New Zealand Engineers, Middle East
The alteration of the boundary between the Fifth and Eighth Armies and reorganisation for the spring offensive entailed a series of intricate moves before the Division could be withdrawn from Cassino. On 5 April 6 Field Company followed the San Pietro track to a staging area near Venafro on Route 85, which highway connects with the important communications centre of Isernia; 5 Field Park Company arrived a couple of days later and the two units played a little football and managed some sightseeing as far afield as Naples. Both moved another ten miles into the foothills to Montaquila on the upper reaches of the Volturno (11 and 12 April) and pitched their bivvies in a stand of oak trees.
All Mechanical Equipment Platoon's plant commenced work with 6 Field Company on improving a five-mile-long diversion—the Kohi bypass—on a track from Montaquila to Filignano. Known as the Jeep Track, merely a courtesy title, it wound from Filignano south to the junction of the Pozzilli-Casale-Acqua-fondata road. It was one jeep wide with a few passing places, partly metalled, but mostly soft going strewn with heavy boulders, and with grades of one-in-four. After rain it was a very careful driver who got through without being bogged.
Sappers not working on the Kohi bypass maintained another supply route past the fairy castle village of Colli Volturno towards Cerasuolo, which was also connected by road to Filignano.
Eighth Field Company did its last road and bridge repair job in Cassino on the night 6–7 April and left four days later for Filignano, where it relieved a Polish field company until it moved again to Montaquila (19th). A number of odd jobs followed, the most important being the improvement of mule tracks in rear of 6 Brigade, then perched under the peak of Monte Croce astride the Cardito-San Biago road. Finally, on 25 April, 8 Field Company departed for Capua on a course of instruction on floating Bailey bridges at Eighth Army Bridging School.
Seventh Field Company stayed in its area until the 14th when, less a ‘recce’ party (Lieutenant O'Reilly) attached to page 592 4 Armoured Brigade, which was staying in the Cassino area for the time being, it also moved to Filignano, where it joined 6 Field Company on the Kohi bypass and worked on a twenty-chain detour around a steep rocky bluff. Nearly all the available resources of the Divisional Engineers were employed on the Jeep Track, and included for a period some 150 men from Divisional Cavalry, who pulled down the age-old revetment walls the Italian peasants had built to hold the cultivated terraces in place. After the grim days and grimmer nights in Cassino this road work in the mild spring sunshine was a very pleasant change, and such was the keenness of the men that the whole road was a two-way metalled highway by the end of the month.
The CRE and staff, together with the rest of Divisional Headquarters, had by this time settled in at Casale, two miles east of Acquafondata, and on 15 April General Freyberg assumed command of the Divisional front of the ‘Apennine’ sector north of Cassino.
The New Zealanders were now back in Eighth Army as part of 10 Corps, into which the 14 Forestry Company detachment had marched five days earlier. It is therefore possible that the Field Companies used timber cut by Lieutenant McKenzie's bushmen at Pescolanciano. Incidentally, 2 NZ Division was a fairly cosmopolitan formation at this time for reorganisation was still going on, and General Freyberg had 6 Brigade holding his right, 11 Canadian Brigade his centre and 28 British Brigade his left; 4 Armoured Brigade was still in Cassino and 5 Brigade was near Isernia, in reserve.
Engineer command on the day the Division became operational again was:
|CRE||Lt-Col J. N. Anderson|
|5 Field Park Company||Maj K. F. Jones|
|6 Field Company||Maj J. B. Wallace|
|7 Field Company||Maj G. A. Lindell|
|8 Field Company||Maj D. S. G. Marchbanks|
Major Anderson (promoted lieutenant-colonel) had rejoined Engineer Headquarters after his recent return from New Zealand and had relieved Colonel Hanson, about to go home on furlough; Majors Currie, Askin, and Captain Armstrong were also on the point of departing on furlough. Lieutenant Faram took command of Mechanical Equipment Platoon from Captain Armstrong.page 593
Communications posed something of a problem because, although the Field Companies were to maintain the Divisional area, they had no responsibility for main supply routes. And at one point the Divisional supply line crossed the neighbouring Polish communications.
The New Zealand road system could be said to start at Acquafondata, which was the limit of safe daylight travel. Westward of the town, sheltering in the hollow of an ancient volcano, two routes, one on the north and one on the south side of a ridge running down into the Rapido valley, formed a rough ellipse. Before they met they dropped 2000 feet. The south route, imaginatively called the Inferno Track, was fairly well hidden from enemy view by lengths of camouflage material, and windscreens were covered with sacks to prevent an inadvertent helio message, but it was really only a jeep route and seldom used by anything else—at least to begin with.
It was the prosaically christened North Road that should have had the colourful title. This was the main New Zealand supply route and sidled down into the Rapido valley under the eyes of the enemy, not much more than a mile away at the nearest point. Sapper and other drivers were supposed to know when the German guns were loaded by looking down their barrels. The grades were reasonable, but hairpin bends that could not be negotiated on one lock averaged two per mile.page 594
From Hove Dump at the junction of the two routes, the road dropped several more hundred feet to the Rapido ford at Sant’ Elia, crossed a small flat and then climbed 2300 feet—the Terelle Terror Track—to mulehead, where, as the name implies, mule trains took over from the wheeled vehicles.
No. 3 Platoon, 6 Field Company, left the Cerasuolo road work (19th), crossed the Rapido at the Sant’ Elia ford, and camped in a lying-up area at the foot of the steep and rock-strewn Colle Belvedere. Their task was to improve the almost vertical climbing track that was the axis of a British formation holding that sector, now relieved by 5 Brigade. This track writhed and wriggled up the ridge until it met the Terelle Terror Track near mulehead and would have been a good preparatory school for mountaineers. Ten days later, when 6 Brigade took over, the track had been graded where possible, and where not possible steps had been cut and whitewashed. A start had also been made on Hongi's Track, a half-mile deviation on the Terelle road. It is doubtful if Hongi, intent on getting his canoes to the waters of Lake Rotorua, would have considered it a suitable locality in which to carve a track.
For the sappers the month of April was pleasant enough. It was springtime in the Apennines and skylarks by day and nightingales at night filled the air with their song. The men from New Zealand, where the seasons are told off by the calendar, saw the annual miracle of bare boughs being clothed with foliage in a matter of days, of blackened vine stems bursting into leaf, of wild flowers blooming in the grass.
Early May followed much the same pattern; 5 Field Park Company's Bridging, Stores and Workshops Platoons were engaged in routine duties. The Company opened a quarry and supplied Mechanical Equipment Platoon with metal for widening the Jeep Track to take three-tonners. A new activity for the Company was the operation of an anti-malaria squad under the command of Lieutenant Mountain. The squad passed many thankless hours waging war on the anopheles mosquito in and around the houses of the Italians in the neighbourhood who, in the words of the Company war diary, ‘have accepted the unavoidable disturbances with resignation rather than enthusiasm’.
