Kiwis in Armour
New Zealand 4th Armoured Brigade in Italy 1944-45

By Alun Gallie

This article is intended to follow on from Dion’s excellent work on the 4th NZ Armoured Brigade in Italy in 1943.


Dion’s Article covering 1943...

It contains a brief history of Kiwi armour during the remainder of the Italian campaign in 1944 and 1945. I will examine the organization, equipment, camouflage and markings of the three NZ armoured regiments together with information on fielding a unit from this Brigade in Flames of War throughout the closing years of the War. 

History

Following their arrival in Italy on the 23 October 1943, and the first combat actions along the Sangro front, the battle on the Adriatic Coast had stagnated into a stalemate around Orsogna.

The 2nd NZ Division was transferred to the command of the 5th Army, located west of the Apennines in early 1944. The New Zealand Division was joined by the 4th Indian Division and the 78th British Division, and together with a combat command from the 1st US Armored Division formed the NZ Corps and was tasked to capture the strategically important town of Cassino, its skyline dominated by a 13th Century Monastery.

The 4th NZ Armoured Brigade spent this period supporting the infantry in a variety of ways. Individual squadrons were employed in fire support roles, shortages of 25pdr ammunition leading to the tanks often being used on static gun lines as makeshift artillery.

C Squadron of the 20th Armoured Regiment participated in a daring flanking attack, approaching the Monastery on a specially constructed road from behind. Surprise was achieved, but insufficient infantry reserves to press the initiative saw the German defenders regain the upper hand and the tanks fall back. 

Right: A New Zealand crew stops to rest, their Sherman II still in the mud and black camouflage scheme. 

NZ Sherman and Crew
In March tanks from the 19th Armoured Regiment entered the town proper to support members of the 28th Maori battalion in the bitter house to house fighting, using their 75mm guns to dig the defenders out of strong points. The degree of rubble clogging the streets made progress slow and by the end of the month when relieved by the 20th Armoured Regiment the Shermans had reverted to the role of static fire support.
HQ in the Liri Valley

This continued for the next two months, with the tanks able to provide little more than morale support to the infantry until the monastery finally fell to Polish forces on the 19th of May.

In July 1944 the division entered an area that was to become known the tankers as ‘Tiger’ country. These formidable machines became a real thorn in the New Zealander’s side, as at that time the first of the 17pdr Firefly tanks had still not arrived. Standard practice when encountering one was to try to choke it with smoke rounds and force the crew to bail out, and then dispatch them with machine gun fire.

In August the 18th Armoured Regiment found themselves again employed in a novel manner during an attack on Castelle, acting as gun tows for 6pdr and 17pdr guns, the guns crews being carried as tank riders. The tactic proved successful as the guns were delivered in a timely manner and were pivotal in the success of the battle.

Right: A column of New Zealand Shermans halt during a march. 

 New Zealand Shermans halt during a march

Following another period in reserve the armoured regiments were called up to assist in the 8th Army’s attack on the Adriatic end of the Gothic Line in September 1944.

The 18th Regiment encountered another first when it captured the airfield at Rimini. The airfield had been defended by a number of pillboxes topped with Panther turrets. Clever use of smoke and concentrated fire saw the Shermans over come the obstacles.

Worsening weather turned the Romagna plains into a swampland, hampering advance and re-supply. The Germans, whilst in retreat, did so in an orderly fashion, and resistance remained strong.

Fallschirmjager surrender to the New Zealanders. By Christmas the front had again stagnated and would remain that way until April 1945.

The final campaign began on the 9 April 1945 with some NZ armoured units again being utilized as ad hoc artillery to support the bombardment. A number of rivers blocked the advance and these were progressively assaulted by infantry and then in turn the armour moved up to support as bridges were constructed. By this point the German troops had begun surrendering in large numbers and were almost in rout. The progress of the advance was only slowed by the lack of bridging available.

With the final rivers behind them the bulk of the New Zealand armoured brigade raced to the city of Trieste where they accepted the surrender of the German garrison.
Members of Tito’s Yugoslav partisan army had also occupied the city and the presence of the New Zealanders in an area the Yugoslavs considered their spoils of war was not welcome. Tensions remained high, at one point escalating to a face off between 25 Yugoslav T-34s, which had entered the city, and the 19th Armoured Regiment.

After some hours cool heads prevailed and the Yugoslavs exited the city.

The 4th NZ Armoured Brigade remained as a garrison in Trieste for a month before surrendering most of their equipment to a British depot whilst retaining approximately 100 vehicles to form the core of an armoured force for deployment to the Pacific or Far East. With the war in the pacific also drawing to a close these tanks were also retired and on the 2nd December 1945 the 4th NZ Armoured Brigade was officially disbanded.

Left: New Zealand Sherman with the Alps foothills of the Alps in the background.

NZ Sherman near the Alps
Sherman III

Equipment

The NZ Armoured Brigade in Italy was equipped with the diesel powered Sherman III (M4A2). The exception to this was during a brief period when they took control of some Canadian Shermans. In October 1944 limited supplies of Sherman Firefly ICs began to be received, but these were soon replaced by the VC Firefly model and the following two issues of Firefly tanks consisted of the VC model.

