CHAPTER TEN

FOURTH INDIAN DIVISION IN THE ARNO VALLEY

IT WILL BE REMEMBERED that after relief on the Adriatic coast on June 13th, Fourth Indian Division shifted to Campobasso training area. Within a fortnight 7th Brigade was again on the move, trekking northwards through Central Italy. 5th Brigade followed, and during the first week of July the Umbrian villagers heard a good deal of Hindustani as the newcomers exchanged greetings with the rear echelons of Ten Tenth Indian Division. By July 7th, 7th Brigade was concentrated south of Umbertide, and next day Fourth Indian Division took over responsibilities west of the Tiber.

(10th Brigade of Tenth Indian Division at this juncture passed under command of Fourth Indian Division. In the Italian campaign Indian formations so seldom operated together that it has been considered best to retain divisional identities on those occasions when they fought beside each other. The present chapter therefore will deal only with the operations of 5th, 7th and 11th Brigades. 10th Brigade's participation has been recounted in the previous chapter.)

7th Brigade deployed with two battalions forward, 1/2 Gurkhas took over on Monte Bastiola with 2/11 Sikhs on their left, and Royal Sussex in reserve. To the west of 7th Brigade, Sack Force, an independent and flexible formation which included Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders from 8th Indian Division, linked up with the 2nd New Zealand Division astride Route 71 to the north of Lake Trasimeno.

A glance at the map revealed a disheartening circumstance on Fourth Division's front. There were no north-south roads between the valleys of the Arno and the Tiber, a distance of twenty-two miles. Three lateral roads, however, did cross the front, which meant that the enemy had ample facilities for reinforcing any threatened sector of his defences.

In the twenty miles intervening between Fourth Division's start line and the block of mountains which stoppered the bottleneck between Arezzo and the Tiber basin, nine rivers criss-crossed the line of advance. Fortunately in midsummer none of these streams constituted a major obstacle. Moreover, the terrain tended to become easier towards the west; the valleys more gentle, the ridges less precipitous. The countryside was well wooded, with cultivated patches in the glades and along the valleys. In the fields the harvested corn still stood in stock and on the high isolated peaks strongly-built sixteenth and seventeenth-century palazzi---half castle and half squire's manor---each girt about with clusters of cottages, dominated the countryside. These dwellings were so solidly built that each represented a potential strong-point in which the Germans might lie up during the day and from which they sallied to man their defences at nightfall.

In a war of automatic weapons an advance through a wooded countryside with few tracks and little visibility constituted a hazardous enterprise. The first necessity was to locate the enemy, the second to by-pass his fixed positions, and the final task was to mop him up. The routine of infiltration varied with local conditions, but the usual method was to send reconnaissance patrols of not more than three or four men to explore the terrain ahead. Within close supporting distance a fighting patrol approximately one platoon in strength, lay in wait.

Within equally easy reach of the fighting patrol a force of one or two companies, with machine-gunners, mortar teams and an artillery observation officer remained on call. The screen of reconnaissance patrols would infiltrate between the enemy posts, or in some instances would bump into them. A pinpointed picture of German dispositions would emerge, from which objectives would be allocated. These objectives were key sectors which when seized would force the enemy to withdraw from his other positions.

This type of warfare suited Indian troops. It retained something of the bushwhacking technique of the endless little squabbles of the North-West Frontier. The deep patrols brought out military qualities inherent in the blood of men whose ancestors have been soldiers for a thousand years. Keen sight, silent movement, quick decision and abounding courage were the counters to win in this sort of game, and these abilities Indian troops have always possessed in full.

On the morning of July 9th, both forward battalions of 7th Brigade, with tanks of Warwickshire Yeomanry in close support, closed up on Monte Alvieri overlooking the river Nestore. 1/2 Gurkhas were first to draw blood. Near Ghironzo a reconnaissance squad silently closed on a German bathing party. An Italian woman gave the alarm as the Gurkhas raced in with the knife. Six Germans were cut down as the nudists bolted in all directions. With little or no opposition the advance continued for two days on a front of four miles. On the afternoon of July 11th the Gurkhas crossed Toppo Ridge, and explored the valley of the River Aggia. Their covering tanks bogged down in the soft gravel of the stream, but the infantry pushed forward to Monte San Maria Tiberina, a ridge which commands the road along the western bank of the Tiber. After a brisk scrimmage the enemy withdrew, but that night a strong force attempted to regain the position. Although well ahead of support weapons, the Gurkhas stood firm and threw back the enemy. Next morning the Sikhs worked forward two miles to the west of the Gurkhas' position and after brisk fighting stormed Monte Pagliaiola. In this action Sepoy Kartar Singh cleared his company position single-handed, destroying three machine-gun posts before falling severely wounded. Still further to the west, on the same afternoon another company of Sikhs seized Monte Favalto, the highest ground on the front. This summit, nearly eight miles west of Monte San Maria Tiberina, gave source to streams flowing north, south and east. The crest commanded Palazzo di Pero in the loop of the lateral road which joins Arezzo and San Sepolcro. This highway skirts the southern flanks of the great buttress of Alpe di Poti and the juxtaposition of first-class communications and mountain fastness indicated a strong defensive position. Before launching the next assault it was felt necessary to reinforce the fighting line. Royal Sussex and 1/9 Gurkhas came forward. The Sussex moved through 1/2 Gurkhas to attack the village of San Maria di Tiberina, while 1/9 Gurkhas crossed Monte Favalto on the opposite flank to exploit towards Civatella, half-way to Palazzo di Pero on the lateral road. The remainder of 5th Brigade (1/4th Essex and 3/10 Baluchis) moved up in close support of the right of the Divisional front, where the heaviest resistance was anticipated.

