Purchase these Items

Products mentioned in this Article



WWII era South African Flag

6th South African Armoured Division (Part 4)

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

6th South Africian Armoured Division Part 1...  

6th South Africian Armoured Division Part 2...

6th South Africian Armoured Division Part 3...  

The Advance from the Appenines

The first months of 1945 saw important changes in the organisation of the 6th South African Armoured Division. It was known that the 24th Guards Brigade would pass out of command after relief, and it was essential to have another South African Infantry Brigade in the division. On 13 January 1945, the 13th South African Motorized Infantry Brigade came into being and Lt. Col. J. Bester, battalion commander of the WR/DLR, was appointed Brigadier. The infantry battalions of the Brigade were provided initially by the RDLI and NMR/SAAF, whom reverted to infantry and began training in infantry tactics. Artillery support was provided by the 15th Field Regiment, SAA, which was formed from elements of the divisional artillery and reinforcements from the Union. 5th Field Squadron, SAEC came under command, and the Brigade commenced training in the Prato-Pistoia area.

The 6th South African Armoured Division concentrated in the Lucca area at the end of February. The men were delighted with their new quarters, situated in a lovely countryside, and took advantage of the opportunity of having some leave and recreation. Enthusiasm waned, however, when an intensive training programme began. On leaving the line the 6th South African Armoured Division bade farewell to its comrades in the 24th Guards Brigade, and it was with genuine regret that the South Africans saw these splendid troops depart to the British Eigth Army. Brig. M.D. Erskine, said the Guards would always be proud to have served in the 6th South African Armoured Division.
Advance from the Appenines
The leave and training programme had been planned on a six weeks cycle, but this had to be curtailed. On 28 March 1945, the 6th South African Armoured Division issued detailed orders for the relief of the 1st US Armored Division in the old sector between the Reno and the Setta. The great offensive that was to destroy the German armies in Italy was about to begin. Generalfeldmarschall A. Kesselring’s successor, Generaloberst H.G.O.R. von Vietinghoff, was under no illusions about the coming storm, and the possibility of resisting it. He would have preferred to withdraw to the line of the Po River. The German High Command, so far from agreeing to this, would not even allow Von Vietinghoff to carry out a limited withdrawal on the Eighth Army Front, which would have effectually frustrated the Allied air and artillery programme. By insisting on the retention of the Appenine Line, Hitler had tied the German Army in Italy to an anvil.
The Staff gather

During January and February four German Divisions were withdrawn from Italy to attempt to dam the Russian tide, and these included the old opponents of the South Africans the 16. SS-Panzergrenadierdivision “Reichsführer-SS” and 356. Infanteriedivision. More would probably have been demanded, if the Allied Airforce had not played such havoc with communications in northern Italy that it took weeks to move a division through the alpine passes.

By comparison with their forces on other fronts, the German Army in Italy was still a formidable fighting machine, and on 10 April 1945 Generaloberst H.G.O.R. von Vietinghoff had under his command 21 German divisions of all types, supported by a powerful force of artillery. Although the Allied armies were now pouring into Germany, morale was still high.

The greatest weakness was an almost total lack of air support. Generaloberst H.G.O.R. von Vietinghoff had only 260 tanks, and the petrol shortage compelled him to rely excessively on animal transport. The Allies planned to attack along practically the whole Italian front. Preliminary blows along the shores of the Adriatic and the Tuscan sea were to be followed a week later by an all-out assault by the British Eighth Army in the marshy country between Lake Commachio and the Appenines. Three days later the US Fifth Army was to unleash the US II and IV Corps in an offensive aimed at Bologna and the plain to the northwest. The 6th South African Armoured Division was given an important role in the US Fifth Army plan.