The reconnaissance troop was originally equipped with the Daimler Dingo scout car, but these were quickly replaced by the Canadian manufactured version of the same vehicle, known as the Lynx as they were found to have better off road performance.

These in turn were replaced by Stuart V Honey light tanks, with the standard organization being three turreted models and eight turretless jalopy models. As well as scouting duties these were found to be invaluable for a range of roles such as bringing up ammunition, troop carrying and towing AT guns.

Organisation

The 4th New Zealand Armoured Brigade was composed of three armoured regiments, the 18th, 19th and 20th. The armoured regiments were organized along British lines although with fewer tanks than their British counterparts. A NZ regiment consisted of 52 tanks. These composed a Regimental HQ troop of four tanks and three Squadrons of sixteen tanks.
Sherman Firefly VC
In addition the regiment contained a Recce Troop equipped with Stuart V light tanks in both turreted and turret less configurations and an Intercommunication troop equipped with Lynx light scout cars.

Each Squadron consisted of a Squadron Headquarters with four tanks and four troops each of three tanks.

 Organisation and Markings

Camouflage

When the Kiwi’s initially arrived in Italy all tanks and vehicles were painted in a two tone disruptive pattern. This consisted of a base coat of mud grey (Vallejo 988) with a blue/black (Vallejo 995/950) disruptive pattern superimposed. This scheme was retained until April 1944 when support vehicles were ordered to be repainted in with a green base coat and black disruptive pattern.

Most tanks remained in the mud grey and blue/black scheme at this time, the exception being 18th Armoured regiment who repainted their Sherman IIIs in a dark green and brown disruptive pattern for a period during mid 1944. By the end of June 1944 orders had been issued to repaint all vehicles and tanks in an all over olive drab scheme (Vallejo 924). Due to rotation from the front, supplies and time constraints it took about 6 months to fully implement this order and vehicles and tanks could still be seen in older schemes as late as December 1944.

Regimental HQ tank

Markings

In Italy the Divisional Markings and the arm of service markings were combined into a single marking. The top half was the 2nd NZ Divisions Silver Fern in white on a black background whilst the bottom half of the marking had the unit serial number on the arm of service colour. In the case of Armour this arm of service colour was red with the unit serial number in white. NZ Unit serials were as follows:

18th Armoured Regiment - 91
19th Armoured Regiment - 80
20th Armoured Regiment - 52

Left: A tank of the a regimental HQ, most likely from the 20th Armoured Regiment.

Tactical Markings followed the British practice with a diamond for Regimental HQ, a triangle for A Squadron, a square for B Squadron and a circle for C Squadron. These were in regimental colours.

18th Armoured Regiment - Red
19th Armoured Regiment - Yellow
20th Armoured Regiment - Blue

Tank Identification numbers appeared adjacent to the squadron tactical marking until March 1944 when the practice of painting the vehicle number in 18 inch high lettering in the regiment colour on the side of the tank. Numbers were based on the tanks position within the squadron and although the numbering system varied slightly from regiment to regiment the following for 19th Regiment provides an example.

New Zealand Sherman

This New Zealand Sherman’s marking are hard to make out because of
wear and dust.

4th New Zealand Armoured Brigade Markings

Fielding 4th NZ Armoured in Flames of War

You can now field an Armoured Squadron from the 4th New Zealand Armoured Brigade in Road to Rome.

January 1944 – September 1944

An Armoured Squadron from 4th New Zealand Armoured Brigade may be fielded using the Armoured Squadron intelligence briefing on page 76 contained in Road to Rome .

October 1944 – March 1945

In October 1944 the 4th New Zealand Armoured Brigade received the first 12 of their Sherman Firefly tanks. Initially these were Firefly ICs, but were later replaced with VC models.

The NZ Armoured brigade had no armoured recovery vehicle capability when initially deployed and were reliant on the Scammel tractor, which suffered badly in the mud of Italy. D-8 bulldozers often had to be brought up to aid bogged or damaged Shermans.

In response to this shortfall the Armoured Regiments acquired a number of T2 ARV.

March 1945 – May 1945

By March 1945 the 4th New Zealand Armoured Brigade had received a total of 36 Firefly tanks. This allowed the allocation of one per troop in each squadron in the 18th and 19th Armoured Regiment. 20th Regiment organised theirs slightly differently with a dedicated troop of Firefly’s in their Regimental HQ and a Firefly in each Squadron HQ.

The brigade received 18 Sherman IB 105mm tanks. Initially these were employed alongside standard Shermans in the troops. The disadvantages of a lack of power traverse to the turrets soon became apparent and they were quickly reassigned to Squadron HQs at a ratio of 2 per squadron. The regiments had acquired Sherman ARVs by this stage to replace the older T2 models.

References

4th New Zealand Armoured Brigade in Italy, J Plowman and M Thomas
18 Battalion and Armoured Regiment, W Dawson
19 Battalion and Armoured Regiment, D Sinclair
20 Battalion and Armoured Regiment, D Pringle & W Glue
NZ Unit Histories are accessible via http://www.nzetc.org/


Last Updated On Thursday, December 19, 2013 by Wayne at Battlefront