Wednesday, July 15, 2015

South African Forces in Italy I

Sherman Firefly tanks of the Pretoria Regiment somewhere in Italy during 1944

The SAAF played an important role in the invasions of both Sicily and Italy. By the end of 1943, in Italy, two out of eight Allied air wings and eight out of twenty-eight Allied squadrons were South African. In early 1943 another new oath was created to allow South African personnel to be deployed outside Africa. The Sixth South African Armoured Division, under Major General W. H. E. Poole, was formed in South Africa on February 1, 1943, and shipped to the Middle East in mid-April. Two factors had prompted the move to armor: it was easier for South Africa to maintain an armored division that was much smaller in total personnel than an infantry division, and the decision had been made during the great tank battles in the North African desert. Manpower problems meant that Smuts’s initial plan of fielding two armored divisions had to be shelved and some Citizen Force units were combined for active service. As the Sixth Armoured Division went through a long period of training in Egypt, Allied commanders began to realize that tank units were not useful for fighting in mountainous Italy. A reorganization of Allied forces in Italy following the Third Battle of Cassino led to the sudden movement of the Sixth Armoured Division, in mid-April 1944, to the peninsula. On the western side of Italy, the South Africans became part of the British Eighth Army preparing for another push on Cassino, a German held mountain top monastery, which blocked the route to Rome. 

At the beginning of May the division’s 12th Motorized Brigade Group, commanded by Brigadier R. J. Palmer, relieved Canadian troops on the line in the mountains of Isernia near Cassino. Within the brigade’s area of responsibility that stretched about four and half kilometers along the Rapido River, South African positions to the east were about 900 meters from the enemy, whereas those on the west were within shouting distance of German mountain troops and paratroopers. On the night ofMay 11 the Allies launched their fourth and final attempt to take Cassino that would coincide with a breakout from the Anzio beachhead. Attached to the Second New Zealand Division, the 12th Motorized Brigade Group held its part of the line from where it used artillery and fighting patrols to distract the Germans from the main assault. The tanks of the Sixth South African Armoured Division were held in reserve ready to exploit a possible breakthrough. Directly involved in the attack on Cassino, South African engineers followed the advancing Indian infantry to clear mines, repair roads, and quickly build a bailey bridge across the Rapido River. Polish troops took Cassino on May 18, and the Germans pulled back to the Caesar Line south of Rome.

In late May, with German withdrawal, the 12th Motorized Brigade Group was pulled back from the line to link up with the rest of its parent division in the Volturno Valley. With more infantry needed in the mountainous conditions of Italy, the British 24th Guards Brigade was attached to the Sixth South African Armoured Division. In early June the South African Division cleared part of Route Six, around Piglio and Paliano, east of Rome. Just after the fall of Rome, the South Africans spearheaded the Eighth Army advance northward along the Tiber River and Route Three (Via Flaminia) where they encountered stiff resistance from the withdrawing German units. The ultimate objective of the push was Florence. On June 10, the 11th South African Armoured Brigade, in its first action as a unit, mauled elements of the German 356th Infantry Division defending Celleno and on June 13, the 12thMotorized South African Brigade Group outflanked Bagnoregio compelling the German paratroopers there to retreat. The next day the South Africans entered Orvieto, with its bridge on the Paglia River, as the Germans were pulling out and pushed on through Allerona and Cetona. 

Expecting light resistance, the First City/Cape Town Highlanders infantry battalion, on the night of June 21–22, set out to capture the hill top town of Chiusi but found to their surprise that it was defended by over 300 Germans supported by armor. Trapped in a collapsing theater, one entire company was killed or captured, and the rest of the battalion withdrew. Buying time for the preparation of the Gothic Line, the Germans stubbornly hung on to Chiusi for a few days until a flanking move by the Guards Brigade forced them to move further north.