During the night of 31 March /1 April 1945 the 12th South African Motorized Infantry Brigade began its movement back into the line, and on 4 April 1945 took over command of the brigade sector from Combat Command A of the 1st US Armored Division. The 11th Armoured Brigade took over their sector from Combat Command B on 5 April 1945. The divisional sector laid between the rivers Reno and Setta and was held by the 12th South African Motorized Infantry Brigade on the right and the 11th Armoured Brigade on the left. The river Torricella was the inter-brigade boundary. The 11th Armoured Brigade had the 4/13th Frontier Force Rifles and two American units (19th Reconnaissance Squadron and 1st Battalion 135 RCT) under their command. The Americans were serving as infantry. The 13th South African Motorized Infantry Brigade was to move up later on the 12th South African Motorized Infantry Brigade right. Certain regrouping would then take place between the two Brigades.

Early in March the Germans had withdrawn his line to the crest of the Sole-Caprara massif, and the South African forward defence lines were now about 1000 yards nearer to the enemy. The 77 Eastings Grid was the boundary line of two German divisions. The German 94. Infanteriedivision held the sector to the west, and there was little activity apart from some scattered shelling and harassing fire. An outline plan had been drawn up by Maj. Gen. W.H.E. Poole at the end of March. The initial attack was to be made on Mt. Sole-Caprara by the 12th South African Motorized Infantry Brigade, which was to exploit to Mt. Abelle.
South African Sherman tanks

On the capture of the Sole-Caprara-Abelle area, the 12th South African Motorized Infantry Brigade was to advance along the ridge running northeast of Mt. Sole, and capture Mt. Santa Barbara. The 13th South African Motorized Infantry Brigade was to cover the right flank. Thereafter the 13th South African Motorized Infantry Brigade was to take Mt. Giovule and Mt. Baco and destroy any German forces remaining between the Setta and the Reno. When this phase had been completed 12th South African Motorized Infantry Brigade was to be prepared to cross the Reno. All attacks were to be supported by the divisional artillery and air support was promised on an unprecedented scale.

The 6th South African Armoured Division was the left-flanking formation of the US II Corps. The US IV Corps was to open the battle on the US Fifth Army front by attacking in the mountains west of the Reno, and then the US II Corps was to launch its assault. Detailed planning for the 6th South African Armoured Division’s attack began on 5 April 1945. The divisional commander met his Staff and brigade commanders, and they in turn had full discussions with their subordinates, and the commanders of supporting arms. The 12th South African Motorized Infantry Brigade carried out detailed patrolling to reconnoitre the enemy’s outpost positions, and to decide on suitable lines of advance. There was little interference from the enemy, but the area had been heavily mined, and a number of casualties were suffered.

South African infantry advance

On the night of 7/8 April 1945 the first of a series of full scale artillery shoots was carried out against enemy positions on the 6th South African Armoured Division’s front. The intention was to deceive the enemy regarding the time of the main assault and to shatter his morale and to induce him to disclose his defensive fire tasks. The second and third objects were certainly not achieved, and the enemy showed little interest in the elaborate bombardments.

Meanwhile, the great offensive had already begun on other sectors of the front. On 1 April 1945 a brilliant commando attack on the Andriatic coast threw the 162. Turkoman Division into disorder. On 5 April 1945 the Japanese-Americans opened an offensive along the shore of the Tuscan sea. The attack met with great success, and the threat to the naval base of Spezia brought German reserves from the Po Valley. On 10 April 1945 an artillery and air bombardment surpassing anything seen in Italy, heralded the advance of the British Eighth Army. The enemy made the mistake of anticipating an attack along Route 9, while the main weight of the British Eighth Army fell in the area south of Lake Commachio. The enemy was shaken by the intense air and artillery bombardment, and disconcerted by the use of large numbers of flame-throwing tanks. On 10 April 1945 saw the British Eighth Army make deep penetrations and although the Germans rallied, and fought back with their usual skill and tenacity, they were never able to recover from the initial shock or amend their faulty dispositions. Retreat to the much vaunted Genghis Khan Line brought no security, and on 15 April 1945 the British Eighth Army captured Bastia, and threatened the flank of all the German forces in Italy.
It had been intended that the US IV Corps should open the US Fifth Army attack on 12 April 1945, but the weather was unfavourable for bombers and the offensive did not begin until 14 April 1945. By the evening of that day advance units of the 1st US Armored Division, on the left of the South Africans, had entered Vergato. Further to the west the 10th US Mountain Division had taken its objectives, and was thrusting forward with great determination. On 15 April 1945, the US II Corps began its attack, and the 12th South African Motorized Infantry Brigade was launched against Sole and Caprara.
South African M10 SP anti-tank guns fire on German positions while a local does here washing