There was limited leave to Bari and adequate leave to Naples. Bridging Platoon, with time on its hands, took a load of Bailey panels and decking and erected a stage for the use of concert parties. It was christened El Djem after the gigantic ruins in North Africa, where no doubt similar relaxations were offered page 595 to bored Roman legionaries. A matter of general gratification throughout the sapper units was the award to Padre Watson of the Military Cross. Few padres were more popular and few spent more time in dangerous places with their flocks. He made it a practice to go out with bridge repair teams because he felt it his duty to be where casualties were likely, and where he invariably became a working sapper. This was well known at Engineer Headquarters, where the Padre was often given in-correct information so that he would get a night's sleep, but he was seldom deceived. The CRE, who valued his services, is responsible for the following anecdote:
‘What a cheerful sapper and grand morale builder he was. One night when the Padre was acting as just a plain sapper he put his finger into a panel pin hole to find out if the panel being added was in the right position for the pin to be inserted. Someone without knowing this gave the panel a push to drive it into position and the top of the Padre's finger was very neatly sheared off. It is regretted that he did not live fully up to the reputation of a real sapper for not one word of blasphemy passed his lips.’
Other awards published about the same time were DSOs to Majors White, Currie and Marchbanks; MCs to Captain Morgan and Lieutenant O'Leary; United States Bronze Star to Lieutenant A. L. King and MM to Sapper R. A. Hermon.
The relief by 12 South African Motor Brigade of 11 Canadian Brigade holding the right of the Belvedere massif resulted in the relief of Canadian sapper units by 7 Field Company and its attachment to the Springboks, who came forward via the newly finished Jeep Track.
The relevant portion of 7 Field Company's operation order reads:
7 Fd Coy will relieve 1 Cdn Fd Sqn and 14 Fd Rce on night 4/5 May 44.
Manning four water points in St Elia-Portella area.
No. 3 Pl will be responsible for W.Ps1 and maintenance of roads in St. Elia area.
No. 1 will be responsible for maintenance of North Rd and adjacent tracks.page 596
No. 2 Pl will remain in reserve at Coy Hq. [Halfway between Acquafondata and Hove Dump on a jeep track connecting North and Inferno roads.]
Maintenance of the North Road had to be done after dark. The hairpin bends and narrow stretches were marked with white tape on stakes to give the convoy drivers on moonless nights as much help as was possible to prevent them going over the side of the road. The trucks invariably removed the tapes, and after the return trip from the bottom of the hill sappers had to replace them for the following night's traffic.
The water-point details also had their moments; one was located at a well near a casa at Sant’ Elia, and being in full view of the enemy was patronised at night only. One afternoon a Polish water cart arrived which caused the sappers on duty some concern, especially as the Poles had brought smoke to use if they were shelled. Major Lindell called on the Polish CRE and suggested that it would be nice if he collected water strictly after dark, but he did not seem impressed. A suitably phrased noticeboard was thought to be the answer and one about three feet by two was smartly built. Lieutenant Flood2 took it to the Polish Headquarters to have the necessary Polish lettering applied, but he arrived back with an empty board—it was not big enough to get all the words on it.
Eighth Field Company finished its course at the Bridging School and felt that there was little about building bridges on floating piers that it did not know. It camped on the Kohi bypass and the sappers divided their time between maintaining the road and preparing a reach of the upper Volturno for the continuation of assault bridging experiments.
Fifth Field Park's and 6 Field Company's work and locations were virtually unchanged during this period.
The barrage announcing the spring offensive opened at 11 p.m. on 11 May and there was fierce fighting from Cassino to the western seaboard. The New Zealand infantry, perched on hills and ridgetops, could hear much, but owing to the smoke in the valley could see little of what was going on. The sappers went about their tasks as if there was no spring offensive; in particular, 8 Field Company remained engrossed with its assault bridging experiments. It built 100 feet of single-single Bailey on a tank transporter and launched it into the Volturno, pulled page 597 it out and, with another team, launched it again. In the middle of these operations Major Hamilton arrived to take command from Major Marchbanks, who had been recalled to New Zealand to work on post-war development plans for the Wellington Harbour Board.
The battle was still raging around Montecassino on the 17th, but it was not the sappers' war and preparations were pushed ahead for a Divisional Engineer sports meeting. The Polish flag was flying over the ruins of the monastery on the 18th; by the 24th infantry patrols, like melting snow in the spring, began to trickle down the mountainsides. The same afternoon 5 Field Park Company was At Home to all Divisional Engineers at El Djem on the occasion of the sappers' sports meeting. The YM supplied tea and, by means of a loudspeaker, an afternoon of music.
A convincing win was registered by 5 Field Park Company with 51 points against 7 Field Company's next best total of 38 points. The Field Park diarist was suitably modest. ‘It should in fairness be stated that this Company has a greater number of men to draw upon than the other competing units.’
The enemy air force marked its disapproval of the social gathering with one of its rare appearances the following evening, when it dropped some canisters of APs between Workshops' and Company Headquarters' lines. Luckily the greater part of the unit was away at a movie show and there were only two casualties. Nevertheless many bivvies were holed, and the strictures in routine orders regarding inefficient blackouts were not really necessary.
The Fifth Army linked up with the Anzio beach-head—from which the long contained British and American forces had already broken out—on 25 May and Canadian and French troops penetrated the Liri valley by capturing Pontecorvo, an important point in the German defences; in the Apennines the indications were that the enemy was preparing, if indeed he had not already done so, to abandon his position in front of 2 NZ Division. Patrols established that Terelle was in fact evacuated and after dark 5 Brigade was feeling down the mountainside towards the valley below.
Headquarters Divisional Engineers' war diary gives a nonchalant indication of the pent-up energies that were being released:
‘26 May. CRE visits G1, comes back with infm. of future ops. and things begin to happen in a hurry. Major Lindell and page 598 Major Hamilton sent for. Lt Dalmer sent on recce up Belmont road. Ops. instr issued to 5 Fd Pk Coy and 7 NZ Fd Coy.’
The instructions were for 7 Field Company to concentrate, less a small B echelon, on the Cassino-Belmonte road near Sant’ Elia and take under command a section of Mechanical Equipment Platoon—23 sappers, two D8s and two D6s, commanded by Lieutenants Belhamine3 and Tassell.
Fifth Field Park Company was to send half its tipper trucks with the detached Mechanical Equipment section, hold the mechanical shovels for the time being and send the rest of the platoon and equipment to 8 Field Company. Bridging Platoon page 599 would hold for immediate despatch its bridging set, possibly man a forward bridging dump at Sant’ Elia and, when the situation allowed, maintain a forward dump of dieselene.
Sixth Field Company, which still had a platoon maintaining the Colle Belvedere track, was to remain attached to 5 Brigade and be prepared to send a platoon to 8 Field Company.
