On 17 August 1944 the 6th (South African) Armoured Division was transferred to the Fifth Army, the latest in a series of international formations to find themselves as part of General Mark Clark’s order of battle.
The division included soldiers from several Commonwealth countries, which gave them at least some degree of shared background and military ethos. In broad terms the command structure, training, doctrine and operational procedures were familiar to all of the division’s units, as were the weapons and matériel. To that extent the division had a degree of uniformity and cohesion, although in other respects there were concerns which could have proved difficult, particularly with regard to South African racial policies. There was also a significant anti-war faction in South Africa which was of relevance to recruiting policies and which limited the deployment of the division.
South African units had been involved with the Fifth Army since before its arrival in Italy. On 14 August 1943 46 Survey Company, South African Engineers, was assigned to Fifth Army to assist in the preparations for AVALANCHE, and 83 Engineer Base Stores Depot SAEC had been occupied in packing tons of equipment for the invasion for weeks before it happened. The Survey Company landed at Salerno on 8 September, its immediate task being to revise the available maps. On 27 November it was ordered to carry out a survey network of control points which would tie in the Fifth Army artillery units to the south Italy map grid. The main South African contribution to the Fifth Army was to arrive later, in the shape of 6th South African Armoured Division. Its pedigree was – like that of many formations – a chequered one which reflected the constraints under which the South African government operated, some of which were self-imposed for domestic reasons, others by the wider conditions faced by all of the United Nations, such as scarcity of equipment.
Service in the armed forces of the Union of South Africa was voluntary. Prevailing attitudes regarding racial equality limited the potential pool of volunteers for combat arms to whites, and those of other racial groups could only serve in non-combatant support roles, with Cape Coloured and Indian personnel as drivers and pioneers in the Cape Corps, and Africans in pioneer and labour units of the Native Military Corps. Restrictions were also placed on the ranks which could be attained by non-whites: warrant officer in the Cape Corps and sergeant in the NMC; Coloured troops were paid half the rates that whites earned, and Africans two-thirds of the Coloured rate. Apart from guard duties and self-defence, firearms were not given to these soldiers – they would not be employed to kill Europeans. This policy reduced the available numbers of men for the fighting arms aged between twenty and forty to some 320,000; at the outbreak of war the standing army was only 3,353-strong, with another 14,631 in the Active Citizen Force. With no expectation that the army would serve outside southern Africa these men were trained and equipped accordingly. With a sizeable minority of South Africans opposed to involvement in the war (it will be recalled that the initial response of Prime Minister Hertzog was to declare the country neutral, leading to his overthrow by Smuts) conscription was never a viable choice. The shortage of personnel was to hinder the nation’s attempts to maintain two effective divisions for deployment in North Africa. The numbers of men raised were sufficient for only the 1st and 2nd SA Infantry Divisions, each of 24,108 men, with a third division – based in South Africa – having a strength of only 6,000 from which to provide reinforcements for the other two. As early as April 1941 a possible solution to this manning problem had been suggested whereby one of the infantry divisions would be converted to armour. This reduced the manpower requirement, because an armoured division comprised only two (one armoured, one infantry) brigades rather than the three brigades which made up an infantry division; the establishment of an armoured division was only 14,195 officers and men. This proposal was taken a stage further in May 1942 when Field Marshal Smuts announced that both infantry divisions would convert. The following month an estimated 10,772 South Africans from two entire infantry brigades and most of the 2nd Division’s supporting units were taken prisoner at Tobruk. This blow finalized the argument, which was given further impetus by the way in which the North African campaign was developing, with an emphasis on armoured warfare.
