6th South African Armoured Division (Italy 1944 - 1945) - The Battle of Hell-House, July 25th, 1944 - The Story Behind the Famed Military Museum Photo

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The Battle of “Hell-House”, July 25th, 1944
By J.C von Winterbach

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On July 24th, the WR/DLR after days of bitter fighting, had cleared the hilly country round Radda-in-Chianti and captured Point 555, opening the way to the latter country beyond. The SSB & ILH/KimR was to go up the Divisional Green Route, through Radda, past Point 555, take the town of Mercatale, cross the River Greve and cut Route 2, and then on to Florence.

While the 6th S.A Armoured Division was advancing to the River Greve, the 11th Armoured Brigade met stern opposition to the west of Greve in the Monte Macerate area, after passing through WR/DLR up Green Route in an attempt to punch a hole in the enemy line. Tanks of the NMR & SSB, with ILH/KimR, had begun passing through at 05:30 on July 24th, 1944, with “A” Squadron, SSB leading the Armoured Regiment. Just after midday they struck the German anti-tank screen, strongly supported by infantry from the 4. Fallschirmjäger-Division, in the Monte Macerata area. The narrow road, 3 to 4 metres wide, winding along a ridge, came repeatedly into view of the enemy, who were ideally situated for defence.

“A” Squadron, NMR, reconnoitred along a secondary road and ran into heavy artillery, mortar and machine-gun fire. At 19:45 on the evening of July 24th, 1944, “B” & “C” Company’s, ILH/KimR, covered by “A” Squadron, SSB and preceded by a brief barrage from the 7/64 Field Battery (THA), launched a two-Company attack on Belvedere, with mortar and Vickers machine-gun in support. In spite of stiff resistance from both German infantry and artillery blocking the road to Mercatale, the ILH/KimR captured the objective. They had secured the high ground with observation over the next objective, Point 426, and by driving in along an enemy Divisional boundary line, the attack caused disorganisation among the defenders. All Companies and Battalion HQ’s were under enemy shelling for almost all day.

At 05:30 on the morning of July 25th, 1944, “B” Squadron, SSB passed through “A” Squadron, SSB, but heavy mist caused a late start and for some time made movement and observation difficult, but the column was soon under way to Point 504 with one Company of RNC together with “B” Squadron, PAG. Teller mines were found along one part of the road which occasioned the loss of one of “D” Squadron Sherman’s and one Recce “Honey” Stuart until the Sappers had cleared the obstacles away, the advance could not continue. Meanwhile “B” Squadron held the high ground East of the road and from there engaged enemy targets and assisted the forward Infantry. Enemy destruction of bridges and culverts and blows in the road combined with heavy shelling held up the South African Armour 1000 yards from the River Greve.

By 11:00 hours the Sapper had made a deviation round the mined area and the advance continued. “A” Squadron, SSB was on the road axis with “C” Squadron, SSB on the left and “B” Squadron, SSB in support. By 17:30 smoke was being put down to cover further advance by “B” Squadron, SSB. All three SSB armoured Squadrons were now in action, with “C” Squadron, SSB, being ordered up to cover “B” Squadron as a sharp engagement between the South Africans and 6 Tiger I E’s had begun. The SSB lost one Sherman and “B” Squadron knocked out 2 Tiger I E tanks. “A” Company, ILH/KimR had moved forward with the SSB and consolidated astride the road slightly beyond Belvedere before one Platoon was forced to take cover from enemy shelling and mortaring before pressing on to secure Point 426 and a hilltop farmhouse nearby nicknamed “The Hell-House”, which commanded the countryside northward to Impruneta and west ward S. Casciano, with Florence clearly in view.

The ILH/KimR continued along the road with the armour to another house nearer Villa Mercellani and only about 1000m from Mercatale. There they were heavy shelled & mortared. Enemy attempts to retake the Hell-House failed, and thereafter shelled it and the approach road so badly that supplies could only be sent up in “Honey” Stuarts and scout cars. The guns from the 7/64 Field Battery (THA), were kept busy all afternoon on July 25th, 1944 in support of the South African armour and infantry. During the combat an OP Sherman Tank’s crew narrowly escaped when they were directly hit from a HE shell from an 88mm.

Tanks of “A” Squadron, NMR on recon to the right of Point 504 and south-west of Poggio Mandorli ran up against 3 Tiger I E’s appearing on the ridge 800 yards away. Leading elements of “A” Squadron, NMR were heavily engaged by the Tiger I E’s just short of Mercatale as they probed positions held by the 4. Fallschirmjäger-Division. The Tiger I E’s damaged some of the Sherman’s but were so heavily and successfully engaged that they pulled out from the houses against which they were sheltering. It was later found that one Tiger I E in its withdrawal had fallen into a cess-pit and was there destroyed by its crew. Another had been so damaged that it was “brewed up” by its crew in Mercatale, and the other one was successfully recovered by the enemy. Extremely heavy enemy artillery and mortar fire struck the reconnaissance tanks and three Sherman’s were destroyed and the rest pulled back for the night.
 
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