The situation of 8 Field Company, with 6 Brigade, needs a little more explanation. The brigade's role under the altered circumstances was to cover the Division's right flank and clear the San Biagio-Atina road so that it could be opened as a possible main axis. It will therefore be seen that the two brigades would be working down converging valleys which, like a recumbent Y, met at Atina, a little village perched on a crest which commanded the two valleys and so of considerable military importance. The orders were that the brigade which reached Atina first would carry on towards Sora, the entrance to the upper Liri valley, unless strong opposition was met.
An added complication, not concerned with enemy movements, was notice that the Prime Minister would review the sappers at a parade to be held for him on 28 May. Prime Minister or no Prime Minister, the war had to go on, so it was that 7 Field Company, with No. 1 Platoon working on the road behind 5 Brigade and the rest of the Company standing by at two hours' notice, was not represented.
Eighth Field Company, with No. 2 Platoon divided between a reconnaissance group (Lieutenant Menzies) and the balance with 6 Brigade Headquarters (Lieutenant Fisher) searching the road towards San Biagio, managed to send two platoons to the ceremony; 6 Field Company did the same, while 5 Field Park spread itself handsomely over the rest of the parade ground.
The parade was formally inspected by the Rt. Hon. Peter Fraser, who then addressed each company informally and answered questions. ‘Questions put to the Prime Minister concerned chiefly the possibility of furlough for the 4th and subsequent reinforcements. The inconclusive nature of his replies was taken philosophically,’ was the entry in 5 Field Park Company's war diary. According to a sapper, ‘6 Fd Coy was not very excited either’.
‘An inspection and informal chat by the Prime Minister but no one very thrilled by the visit,’ one diarist records. ‘His only news was that we were to go into action that night. Some hectic preparations as bivvies and bodies were flung onto the trucks page 600 and the convoys pulled out once more.’ Before last light the Company was spread between Belmonte and Atina ready to commence maintaining that stretch of road in the morning.
As soon as the Prime Minister and his escort of high-ranking officers were safely out of the way, HQ NZE moved to Sant’ Elia. Major Hamilton was informed that RE companies would undertake road clearing duties for 6 Brigade as far as Atina, that he was detached from 6 Brigade and that he was to relieve 7 Field Company, which was working with 5 Brigade feeling along the valley towards Sora.
Fifth Brigade crossed the shingle-bottomed Melfa River on 28 May, then halted until the inevitably blown bridge had been replaced. Persistent heavy shelling suggested caution but was also a sign that the enemy rearguards were getting ready to give ground again, a sign that was confirmed later in the day when the demonstration ceased. No. 3 Platoon (Lieutenant O'Reilly), told off to get the wheels across the Melfa, found that it had rather a job on its hands.
The bridge had consisted of masonry arches and timber trestles, all well demolished, and the 200 ft span made it an unsuitable place for launching a Bailey without a supporting pier. Just a little upstream, however, the river divided into two channels forming an island, something, on a smaller scale, like the Sangro below the tiki bridge. One channel could be easily forded and an 80 ft double-single Bailey over the other would get the traffic moving again.
While the bridging components were being brought forward a track was formed into the shallow river for the Staghounds and other fighting vehicles to cross.
The bridge was ready for wheels at 2 a.m. but the clay bank at the ford had also been so badly cut up that it was decided to put in a culvert. A bed was dozed pending the arrival of the components, a number of empty 44-gallon drums welded together and known in the trade as saveloys, bangers or sausages. The culvert, four drums long and nine wide, was put down and covered by a dozer with three feet of fill in under two hours.
Once more, this time permanently, traffic flowed towards the advancing infantry, and No. 3 Platoon, which had had little sleep during the previous thirty-six hours, rejoined the Company and bedded down.
Eighth Field Company arrived in its new area between Atina and the Melfa during the day (29th). The enemy took an instant dislike to its presence with long-range guns, and a stores truck page 601 had to be written off. Major Hamilton reported to Headquarters 5 Brigade and was informed that the Maori Battalion would be crossing the Fibreno River after dark, whereupon the Company would please replace the bridge that used to be there.
The war had passed 7 Field Company by for the time being and the sappers took stock of the situation. Advancing along a single road through a narrow valley with, presumably, infantry chasing the enemy off the flanking hills, had been an entirely new experience to even the oldest hands. Lieutenant O'Reilly wrote:
‘This is a peculiar war—“fluid” they call it, but it was never like this even in the desert. Nobody knows where anybody is…. 2 Pl have been marching up the road4 with a dozer in support—forward elements of 2 NZ Div! The Italians are streaming back into this valley from the hills where they have been living for nine months. And are they glad to see us. It's genuine too, in their case, they haven't had much of a deal from the Hun in this area.’
The Fibreno was more of a river than the Melfa and of more importance to the enemy, who was withdrawing as slowly as circumstances permitted, the circumstances being the New Zealand infantry. Beyond the Melfa the valley widened appreciably as it approached the considerable town of Sora at the entrance to the upper Liri valley.
The jobs for the night of the crossing were:
No. 2 Platoon (Lieutenant Fisher) was to sweep the road verges from the Alvito turnoff to the river and, with the help of a dozer, fill any demolitions.
No. 1 Platoon (Lieutenant King) was to put the Bailey over the river.
No. 3 Platoon (Captain Burgess) was to relieve 7 Field Company of road maintenance.
The Maoris made a successful crossing of the waist-high and twenty-yard-wide Fibreno and the road to the river was checked for mines before daylight. A ‘recce’ for a bridge site disclosed a nasty situation. The road itself was on the top of a high embankment, suggesting frequent floods and limiting the dispersal of bridging trucks, and a wide drain, almost a canal, met the road at the point where the bridge had crossed the river. It had been totally destroyed, the near abutment undermined and there was a 50 ft crater where the far abutment should have been. Between the crater and the riverbank was a mass of soft page 602 spoil. There was a better site for a bridge close handy but it meant a sharp turn off the main road, along a side road, across the canal, and another sharp turn to the actual river; in fact, a difficult route in the shape of a large Z. The enemy concurred that it was the best place for a temporary bridge, for his guns kept the area under constant fire and rather neglected the original bridge, which was the site finally decided upon.
The bridge train arrived about midday but the first truck to move along the embankment, after Brigade Headquarters had indicated that the enemy had moved back and that the site was no longer under observation, was caught in a storm of shells and extracted only with the greatest difficulty. It was a neat job coolly performed by Sergeant Kerr of 5 Field Park Company.