Although not as high as Mt. Stanco or Mt. Salvaro, the extremely steep, bush-covered slopes of Sole and Caprara presented a most formidable obstacle. The ridge running along the crest of Sole and extending northeast to Collina was a complete razorback, with no facilities for deployment. Mt. Abelle was considerably lower than Sole or Caprara, but it gave depth to the defence, and enemy posted here could shoot up any troops advancing down the northern slopes of these two mountains.

The 6th South African Armoured Division regrouped for the attack. On 9 April 1945, the 13th South African Motorized Infantry Brigade moved up, with its HQ located at La Torre. On 10 April 1945 the RNC came under command of the 13th South African Motorized Infantry Brigade, and the brigade took over the sector between Mt. Sole and the river Setta, to protect the right flank of the 12th South African Motorized Infantry Brigade. The 13th South African Motorized Infantry Brigade now consisted of the NMR/SAAF and the RNC with one Squadron of the SSB under command. On 8 April 1945, the RDLI relieved two Companies of the FC/CTH in the centre of the 12th South African Motorized Infantry Brigade’s front, thus releasing the latter battalion for the atack on Mt. Sole. On the same day the 4/13th Frontier Force Rifles came under the 12th South African Motorized Infantry Brigade command, and relieved the WR/DLR in the Brigades left sector. The latter were now available to attack Mt. Caprara. The 12th Field Squadron, SAEC was ordered to support the 12th South African Motorized Infantry Brigade, which had one Squadron of PAG under command.

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

On 11 April 1945 Maj. Gen. W.H.E. Poole addressed the Officers and men of the 12th South African Motorized Infantry Brigade down to the platoon sergeants and put them in the picture. On 13 April 1945 the enemy broke contact on the British Eighth Army front southeast of Bologna and it was suspected that a general withdrawal had been ordered. Patrols were sent out, and one from the RDLI got within 200 yards of the crest of Sole. A blaze of fire established that the enemy was holding the position. Deserters confirmed this, and stated that extra ammunition had been issued to meet the expected attack, and orders had been given to fight to the last man.

On the night of 14 April 1945 the 4/13th Frontier Force Rifles made a successful two platoon attack on an enemy post (Casa Poggiolo) which would have threatened the left flank of the attack on Caprara. 15 April 1945 was fine and clear and the blue sky augured well for the air bombardment and at 13:00 the heavy bombers started to come over. For an hour and a half a steady stream of bombers in line abreast or Vic formation passed across the sky, but they dropped their loads well north of the divisional front. At 16:15 the first fighter bombers appeared and dropped special liquid fuel type bombs on the slopes of Mt. Caprara. There was a terrific flash of flame in each case followed by billowing black smoke. Every fifteen minutes six aircraft swooped down on Sole and Caprara, coming in extremely low and letting lose a mixture of fire-bombs and high explosives. Some aircraft used rockets and cannon-shell. Apart from a little machine-gun and cannon fire there was no reaction from the enemy.

Indeed, although the bombardment was most spectacular and did much to encourage the troops, the results achieved were negligible. A few Germans suffered burns, but the enemy was well concealed in caves and dug-outs and the attacks made little impression. One fighter-bomber straffed the FC/CTH dump area, nearly exploding the mortar ammunition. Casualties were caused and a panic started among the Italian porters. At 22:30 the artillery of the US II Corps and the divisional artillery supported by selected troops of tanks, opened the most violent bombardment that the South Africans had seen in the campaign. The fire was so concentrated that it seemed more impressive than Alamein or Cassino. Under cover of the guns the WR/DLR and FC/CTH went into the attack.