San Maria di Tiberina was a delightful walled village of the picture-book variety, standing on an isolated pinnacle high above the ridge of .the same name. To north and south there was an abrupt drop to the river valley. The approaches from east and west were along an exposed and unusually narrow ridge. A road climbed the southern face of the hill in a series of sharp and complicated bends. The village palazzo had walls of such thickness that shell-fire made little impression upon it, and the surrounding houses clustered so tightly that the streets were safe against everything but high angle bombs. On the afternoon of July 12th, Divisional guns and Corps artillery laid down a heavy shoot, wreathing San Maria di Tiberina in smoke to protect the advance of the infantry. By 2200 hours Royal Sussex were within a mile of the village and deployed for the assault. The defence, however, had only been demonstration, and at dawn the Sussex occupied the pinnacle against slight rearguard opposition. A platoon was immediately sent along the ridge to seize Monte Cedrone, two miles to the north-east.

This high ground commanded Citta di Castello and the entrance to the Tiber basin. The Durhams and Baluchis of 10th Brigade at the same time closed up on this position from the south. Although the Sussex reached the crest, the position was deemed insecure, and before dawn on July 14th the platoon was withdrawn. Next morning, 4/10 Baluchis of 10th Brigade battled strenuously to regain Monte Cedrone, but without success. The sister battalion of Baluchis from 5th Brigade thereupon came forward to mount an attack from the south-west. The assault went in at 0200 hours on July 15th. Heavy and accurate defensive fire caught the Indians beyond their start line. The mule trains stampeded in the darkness, dragging and hurling unhappy drivers in all directions. The Baluchis were recalled, Monte Cedrone remaining in the grip of the enemy.

The task of neutralizing this strong position now fell upon 1st Durhams of 10th Brigade, who had been mopping up in the broken ground between San Maria di Tiberina ridge and the river. Here the north countrymen had been waging Red Indian warfare against an opposing Jaeger battalion in "The Arena" a tree-girt stadium-shaped depression between two ridges held by the opposing forces. Irregular outcrops of rock, thick foliage and deceptive folds in the ground made "The Arena" a death-trap for the unwary. The Durhams proved excellent stalkers; patrols seldom came back empty-handed, yet only once were casualties sustained. Forward positions were so close that individual enemies became well known. A tall German officer emerged daily on the slopes of the opposite ridge to examine the British positions. With bullets pelting around him he sauntered about. He bore a charmed life, and like the legendary Mad Major of the Great War and the Man on the Grey Horse in Eritrea, his fate is unknown.

On the night of July 15/16, 10th Brigade attacked between Monte Cedrone and the Tiber. 4/10 Baluchis and 2/4 Gurkhas broke through the Uppiano positions. After a two-hour concentration from two hundred guns the Durhams smashed at Monte Cedrone. By good fortune the attack coincided with a relief and the position was seized without difficulty. Before dawn the Germans had rallied, but. the impetus of a bayonet charge broke their first attempt at counterattack. Four similar assaults failed to shake the grip of the Gurkhas and Baluchis on the positions along the river. Thereafter the enemy gave up the fight.

On the left of the Divisional front, 1/9 Gurkhas held Monte Civatella, while the Sikhs remained on Monte Favolto. The Essex came into the line between Royal Sussex and the Gurkhas, and preparations began for the next advance. Communications now became an urgent problem; it was necessary to devise a route on which supplies and support weapons might be brought forward. The construction even of a jeep track across the broken and precipitous ground to the north of the Aggio River presented exceptional difficulty, yet a way had to be found to reach the lateral road between Arezzo and the Tiber valley. A line which disdained obstacles was drawn on a map. The route chosen crossed a boulder-strewn valley, traversed deep clefts, climbed cliffs and burrowed through heavy forests. The first survey estimated ten days as the minimum period for construction. There were not ten days to spare.

By the morning of July 14th a cross-section of the United Nations had assembled in this wild. spot. Detachments of Central India Horse provided covering parties in the woods on the crests of the ridges. Italian labour companies plied pick and shovel. British sappers drove bulldozers. Canadian engineers supplied explosive squads which dealt with boulders and rocky outcrops. Bombay and Madras Sappers and Miners laid the road. For twenty-eight hours they blasted rocks, rooted out stumps, notched the hillside, reared retaining walls and eased out the hairpin bends. On the next afternoon (June 15th) the first wheels went through, followed by tanks. Before the track was open Major Patterson of Central India Horse, accompanied by a sapper officer, manhandled a jeep to within two miles of Palazzo di Pero, and completed the journey on a collapsible parachutist motorcycle. They arrived in time to greet a New Zealand armoured car patrol which had entered from the west. Enemy infantry were still dug in within three hundred yards of the town. Thus by high audacity and gruelling toil "Jacob's Ladder" came into being. The story of its building was bruited abroad throughout two armies, and when His Majesty the King visited Italy he asked to be driven over it.