The unloading of trucks, the preparation of the approaches and the assembly of the bridge commenced as soon as it was dark enough, but the project had been conceived under an evil star. First the rocking roller on which the bridge is built sunk through the undermined concrete of the near abutment and could not be retrieved; when the launching nose eventually reached the far side and the sappers tried to jack the bridge up, the grillage work, instead of taking the weight of the bridge, sank into the ground. Hours of heartbreaking lifting and heaving followed. Three men were wounded during the night, and when a party arrived from No. 3 Platoon to help in the work the bridge builders were so tired that they could scarcely push down the handle of a lifting jack. At the first possible moment Lieutenant Tassell got a dozer over the bridge and filled the demolition by pushing a nearby house into it. Traffic began to roll at 9 a.m., when tanks and Staghounds crossed to the support of the infantry waiting to exploit towards Sora. Eighth Field Company remained in the area strengthening the bridge into a triple-single Class 40 and became responsible for the road from the Alvito turnoff to the Fibreno, where No. 1 Platoon's all-night effort had been christened, as a compliment to the sappers and their commander, ‘Kingi's bridge’.
The locations of the other sapper companies on the last day of May were:
6 Field Company was still filling demolitions, picking up mines on side tracks and dodging the attentions of our own planes on the Belmonte-Atina road.
7 Field Company was in reserve near the Melfa bridge.page 603
5 Field Park Company was at Montaquila waiting to move forward, and Mechanical Equipment Platoon was working its machines wherever the need was greatest.
Fifth Brigade was by this time consolidating in Sora, which had not been strongly defended, preparatory to moving on Balsorano in the upper Liri valley. Sora, dominated by a castle on a hill, is built on both sides of the Liri River, and Route 82, which joins Route 6 at Arce, 20 miles north-west of Cassino, follows the valley through Sora past Balsorano to Avezzano, some 30 miles to the north. Avezzano will be remembered as the objective of 6 Brigade before the capricious Sangro River and the Italian winter altered General Montgomery's plans. From that town, situated at the junction of Route 82 with Route 5, it would have been possible to move west on Rome or south against the enemy's rear.
Sixth Brigade was brought in for a two-brigade thrust to Balsorano, six miles up the valley and situated on a plateau above a gorge. This town was a difficult objective and not worth a pitched battle, for if Rome fell, the enemy could not continue to hold it. The advance was to be made with a brigade on each side of the river, and naturally the two bridges connecting the eastern and western sections of Sora were blown.
The replacement of these links was assigned to 7 Field Company which, with Mechanical Equipment and Bridging Platoons of 5 Field Park Company, moved into Sora on 1 June and began work forthwith on a 160 ft double-single Bailey, supported at mid-span by a crib pier. An interesting point is that the whole bridge was completely assembled in one length on the street approach and launched on its rollers over the centre pier in one operation. The work was done by two platoons, one on the bridge itself and the other removing the steel debris of the ruined structure with cutting charges and winches. The crib pier was built on the foundations of the old bridge which rested firmly in shingle in the riverbed. Lieutenant O'Reilly describes it:
‘The site was good but it was 160 ft wet gap and the old demolished wrought iron bridge had to be got out of the road first. Then to get Class 40 we had to build a central crib pier. It was some job but from first to last went without a hitch. We started the bridge at 4.30 and the first vehicle went over at 0045 hrs—an amazing achievement. Not only is it the longest Bailey 2 (NZ) Div has built but it is one of the quickest and it is a page 604 job we can well be proud of. Bill Sharpe5 and No. 3 did the bridge, I and No. 1 the pier, and if it wasn't that we were held up for gas (cutting) for a couple of hours the bridge would have been open at 2300 hrs. Civilians turned out in hundreds watching us and we even had them carrying panels for us. It was more like a carnival than a job 2 miles behind our forward infantry.’
Fifth Field Park Company left Montaquila on 3 June and joined its Bridging and Mechanical Equipment Platoons in Sora. Civilians, ill clad and half starved, were returning from the hills to their battered dwellings, and the sappers lived a little scantily because of giving away their rations. The town, with 7 Field Company's bridge as the main target, was under intermittent shellfire and there were civilian casualties, but beyond setting two trucks on fire the shelling caused no material damage.
Three companies, 6 and 7 Field and 5 Field Park Companies, were now camped near each other in Sora, while 8 Field Company remained on line-of-communication duties.
The enemy showed no signs of vacating Balsorano, but the ink was not dry on the operation orders designed to remove him when a signal was flashed through that United States forces had entered Rome. Some fast enemy movement northwards was expected and 2 NZ Division was ordered to stand by at forty-eight hours' notice to join the chase.
The Divisional Cavalry, with attachments which included 7 Field Company, was instructed to take over the New Zealand sector for the time being while the infantry brigades were reorganised for the expected pursuit. The enemy rearguard lost no time in departing and the sappers got on with the now familiar task of picking up mines, bridging or filling demolitions and putting in bypasses.
As the Headquarters Divisional Engineers war diary puts it: ‘June 6. 1000 hrs. Germans retire from Balsorano. Engrs get cracking (7 NZ Fd Coy, 2 D8s and D6).’
So single-minded was the ‘cracking’ that no mention was made in any of the sapper war diaries of the fact that the long-awaited Second Front had been opened on that day by the landing of the Anglo-American armies on the Normandy coast.
The Division's pursuit role was washed out almost as soon page 605 as it had been announced, and the new plan was to advance as rapidly as possible to Avezzano and to clear Route 82 as an alternative forward route.
Some 7 Field Company sappers repaired culverts, filled lesser demolitions and lifted mines up to and beyond Balsorano while others put a 30 ft Bailey over a big ‘blow’; the dozers were also going flat out on obstructions to wheeled and tracked vehicles. Meanwhile the leading infantry battalion (26 Battalion) had to debus and give a hand with testing the road verges for mines. That night (7 June) 6 Field Company took over the job of clearing the road to Balsorano while 7 Field Company worked on road improvement between that town and Sora. Eighth Field Company handed over to 571 RE Company the maintenance of all roads east of Kingi's bridge, and while No. 3 Platoon worked from Kingi's bridge to Sora the rest of the Company concentrated in Sora itself.
Sixth Field Company and the Mechanical Equipment dozers worked throughout the night on eight major demolitions and put down two small Baileys while the infantry slept on the side of the road. It was the same the next day: sappers not previously employed, again with infantry help and, of course, the dozers, got the road opened as far as Civitella Roveto, ten miles farther north, which involved building a 60 ft single-single and an 80 ft double-single bridge. Eighth Field Company came forward to assist and from the Morino power station area worked with 6 Field Company to get as far as Capistrello road fork, four miles south of Avezzano, during the night 9 - 10 June. Undoing the German sappers' work was not as routine as it sounds; the unit war diaries mention two men wounded by a delayed action charge and two wounded, one fatally, by an S-mine on 9 June.
The Division's role was again altered with the occupation of Avezzano and it now was to go into Army reserve. The companies continued with the maintenance of the roads and sending out reconnaissance parties with Divisional Cavalry patrols until 13 June, when all formations began to concentrate at Fontana Liri, a rest area near Arce for the late enemy garrison of Cassino.