There was another factor which played its part in constraining the numbers of men available for service in the armed forces, again caused by the hesitancy of the government to press too strongly for a wholehearted commitment to a war which many at home did not support. Until the early part of 1940 the South African Army saw little prospect of action and anticipated little more than a home defence role. In March of that year, however, the British Government requested reinforcements – initially a South African infantry brigade – to be sent to Kenya to defend the country against any Italian incursions. This deployment was not covered by the oath of service taken by the volunteers, and they were now invited to take a fresh one which committed them to service anywhere in Africa. This move provided sufficient willing personnel to meet the initial needs of operations in East Africa and took the Army to the conclusion of the North African campaign, but as the fighting there drew to a close at the beginning of 1943 the South African government found it necessary to introduce a new general service oath, voluntary acceptance of which committed their servicemen to worldwide operations. To some soldiers it appeared that the goalposts were shifting yet again: the uptake was not encouraging, and the outcome divided the forces between those who were prepared to continue the battle against the Axis to its conclusion, and those who elected to stick to the ‘Africa Service Personnel’ terms of engagement – and who became known disparagingly as ‘asps’ by those who signed the new oath and who wore an orange flash on their epaulettes to indicate their status. Nevertheless, the hope remained that two armoured divisions could be raised, even though both could not be fielded. One, the 1st SA Armoured Division, could not be established at full strength and remained in South Africa; the other, the 6th SA Armoured Division, was formed from units that had previously served with the 2nd SA Infantry Division. To raise the manpower required in the face of shortages caused by losses during the fighting thus far, by the reluctance of men to serve outside Africa, and by some veterans who were unwilling to serve again, shortfalls in the infantry were resolved by merging some regiments. These retained the titles of both of the original units which had been united, for example ‘The Imperial Light Horse/Kimberley Regiment’, which became – confusingly to the outsider – ‘ILH/KimR’ in its abbreviated form. The Divisional Commander was Major General W. H. Evered Poole.
While the British welcomed units for which they had a requirement in Italy, such as those from the South African Engineer Corps, they were initially reluctant to take the armoured division; the need was for more infantry. In March 1944 the Division was ordered to prepare to move to Palestine, an order which was countermanded nine days later. The Division’s potential could not be ignored and it was destined for Italy. Sixth SA Armoured Division disembarked in Taranto on 20 and 21 April 1944 but it was to be strengthened for the forthcoming battles. Experience had shown that the composition of armoured divisions with one armoured and one infantry brigades (in this case 11 Armoured and 12 Motorised South African Brigades) was too light in infantry, especially in the context of the Italian terrain which did not lend itself to armoured warfare as it had been fought in the desert. To rectify this weakness 24 Guards Infantry Brigade, one of the independent formations serving with the Eighth Army, was attached to the Division. The Guards Brigade was to serve with the South Africans until it was removed to bring the British 56th Infantry Division up to strength in February 1945.
The Division’s first taste of action was when 12 Motorised Brigade with artillery and support units was detached and placed under command of 2nd New Zealand Division, then part of Eighth Army’s X (British) Corps in the Cassino area. Relieving 11 Canadian Infantry Brigade the South Africans held the line there until the Gustav Line was broken, after which they rejoined the Division which was in the Eighth Army reserve, attached to I Canadian Corps. Passing through Rome on 6 June, with the GOC and his GSO 2 (Ops) taking it in turns to listen to reports from the British Broadcasting Corporation on the progress of OVERLORD on the radio in their command tank, the Division moved into the spearhead position of the Eighth Army advance. This it led up the western bank of the Tiber, fighting actions south of Celleno against elements of the 365th Infantry Division before taking the town of Orvieto. By 17 June its first attempt to enter Chiusi had been halted by the Herman Göring Division, but the town was captured six days later. During this operation A Company of First City/Cape Town Highlanders, which had led the attack, was surrounded by the enemy and its survivors forced to surrender – the event referred to earlier in this narrative, which caused Field Marshal Smuts to divert his aircraft from its flight from London to South Africa so that he might discuss the military and political implications of another surrender to follow that of 2nd SA Infantry Division in Tobruk.
