New Zealand Engineers, Middle East
5 Field Park Company
Company Headquarters remained at Tavarnelle with the platoons spread along Route 2. Bridging Platoon was standing by at a moment's notice, Mechanical Equipment was fully extended, with drivers being changed daily, while Workshops and Stores functioned as usual.
Fifth Brigade's plan was to advance two battalions to occupy high ground on their immediate front, whereupon 4 Armoured Brigade would send 22 Battalion into La Romola. The role of the engineers was, as usual, to ensure that support arms reached the forward infantry at the earliest possible moment. On this occasion it was more important than usual for huge German Tiger tanks were reported to be in the area. Tigers were more page 622 than a match for our Shermans, whose armour-piercing shells were said to bounce off them like the Boys anti-tank rifle bullets did against the German tanks in Greece.
There was a big demolition at Spedaletto village, on the junction of Route 2 and a side road to La Romola, which the sappers were asked to look at before the attack went in that night (29-30 July), but the fire was too heavy for dozers to work there in daylight.
Twenty-third Battalion's starting point was at the demolition. No. 1 Platoon sappers and a dozer began work on it at dusk and were still working at ten o'clock, when the barrage opened and the infantry advanced. The job was completed shortly afterwards and the armour moved through, and that was all the sappers were asked to do.
The Maori attack was along the San Casciano-Faltignano road for a distance of three-quarters of a mile, but the tanks were soon stopped by a stream with high banks. It would have taken too long to get them across and they were re-routed through 23 Battalion's area. No. 2 Platoon worked on the obstacle and the Maoris waited in Faltignano until the armour arrived. The sappers were not further involved and by the end of the day Maori advanced elements were spread along their objective and in touch with 23 Battalion north of Sant’ Andrea.
Fourth Armoured Brigade's attack went in the same night. Owing to the work done previously the tanks were able to pass through Cerbaia and thence to La Romola. There were two demolitions to be filled for the passage of wheeled support-arms transport, and there were still snipers in the higher end of La Romola who spared time to make the sapper platoon's work dangerous, but there were no casualties.
Second New Zealand Division's Operation Order No. 45, issued on 1 August, ordered a three-brigade attack on a three-battalion front against the line Poggio delle Monache, La Pog-giona, Poggio Valicaia.
The ‘Poggios’ were the three eastern crests of the Pian dei Cerri, high country screening Florence from the eyes of the approaching New Zealanders. The code-word for the operation was plonk and the final brigade objectives were appropriately enough coded gin, zibib and hock.
It will make for clarity to reverse the military style hitherto used in this volume and work from 6 Brigade, left, to 5 Brigade, right.page 623
Twenty-fifth Battalion was to make the initial attack and 8 Field Company was instructed to provide a working section to operate with that unit. Major Clarke arranged that Lieutenant Warrington10 and half the section would move with the leading company, and that Lieutenant Budge with the other half would stand by at Battalion Headquarters. The axis of advance was the Castellare-Cigoli road thrusting up between San Michele and La Romola, and the objectives a group of hilltops about three miles north of Castellare.
The whole affair went off with unexpected ease and the sappers' only job was to lift some mines placed across the road near Point 281. It was different with the other brigades, which met determined resistance, and 6 Brigade was instructed to hold fast until further notice. It was in fact practically all that 6 Brigade was asked to do, and 8 Field Company spent the next few days in minesweeping and general road maintenance.
Twenty-second Battalion attacked from La Romola along an axis road leading to La Poggiona ridge. The battalion made a two-pronged advance, the right-hand prong leaving the road to attack its objective hill while the left-hand group carried on to La Poggiona on the ridge top. Lieutenant Valintine, commanding the right-hand party, helped the tanks along the road that led to the large house on the hill which was the company objective.
Sergeant Farnham with the left-hand prong got the tanks past a demolition. The infantry took the ridge top, was counter-attacked and driven off it, attacked again, consolidated and waited for the counter-attack. Instead the dawn came, and with it a wonderful view of Florence and the intervening low country. There was no local enemy fire and patrols could find nothing but empty weapon pits and abandoned gear.
The plan of 5 Brigade on the right flank was to capture at first light on 1 August the high country from Poggio delle Monache to La Poggiona. The Maori Battalion, already probing along the road, was to take these objectives, then hand over to 21 Battalion. The axis road passed between the two objectives and, via Giogoli, crossed the River Greve and so led direct to Florence.
No. 2 Platoon, 7 Field Company, was to work with the Maoris while No. 3 reported to 21 Battalion. In the event the Maoris were repulsed by Tiger tanks and returned to their start line, page 624 and the sappers were not called upon. Twenty-first Battalion was thrown in that night (1 - 2 August) but in the face of determined opposition its men were also forced to return to their starting point at Il Pino. Again the sappers had nothing to do beyond tidying up the road and filling one not very large demolition.