Little enough has been mentioned concerning the work in the field of the YMCA. That the sappers were not unappreciative is clear from an entry in 5 Field Park Company's war diary prior to leaving Sora:
‘On the eve of our departure from Sora it would not be out of place here to pay tribute to the work of Mr Jack Meikle, the page 606 Div Engrs YMCA Secretary. Arriving in the town with the Field Coys, he and his offsider, Sgt Shute, quickly cleaned out a large building, dug up tables and forms to place under the trees in the courtyard, set up his canteen, installed a radio, and commenced an excellent evening refreshment service for the men. Magazines were plentifully distributed, and a civilian enticed in to play an acquired piano. The effect was that of a miniature NZ Forces Club.’
The Divisional rest area was along the Liri riverbank and around the village of Arce. Part of 6 Field Company was quartered in an explosives factory plentifully embellished with Italian notices ‘Multo Pericoloso’, indicating where it was dangerous when the factory was working. It had been bombed and possibly put out of action by Allied aircraft, but the departing German sappers had gone to some pains to ensure that it would not be in working order for a long time. The buildings covered a considerable area and all retorts, boilers, settling tanks and overhead gantry had been systematically destroyed. In addition the buildings were heavily booby-trapped with charges fixed to doors, moving parts of machinery and everything else likely to appeal to the curious. The New Zealand sappers had, however, become very cagey regarding booby traps and it was said that a gold watch would lie on a road for a very long time before anyone would pick it up or even drive close to it; likewise a tempting bunch of grapes or an overladen fruit tree would remain undespoiled until less cautious or less experienced troops came along.
The break at Arce was spent in combating the fly menace, training with 100 ft lengths of Bailey bridging mounted on especially adapted Sherman tanks, building suspension bridges, lifting lethal German mines, including the new and tricky Holtz mine, and putting down safer ones for infantry to locate. These duties were interspersed with limited leave to Rome and less limited unofficial hitch-hiking to the same city, 70 miles away.
It was a more relaxing period than the break after Cassino, when the mood had been hurt surprise at the setbacks, if not outright defeats, suffered since the Division had come to Italy. The sappers had been nurtured during their military lives on stories of chasing Jerry all over North Africa—anything pre-Alamein had been more or less forgotten—and then, for two campaigns, they had been locked in combat with an enemy who not only declined to be chased but often refused point-blank to shift at all.page 607
But all was well again; from Terelle to Avezzano was quite a step and Jerry was still hot-footing it northwards. And now with the Normandy landing making progress the war was as good as over—almost.
By 6 July 8 Field Company had converted a section of the spillway at the munitions factory into a 100 ft swimming pool complete with springboards and was busy organising a swimming sports meeting when it was told to pack up and come under command of 6 Brigade.
The battle line had moved steadily towards Florence, but the enemy was being very pigheaded about leaving Arezzo and was seriously upsetting General Alexander's timetable. Thirteenth Corps had no reserves left and 2 NZ Division was the most readily available formation. It was quite unexpected, a veritable bolt from the blue, and entailed some fast work on the part of the people responsible for juggling with divisions.
The five thousand odd vehicles comprising the wheels of 2 NZ Division were to move in five groups, 8 Field Company with the leading 6 Brigade Group (night 9 - 10 July), 7 Field Company with 5 Brigade Group, while 5 Field Park Company and 6 Field Company were with the Divisional Troops Group.
In every case the move was done in two stages, mostly by night, with complete wireless silence and with all insignia removed. The route was through the outskirts of Rome to Civita Castellana, 30 miles or so to the north of that inviting city; another 100-odd miles brought the sappers to the new Divisional area spread along the western edge of Lake Trasimene, in size about the same as Taupo but so edged with swamp that it was difficult to get to the water.
A sapper's impression of the new locality:
‘The people in this part of the country are definitely not as pleased to see us as they were further back. I don't know why unless this has been a very Fascist community. There seems to be little or no shortage of food here and never once have I seen kids hanging around the cookhouse hopefully waiting for scraps which has been the inevitable habit until now. Wine is very plentiful and amazingly cheap. We get delightful bianco for 16 lire a litre while 150 miles back we would pay 60 lire for vino much inferior in quality. The shops too seem well stocked and in Cortona which is a pretty little hill top town with an amazing panorama view of this valley one can buy A1 Borsolino page 608 hats for 25/-. The women are beautiful, some of them very fair and invariably well dressed. Like all Italian women they run to bust and even slim girls of 14 or 15 have breasts like Sherman turrets.’
Eighth Field Company settled in near 6 Brigade Headquarters in the Castroncello area some 20 miles south of Arezzo. The first job was to find a water point, which was difficult for, although there were several wells with good water, the yield was not sufficient and recourse was made to a canal. Filtration and chlorination, the bane of tea-drinking Kiwis, were both necessary and a mobile unit was sent forward by 5 Field Park Company for the purpose.
On the evening of 13 July, after patrols had established that the Castiglion Maggio peak was not held by the enemy, Lieutenant Foster (No. 3 Platoon), with 14 sappers and two White scout cars (reinforced by thirteen more men the following day) went forward to work with 26 Battalion and Divisional Cavalry. Two dozers were standing by at call at Company Headquarters.
The job was to assist elements of 26 Battalion, armoured cars of Divisional Cavalry and tanks of 18 Armoured Regiment to reach Route 71 by way of a road over the hills from Castiglion Fiorentino to Palazzo del Pero, a distance of about eight miles.
Work began after dark on the 14th with five demolitions in the first two miles of winding track. The column was finally stopped by a large crater at the junction of another road that circled round the northern face of Monte Spino, about two miles short of Il Palazzo del Pero. The obstacle was covered by enemy guns which were dropping a shell a minute on the crossroads, and nothing our guns could do would stop them. Sappers and dozers pulled back and the tanks harboured for the night. Lieutenant Foster was the only casualty and he, after receiving attention, was able to rejoin the Company while Lieutenant Fisher took his place with the detachment.
At daybreak enemy guns were still shelling the crossroads and it was decided to put in a bypass. This the detachment and the dozers had ready by midday and a troop of Divisional Cavalry was in Palazzo del Pero half an hour later.
The following day, the 16th, was very important for some sappers but supremely unusual for others; the enemy lost Arezzo and was chased across the Arno River; the forward sapper detachment carried on tidying up the road into Palazzo del page 609 Pero village and road junction; everybody else celebrated the news just released that the married men of the 4th Reinforcements were going home on furlough.
Sixth Brigade was withdrawn from the fighting and the sappers ceased to be attached. The luck of No. 3 Platoon, which had just finished a dangerous job, ran out at this point, for with celebrations pending, the whole platoon, Lieutenant Brown commanding, was detailed to leave the Company and return in the morning of the 18th to clear the road from Palazzo into Arezzo, six miles by airline and considerably more by winding road.