With the Arezzo-San Sepolcro road under control, the stage was set for a direct assault on the Alpe de Poti massif. 7th Brigade began to draw together from its scattered front in order to concentrate on this objective. Central India Horse, which had rejoined the Division on July 14th, relieved 2/11 Sikhs along Jacob's Ladder. During an early reconnaissance a C.I.H. patrol was trapped on a mine-field. Sowar Ditto Ram, a young soldier of only two years' service, had his leg blown off. Hearing calls for aid, he pulled himself painfully across the mine-field and applied bandages to a wounded comrade before losing consciousness. He died a few minutes later. Lieut. St. J. G. Young, the patrol leader also crawled across the deadly ground, digging up mines with his hands. One he failed to detect; it mangled his right leg. He dragged himself on, dressed a wounded man, sent a messenger back for aid, and ordered his men not to move until help came. Five hours later, when sappers and stretcher-bearers arrived, Lieut. Young was still conscious, but he died before reaching hospital. The posthumous award of George Crosses to these young soldiers for identical acts of selfless gallantry linked them in a blood brotherhood transcending rank and race.

On approaching Alpe di Poti the grain of the ground worsened. Higher crests, vertical-sided gorges and heavily wooded trackless valley taxed the supply services to the utmost. No carriers save men and mules could negotiate such terrain. Concerning the hard-working and indomitable mule transport companies, an observer wrote:

"Mules were in great demand in these hills. They performed wonders and earned the undying gratitude of the fighting troops whom they served. Daily they carried food, water and ammunition along paths exposed to incessant shell and mortar fire. One Sikh mule unit attached to a British battalion established a proud record. No mule was ever left unattended or allowed to break away from a supply column under fire. The Sikhs' tendency to treat their mules like potential Derby winners led one officer to estimate casualties to be higher among the drivers than among the mules. When fire was directed on them the Sikhs would bring their animals' heads together and would stand in front of them. One Sikh muleteer sheltered his mules in the corner of two walls while eighteen shells exploded around him."

On July 17th, 11th Brigade arrived from Southern Italy, Fourth Division was complete once more and able to concentrate its attention on the formidable objective ahead. On the night of July 17 2/11 Sikhs and 1/2 Gurkhas crossed the lateral highway, and began to climb the slopes of Alpe di Poti. By 0300 hours the Gurkhas had reached the crest, having encountered no resistance. The Sikhs on the left had run into heavy mortar fire, and it was not until noon on the 18th that the intervention of Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry opened the way. With great skill the tanks followed the infantry on to the mountain top, where the composite force reorganized and pushed on. By dawn on July 20th, the Gurkhas were in the midst of the German defences, holding a scimitar-shaped ridge of great tactical importance. Not content with the night's gains, at noon the sturdy hillmen threw in an attack and seized Point 755, one thousand yards to the north-east of their main position. The enemy behaved like a bad-tempered child, fairly screaming his rage. In the next six hours no less than ten counter-attacks surged against Point 755. Thick scrub and belts of tall firs allowed the Germans to approach the Gurkha positions unseen. Fortunately the Divisional artillery had the ground ranged to a yard. On a shout over the radio from the forward observation officer, a curtain of defensive fire dropped in a twinkling. Attack after attack was smashed, and concurrently the Gurkhas extended their gains. A company assault afterwards described by the corps commander as "brilliantly successful," enabled Major the Hon. L. C. F. Shore and his men to storm a further objective. Unfortunately this splendid officer, whose family had been connected with Second Gurkhas for well over a hundred years, fell in the moment of victory.

Arezzo had fallen to the New Zealanders, who now turned into the west for their drive on Florence. To cover the gap, 11th Brigade came into the line with 2/7 Gurkhas on the east of the Arezzo-Florence highway, and 2nd Camerons on the other side of the road. The Scotsmen found happy hunting. One of their officers wrote:-

"During the first two weeks, we had only four or five casualties: against which we inflicted thirty on the enemy and took twenty-eight prisoners. These were weeks of gay swashbuckling bravado, almost piratical insolence, and daring individual effort. There was no real front, although roughly it could be taken as the line of the Arno, which with its steep wooded banks and its little villages nestling among the trees provided an ideal playground for grim games of hide-and-seek. A German sauntering into the village of Casteluccioni in search of 'vino' suddenly drops dead in the road. Two Germans hanging out their washing at a house in Balze are brought down by Corporal Cameron before they can regain the safety of their building. A German sergeant, taking a Sunday afternoon nap in a house which he considered well behind his own lines, is spirited away by some Jocks without disturbing the Sabbath's harmony."

2/7 Gurkhas in lower positions across the road were less carefree. Their area was subject to concentration shoots of surprising accuracy, A search of San Polo, a nearby village, unearthed an Italian colonel, whose wireless set had been used to pinpoint targets.

