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6th South African Armoured Division

By J.C. von Winterbach, Scott Sutherland, Mike Bersiks, Rex Barret and Barry Cooper.

Beginning

The idea of a South African Armoured Division was born out of the chaos of the Western Desert Campaign, the Officers in the 1st and 2nd South African Infantry Divisions felt the need for their own armour instead of depending on other Commonwealth Armoured Units.

The formation of two strong Armoured Divisions was first discussed between Lt. Gen. G. E. Brink and Prime Minister (Field Marshal) J.C. Smuts in April 1941. At that point time, South Africa was struggling to maintain the manpower needed to sustain the 1st and 2nd Infantry Divisions in the field due to the political divisions in the Country. The 3rd South African Infantry Division was based in South Africa and provided the pool from which reinforcements were drawn to supplement the 1st and 2nd Infantry Divisions. A re-organisation committee met for the first time in May 1942 to discuss the armour option, it was decided to send three Infantry Battalions for armour training in August 1942, but the plan was rudely interrupted when Rommel launched his attack on the Gazala line in late May 1942.

Nine days after the final El Alamein offensive the South African Divisions were pulling back to regroup. The plan was for the 1st Infantry Division that was withdrawn to Quassasin and that its 1st Brigade would return to South Africa to regroup with the 7th Infantry Brigade in Madagascar to form the 1st South African Armoured Division and the 1st Infantry Divisions 2nd and 3rd Brigades would remain in Egypt to form the 6th South African Armoured Division, which would replace the 2nd Infantry Division that had been captured at Tobruk in June 1942. By late December 1942 the South African Chief of Staff was having doubts about the ability of South Africa fielding two Armoured Divisions.

By January 1943, the Allied leadership had decided at the Casablanca Conference to pursue the war by invading Sicily. A motion was also put forward in the South African parliament to enable South Africans to fight anywhere in the world. Surprisingly very few soldiers were keen to carry on fighting outside of Africa, in one of the keenest Battalions only 52% opted for world-wide service. The invasion of Sicily reduced the need for the number of Armoured Divisions as compared to those needed in the Western Desert.

Maj. Gen. William Henry Evered Poole, DSO, CB, LOM (Commander), Croix de Guerre with Palm, MID
This, together with further manpower shortages led to plans for the 1st South African Armoured Division being abandoned, with only the 6th South African Armoured Division being considered viable. All of the 1st South African Infantry Division Brigades were returned to South Africa for re-training and amalgamation with other Units to form the 6th South African Armoured Division. The 6th South African Armoured Division was officially formed in South Africa on 1 February 1943 with Maj. Gen. William Henry Evered Poole as its Commander. It sailed for Port Tewfik in the Suez on 30 April 1943 as a two brigade division (The 11th Armoured Brigade and 12th Motor Brigade with supporting elements).

Training

The 6th South African Armoured Division started their training in the desert at Khataba, North West of Cairo and was focused on tank operations and integrating the Rhodesian elements into the Division. In addition, the lack of manpower had forced the amalgamation of numerous units. The period of training was finally concluded by a series of training exercises, “Exercise Cape Town” being the first from 1 – 3 December 1943 for the 11th South African Armoured Brigade and “Exercise Durban” from 5 – 7 December 1943 for the 12th South African Motorised Brigade. Training was concluded with “Exercise Tussle” as a British III Corps operation finishing on 21 January 1944 and on 23 January 1944 the division moved to Helwan. By now, the 6th South African Armoured Division had been in Egypt for months due to indecision related to its role.

South African in Taranto But on 3 March 1944, the 6th South African Armoured Division was instructed to move to Palestine and the advance parties left on 7 March 1944. However, on 12 March 1944 this movement order was countermanded and the 6th South African Armoured Division was instructed to move to Italy. One year after arriving in the Middle East, the 6th South African Armoured Division embarked from Alexandria between 14 and 16 April 1944 to arrive in Taranto, Italy on 20 and 21 April 1944 and concentrated in the Altamura-Matera-Gravina area.

Arrival

The 6th South African Armoured Divisions regrouping was still in progress after they disembarked at Taranto, when the 12th South African Motorised Brigade with Artillery and Support elements under Brig. R.J. Palmer were detached from the 6th South African Armoured Division, and ordered to move to the S. Elia area, a mountainous sector of the line North of Cassino in preparation to relieve the 11th Canadian Infantry Brigade. The 12th South African Motorised Brigade came under the command of the 2nd New Zealand Division in the British X Corps. The 12th South African Motorised Brigade took over the sector on 6 May 1944, and relinquished it on 23 May 1944. The 12th South African Motorised Brigade held these positions until after the fall of Monte Cassino and the breakout from the Anzio beachhead, when they were withdrawn and reunited with the division. The 12th South African Motorised Brigade were the first South African troops to enter combat in Italy.