They missed quite a celebration. There were parties day and night for three days, with a parade for General Freyberg thrown in. The General will probably remember that parade for a very long time. Lieutenant O'Reilly, an old Western Desert hand himself, later wrote:
‘What a performance! We were still throwing celebrating Kiwis aboard as the trucks moved off down the road. Then I realised Sam Allom6 was missing and found him just starting to pack his gear! However he finally made it.’
It is expedient to pause again to pick up the threads. A consequence of the opening of the Second Front in France was the diversion of material and manpower from the now secondary theatre in Italy. The Fifth and Eighth Armies were to hold as many enemy troops as possible in Italy, thus preventing their transfer to France, and the only way to do so was to continue the pressure of the campaign.
That, shortly, is why the New Zealanders, instead of resting along the Liri valley, were rushed to the Lake Trasimene area and why 6 Brigade assisted with the fall of Arezzo. It is also the reason why the Division was again catapulted into the fighting in front of Florence.
The axis of advance for 13 Corps was up the valley of the Arno. The Kiwis were to relieve 2 Morocco Division, destined for France, as early as possible after dawn on 22 July, when the thrust line would be northwards from Castellina in Chianti, cutting across Route 2 at San Casciano thence to the Arno at Signa, about seven miles west of Florence. The New Zealand sector was not wide, about three miles, but it included a network of tracks and minor roads which the enemy, although still falling back steadily, found time to demolish, mine or booby-trap. With page 610 the thoroughness expected of him he blew up crossroads and blew down buildings, particularly when they were in narrow village streets, and he surpassed himself with trip-wired mines.
But that is to anticipate. Meanwhile 5 Brigade, with 7 Field Company as part of the brigade group, was to open the New Zealand offensive while the balance of the Division remained on three hours' notice. As it transpired, the whole Division moved in fourteen convoys between 21 and 23 July.
The campaign opened inauspiciously for the Engineers, for while the convoys were travelling that 60 dusty miles through the Chianti country, the CRE was involved in a traffic accident and evacuated to hospital. Major Pemberton (promoted temporary lieutenant-colonel), who had recently returned from New Zealand, assumed command.
The deprivation, temporarily or permanently, of a high-ranking officer's presence, does not as a rule seriously upset the morale of the rank and file, and the change in command was noted with equanimity; but there was satisfaction when the news seeped through that sundry persons in Germany had tried to remove Hitler suddenly with explosives. The venture was, unhappily, a failure, and resulted in the demise of the originators of the enterprise, but the sappers felt that they had passed on in a good cause. No doubt the expressions of condolence, had the victims heard of them, would have been a comfort as they faced the firing squads.
Seventh Field Company made camp on rising ground overlooking an expanse of gently rolling wooded country near Castellina in Chianti, a pleasant little town in the Tuscan hills, albeit somewhat the worse for shellfire.
Fifth Field Park Company arrived the next day, after, as the war diary puts it, ‘an appallingly dusty trip on roads choked with tpt. Bedded down for night among trees on roadside.’
The other sapper units were located on arrival between Castellina and Siena, where the usual water points and road jobs were waiting.
The Division was now in the Renaissance country, for in the adjacent cities of Perugia, Assisi and Florence, mankind, during the 14th and 15th centuries, emerged it is claimed from the darkness of the Middle Ages. With two world wars in one lifetime, it could be maintained that we have not emerged very far.
The organisation of a New Zealand Field Company when under brigade command, and forming part of a force advancing page 611 along a road in hilly country where the enemy is using demolitions and mines to hinder the movement, is given in the following extract:
The vanguard will normally consist of—
One Coy of Infantry—covering troops.
One Pl of Engineers—mine clearance and road repairs.
One Tp of tanks—supporting troops.
The infantry company commander will be in command of the vanguard and the speed of the advance will be determined by the progress of the sappers, i.e. Infantry should not proceed too far in front of sappers and must be prepared to supply flank protection where necessary.
If the advance is as usual along one road there will be one platoon forward, one in support and one in reserve. Other situations will be dealt with as they arise.
Bulldozers would be allocated by the CRE according to circumstances and the Mechanical Equipment officer would be under command of the Field Company. The Engineer platoon commander would indicate the work required and the Mechanical Equipment officers would be responsible for carrying it out. In general the forward platoon would clear roads, bypass or repair demolitions in the quickest possible time to enable tracked vehicles to get forward.
The support platoon would check verges and side tracks and improve road repairs for the passage of wheeled vehicles, while the Company reserve would provide relief for the forward platoons and carry out any minor tasks such as manning water points in the brigade area.
Major Lindell received the 5 Brigade operation order on the night of 22 July. The brigade would take over from the French and continue the advance, always providing the enemy did not stick his toes in and require a set-piece attack to shift him. The brigade, moreover, was going to operate with two battalions up working along parallel roads, which meant two platoons of sappers forward all the time and double duty for the company reserve.
No. 3 Platoon's report of its activities with the Maori Battalion is typical of sapper work during the period when the infantry were feeling along the axes of advance towards Florence:page 612
|Location||Job||Time Started||Time Completed||Remarks|
|731422||By-passing blown Bridge. 30' span approx.||1930 hrs 22 July 1944||2030 hrs 22 July 1944||Found abutments interfered with, prepared charges placed with pull ignition attached. Passed information back.|
|730430||By-passing demolished houses and craters.||2200 hrs 22 July 1944||2330 hrs 22 July 1944||Very dark. Dozer driver had much difficulty in seeing his blade.|
|728435||Did Recce up to this point and found road clear.||0100 hrs 23 July 1944||0200 hrs 23 July 1944||Bn. stopped at this stage.|
|726446||Dozed demolished house and trees off road.||0530 hrs 23 July 1944||0630 hrs 23 July 1944||Bn had moved forward at 0500 hrs.|
|720445||Removed mines (9) from prepared Demolition which had not been fired.||0730 hrs 23 July 1944||0800 hrs 23 July 1944||These mines placed in Sewer coupled up with F.I.D. but not fired. Suspect he did this in village of Lignano.|
|720445||Dozed demolished building off road.||0830 hrs 23 July 1944||0900 hrs 23 July 1944||page 613|
|713460||Dozed in Craters at forked road. Had to retire as spot was being heavily shelled.||1200 hrs 23 July 1944||2300 hrs 23 July 1944||Finished this job under cover of darkness.|
|716466||Removed trees and 16 Mines from road.||2330 hrs 22 July 1944||2400 hrs 23 July 1944||These mines were not fused. (Teller)|
|729453||Cleared 6 R Mines and Dozed in Crater.||1700 hrs 23 July 1944||1800 hrs 23 July 1944||Did Recce at this road for possible supply route. O.K.|
|715465-712482||Did Recce of this road. All clear.||0100 hrs 24 July 1944||Bn. stopped at this stage.|
|712482||Cleared Schu & Teller Mines and made Detour around Crater.||0700 hrs 24 July 1944||0830 hrs 24 July 1944||Schu mines placed in loose Rubble so did not risk clearing same at this stage. Job which could be done when time permits.|
|712486||Cleared 6 Teller & 8 Schu.||1000 hrs 24 July 1944||1100 hrs 24 July 1944||Took time as being fired on by L.M.G.|
|712846||Removed 3 Fallen trees off Road.||1300 hrs 24 July 1944||1330 hrs 24 July 1944|
|Relieved by No. 2 Pln. at 1430 hrs. 24 July 1944||T. C. Hanger, Lieut 1200 hrs 25 July 1944|
By the afternoon of the 24th, when, as indicated on Lieutenant Hanger's report, No. 3 Platoon was relieved, the road through Sambuca to its junction with Route 2 had been occupied and a ford opened over the Pesa River.