As darkness deepened on July 23rd, 3/12 Frontier Force Regiment, until now in 11th Brigade reserve, moved forward to attack Campriano, on the crest of a ridge two and a half miles east of the road to Florence. Tanks of the Warwickshire Yeomanry accompanied the three assault companies. An observer describes the weird effect of the afterglow of the setting sun reflected on the white smoke screen, intermingled with columns of brown dust from the German counter-barrage. Night closed in with signal lights soaring to denote positions gained or calls for aid. The Frontiersmen had disappeared into the cauldron of battle; hour by hour the artillery thundered on. At dawn the Indians held both flank objectives but had been unable to prise the centre from the grip of the enemy. Casualties had been heavy, and "A" and "B" Companies of Frontiersmen had been merged. Heavy counterattacks swept against the Indians, to be thrown back again and again. Towards evening the enemy intensified his efforts and the forward companies were obliged to withdraw to the south of the ridge.

On the same day His Majesty the King rode up Jacob's Ladder in a jeep. At the top of the pass he met the men of Fourth Indian Division for the second time. (He had first visited them at Tripoli in June, 1943.) From an observation post His Majesty watched a concentration shoot fired in support of the hard battling Frontier Force Regiment.

That night 5th Brigade sallied into the hills across 7th Brigade's front, climbed steep slopes, pushed their way through tangled undergrowth, and appeared out of nowhere among the German forward positions. 1/9 Gurkhas swept over Monte Castiglione with the kukri; the enemy fled precipitately. 3/10 Baluchis on the left seized and held high ground against persistent counter-attacks. In the next night 1/4 Essex passed through the Baluchis and after a number of scrimmages, reached Gello on the extreme right of the Divisional front. (Strictly speaking the Home County men were off the map, having sallied into Tenth Division's territory.) This quick advance to the east squeezed a number of enemy formations in a narrow salient between the two Indian divisions, and cleared the intervening sector without further fighting.

It was in Gello that the ghost music was heard. The sentimental Boche, carolling his lieder, has guided his assailants on more than one dark night. But never before had thin instrumental strains come down the wind, to rise, to die, to pause and begin again, and ever to draw nearer. Along a steep mountain pathway the Essex stood to arms. A German corporal came ambling up the trail playing his mouth organ. He was sure the English would not shoot him if they heard music. He was a soldier of eleven years' service who had fought in Norway, in France and at El Alamein. His company commander was an idiot. He preferred to desert rather than to serve under such a fool.

On the opposite flank, 11th Brigade was busily tidying up. After withdrawal from Campriano two companies of Frontier Force Regiment had dug in on the approaches to the ridge. They next gave attention to a monastery a half mile further west, on a pinnacle a few hundred feet higher than Campriano. This hospice was employed by the enemy as an observation post from which to direct fire on to all parts of the Brigade front. After nightfall on July 27th a company of Frontiersmen crossed the valley and chased enemy artillerymen from the chapel tower. As if expecting ejection, the chancel was found to be abundantly booby-trapped.

Throughout this district the Germans had made war in the most detestable Nazi fashion. At Talla on Prato Magno three Allied prisoners of war had been hanged. Near Arezzo, after three partisans had been shot, their bodies were bombed into senseless mutilation. In a nearby village an Indian Army observer saw the body of a girl who had been violated, murdered and mutilated. When an Essex patrol shot up the enemy garrison in Guilano, the Germans burned the village, even though it cost them their billets. These incidents revealed the atavistic Hun to be loosed. Months of unremitting defeat had cracked the veneer. In point of fact the German divisions in front of the Indians were fought out. Fifth Mountain Division and Three Hundred and Fifth Division had been reinforced over and over again by the "cannabalizing" process. One Hundred and Fourteenth Division was two thirds under strength, and Forty-Fourth Division was estimated to muster no more than eight hundred rifles.

As has been recorded in the previous chapter, the lie of the Tiber basin diverted the axes of advance of the two Indian divisions into the north-west. With six brigades to find fronts Fourth Indian Division wheeled west, and began to probe the ridge systems of Prato Magno. A detached formation, LINDFORCE, was formed to operate on the open flank. Central India Horse and King's Dragoon Guards, together with tanks and self-propelled guns explored the mountains above the valleys of the western branch of the Arno. The front proper lay about ten miles south of Bibbiena, a small town where the main north-south highway divides. One road paralleled the Arno into Florence, and the other, bearing to the north-east, crossed the mountains into the Adriatic plain. Bibbiena was thus a natural jump-off position for assault upon the Gothic Line, whose defences followed the crests of the High Apennines.

The plan for the next advance made speed its watchword, in order that any penetration might be utilized to outflank and encircle nodal points and key centres of resistance. 5th Brigade and two battalions of 11th Brigade were ordered to attack east of the Arno, along the western flanks of Alpe di Catenaia, in support of Tenth Division's thrust over the summits of those mountains. After clearing the immediate front, both brigades would cross the Arno, and press northwards along the western bank. 7th Brigade would deploy at Castiglioni at the toe of Prato Magno, with orders to drive into the heart of that fastness.

At 2130 hours on August 3rd, "Operation Vandal" was launched. On 5th Brigade's front four companies of 1/9 Gurkhas, in touch with Tenth Indian Division on their right, swept along the broken lower slopes of Alpe di Catenaia. In sharp and bloody fighting a number of enemy posts were destroyed. 1/4th Essex closed up, and by the following evening reached high ground well on the way to the Brigade's objectives.