Advance after Rome

On 20 May 1944, the 6th South African Armoured Division was brought up to a full complement of three Brigades, when the 24th Guards Brigade was put under their command. The Brigade commander was to be Brig. A. F. D. Clive who had been a Senior General Staff Officer to the British Military Mission in South Africa earlier in the war. At the end of May 1944, the 6th South African Armoured Division having formed part of the British Eighth Army’s Reserve concentrated at S. Agata.

South African Sherman III tanks knocked on a road in Italy
The 6th South African Armoured Division was moved forward and attached to the Canadian I Corps. The break-out from Anzio was complete, and the US Fifth Army was driving on to Rome. The 6th South African Armoured Division was ordered to advance along Highway 6, and fought its first action as a Division on 3 June 1944, when the 24th Guards Brigade took Piglio and the 12th South African Motorised Brigade entered Paliano.
The advance from Rome

The 6th South African Armoured Division advanced with the Tiber River to the East and Lake Bolsena to the West at a rate of 10 miles (16 km) per day, outstripping their flanking Units. So, after Rome had been taken by the Allies on 4 June 1944, the 6th South African Armoured Division was ordered to move up the Via Casalina to take over the spearhead of the of British Eighth Army’s British XIII Corps. On 6 June 1944, the 6th South African Armoured Division, now in the British XIII Corps, and on the extreme left of the British Eighth Army front, passed through Rome. The 11th South African Armoured Brigade under Brig. J.P.A. Furstenburg took the lead, screened by tanks of the NMR/SAAF (Natal Mounted Rifles/South African Airforce Regiment), the 6th South African Armoured Division’s reconnaissance regiment. By night, forward elements had reached Civita Castellana, and the advance continued towards Viterbo. It was a bold thrust, aimed at taking advantage of the Germans confusion.

The 6th South African Armoured Divisions advance North towards Bagnoregio and onwards to Florence, was delayed by demolitions North of Viterbo, where a blown bridge was covered by German infantry and three Tiger I E tanks. With both field and medium guns heavily shelling enemy targets, 2/8 Troop of 8th Field Squadron under Lt. M.P. Pearse began construction of a culvert while under fire, but had to withdraw to defensive positions for a while when a Tiger I E approached.

Then when it became obvious after dark that the newly constructed crossing would not stand up to continual use by tanks, 2/8 Troop had to put a Bailey bridge inside it. Sappers of 12th Field Squadron relieved the exhausted men of 8th Field Squadron on 9 June 1944. It was after midnight on 9 June 1944 that a bridgehead was established over the Acqua Rossa.

At first light on 10 June 1944 “C” Squadron, NMR moved up to establish contact with the enemy defence line running North of the Acqua Rossa bridgehead, where the enemy brought down heavy mortar fire on the ILH/KimR (Imperial Light Horse/Kimberley Regiment) and SSB (Special Service Battalion). Passing through on reconnaissance at 08:00, the leading NMR tank (under Lt. H. Butcher) came under fire and was knocked out with the entire crew all being killed. Another tank soon went the same way, also a victim to an enemy anti-tank gun, before an SSB Squadron was ordered up to their assistance and knocked out the enemy gun. Heavy resistance was coming from the German 356. Infantriedivision, which had recently arrived from Genoa under Generalmajor Hans von Rohr. The freshly committed German Division was still raw but it was supported by elements of 4. Fallschirmjägerdivision, 3. Panzergrenadierdivision, 362. Infantriedivision and 26. Panzerdivision.

Instead of passing the 24th Guards Brigade through the bridgehead as intended, Maj. Gen. W.H.E. Poole now ordered the 11th South African Armoured Brigade in with the SSB leading, though the 4/22 Field Regiment, SAA, who was not yet in position to give covering fire. Brig. J.P.A. Furstenberg appreciated the main German axis of withdrawal on the immediate front was along Route 2, which meant that the South African Armoured Brigade on the enemy’s left flank. He decided to turn the flank by ordering the SSB to advance right flank forward. The Rhodesians of “C” Squadron, SSB were at breakfast when the call came for support.
South African Sherman III tank
Mess tins, plates and mugs were abandoned with contents unfinished as the men raced to their tanks. The squadron was in the lead along the road and had covered barely a kilometre when its tanks were sprayed with machine-gun fire. They had struck the enemy anti-tank screen South of the railway running across their line of advance.