The fine warm days had so lowered the streams that bridging was unnecessary and drum culverts sufficed to pass the tanks over watercourses. It was soon evident that the German engineers also recognised that bridge demolition was not as important as usual and had concentrated on road cratering, anti-tank and anti-personnel mines. They had also thought out a new anti-personnel mine, the Reigel or ‘R’ mine, a very nasty piece of work—a metal box about 30 in. by 4 in., filled with explosive and tricky to lay or disarm. The enemy sappers did not seem to like them much either for many were found with the safety pin still in place. They were generally blown in situ.
The locations of the other sapper units were:
Sixth and 8th Field Companies were at San Donato doing road maintenance, culverting and bridging.
Fifth Field Park Company remained in position but sent Bridging Platoon up to Tavarnelle, followed by Stores Platoon, which took a wrong turning and was lucky to escape casualties for it got up within mortar range of the enemy before being turned back by two of our Sherman tanks, which were themselves being harried out of the village just ahead. Stores Platoon was only too happy to remove itself with all possible speed, but was held up for many anxious minutes by having to change a splinter-pierced tyre.
The 25th was another day of cautious prodding, with the enemy offering relatively light opposition. At last light 21 Battalion held a line from the Fantreggi crossroads along a road leading to a blown bridge over the Pesa; 28 (Maori) Battalion was halted at the San Pancrazio crossroads by a mined demolition covered by anti-tank guns. Nos. 1 and 2 Platoons of 7 Field Company joined forces here and, with the help of the infantry advanced guard and several Staghounds, got the tanks around the obstacle and as far as the Lucignano fork where 1 Platoon, relieved by No. 3, went back into support.
At this point the Pesa changed direction to the north-west and narrowed the New Zealand front to such a degree that 21 Battalion was instructed to cover the whole brigade front, while the Maori Battalion had a spell and watched the western boun- page 615 page 616 dary until 8 Indian Division caught up. On account of renewed enemy activity, 5 Brigade was ordered to stand firm on its present line for the time being.
During the day the sappers in the rear areas, including No. 1 Platoon, 7 Field Company, caught a glimpse of a distinguished visitor. According to the 5 Field Park Company war diary, ‘HM the King, in a cloud of dust and a Humber car whizzed by today and was duly cheered by representatives of the Unit assembled on the road at Castellina.’
The night 26 - 27 July was extremely busy. Fifth Brigade infantry occupied a road from La Ripa to San Quirico, where a well-mined cratered junction was an efficient road block. No. 3 Platoon, with the usual dozer assistance, had a detour past the demolition ready for a 6 Brigade unit, when it arrived, to relieve the 5 Brigade infantry whose mission in that locality was ended. Two sections of No. 1 Platoon, 8 Field Company, began to clear the road from the bypass to La Ripa, while 3 Platoon, 7 Field Company, joined a ‘recce’ party making for Montagnana, about two miles west of Cerbaia.
The road to Montagnana followed a ridge down to the flat ground bordering the Pesa, and, with the coming the first light, was in full view of the enemy on the far side of the river. They were, however, far too busy with 6 Brigade to pay much attention to the ‘recce’ party, a company of infantry followed by sappers and a dozer, followed in turn by a few tanks and anti-tank guns. There was only one blow, which the dozer filled in twenty minutes, and after a cautious investigation by the infantry the deserted village was entered in time for breakfast.
Before recounting 6 Brigade sapper operations, it is necessary to return to the point where 7 Field Company had opened a ford across the Pesa River. Later some infantry had used the ford and attacked Fabbrica, which they found to be too strongly held.
On 24 July the sector was taken over by Armcav, a composite force drawn from 4 Armoured Brigade and Divisional Cavalry. No. 2 Platoon, 6 Field Company, was a part of Armcav and its first job was to improve the crossing over the Pesa originally opened by 2 Platoon of 7 Field Company, for Armcav's mission was to establish contact with the flanking South Africans and to follow the enemy withdrawal along Route 2.page 617
This highway crossed the Pesa but followed its eastern bank for some three miles before it turned north-east to San Casciano, an important road-junction town.
Armcav began its operations before first light on the 25th. The day for 2 Platoon, 6 Field Company, may be imagined from the understated lines in the Company war diary:
‘Lt Hunter and party continued up Route 2 at 0500 hrs. Established two deviations before Fabrica. Deviated demolition before Casciano. Got tanks through then pulled out on account of heavy fire.’
The next day followed much the same pattern; on the 27th patrols entered the hilltop village of San Casciano to find that a stubborn enemy had departed, leaving the place in a more than usual mess. Cerbaia was only three miles away, but owing to damage in San Casciano and the craters along the connecting road it might as well have been thirty.
Armcav was now, in the continued absence of the South Africans, guarding the New Zealand right flank; 21 Battalion at Montagnana was doing a similar service on the left while waiting for the Indian division to come up.
Sixth Brigade, with 8 Field Company attached, moved up to the San Pancrazio area, halfway between San Donato and Cerbaia, in readiness to relieve 5 Brigade after its occupation of La Ripa. No. 1 Platoon, 8 Field Company, was to take over from 3 Platoon, 7 Field Company, at the San Quirico crossroads.
Back at Company Headquarters the camp site was shelled at intervals at a cost of four wounded, one fatally, plus sundry damaged trucks before the camp was moved a little.
No enemy were encountered on the western side of the Pesa but a support tank went through a small bridge near Casetta, necessitating the services of a dozer to make a track across the stream. This did not take long and in the interim infantry patrols reported that the blown bridge over the river had dammed it to such an extent that a tank crossing below it appeared possible. Sapper investigation disclosed that although there were crossing places the German engineers had not been idle, and all points of easy access had been well mined. It was not therefore until early afternoon that a track was dozed in an unmined area and the tanks got across to the support of the infantry, who had found Cerbaia deserted.
The occupation of San Casciano and the forcing of the bridge-head over the Pesa were the opening moves of the final stage of the New Zealand advance on Florence, the ‘City of Flowers’.page 618
On the left flank the Indians had come up level with 5 Brigade, but the South Africans were still making slow progress and the Division continued to operate with a tender right flank.