It was about a mile from FC/CTH assembly area to the crest of Sole, and the axis of advance lay along a ridge leading up to the mountain. “C” and “D” Companies, FC/CTH led the attack and crossed their start line at 23:00. The enemy fired his mortar in defensive fire, but casualties were light, and at 23:50 “C” and “D” Companies, FC/CTH started to climb Mt. Sole. Nearing the crest “C” Company, FC/CTH was held up by mines, but without waiting for the mines to be cleared, a party of five men dashed through the mines and reached the summit. One of the men was killed, but the party caught the enemy coming out of his deep shelters, and used their bayonets and grenades with good effect. South Africans cross a river

Passages were cleared through the minefields and “C” and “D” Companies, FC/CTH both got platoons on to the summit. By 04:30 hours Mt. Sole was firmly held with the German mortar fire increasing in intensity, but the artillery and 4.2” mortars brought down counter-mortar fire and broke up weak attempts to counterattack.

Meanwhile, a grim struggle was being waged for Mt. Caprara. So steep are the slopes of Caprara that the only suitable approach is from the direction of Caprara village. This meant that the WR/DLR had to make a long march from the assembly areas in the Mt. Termine area, skirt the southern slopes of Mt. Caprara, take Caprara village, and then assault up the steep, shaly slopes of the mountain. At 20:30 “A” and “B” Companies, WR/DLR moved off from their assembly area to the forming up point, situated in a valley south of San Martino. “A” and “B” Companies, WR/DLR had not yet arrived at the forming up point when their difficulties began with advance parties, laying lamps to indicate the start line, were fired on by the 4/13th Frontier Force Rifles on the left flank. 

As soon as the artillery barrage opened, the German artillery and mortars came to life, brought down their defensive fire tasks, and laid searching fire along the gullies. “B” Company, WR/DLR was caught in heavy concentrations of artillery and mortar fire when moving up from the forming up point, and suffered many casualties. The advance of “A” and “B” Companies, WR/DLR continued on Caprara village, but “B” Company, WR/DLR’s losses were so heavy, that at midnight “C” Company, WR/DLR received orders to take over their task. Throughout the night the start line was subjected to intense mortar and artillery fire, and the Italian stretcher-bearers became demoralised. Cape Corps batmen were improvised into stretcher-bearing parties. “B” Company, WR/DLR was soon reduced to 17 men and “D” Company moving up in support, had 32 casualties between the Start Line and the first bound.

South African Sherman At 02:00, “A” and “C” Companies, WR/DLR skirted Caprara village and began the assault up the precipitous mountain. At this stage communications became almost impossible. “A” and “C” Companies, WR/DLR for a time lost contact with each other but continued the advance meeting stiff resistance, wire obstacles were encountered and casualties suffered on Shu mines causing “A” Company, WR/DLR to move over to “C” Company, WR/DLR. Halfway up the mountain “A” and “C” Companies, WR/DLR were pinned down by machine-gun fire emanating from a pill-box.

As further progress could not be made after several attempts, and as daylight was fast approaching, in which event would leave the companies in a precarious situation, the company commanders decided to join forces and storm the obstacle. This they did, making a desperate bayonet charge up the steep almost precipitous slopes, and rooted the enemy out of pillbox, foxholes, and dugouts.

The area round the crest was found to be alive with mines, and small arms fire came from the Mt. Sole direction. By 08:00 the firing died down, and “A” and “C” Companies, WR/DLR dugin on their objectives. Throughout the morning the enemy continued to mortar the axis of advance. Three PAG tanks succeeded in getting onto the neck between Sole and Caprara, but another troop which followed the track through San Martino ran into mines, and two tanks were immobilised. The attack on Mt. Caprara cost the WR/DLR 168 casualties, of whom 24 were killed.

The enemy still contested the northwest slopes of the mountain, but the battalion held positions providing observation over Mt. Castellino and the Caprara-Abelle valley. It was now possible for the FC/CTH to exploit to Mt. Abelle. The morning of 16 April 1945 passed quietly with only intermittent mortaring by the enemy. At 17:30 “A” and “B” Companies, FC/CTH moved to the attack on Mt. Abelle supported by artillery and mortar fire. A dangerous cross-fire developed from Point 606 to the north east of Mt. Sole, and this position was engaged by the artillery and battalion 3” mortars. Mt. Abelle was captured after slight resistance, but machine-gun fire from Point 606 continued to be troublesome. During the operation “B” Company, RDLI moved on to the eastern crest of Sole to give flank support. Towards last light an enemy counterattack on the WR/DLR came in from the direction of Campodello. The artillery brought down defensive fire and the 4.2” mortars, which had been brigaded for the action, joined in with their heavy bombs. The infantry then charged down the slope and put the enemy to flight.