South African Units

RDLI - Royal Durban Light Infantry
NMR - Natal Mounted Rifles
DROR - Duke of Edinburgh’s Own Rifles
RLI - Rand Light Infantry
RB/RPS - Regiment Botha/Regiment President Steyn
PR - Pretoria Regiment
PAG - Prince Alfred’s Guard
SSB - Special Service Battalion
ILH/KimR - Imperial Light Horse/Kimberley Regiment
RNC - Royal Natal Carbineers
FC/CTH - First City/Cape Town Highlanders Regiment
WR/DLR - Witwatersrand/De La Rey Regiment

With “A” Squadron, SSB in right rear and “B” Squadron, SSB in left rear North of the bridgehead, the SSB had hardly formed up for the attack before they came under heavy shellfire. Without waiting for reconnaissance or artillery support Lt. Col. C.E.G. Britz boldly decided to move on in the same formation, with “A” Squadron, SSB forming a firm base on high ground on the right flank as the NMR tanks withdrew from the action. “C” Squadron, SSB moved forward against heavy anti-tank fire from guns of all calibres from 20 to 88 mm, backed by some 50 to 60 Spandau machine-guns sited in houses and trees, and from a number of Nebelwerfers.
Part of “A” Company, ILH/KimR rode into the attack on the back of the tanks. While two troops of “A” Squadron, SSB held firm base, the rest of the Squadron were ordered right and forward, to take up hull-down positions from which they put down heavy fire on the enemy’s left flank to such good effect that the German infantry broke and were mown down as they tried to get away. “C” Squadron had been brought to a halt, but Lt. Col. C.E.G. Britz ordered “B” Squadron round in a wide left hook which ran into anti-tank fire. This was silenced by superb marksmanship on the part of the South African and Rhodesian tank gunners, before the SSB turned machine-guns on the enemy infantry, who broke and fled.
Lt. Col. C.E.G. Britz reckoned that the enemy was holding with a strength equivalent to a brigade with two battalions up and one in reserve, supported by divisional as well as regimental anti-tank guns. All SSB tanks except his own command tank had been committed, and they were rapidly replenished, with truck drivers displaying great courage in coming right forward in their open vehicles under fire. “C” Company, ILH/KimR was winkling out enemy remnants hiding among the cornfields, hedges and farmhouses, and artillery forward observation officers at last came forward to report to Lt. Col. C.E.G. Britz.
South African Sherman III tank
From 11:45 the guns of the 4/22 Field Regiment, SAA (South African Artillery) were engaging numerous targets, including enemy infantry who were effectively pinned by air-burst. Anti-tank guns to the right, in the area of Grotte S. Stefano, were knocked out by fire from 7/64 Field Battery’s 25-pdr guns, and the 7/23 Medium Regiment’s 5.5” howitzers brought down fire with devastating effect shortly before midday. In less than two hours artillery fire had knocked out five 88mm, sixteen 50mm anti-tank guns, three machine-guns, a Panzer IV, four Panzer III’s and many infantry.
South African Priest self-propelled howitzer “B” Company, ILH/KimR joined “C” Company with the SSB at 14:30, while “A” Company swept the slopes towards Celleno village, beyond the enemy’s prepared positions, which followed the steep bank of the railway line running east to west through Grotte and some 4500m South of Celleno. Working in close co-operation with the tanks, ILH/KimR cleared the approaches to Celleno through a thickly wooded area studded with enemy machine-guns and Panzerfaust anti-tank posts.

Wiping out enemy pockets was a dangerous and slow process, and in order not to lose the momentum of the attack Lt. Col. C.E.G. Britz decided to keep the tanks moving. Dismounting from the Sherman tanks, “B” and “C” Companies, ILH/KimR kept working with the armour, whose “C” Squadron now advanced under the railway line and immediately met anti-tank fire from guns sited in depth along the road, and with Infantry opposition from Panzerfausts, Spandaus and snipers.

With the railway atop a high embankment, it was impossible to cross it anywhere except where the road ran beneath the line, but “C” Squadron got through and made firm on high ground running across the road about 180 meters North of the railway. Having driven through the wooded area cleared by ILH/KimR, the tanks acted as artillery and very effectively shelled Celleno before the infantry moved in.

With “C” Squadron firm beyond the railway line, “B” Squadron passed through, carrying men of ILH/KimR on the backs of the tanks again as they made for high ground North of Celleno. Fighting with every weapon at its disposal, the Squadron got one troop on to high ground North-West of the village and overlooking it, and “C” Squadron then moved up on the right into an area which had to be cleared of determined German tank hunting parties and snipers by ILH/KimR, who were brought up by “A” Squadron and SSB reconnaissance tanks.
Resupply

While Lt. Col. R. Reeves-Moore’s men of ILH/KimR fought their way towards the outskirts of Celleno, their mopping-up developed into an attack on the village itself, and the SSB moved more tanks on to higher ground northeast of it, thus holding the area while the Infantry prised the Germans out. In farmhouses scattered around about 10 large buildings which looked like schools, German remnants had good cover and resisted bitterly, but they were unable to hold back the men of ILH/KimR, who took a large number of prisoners and inflicted heavy casualties.