The start line for 11th Brigade lay south of Subbiano, on both sides of the Arno. After an approach march by moonlight 2nd Camerons attacked at dawn on August 4th, driving in a north-westerly direction. Monte Terrato and Bibbiano fell and "A" Company pushed through to Poggio del Grillo. Monte Ferrato and Poggio del Grillo were situated on the eastern arm of a barren "V"-shaped ridge which stands above the western bank of the Arno. Grillo claimed strategic importance by its control of a secondary road which crossed Prato Magno to the north-east, over which supplies reached the enemy garrisons in the mountains.

The Germans reacted venomously to the Camerons' stroke. Two companies of Fifteenth Panzer Grenadier Division, with a platoon of assault engineers, threw in a fierce counter-attack. For three hours fighting continued until the Camerons were hemmed in a small area around the house used as Company headquarters. Calls to surrender were ignored. Assault engineers reached the house, blowing in the door with pole charges. From room to room Scotsmen and Germans fought to the death. Amid the wreckage of the orderly room, with fifteen dead and dying on the floor, Major Underwood, the last man on his feet, was pulled down. As he was led away another platoon of Camerons came dashing to the rescue. The company commander escaped---the sole survivor of three officers and sixty men of the Grillo garrison.

That evening, under the glare of the full moon, "C" Company undertook to avenge the disaster. With magnificent dash the Camerons surged to the attack. Armoured cars from Central India Horse followed in close support; when the track narrowed, and the vehicles were held up, the cavalrymen dismounted their machine-guns, evaded an enemy ambush, and rushed to the assault beside the Scotsmen. Throughout the night a battle royal raged. Towards morning it became apparent that Grillo was held in too great strength for a company attack to succeed. Next morning 2/7 Gurkhas took over the task of reducing this key position, and swept to all objectives without great difficulty. Five counter-attacks disputed consolidation, but each in turn broke down under accurate defensive fire.

On the left flank of 11th Brigade, 1/2 Gurkhas and 2/11 Sikhs worked forward for six miles against patchy opposition. Still further to the west, Lovat Scouts and Skinners' Horse harried the ridges, destroying outpost detachments or driving them deeper into the' mountains.

The battle had opened auspiciously. Despite stubborn stands in key positions, the speed and weight of the Indian thrust had disrupted the enemy defences. It seemed the hour to rally all strength for a staggering smash. But far back at Allied Headquarters the planning staff had sifted the intelligence, and had built up a new picture. As a result Field-Marshal Alexander decided to open his assault upon the Gothic Line on the opposite slopes of the Apennines. At the end of August formations began to regroup for this operation and the call came to Fourth Indian Division. Operation "Vandal" was handed over to Tenth Indian Division, which spread out across the Corps front. For the information of enemy agents 1/4 Essex remained with Tenth Division with instructions to display Fourth Division flashes as ostentatiously as possible. The remainder of the Division removed identifications both from bodies and from vehicles, and trekked back to Lake Trasimeno, to refit and to train for the ordeals to come.

 

CHAPTER ELEVEN

EIGHTH DIVISION CLEARS FLORENCE

EARLY IN JULY global strategy reacted on Eighth Indian Division. "D" day was an accomplished fact; the Normandy bridgeheads had been stormed and held. A landing in the south of France was scheduled to follow. French Expeditionary Corps, holding the right flank of Fifth Army, was selected to take part in this operation. Eighth Army thereupon was asked to extend its responsibilities and to cover the former French front. Divisions at rest were called forward. On July 21st the narrow picturesque streets of Siena were crammed with Indians as they moved up to deploy under Thirteenth Corps at Poggibonsi, a road junction fifteen miles to the north-west.

Thirteenth Corps held a front of something over thirty miles, between the mountain mass of the Prato Magno and the river Elsa, a tributary of the Arno twenty miles west of Florence. In earlier chapters the difficulties encountered by Fourth and Tenth Indian Divisions in their progress across the eastern expanses of Prato Magno have been recorded. These difficulties were shared to the full by Fourth British Division and Sixth British Armoured Division, which had been fighting their way northwards through the western elements of the massif. But still further to the west, where the Prato Magno began to flatten out, the going had been easier, in undulating and highly cultivated countryside. The new plan of battle called for intensification of the offensive in this more favourable terrain, where Sixth South African Armoured Division and Second New Zealand Division were briefed to lead the drive for Florence and the Arno crossings. The role of Eighth Indian Division, on the left of this thrust, was to keep pace with the progress of the main attack in the centre, and to exploit South African and New Zealand gains as opportunity offered.

General Russell planned his advance on a two brigade front. 21st Brigade on the right would push up Route 2 for the first few miles, and thereafter would wheel into the north-west, heading for the mouth of the Pesa river, which flows into the Arno thirteen miles west of Florence. Seven miles to the left, 19th Brigade would maintain a parallel course, following the highway along the easy valley of the River Elsa, which reaches the Arno below Empoli. Both assault Brigades would be supported by old friends in 12th and 14th Canadian Armoured Regiments.

On July 23rd the move began. 3/5 Mahrattas led 21st Brigade, and at 0900 hours chased German rearguards from the village of Barberino. Beyond the turn-off into the north-west the road and its verges were found to be heavily mined, with delayed action mines in the culverts; the old and beautiful plane trees which lined the highway had been notched for charges which fortunately had not been laid. Mahratta pioneers cleared away at top speed to let the infantry through. On the left brigade sector Royal West Kents advanced untroubled. Except for occasional pot shots little resistance was encountered in the first two days.