The final enemy defences south of Florence lay along a line of commanding hills that stretched from the South African front across Route 2 to the high ground of the Pian dei Cerri facing 2 NZ Division. San Michele and La Romola, two villages included in the enemy defensive scheme, were situated about a mile south of the crest of the Pian dei Cerri, and roughly a mile and a half apart. They were names that will not be quickly forgotten in New Zealand.
Fourth Armoured Brigade had absorbed Armcav and was given the amended task of attacking the eastern portion of the New Zealand sector, which included La Romola, while 6 Brigade pushed past San Michele to the top of the Pian dei Cerri. This was later amended to waiting on an intermediate brigade line, Points 208 and 261, until 4 Armoured Brigade had secured its objective.
When Armcav had been disbanded on 27 July, 6 Field Company settled in alongside Route 2 near Tavarnelle, leaving No. 2 Platoon with the armour. Six armoured-car crews were also detached to work with the Divisional Cavalry, the whole under the command of Captain Andrew.
The command of Andrew Detachment was: OC: Captain Andrew.
No. 2 Platoon: Lieutenants Hunter and Skipage with complete platoon.
Lieutenant Ross and three crews from No. 1 Platoon.
Lieutenant Valintine and three crews from No. 3 Platoon.
It is not possible to follow the armoured-car crews in any detail, but these extracts from the diary of a sapper involved suggest that there were safer occupations:
‘Early in the morning went to aid of a Staghound which had struck a mine. While clearing area Noel Hood7 lost his foot on a Schu mine… We dived into the cellar with the other four and some Ities. One came through the cellar wall and landed six inches from Max and me but luckily didn't explode. I think we would have invested in Tatts if it had been possible…. After lunch called out to go to aid of Staghound in midst of minefield beyond Gepetto. On way between Fornicuzzo and page 619 Gepetto our car struck a mine (or two rather) and was wrecked. Max Evans8 wounded and Eric not too good…. We had to wait till 8.30 hrs before a rescue car could get to us on account of being under observation. Rather depressing waiting five hours with our infantry behind us, shells and mortars cutting us off and the RAF bombing and straffing half a mile away. Very thankful to get back to our slitties that night and find a relief party waiting for us.’
Because of the uncertain situation on the South African front, 4 Armoured Brigade objectives were amended to a line south of La Romola.
About midnight two groups of 22 (Motorised) Battalion infantry and tanks, with the armoured-car crews spread among them and the sappers following the infantry, moved up two roads, the right-hand force to Spedaletto, the left towards Pisignano. For the sappers it was just another night of getting tanks around or across demolitions. By dawn on 28 July the crest of the rising ground south of La Romola was firmly held and No. 2 Platoon went back for a rest. The armoured cars stayed on and after first light found how mistaken was the supposition that the enemy had left during the night—one car was hit and there were four casualties, one fatal.
On 6 Brigade front the right flanking unit was followed by Lieutenant Brown and his sappers leading the tanks. The route was via Cerbaia, then across the valley and on to the ridge that carries a road from Castellare to Cigoli between La Romola and San Michele. The infantry had found a soft spot in the defences and were soon out of sight and hearing of the sappers sweeping for mines in front of the tanks. It was a confused night, with no clear contact between front and rear. A blown crossroad where the track from Cerbaia met the Castellare road kept the sappers busy for some time in getting the tanks over. While waiting for further orders a section of infantry who had been covering the working engineers announced that there were enemy in the immediate vicinity. They had two wounded Germans to prove it, so, isolated and without instructions, the sappers decided to hunt enemy. At this point some men from 24 Battalion appeared with the information that they had collected a few Jerries from a house nearby and that there were no more about; and with no infantry, no tanks, and no orders Brown decided to return to the company lines.page 620
Lance-Corporal Nicol9 with his section had swept the road as far as the tanks wished to advance, then, leaving his men under cover, he went forward to report to the infantry commander before returning to the main party. While he was there a counter-attack appeared probable, shells were coming in from all sides and all the tanks except one were out of action. Nicol collected his men and brought them to a house where the men of C Company, 24 Battalion, had gathered. He had acquired a Bren gun by this time and took his position by one of the windows, where he exchanged shots with the advancing enemy.
The Company was forced to fall back some distance to another house occupied by A Company, 24 Battalion. Nicol brought his men out safely and was later awarded an MM for his determination and example.
Lieutenant Menzies and his detachment had an unenviable time for the leading company took the wrong turning and, instead of passing through Castellare, found itself in Cerbaia. Thus it was close to daylight before the infantry were near their objective and the project was abandoned for the time being.
The New Zealand advance paused in the face of heavy opposition. On 4 Armoured Brigade's front the flank was too open and the defence too solid for further penetration. The fiercely combative mood of the enemy invited a reappraisal of the Divisional situation. The result of conference and enemy pressure was the taking over on the night 28-29 July by 23 Battalion of 22 Battalion's right-hand sector, with under command a platoon of machine guns, a troop of anti-tank guns and 1 Platoon, 7 Field Company. Some uneasiness about tank noises to the right rear of the position was allayed by the assurance that they were coming from the South Africans, who were making way slowly against a stubborn defence.
The main operation that night for 6 Brigade was the attack on San Michele. The taking, or rather the defence after the taking of San Michele was a gallant affair, but the sappers were not involved. The road up to the village was intact and there were no mines. The sappers stood by all day and, before withdrawing after dark, helped with the consolidation by practising the now almost forgotten art of laying a protective minefield. They were all back before daylight at a cost of only one wounded.page 621
A major re-deployment of 2 NZ Division, made possible by the appearance of 8 Indian Division, resulted in the shift of the rest of 5 Brigade over to the eastern wing, which offered the shortest route to Florence and an opportunity to help the South Africans. Fifth Brigade would advance two battalions that night to cover the right flank while 4 Brigade attacked La Romola.
Sapper dispositions and occupations on 30 July, that is after the Divisional deployment already mentioned which threw the infantry weight on to the right flank, were:
1 ‘Water points.
2 Lt J. H. Flood; Brisbane; born Queensland, 1 Sep 1917; clerk; wounded 4 Aug 1944.
3 Lt E. T. Belhamine, BEM; born NZ 27 Dec 1913; foreman mechanic; killed in action 25 Jul 1944.
4 Actually it was a side road.
5 2 Lt W. M. Sharp; born NZ 9 Oct 1912; clerk of works.
6 Spr S. H. Allom; Christchurch; born NZ 18 Jul 1918; taxi-driver.
7 Cpl N. W. Hood; Te Karaka; born Aust., 14 Nov 1918; shepherd; wounded 27 Jul 1944.
8 Sgt T. M. Evans; Upper Hutt; born Oamaru, 20 Jun 1919; boilermaker; wounded 27 Jul 1944.
9 Cpl R. W. Nicol, MM; born Scotland, 10 May 1901; watersider; wounded 25 Sep 1944; died Wellington, 14 Jul 1948.