Throughout July South African infantry and tanks, learning to work together, pressed northward against German forces fighting a series of delaying actions and falling back on a chain of prepared defensive lines. In early August, after tough fighting, South African troops entered Florence where they were pulled off the line for rest and reorganization. Since arrival in Italy, the 12th South African Motorized Brigade Group had lost 127 killed, 510 wounded, and 61 missing. Supporting the advance, South African engineers had built 64 bridges totaling 3,705 feet, constructed 196 major deviations, and filled countless craters. Orpen maintains that because of extensive training and experienced personnel, the Sixth South African Armoured Division was ‘‘the most effective fighting formation ever produced by South Africa.’’27 South African servicemen contributed to other aspects of the Italian campaign such as the South African Railway Construction Group that was 10,000 strong by the end of 1944 and a Harbour Construction Company. In 1944 a special rest camp for South African troops and a Union Defence Force administrative headquarters were established in Italy.

South African Forces in Italy II

6 SA Armoured Division command staff in Bologna. Left to Right: Maj-Gen Poole, Brig. Furstenburg, Maj-Gen Theron.1945

As part of the Allied push into the Apennine Mountains and the German Gothic Line, the Six South African Armoured Division came under American command, relieved an American division, and crossed the Arno River west of Florence in early September 1944 with little resistance from the withdrawing Germans. In addition to the British guards, an Indian infantry battalion, a British antiaircraft unit converted into an infantry battalion, and a Newfoundland artillery field regiment were attached to the division. General Poole had three armored regiments, nine infantry battalions, and four artillery regiments at his disposal. From mid-September onward the South Africans experienced their heaviest fighting of the war, attacking prepared defensive positions—complete with mines, wire, and concrete pillboxes—often manned by fanatical Waffen SS troops. In addition, mountain conditions meant that it was difficult to maintain supply and soldiers were not prepared for increasingly cold weather. From mid- to late October South African infantry, particularly First City/Cape Town Highlanders (FC/CTH), Witwatersrand Rifles/De la Rey Regiment (WR/DLR), Royal Natal Carabineers, and Imperial Light Horse/Kimberley Regiment, carried out the division’s largest attack in Italy. With massive artillery support, they captured a series of mountain strongholds including Monte Stanco, Campiaro, Monte Pezza, and Monte Salvaro blocking the Allied advance on Bologna. At the end of this drive the division entered a period of static winter operations in which it reorganized. A battalion of SAAF antiaircraft gunners converted to infantry was absorbed by the division’s existing units, and with the departure of the Guards Brigade, a new formation, the 13th South African Motorized Brigade, was created under Brigadier J. B. Bester.

In early April 1945 the South African Division, now 18,000 strong, relieved American units on the line in preparation for an Allied push into the Po Valley. The offensive began in mid-April with a massive aerial bombardment of German mountain positions that included the use of napalm. The 12th South African Motorized Brigade would play the central role in capturing the division’s main objective, a cluster of three heavily fortified mountains: Sole, Caprara, and Abelle. On April 15, infantrymen of FC/CTH assaulted Monte Sole, destroying ten German machinegun nests before taking the summit. The WR/DLR had a tough fight up Monte Caprara and, at dawn on April 16, made a desperate bayonet charge up a steep slope that routed the Germans. After this action one WR/DLR company was left with just 17 men. South African tanks were then able to move up the saddle between the two mountains where they supported two companies of FC/CTH in a successful assault on Monte Abelle. Throughout these assaults Cape Corps soldiers worked as stretcher bearers. South African possession of these mountains, retained despite German counterattack, facilitated the advance of nearby American units. Within two days the Germans were in full retreat from the Apennines. In this operation the South African Division had lost 70 men killed and another 308 wounded and total enemy casualties were estimated at 500. Pursuing the Germans, the South Africans rounded up thousands of prisoners and sometimes encountered desperate delaying actions. When the war ended in early May the division was located southeast of Milan. During the Italian campaign, the South African division has lost 711 killed, 2,675 wounded, and 157 missing. As they waited for repatriation, South African soldiers in Italy provided security and engineers repaired the railway between Florence and Bologna as well as a 12-kilometer long tunnel on the route between Turin and Paris. Though exact figures vary, it appears that around 9,000 South African service personnel lost their lives in the Second World War.