Wednesday, July 15, 2015

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.

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