which the 4th Field lost Second-Lieutenant Stephenson31 killed and Gunner Swaney32 mortally wounded by a mortar bomb.
No sooner had the gunners settled into their new positions than they received details of the fire plan for the night 1-2 August. Both 26 and 27 Batteries were behind steep ridges and it became clear that their part in the fire plan would have to be severely curtailed because of local crest-clearance troubles. At first it seemed that 27 Battery could not engage targets closer than 5600 yards with Charge II; but when Meteor corrections were made and the details fully worked out, the minimum ranges were found to be between 4550 and 5450 yards. The various guns were therefore phased into the plan when the creeping barrage, which was the main feature, was sufficiently advanced. In 26 Battery, however, D Troop was found to be even worse placed and could take no part at all in the barrage.
The fire plan was one of the most complicated ever devised by the NZA. It included three separate creeping barrages. The first, of 29 lifts fired by the 6th Field with a battery of the 57th Field in support of 6 Brigade on the left, began at 11 p.m. on 1 August. The second, of 21 lifts fired by the 5th Field and another battery of the 57th Field in support of 4 Armoured Brigade, began at 11.35 p.m. The last, of 12 lifts fired by the 4th Field and the remaining battery of the 57th Field in support of 5 Brigade on the right, did not begin until 2.15 a.m. on 2 August. The lifts were all of 100 yards every five minutes. The first and second barrages were reinforced by ‘murders’ fired by the 75th and 70th Medium respectively. Concurrently 1 AGRA fired at all hostile batteries within reach. The 142nd page 630 Field was in close support of the armour and the mortar battery supported 21 Battalion. For the field gunners it meant four and a half hours of back-breaking work. Then, when it was all over, any one of 35 DF tasks might be called for, and many of them were in fact fired in the night or early morning.
The tangled hills and the constant changes in the reported locations of friendly and enemy troops caused many changes in the plan, some of them after it began. Some lifts had to be repeated to allow the infantry to catch up. The barrage on the right—the last one—started too far forward, probably because the enemy followed up a preliminary withdrawal of the New Zealand infantry, and 21 Battalion at the outset had to overcome enemy almost untouched by the mighty artillery preparation. In the centre 22 Battalion reported at 1.30 a.m. that one gun was firing 400 yards short. It was on the part of the front covered by 28 Battery and each gun of that battery was therefore checked and all details of its programme rechecked. All were found correct. Then a shell landed in the pit of A3 of 27 Battery, putting the gun out of action, killing Gunner Baker,33 and seriously wounding two other gunners. There was a suggestion that this was a 25-pounder shell fired short, and 47 Battery checked all its guns in relation to this and the earlier incident. As with 28 Battery, all were proved correct, though 47 Battery added 200 yards to the remaining lifts for safety's sake.
The 6th Field had an FOO forward with each 6 Brigade battalion34 and they reported good progress. While the infantry consolidated their positions on their final objective the guns fired smoke to screen the flanks. Reports of Tiger tanks had created a lively demand for 17-pounder support, and the gun M2 of 33 Battery was well forward with C Company of 25 Battalion halfway between Pian dei Cerri and La Poggiona. When machine-gun and mortar fire in the area became intense the crew of M2 took shelter in a house, with their gun sited beside a wall and not dug in. What looked like a Tiger tank appeared on the road ahead and drove to within 400 yards. Then it stopped and began to back away. Two of the gun crew then dashed out of the house and fired one shot at the tank, striking it just below the turret. The result was spectacular. page 631 The turret went six feet into the air, the tank burst into flames, and ammunition soon began to explode. None of the tank crew survived. This tank turned out on closer inspection to be a Pzkw IV altered to look like a Tiger. It was the one and only tank destroyed by the 7th Anti-Tank in Italy. The enemy soon avenged its loss by putting M2 out of action with mortar fire. The New Zealand field guns then brought down a curtain of fire in front of 25 Battalion and discouraged all further menacing enemy movements.
The hill known as La Poggiona proved an elusive objective for 22 Battalion in the centre. The high ground to the southeast of it, Poggio delle Monache, remained beyond the reach of 21 Battalion on the right. Both had to be won to open the way to Florence. Each called for another creeping barrage. The 5th and 6th Field fired a quick barrage of six lifts with much smoke at 6 p.m. on 2 August to cover the move of 22 Battalion to the start line and the 75th Medium fired concentrations. At 10.30 p.m. the 4th and 57th Field began a more elaborate barrage of 14 lifts, again with concentrations by the 75th Medium, to help 21 Battalion reach its objective. Both attacks were successful; but both were marred so far as the gunners were concerned by infantry complaints that their own guns were shelling them.
But these complaints were not unexpected. FOOs had seen enemy artillery ranging during the day with airbursts. Several allegations that 25-pounders were firing short had been investigated and no evidence had been found to support them. The 4th Field, for example, suspected of firing just east of San Michele, checked each gun one by one and reported all correct. The mediums carried out an accurate shoot on a Tiger tank on the right in mid-afternoon and drove it back.
From the OPs of B and D Troops of the 5th Field the quick barrage in support of 22 Battalion looked impressive. The opening line was well covered and at 6.37 p.m. B Troop OP reported, ‘Barrage falling very well’. The enemy in the target area sent up several flares with red stars, evidently to call for DF, and enemy guns began to shell east of La Romola. More ranging airbursts came over, one of them exploding right over the 27 Battery gun area. It was clear that, as darkness was falling, the enemy was preparing to shell and mortar the attacking infantry. Between the end of the quick barrage and nightfall the 5th and 6th Field fired several concentrations and D Troop OP of the 5th Field signalled that the last two ‘fell very well’.page 632
In the case of the barrage on the right, fired by the 4th and 57th Field, there were repeated complaints that one 25-pounder was firing short. Maoris reported this, for example, at 11 p.m. In another case the 4th Field was accused at 1.30 a.m. on the 3rd of having ‘one gun continually firing short’ of a certain road target; but the regiment began to engage that target precisely at 1.30 a.m. On the slopes of Poggio delle Monache, however, the infantry found plenty of evidence of shells that did not fall short. In weapon pits and sites of dug-in tanks which had opposed the advance there were Germans killed by shellfire. In the morning, though a mist clouded much of the immediate front, it soon became evident that the enemy had gone, though he continued to shell the forward slopes as the New Zealanders pushed forward.
31 2 Lt N. A. Stephenson; born Auckland, 21 May 1908; civil servant; killed in action 1 Aug 1944.
32 Gnr T. J. S. Swaney; born Temuka, 9 Apr 1922; railway porter; died of wounds 2 Aug 1944.
33 Gnr R. J. Baker; born NZ 9 Sep 1909; carrier; killed in action 2 Aug 1944.
34 The FOOs with 24, 25 and 26 Battalions were, respectively, Major Maxwell of 48 Battery, Captain C. N. B. French of 30 Battery, and Lieutenant C. N. Johnson of 29 Battery.