As the advance continued towards Florence XIII Corps had 4th Infantry Division as its centre, with the British 6th Armoured and 6th SA Armoured Divisions on its right and left respectively. The South Africans moved forward in two columns until they ran into the Georg Line, a delaying position manned by the LXXVI Panzer Corps. It was only when the 2nd New Zealand and the British 6th Armoured Divisions succeeded in taking the high ground that the Germans were forced to withdraw, allowing the South Africans to resume their progress. By 4 August the outskirts of Florence were entered, a patrol from ILH/KimR being the first to arrive. In a Special Order of the Day Major General Poole highlighted the fact that the Division had covered 601 miles since leaving Taranto, that the artillery had fired 201,500 rounds, that its engineers had constructed sixty-five bridges, and that 3,752 miles of telephone cable had been laid. The Division was then withdrawn into Eighth Army reserve for rest. On 17 August the Division was ordered to be transferred to the US IV Corps to partially fill the gaps left by the transfer of American divisions which were bound for Operation ANVIL/DRAGOON.
Now part of the United States Fifth Army, 6th SA Armoured Division, which had a British brigade under command and which was further augmented by the addition of 4/13th Frontier Force Rifles (an Indian Army unit trained in mountain warfare manned by Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs with predominantly British officers, notwithstanding the South Africans’ aversion to employing non-whites in a combat role) and 74th British Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment Royal Artillery with the attachment of the mortar platoon from ILH/KimR, organized as an infantry battalion, found itself to be the epitome of coalition warfare at the operational level. The 166th (Newfoundland) Field Regiment Royal Artillery also joined the Division, which added yet another nationality to its complement. The regiment was part of the British Army, recruited in Newfoundland, which was a Dominion directly governed from the United Kingdom and did not become a Canadian province until 1949. The international flavour went deeper than unit level, for many of the nursing sisters who served in 108th South African Mobile Hospital came from Canada, 300 having been recruited under an agreement between the two governments involved, to cover the shortfall in required numbers. The Division now comprised three armoured regiments, nine infantry battalions, and three field and one medium artillery regiments as well as supporting troops. It was not long before the ramifications of such an amalgamation of different nationalities, cultures, and of different command styles became apparent.
Having served operationally in the Eighth Army since June 1941, General Poole and his staff had now to adapt to the methods and policies of the American Army, a task which was far from straightforward, particularly when in the middle of fighting a war. Poole’s preference was for commanding well forward from a Tactical HQ which was no more than a jeep containing his G2 and two radio sets manned by an operator, the jeep being accompanied by a motorcycle driven by his Provost Corporal bodyguard armed with a tommy-gun. The GOC and the G2 shared the driving. When the situation demanded, Poole would mount the motorcycle for greater speed and mobility, and through this practice he was able to maintain frequent face-to-face discussions with his brigade commanders, making swift decisions on the spot. The presence of the GOC well forward, with his pennant flying on the ‘two-star’ jeep, also had a beneficial effect on the morale of the troops.
To continue the Allied advance northwards from Florence the River Arno had first to be crossed, a task which was achieved when patrols from the First City/Cape Town Highlanders found workable crossing points near Le Piagge for 12 Motorised Brigade. As the enemy withdrew to take up fresh defensive positions on the Gothic Line the Division crossed the river on Bailey bridges which the SAEC erected on the remnants of the demolished bridges. With only light resistance being encountered, General Poole planned a swift pursuit but this intent was countermanded by orders from above; General Clark feared that the South Africans’ advance would alert the Germans and compromise his main attack north of Florence. Poole was ordered to halt and to hold the Albano Massif.
While the Fifth Army History stated that it was particularly important that the element of surprise was not endangered by any move by the South Africans, the latter felt strongly that such an approach indicated a lack of initiative and a rigidity which permitted the Germans more time to improve their defences. With winter approaching there was even more reason to inject a sense of urgency and to take full advantage of any opportunity to put the enemy on the wrong foot. Nevertheless, the 6th SA Armoured Division was required to sit on its hands and let the opportunity pass.