On July 25th 3/15 Punjabis and 3/5 Mahrattas closed up on Montespertoli, where infantry posts in a cliffside interrupted the advance. Batteries of mortars hidden in the town began to play with remarkable accuracy on the nearby hamlet of San Pietro, where a company of Mahrattas was stationed. During this shoot church bells began to clang and the Mahratta captain, an observant man, detected an interesting phenomenon. When the bells clanged once, the next flight of bombs lit in the centre of the village; on two strokes, a salvo fell behind the church; whereas three peals induced the missiles to drop on a dried watercourse. A search, even a sentry in the belfry, failed to solve the mystery, but when all the civilians in the village had been locked in a single crypt, the signals ceased. Neither the enemy agent nor his ingenious method of ringing the church bells was ever discovered.

19th Brigade columns, forming the left prong of the advance, worked up the Elsa valley for eight miles against spotty resistance. 3/8 Punjabis were missing on this tour of duty, for news had come through that the King-Emperor would arrive within a few days to pin the Victoria Cross on Sepoy Kemal Ram. Such an occasion demanded great "bandobast", and the most urgent need was to find Kemal Ram, who had been wounded in the scrimmage at Bastiola two months before, and was now somewhere on lines of communication. The signallers succumbed to the prevailing excitement and dispatched messages in all directions enquiring for Colonel Ram. It was not until the evening before the presentation that the sepoy was found and flown to his battalion. The subedar-major spent a busy evening teaching the young hero how to roll his short, puttees and how to comport himself on ceremonial parade, for like most of the fighting men in this war Kemal Ram Was unversed in the rituals. Nevertheless, he and his battalion made a brave show next day, and it was heart-warming to see British, Canadian and New Zealand comrades crowding to congratulate him and to honour the outstanding courage which makes all brave men kin.

That same evening (July 26th) the New Zealanders on the right lashed at the enemy. Next morning the front of 21st Brigade was open. By nightfall Royal West Kents were within two and a half miles of the Arno. On 19th 9th Brigade's front likewise the enemy broke contact, and here the pursuit swept forward to reach the Arno east of Empoli on the evening of July 29th. On the extreme right, when nearing the river the Mahrattas turned south-east on a non-military mission to secure the castle of the Chesterfield Sitwells at Montegufoni. Here the priceless art treasures of the Florentine galleries were stored, including Botticelli's "Primavera" and other of the world's most famous paintings. German detachments were dug in within a mile of the castle, and Tiger tanks roamed the neighbourhood. The Mahrattas introduced a modern note amidst the mediæval decor. A suit of damascened armour was topped by a shrapnel helmet, and a Bren gun detected in a stand of pikes and harbequeses.

The surge of the New Zealanders had carried them into the hilly suburbs of Florence to the south of the river. Here the Kiwis met fierce resistance. In order to relieve the pressure Eighth Indian Division was ordered to change direction, and to move into the north-east, crossing the Pesa river and closing up on the western outskirts of the city. Speed was the essential of this thrust to flank. On August 1st both leading Indian brigades brushed aside light opposition and occupied commanding ground within nine miles of Florence. When the sun rose next morning the Indians caught their first glimpses of the symmetrical wooded ridges and glittering spires of one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

Both brigades approached the Arno on the reach where it loops through the heavily populated countryside to the south-west of the city. Aided by excellent observation the enemy now showed his teeth. Intermittent mortaring and shelling searched the lateral roads and assembly areas along the south bank of the river. At one time it was considered that the Germans were in sufficient strength to necessitate a set piece attack. Engineers from Second U.S. Corps began to reconnoitre the river on the Indian front in search of crossings. Fortunately the heavy blows of the New Zealanders and South Africans in the centre took such toll that resistance south of the river became sporadic and finally ceased altogether.

Ordinarily Eighth Indian Division would not have shared in the capture of Florence, but on July 6th, as a result of regrouping, 17th Brigade moved eastwards to relieve a brigade of First Canadian Division, which in turn had relieved a South African brigade. The Indian force was really a brigade group since with the infantry went the Mahratta Machine Gun Battalion, the Mahratta Anti-Tank Regiment, 6th Lancers and 19th Canadian Armoured Regiment. Fourth German Parachute Division, tough veterans of Crete, Leros and Anzio, held the line of the Mugnone Canal, which encircles the northern confines of the city. Self-propelled guns and tanks covered all approaches to the Canal, while along the waterfront Fascist snipers lurked in attics and on the rooftops. All the beautiful Arno bridges had been destroyed except the world famous Ponte Vecchio, which had been blocked by extensive demolitions at either end. Within the German perimeter the Florentines lived in fear; civilians found on the streets after dark were shot out of hand.