The position was now that 6 and 4 Brigades were on their final objectives while 5 Brigade had been twice repulsed. A new programme was arranged for the coming night (2 - 3 August) while everything that could be brought to bear—bombers, fighters and artillery—saturated the area almost without pause. The battalion made no mistake the second time, and while it was consolidating on the twin points of Poggio Issi and Poggio delle Monache, No. 3 Platoon tidied up the road from the start line at Il Pino.
The enemy were clearly thinning out all along the front and 28 (Maori) Battalion was ordered to exploit through 21 Battalion's position. They were away soon after first light, accompanied by two troops of tanks.
Twenty-third Battalion was also let loose along a side road and the South Africans were now almost neck and neck on Route 2.
Part of the Maori Battalion was directed on Giogoli, at the bottom of the tree-lined road that led over the last hill at the edge of the narrow Florentine plain. The enemy had a number of guns still trained on the locality and the streets were full of rubble and the cellars full of civilians. Scandicci, on the Greve River, an outer suburb of Florence, was only three miles away. Fifth Brigade halted where it stood at dusk on 3 August, under orders to ‘push on quietly’ in the morning. The instructions about pushing on quietly were interpreted liberally and it was more or less a case of ‘Tally Ho!’ Infantry mounted on tanks surveyed the blown bridge over the Greve at Scandicci, left their mounts to wait for engineers and dozers and pushed on through cheering crowds of civilians. Lieutenant Veart11 and a dozer got the tanks over the Greve at a makeshift ford and they caught up with their late passengers. We must leave the New Zealand and South African units at this point, for racing for the honour of being first into a foreign city is not a sapper duty.page 625
Seventh Field Company was concentrated in Scandicci by the evening of 4 August and put in a pair of drum culverts for the use of wheeled traffic. The forward battalions had been persuaded by this time that delivering Florence and the Florentines from a foreign yoke was not now a New Zealand responsibility. On the contrary 2 NZ Division, commencing on 6 August, would sidestep some 15 miles to the west.
Eighth Field Company spent a frustrating day with detachments doing odd tasks and the rest standing by for bridging jobs on the Arno River. The mission was finally cancelled and the Company diarist disgustedly wrote:
‘2120 Hrs. OC returned to this Hq and that finished about the worst day we have had for a long time. Packed and half packed all day. Orders and counter orders and then heavy rain. Apparently the NZ Div is not going to cross the Arno River south of Florence and is moving to another sector.’
Fifth Field Park Company, less Bridging Platoon which moved to Scandicci, concentrated near San Casciano where, the Company diarist wrote, ‘they occupied portion of the grounds of an Italian of baronial rank, who invited our not unwilling men to make free of his wonderful acres of fruit. So many peaches and grapes were stowed away in the ensuing days that it was almost unnecessary for our cooks to put on any meals.’
All detachments had rejoined 6 Field Company by 5 August and it moved to Geppetto, where it stayed until the 15th sweeping verges, filling craters and doing general road maintenance.
An interesting comment on the acquisitive reputation acquired by the Kiwi soldier is supplied in the private diary of Sapper Thornton, who was something of an art connoisseur:
‘Doug and I walked to Montegufoni Castle about three miles from platoon area. Tried to get permission to see over it but zealous Fine Arts officials refused on the grounds that we were New Zealanders and would be bound to attempt plunder and loot. The castle, owned by the Sitwells, was a refuge for the Pitti Palace collections of paintings. Doug and I extremely chagrined and returned to the platoon in bad tempers frayed even more by the scorching heat and dust laden air. Tom Haisman12 cooked a goose for supper. Swore an Itie family gave it to him!’
The Division's new task was the relief, commencing on 6 August, of 8 Indian Division in the sector facing Empoli, 15 page 626 miles to the west of Florence. It was in fact rather more than the relief of the Indians, for it was hoped to screen from enemy eyes the deployment of 2 US Corps preparatory to a co-ordinated attack by both Fifth and Eighth Armies, whose sights were now fixed on the Gothic Line designed to block the entry of Allied forces into North Italy. The task set the infantry was, with patrols, to edge the light enemy forces across the Arno so that American engineers could make their bridge ‘recces’ for the crossing. As for Empoli, if the enemy did not vacate voluntarily they were to be pushed out by 5 Brigade.
The first fortnight of August was, for 7 and 8 Field Companies, one long reconnaissance. The whole network of roads in the area was checked for mines, culverts searched, and reports made on bridges. Sappers prowled along the riverbank with the infantry patrols collecting information for the incoming Americans.
There was only one action of any magnitude; Empoli was the last enemy strongpoint and 5 Brigade was ordered to clean it up. There was the usual checking of routes for the tanks, clearing fallen trees and filling of demolitions by 7 Field Company during the operation, which began at midnight on 11 August with the occupation of surrounding villages and ended three nights later with the clearance of Empoli itself.
The relief of the Division by 85 US Division began on the night 14–15 August and was completed the following night as far as the engineer units were concerned. The companies moved back to the Castellina area near Siena for a spell.
Engineer casualties for the period May-August were relatively heavy—15 all ranks killed and 51 wounded.
11 Lt Veart's MC citation mentions the quick passage of the tanks across the Greve as the finale to a number of meritorious actions through three campaigns.