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Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy

Decisive Battle for Florence

Decisive Battle for Florence

On the night of 1-2 August the decisive battle for Florence began, when 5 Brigade, 6 Brigade, and 4 Armoured Brigade all joined in the attack on the Pian dei Cerri and La Poggiona ridges. The opposition was tenacious. Throughout the days of 2-3 August the combined efforts eventually forced the enemy to withdraw. This ended the battle for the Paula Line and decided the fate of Florence. New Zealand troops were firmly on top of the final line of hills and on the point of breaking through down the slopes to the Arno. Up to this time the South Africans had been unable to make more than slight headway along the valley of the Greve, through which ran Route 2, the main road to Florence, but with the Paula Line pierced by 2 NZ Division, the enemy had to abandon his positions south of the Arno.

Along the greater part of the front the Germans withdrew precipitately, and South African armour began to forge swiftly ahead along the main road to the city. The South Africans entered Florence early on the morning of 4 August. While 5 Brigade pressed on down the hill slopes towards the Arno, a New Zealand column entered the south-west outskirts. Florence lies on both sides page 376 of the Arno, the greater part being on the north bank. All but one of the many bridges across the Arno had been destroyed, and this, the historic Ponte Vecchio, had been closed by great masses of rubble from buildings which had been demolished at its approaches. The enemy maintained many strongpoints on the north bank.

B Company, 5 Field Ambulance, closed down on 3 August and moved forward about four miles to set up at the roadside in the village of Massanera. The building was littered with books and school furniture, but it was soon cleared out for the ADS. Almost immediately casualties arrived, and they continued to arrive throughout the night. The ADS was busy until about half past four the following morning. B Company packed up and moved again in the afternoon of the 4th, and after travelling for about three miles the men caught their first glimpse of Florence, spread out on a plain with high hills to the rear. The company moved on in convoy with thousands of other vehicles, passing many burnt-out German tanks, some of them still burning, and made its way down into the suburbs of Florence, right under the nose of the Germans. Its destination was reached without event, save for one shell that landed about 200 yards away.

The ADS was set up in a large Fascist school building at Scandicci, about three miles south-west of the city, and battle casualties began to arrive immediately. Evacuation to 4 MDS, which was occupying a mansion on the southern slopes overlooking Florence, became so difficult that a car post had to be established and the casualties carried over the first stage of the journey by jeep. The Germans opened fire on the suburb during the night, but no shells fell near the ADS. From upstream came crashing explosions as heavy concentrations fell around a bridge across the Arno.

The difficult advance on Florence had traversed one of the most historic regions of the world in the post-Renaissance period. There was beauty in the hills covered with woods of oak and pine on the road from Chianti, and in Siena, whose brick walls glowed ‘Siena red’ in the morning sun. 5 Brigade fought in vineyards famous for some of the finest wine in the world—Chianti. Some troops had to guard masterpieces of painting which had been hidden in houses outside the city. The magnificent villas of the Florentine merchant princes had their suits of armour and their art galleries, page 377 their terraced gardens and their noble avenues of trees. Advancing units lived in one famous villa after another.

The turn came for 4 Field Ambulance to make a temporary home in one of these historic villas.