17th Brigade established contact with the enemy with Royal Fusiliers on the right, Gurkhas in the centre and Frontier Force Regiment on the left. Enemy mortar and artillery fire augmented the sniper nuisance. As the Army Commander had issued orders that nothing beyond small arms fire should be directed across the river, for some days a one-sided duel continued. Appreciating their advantage, the paratroopers grew belligerent and began to despatch raiding parties across the Arno. On several occasions Frontier Force Regiment received unwelcome attentions. On August 10th something like a small battle broke out in Columbaro. After a heavy bombardment paratroopers and Fascist irregulars isolated a platoon of Frontiersmen. Fierce close-quarter fighting followed, with Canadian tanks lumbering to the rescue in the nick of time. On the next night, a savage shoot again crashed down on the Indian front. The Gurkhas counted four hundred shells falling within a few acres. When no infantry attack developed, it was realized that the paratroopers were expending local dumps preparatory to withdrawal. At dawn a Gurkha reconnaissance patrol forded the Arno, and penetrated to the centre of the city. By one of those happy circumstances common in British forces, Eighth Division was able to supply a patrol leader who had spent many months in Florence, and who knew every street corner.

Of this entry an observer wrote:-

"The Gurkhas advanced warily, scanning the windows and roofs for snipers, treading carefully where mines were suspected. They darted from corner to corner: ahead was heard the clatter of machine-guns. Italian partisans turned up, warning of booby traps, and bewailing the damage to their famous city. The Florentines began to appear at windows, cheering the Gurkhas. People thronged into the street, picking their way between miles of rubble, to queue up for water, or to gaze angrily at the destruction."

The northern sections of the city were in dire need, having been without food, water, gas and electricity for five days. General Russell, finding his commitments in Florence to be increasing, ordered 21st Brigade to reinforce the garrison, with instructions to restore law and order and thereafter to contact the enemy on the outskirts of the city. At midday on August 13th Royal West Kents occupied the centre of the city. The magnificent cathedral was found to be undamaged. Divisional engineers speedily opened a ford which allowed supplies to come in from the south. Food for the civilian population arrived, and with pressing needs satisfied all three battalions of 21st Brigade commenced house to house searches in order to clear away the last vestiges of the enemy occupation.

During the next few days a number of Germans and even German tanks bobbed up from unsuspected hideouts. Sharp sudden scuffles occurred. In a disturbance outside the Palazzo Riccardi, eight Italian carabinieri were killed. On the Piazza Vasari a party of Germans backed by two tanks emerged from cover, sallied among the Mahratta billets and shot up a number of houses. The Royal West Kents in turn .dispersed a foolhardy group of paratroopers who appeared on one of the main streets looking for trouble. Bit by bit the great city was brought under control, the last enemies extirpated and the public services restored. On August 16th, 21st Brigade was relieved in Florence by a British infantry brigade and moved back to rest, with the consciousness of a job well done.

The Gothic Line Battlefield

 

4. THE GOTHIC LINE

 

CHAPTER TWELVE

THE ENEMY AT BAY

BY THE END OF AUGUST, 1944, not only the German High Command but the enemy rank and file knew that the war could not be won. Month after month of unremitting defeat, with the strongest positions torn from their grasp, the stoutest counter-attacks flung back, with stop-gap successes fewer and fewer, brought home to the Nazi cannon-fodder the certainty that they were battling in a lost cause. The system of keeping reliable troops in battle until exhausted, in order that substantial reserves might be available in lay-back positions, was a passable short-term but bad long-term policy, and when the adversaries drew up for a decisive battle on the slopes of the Apennines, the morale of the opposing forces boded ill for the defenders. Each day the wireless brought exhilarating news to the men of the United Nations from the Western European, Russian, Burmese and Southern Pacific fronts, and correspondingly depressing tidings to the enemy. The Allied Commanders, unlike the Wehrmacht leaders, had nursed their formations, interspersing operational tours with rest and training periods. They had been chary of expending lives to-day when bombs and shells might save them to-morrow. As a result the men of the British Commonwealth closed up on the Gothic Line in no mood of desperation, but rather with exuberant confidence in their ability to put paid to any foes who might be persuaded to stand and fight it out.

From time to time this narrative has recorded the surrender or desertion of Germans who crossed the lines to escape punishment or because of dislike for their commanders, or simply in order to save their skins. These incidents were typical of the war weariness and lack of offensive spirit which now characterized many enemy formations. A hard core of disciplined and even fanatical soldiery remained in the Wehrmacht, but around this residium an ever increasing number of Germans were softening up. Nor was this deterioration restricted to the raggle-taggle, the slovenly weaklings found in every army, who are the first to break. Disillusion had permeated even among the officer cadres, and particularly among the junior officers who bore the stresses of battle. Many diaries and letters, as well as the evidence of recently liberated Italians, revealed the same hectic pursuit of pleasure and the same sardonic attitude towards superiors which characterized British subalterns after the bloodbath of the Third Battle of Ypres in the Great War. In Florence and other occupied cities, life was very gay. German officers attended parties night after night, to return home in the small hours and to sleep until noon. (Before General Heidrich, last noticed at Cassino, shifted from his villa at Reggello, he gave a monster party. The time of assembly had been faithfully reported to the Desert Air Force, whose bombers arrived at the reception hour to give house and grounds a thorough pasting.)