By 20:00 that night the SSB tanks had run out of petrol and ammunition, but the enemy’s fire had died down.

Brig. J.P.A. Furstenberg ordered Lt. Col. C.E.G. Britz not to continue the advance until the divisional artillery could come into action further forward to search the wooded country ahead. It was decided not to hold the ground occupied at the end of the day, and as the SSB tanks withdrew to replenish and to rest their crews, many of whom had not eaten since the previous night, they took the ILH/KimR men out with them to a position about 3 km south, to wait for the 24th Guards Brigade to pass through and continue the advance the next morning.

During the action at Celleno, Brig. J.P.A. Furstenberg ordered PAG (Prince Alfred’s Guard) to cover the SSB’s right flank, with support from 4/22 Field Regiment, SAA, whose guns effectively engaged the enemy.

Sherman III The PAG moved up the Viterbo-Bagnoregio road, and by 12:30 on June 10th, 1944 it had reached a point about 11 km North of Viterbo, with “A” Squadron and the Reconnaissance Troop searching for a crossing over the River Malone. “B” Squadron, coming up from reserve, crossed the river but was pinned by anti-tank fire. “A” Squadron was already moving along sunken lanes only some 1370 meters from Grotte when enemy anti-tank guns scored hits on five tanks, three of which burned out. “C” Squadron covered “A” Squadron’s left and “B” Squadron moved up to take over from “A” Squadron but was halted by anti-tank fire, some of which was from a range of only 180 meters.

No further progress in this sector was possible without Infantry support, but casualties were inflicted on the enemy and 28 prisoners were taken. Though it had just come under command of the 24th Guard Brigade, the PR (Pretoria Regiment), at 18:00 that day was ordered to move immediately for a shoot in support of 11th South African Armoured Brigade, and from turret-down positions plastered the Celleno-Grotte area with high explosive rounds.

The Battle of Celleno culminated as South Africa’s first victory in the Italian Campaign. The 11th Armoured Brigade had suffered a total of 53 casualties, but it had severely mauled the 356. Infantriedivision. A year prior to the battle, however, the 6th South African Armoured Division was still training in the desert expanses of Khataba. Under-equipped, under-strength, and unsure of their future, the 6th South African Armoured Division was able to turn themselves into a capable, armoured, fighting force within less than a year. It was a confident and vigorous action which went far to justify Field Marshal H.R.L.G.  Alexander, 1st Earl Alexander of Tunis words the previous day: “South Africans are the spearhead of the advance”.

The 11th Armoured Brigade’s success spread through the whole 6th South African Armoured Division and on 11 June 1944, the advance was continued in heavy rain. The 24th Guards Brigade with PR tanks under their command took the lead and ran against a strong enemy position at Bagno Regio. A divisional attack on 12 June 1944, failed to achieve its purpose, but the position was taken on 13 June 1944, after a skilful flank march by the RNC (Royal Natal Carbineers).

The 12th South African Motorised Brigade took over the lead and on 14 June 1944, and with heavy and confused fighting around Bagnoregio, the FC/CTH (First City/Cape Town Highlanders Regiment) entering the vitally important road junction of Orvieto.

South African 5.5" howitzer
Demolitions had greatly hampered the advance, despite the indefatigable work of the three engineer squadrons (8th Field Squadron, 12th Field Squadron and 17th Division Field Park Squadron). Now poor roads and bad weather further slowed down the advance to the Trasimeno Line. The 6th South African Armoured Division took Orvieto, having advanced 75 miles (121 km) in 10 days. However, their daily rate of advance had been slowed considerably by consistently being in contact with the enemy.

On 19 June 1944, the 6th South African Armoured Division came up against the Trasimeno Line, of which Chiusi was the main strong point in the divisional sector. The ILH/KimR of the 11th Armoured Brigade had been stopped by the German 4. Fallschirmjägerdivision on their first attempt to enter Chiusi, but by 26 June 1944, the town had been taken as a result of an attack by two British divisions on the 6th South African Armoured Division’s right. During this attack on Chiusi, “A” Company, FC/CTH was leading the attack up the terraces around the town. The night of 21 June 1944 saw “A” Company surrounded by strong German infantry elements closely supported by tanks. After sustaining heavy losses, “A” Company’s surviving members were forced to surrender by noon on 22 June 1944. The 24th Guards Brigade after heavy fighting supported by tanks of the PR, took Sarteano on 25 June 1944.

6th South African Armoured Division Part 2....

6th South African Armoured Division Order Of Battle...


Last Updated On Thursday, April 17, 2014 by Wayne at Battlefront