A second instance of Fifth Army’s lack of understanding the modus operandi of the different nationalities under command, and of the possible implications of decisions taken with inadequate knowledge of local conditions or of the consequences which might occur from poorly thought-out plans, came a few days later. On 14 September an order arrived from IV (US) Corps for a brigade from the Division to attack and capture Femina a Morta, one of the Gothic Line’s strongest features. Following its fall, the brigade was to move on and take a second position, Monte Bersano, and then to exploit forward some 6,000 metres beyond it. The 24 Guards Brigade, with First City/Cape Town Highlanders under command, was given the task, and although the Divisional staff knew that it would carry it out to its best ability, experience told them that the Brigade would probably be lost in the attempt. While General Poole’s professionalism led him to accept the order and to prepare to carry it out, his GSO1 Colonel Maggs, was perhaps more understanding of the political consequences of writing off an elite British brigade in a South African division which was part of an American army in an impossible operation.
Fortunately Maggs was not only on good terms with the IV Corps Chief of Staff, Brigadier General Ladue, but was quickly able to contact him by telephone. Having expressed his concerns, he requested that a light aircraft be sent to fly him to Corps Headquarters. Without telling Poole, he set off to a stretch of road on which the aircraft could land, and was taken to meet Ladue and General Crittenberger, the Corps Commander. Maggs presented his case strongly: as the South African military historian, Neil Orpen, put it, what the governments of the United States, Great Britain and South Africa might make of an American corps ordering a South African division to send a British Guards Brigade to destruction would be ‘pretty colourful’. Maggs’ view of matters was accepted: Crittenberger and Ladue promised to do what they could to have the orders rescinded, and later that evening news arrived at Divisional Headquarters to the effect that the operation had been cancelled. The incident was a clear demonstration of the difficulties encountered by commanders of multinational forces; the Guards Brigade – not to mention international relations – was fortunate that Maggs exercised his initiative and acted as he did. A similar formation in an army that was composed only of troops from a single nationality would have not had the same reasons to object and nor would the objections have received such a sympathetic reaction, as was seen earlier in the campaign when the 36th (US) Division was ordered to cross the Rapido.
Major General Poole summed up five stages of 6th SA Armoured Division’s Italian operations in his Operations Report which was released in June 1945. The first phase was the pursuit of the enemy when the Germans withdrew from Cassino, and the second covered the setpiece assaults on strong natural positions held by the enemy at Monte Catarelto, Stanco, and Point 826. In November 1944 the third phase opened as the weather deteriorated. Deep snow halted movement, and Divisional Headquarters was to remain in Castiglione dei Pepoli, which it had reached on 26 September, until mid-April the next year. It was, again, a period of frustration as Bologna and open tank country lay only about twenty miles ahead. With tanks and guns dug into the snow and mule trains having to be used to supply troops in the line, operations slowed until warmer weather improved matters, but hostilities continued as the tanks were employed to give fire support from static positions, supplementing the artillery. Re-organization continued regardless of the weather: on 15 January the Division was placed under command of II (US) Corps, having previously been Fifth Army troops.
Phase four of Poole’s report opened at the beginning of April when the Division began to take up positions for an attack on the defences of Monte Sole, Monte Caprara and Monte Abelle. The newly-formed 13 SA Motorised Brigade, with 11 SA Armoured Brigade made the assault after a period of intensive planning. The attack went in following heavy air attacks, followed by an artillery barrage, at 2230 hours on 15 April; at 0100 hours the leading troops were on the summit of Monte Sole. Their platoon commander, Second Lieutenant Mollett, was awarded an immediate DSO, but the event was not one of unalloyed celebration, for his Commanding Officer was killed in the hour of victory.
The taking of the mountain stronghold opened the way for the breakthrough to Bologna, which fell on 21 April, and the pursuit of the enemy, who were becoming increasingly disorganized, across the Lombardy plains – phase five of Poole’s report. At the end of April the Division reverted to Fifth Army command and was ordered to the Milan area, 200 miles away, to support IV (US) Corps, which was facing two German divisions, 34th Infantry and 5th Mountain. On 2 May the Germans in Italy surrendered. General Poole refused to enter Milan until the bodies of Mussolini and his mistress had been removed from the service station where they had been hanging after being shot.