6th South African Armoured Division (Italy 1944 - 1945) - The Battle of Celleno, June 10th, 1944 - South Africas First Victory In Italy

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The Battle of Celleno, June 10th, 1944
By J.C von Winterbach

By June 9th, 1944, the 6th S.A Armoured Division was spearheading the Allied advance towards Florence and captured Vallerano, Canepina, & Viterbo. But the move towards Florence was delayed by demolitions north of Viterbo, where a blown bridge was covered by German Infantry and 3 Tiger I E tanks. With both 4/22 Field Regiment, SAA & 7/23 Medium Regiment, SAHA, guns heavily shelling enemy targets, 1/8 & 2/8 Troop of 8th Field Squadron, SAEC, began construction of a culvert under spasmodic fire but had to withdraw to defensive positions for awhile when a Tiger I E tank 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 beside it. It was after midnight on June 9th, 1944 that a bridgehead was established over the Acqua Rossa and the exhausted men of 8th Field Squadron, SAEC, were later relieved by the men of 12th Field Squadron, SAEC.

The advance on the German’s right flank started at first light on June 10th, 1944, with the ILH/KimR & SSB moving up to establish contact with the German defensive line North of the town of Aqua Rossa. The advance North was intended to secure the bridgehead around Aqua Rossa, but the ILH/KimR & SSB advance was soon halted by German heavy mortar fire. “C” Squadron, NMR passed through on reconnaissance at 8:00, and almost immediately drew heavy fire from the German anti-tank screen consisting of 88mm & 75mm PaK guns, losing two tanks with their entire crew all being killed. On hearing the distress calls over the air, the SSB was immediately ordered forward to their assistance. Heavy resistance was coming from the German 356. Infantrie-Division, 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 the 4. Fallschirmjäger Division, 3. Panzer-Grenadier-Division, 362. Infantrie-Division & 26. Panzer-Division.

Instead of passing the 24th Guards Brigade through the bridgehead as intended, Maj. Gen. W.H.E. Poole now ordered the 11th S.A Armoured Brigade in with the SSB leading the way, though the 4/22 Field Regiment was not yet in position to give covering fire. Brig. J.P.A. Furstenberg realised that German forces were withdrawing North-wards up the axis of Route 2 and intended to turn the German left flank by ordering the SSB to advance on the right flank. The Rhodesians of “C” Squadron were at breakfast when the call came for support. Mess tins, plates & mugs were abandoned with contents unfinished as the men raced to their tanks. The SSB Squadrons were in the lead along the road and had covered barely a kilometre when its tanks were sprayed with machine-gun and anti-tank fire. They had struck the enemy anti-tank screen south of the Railway running across their line of advance.

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 action, “C” Squadron, SSB moved forward against heavy anti-tank fire from guns of all calibres from 20 to 88mm, backed by some 50 to 60 Spandau machine-guns sited in houses and tree’s, and from a number of Nebelwerfer’s.

While two troops of “A” Squadron, SSB held a 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, SSB had been brought to a halt, but Lt. Col. C.E.G. Britz ordered “B” Squadron, SSB round in a wide left hook which ran into anti-tank fire. This was silenced by superb marksmanship on the part of the S.A & Rhodesian tank gunners, before the SSB turned machine-guns on the enemy Infantry, who broke and fled.

Parts of “A” Company, ILH/KimR accompanied the advance of the SSB, by going into action on the back off the advancing tanks. Soon after, two leading tanks were blown up by panzerfausts at point-blank range after the Germans had shown the “White Flag”. Lt. Col. C.E.G. Britz then issued the order over the radio to the troops to “Show no Mercy”. 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 from the rear, with truck drivers displaying great courage in coming right forward in their open vehicles under fire and was once again ready to move on to the offensive. “C” Company, ILH/KimR was winkling out enemy remnants hiding among farmhouses, holes, bushes, cornfields, caves & hedges. At this point, Artillery forward observation Officers at last came forward to report to Lt. Col. C.E.G. Britz.

From 11:45 the guns of the 4/22 Field Regiment 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’s, and the 7/23 Medium Regiment’s 5.5’s brought down fire with devastating effect shortly before midday. In less than 2 hours artillery fire had knocked out five 88’s, sixteen 50mm anti-tank guns, three Machine-guns, a Panzer IV, four Panzer III’s and numerous Infantry.

“B” Company, ILH/KimR at 14:30 joined “C” Company, ILH/KimR with the SSB, while “A” Company, ILH/KimR 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 4500 m 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 up 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 towards Dismounting from the Sherman’s, “B” & “C” Companies, ILH/KimR kept working with the armour, whose “C” Squadron, SSB 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 & Snipers in the trees.

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, SSB 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, SSB firm beyond the railway line, “B” Squadron, SSB 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, SSB 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, SSB and SSB Reconnaissance tanks.

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 North-East of it, thus holding the area and providing sufficient fire support while the Infantry prised the Germans out house by house. 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 as the SSB tanks had run out of petrol and ammunition, and 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 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 the PAG to cover the SSB’s right flank, with support from the 4/22 Field Regiment, whose guns effectively engaged the enemy. The PAG Regiment moved up the Viterbo-Bagnoregio road (The area between Viterbo-Bagnoregio is characterized by modest little farms, each with a few rows of vines and assortment of fruit trees. The hills and gullies are rugged and forested), and by 12:30 on June 10th, 1944 it had reached a point about 11 km North of Viterbo, with “A” Squadron, PAG and the Reconnaissance Troop searching for a crossing over the River Malone. “B” Squadron, PAG coming up from reserve, crossed the river but was pinned by anti-tank fire. “A” Squadron, PAG was already moving along sunken lanes only some 1370 meters from Grotte when enemy anti-tank guns scored hits on five Sherman’s, three of which “brewed up”. “C” Squadron, PAG covered “A” Squadron’s left and “B” Squadron, PAG moved up to take over from “A” Squadron, PAG 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 prisoners were taken. Though it had just come under command of the 24th Guard Brigade, the Pretoria Regiment (PR), at 18:00 that day was ordered to move immediately for fire support of the 11th S.A Armoured Brigade, and from turret-down positions plastered the Celleno-Grotte area with high explosive rounds.

The Battle of Celleno lasted for 12 hours and 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. Infantrie-Division east of Lake Bolsena for a total of 252 casualties and capturing many prisoners. A year prior to the battle, however, the 6th S.A Armoured Division was still training in the desert expanses of Khataba. Under-equipped, under-strength, and unsure of their future, the 6th S.A Armoured Division was able to turn themselves into a capable, armoured, fighting force within less than a year.
 
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