Indeed, the picture of the German occupation in Central Italy was quite un-Prussian, and nowhere more so than in the case of the 278th Berlin-Brandenburg Infantry Division, now entrusted with the unenviable task of holding up the Indians. Its commander, Major-General Harry Hoppe, who in person resembled the caricature of Colonel Blimp, was an eccentric and irascible man. He welcomed a new draft peculiarly. "You have come here to die," he said, "and to be quick about it." But he eased the rigours of training with instructions that "three times in each week, men will rest for one and a half hours after lunch". His men sang ironically, "Do you know the Hoppe step---one pace forward, then two back?" He fostered morale by broadcasting clichés: "They Shall Not Pass" and "Better Death than Captivity". (When the Poles crashed through his front at Ancona. one thousand of his men disagreed with him).

The Italian partisan movement had begun to contribute to the deterioration of German morale. The Forces of Italian Liberation no longer marched to battle as before Orsogna, with bands playing and flags flying. Better armed, better organized, and with the best imaginable terrain in which to operate, they were a constant drain and a danger to enemy detachments in the high mountains and sparsely settled areas. (General Hoppe was obliged to describe Easter, 1944, as a "sombre festival", for on Good Friday partisans blew up a considerable number of his young men at a cinema performance). Death lurked for unwary Germans in the shadow of the woods, in dark alleys, on lonely roads. An even more serious aspect of the Italian revolt emerged during the construction of the Gothic Line. These fortifications had been planned at the time of the Allied invasion of Italy. Until the breakthrough at Cassino the work had proceeded slowly and spasmodically. Thereafter the Todt organization hurriedly conscripted many thousands of Italians and rushed the defences to completion. The German press gangs netted many partisans who supplemented the natural lethargy of forced labour with clever and effective sabotage. A poor quality of cement was supplied from Italian mills. Emplacements were built with blind traverses; pill-boxes unaccountably did not command all approaches. When battle was joined on the Gothic Line many of the gaps in the defences and "soft spots" exploited by Eighth Army owed their origin to bold and dangerous intervention by the patriot forces.

Thus neither the Gothic Line nor the men who manned it lived up to the traditions of German military genius---a fortunate circumstance for the United Nations, since few stronger natural positions exist than the wall of mountains which stands sentinel above the valley of the Po and the plains of northern Italy: From the Gulf of Genoa to the Adriatic is one hundred and thirty miles; for more than a hundred of these miles the barrier of the High Apennines is unbroken. The Gothic Line followed the southern slopes of the transverse range from the Carrara massif on the west coast, over the Alpe Apuane, along the broken crests of Tuscany until beyond Florence, where the cross range fuses into the great central spine of the Kingdom. Thereafter the fortifications marched along the basic mountain core into the massive promontory of peaks and ridges which abutted to within a few miles of the Adriatic Coast. The eastern bulwarks of the defence system were anchored into the easy beaches to the south of Rimini.

Both Eighth and Fifth Armies were briefed for the assault upon this great mountain barrier. The main drive on Fifth Army's front was directly across the grain of the ground into the north-east, on the shortest route to the Emilian plain. But concurrently the right hand corps of this Army would attack almost due east from Florence, in a diverging drive feeling across the highest mountains of all towards the eastern Po crossings. Eighth Army would concentrate in great strength on a narrow front on the Adriatic foreshore, for advance along the eastern foothills of the Apennines. This thrust would bear into the north-west, and if successful would converge on the axis of advance of the right-hand corps of Fifth Army in the Forli-Faenza area. In grand dimension therefore the Allied attack would be a straight left plus a left hook, with a ponderous right swing reaching for the left hook's mark.

Eighth Army's responsibilities extended over a front of forty miles, but the lie of the ground restricted the fighting area to approximately one-third of that distance. On the Adriatic Coast Second Polish Corps held the line. Ten miles inland First Canadian Corps took over. Beyond the Canadians, Fifth British Corps was arrayed, with First British Armoured Division, Fourth, Forty-Sixth, and Fifty-Sixth British Infantry Divisions, and Fourth Indian Division on the western flank of Eighth Army. On the left of the Indians a wide gap extended over the watershed of the Apennines as far as the Tiber Valley. A composite force of 27th Lancers, 12th Lancers and the Household Cavalry Regiment patrolled this hole in the line. At the Tiber Thirteenth British Corps, the right-hand corps of Fifth Army, took over.

All Indian Divisions were destined to fight in the new battle. As "D" Day drew near, Fourth Indian Division moved up from Lake Trasimeno., Tenth Indian Division, under Tenth British Corps, waited for the call among the mountains between the Arno and the Tiber. Eighth Indian Division, having cleared Florence, had moved eastwards to join Thirteenth Corps in the left hook across the Apennines. In addition, a new Indian formation was closing up for the fray. It had been found necessary to alter Western Desert establishment and the proportional strength of men and machines in armoured divisions. In Italy fewer tanks and more infantry were needed. Thirty-first Indian Armoured Division, which had long rusticated in Paiforce and Middle East, had yielded up 43rd Indian Infantry Brigade to serve as lorried troops. (Although so described they saw little enough of their lorries in the campaign to come.) Under Brigadier A. R. Barker, O.B.E., M.C., 2/6th, 2/8th and 2/10th Gurkha Rifles landed at Taranto at the beginning of August, and staged forward to join First British Armoured Division. With them came their gunners, 23rd Field Regiment. Throughout its Italian service this brigade remained an independent unit, destined to serve many masters.

The narrative must now revert to the records of individual Indian formations.


Chapter Thirteen

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