Sherman Firefly tanks of the Pretoria Regiment somewhere in Italy during 1944
The SAAF played an important role in the invasions of both Sicily and Italy. By the end of 1943, in Italy, two out of eight Allied air wings and eight out of twenty-eight Allied squadrons were South African. In early 1943 another new oath was created to allow South African personnel to be deployed outside Africa. The Sixth South African Armoured Division, under Major General W. H. E. Poole, was formed in South Africa on February 1, 1943, and shipped to the Middle East in mid-April. Two factors had prompted the move to armor: it was easier for South Africa to maintain an armored division that was much smaller in total personnel than an infantry division, and the decision had been made during the great tank battles in the North African desert. Manpower problems meant that Smuts’s initial plan of fielding two armored divisions had to be shelved and some Citizen Force units were combined for active service. As the Sixth Armoured Division went through a long period of training in Egypt, Allied commanders began to realize that tank units were not useful for fighting in mountainous Italy. A reorganization of Allied forces in Italy following the Third Battle of Cassino led to the sudden movement of the Sixth Armoured Division, in mid-April 1944, to the peninsula. On the western side of Italy, the South Africans became part of the British Eighth Army preparing for another push on Cassino, a German held mountain top monastery, which blocked the route to Rome.
At the beginning of May the division’s 12th Motorized Brigade Group, commanded by Brigadier R. J. Palmer, relieved Canadian troops on the line in the mountains of Isernia near Cassino. Within the brigade’s area of responsibility that stretched about four and half kilometers along the Rapido River, South African positions to the east were about 900 meters from the enemy, whereas those on the west were within shouting distance of German mountain troops and paratroopers. On the night ofMay 11 the Allies launched their fourth and final attempt to take Cassino that would coincide with a breakout from the Anzio beachhead. Attached to the Second New Zealand Division, the 12th Motorized Brigade Group held its part of the line from where it used artillery and fighting patrols to distract the Germans from the main assault. The tanks of the Sixth South African Armoured Division were held in reserve ready to exploit a possible breakthrough. Directly involved in the attack on Cassino, South African engineers followed the advancing Indian infantry to clear mines, repair roads, and quickly build a bailey bridge across the Rapido River. Polish troops took Cassino on May 18, and the Germans pulled back to the Caesar Line south of Rome.
In late May, with German withdrawal, the 12th Motorized Brigade Group was pulled back from the line to link up with the rest of its parent division in the Volturno Valley. With more infantry needed in the mountainous conditions of Italy, the British 24th Guards Brigade was attached to the Sixth South African Armoured Division. In early June the South African Division cleared part of Route Six, around Piglio and Paliano, east of Rome. Just after the fall of Rome, the South Africans spearheaded the Eighth Army advance northward along the Tiber River and Route Three (Via Flaminia) where they encountered stiff resistance from the withdrawing German units. The ultimate objective of the push was Florence. On June 10, the 11th South African Armoured Brigade, in its first action as a unit, mauled elements of the German 356th Infantry Division defending Celleno and on June 13, the 12thMotorized South African Brigade Group outflanked Bagnoregio compelling the German paratroopers there to retreat. The next day the South Africans entered Orvieto, with its bridge on the Paglia River, as the Germans were pulling out and pushed on through Allerona and Cetona.
Expecting light resistance, the First City/Cape Town Highlanders infantry battalion, on the night of June 21–22, set out to capture the hill top town of Chiusi but found to their surprise that it was defended by over 300 Germans supported by armor. Trapped in a collapsing theater, one entire company was killed or captured, and the rest of the battalion withdrew. Buying time for the preparation of the Gothic Line, the Germans stubbornly hung on to Chiusi for a few days until a flanking move by the Guards Brigade forced them to move further north.
Throughout July South African infantry and tanks, learning to work together, pressed northward against German forces fighting a series of delaying actions and falling back on a chain of prepared defensive lines. In early August, after tough fighting, South African troops entered Florence where they were pulled off the line for rest and reorganization. Since arrival in Italy, the 12th South African Motorized Brigade Group had lost 127 killed, 510 wounded, and 61 missing. Supporting the advance, South African engineers had built 64 bridges totaling 3,705 feet, constructed 196 major deviations, and filled countless craters. Orpen maintains that because of extensive training and experienced personnel, the Sixth South African Armoured Division was ‘‘the most effective fighting formation ever produced by South Africa.’’27 South African servicemen contributed to other aspects of the Italian campaign such as the South African Railway Construction Group that was 10,000 strong by the end of 1944 and a Harbour Construction Company. In 1944 a special rest camp for South African troops and a Union Defence Force administrative headquarters were established in Italy.