Thus by the evening of 16 April 1945 the capture of the three main features – Mt. Sole, Mt. Abelle and Mt. Caprara – had been successfully completed. The American divisions of the II US Corps were not so fortunate in their attacks east of the Setta. After violent fighting on 16 April 1945, the Germans still held Monterumici and Mt. Adone. On the other hand, west of the Reno, both Vergato and Mt. Pero were now in American hands. The success of the South African attack was due to the sheer determination of the assaulting infantry coupled with the sound tactical judgement of the battalion, company and platoon commanders.  South African Firefly tanks

The artillery support was heavy and accurate, but the German dugouts were so deep and well-constructed that the enemy suffered little from artillery fire.

On the night of 16/17 April 1945, the RDLI began their task of exploiting along the ridge running northeast from Mt. Sole. In their advance to the start line “A” and “C” Companies engaged and drove back an enemy counterattack force advancing on Mt. Sole. Confusion was caused by having to fight for the start line and considerable machine-gun fire was encountered. Points 606 and 551 were occupied, but Collina was not reached. Towards dawn a counterattack on Point 606 was repulsed, while the FC/CTH beat off a raid on the northwest slopes of Mt. Sole. During the night the RDLI took 30 prisoners for a loss of 12 wounded. Subsequent information showed that the advance of the RDLI had dislocated a strong attempt to recapture Mt. Sole.

During the afternoon of 17 April 1945, patrols of the WR/DLR got across to Mt. Castellino and reported that it was clear of the enemy. The RDLI, however, failed in its attempts to reach Collina. The Germans held the position in strength, and their mortar fire was heavy. The ridge was a complete razor-back with no opportunities whatsoever for deployment, while the enemy positions along the very crest of the ridge were largely immune to artillery and mortar fire which was ineffective if it fell either slightly short or slightly over. At 20:40 on the night of 17/18 April 1945, “C” Company, RDLI launched a set-piece attack on Collina. Despite concentrated artillery and mortar support, the attack was repulsed. The Germns fire was heavy and they launched a number of rockets at close range. One of these wounded the company commander and knocked out a whole platoon. It seemed as though the 6th South African Armoured Division was in for a long and bloody struggle on the ridge leading to Mt. Santa Barbara, but the morning of 18 April 1945, brought a miraculous change.

South African 5.5" howitzer

On 17 April 1945, the US II Corps had warned that a breakdown of enemy resistance might take place at any moment, and preparations should be made for a rapid follow-up. The stern resistance to the RDLI seemed to disprove this optimistic theory, and plans were considered for pushing the PR and the ILH/KimR down the Reno, in the hope of attacking the Collina - Santa Barbara ridge from the rear. At 08:00 on 18 April 1945, however, two deserters on the 13th South African Motorized Infantry Brigade front brought news that 157. Gebirgsdivision had received orders to withdraw during the night. Reports from 88th US Infantry Division stated that Monterumici and Mt. Adone had been abandoned.

The RDLI at once pushed forward patrols and first Nuvoleta and then Mt. Santa Barbara were reported clear. A number of prisoners were picked up, who confirmed the order to retreat to the Genghis Khan Line. It was fairly certain however, that the Germans would have to fall back to the Po River. The Germans had no alternative to a rapid withdrawal on US II Corps front. On 17 April 1945, the British Eighth Army captured Argenta and threatened a breakthrough to Ferrara. On US IV Corps front, the 10th U.S Mountain Division had made a remarkable advance and reached Mt. Pastore, thus outflanking the so-called Genghis Khan Line. The Germans were on the run and the pursuit to the Alps had begun.
6th South African Armoured Division (Part 5)...

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

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