By Andrea Gatti
This article is also available in Italian – Questo articolo è disponibile anche in Italiano
In the two months that separated the liberation of Rome from that of Florence, the Allied armies found unexpected resistance from the retreating German forces in the Chianti’s hills. In Florence, while the population lived in a state of growing tension, the Resistance forces were organising themselves, even though the activity of the fascist political police, the notorious Carità gang, and the Gestapo, created serious problems in interdicting the actions of the patriots. Living conditions in the urban area of Florence also deteriorated continuously, reaching a peak during and immediately after the city’s liberation.
On 7 June, the clandestine transmitter Radio Cora was discovered by the Nazi-Fascists and all the operators were shot. Just five days later, however, this service, described by the Allies as ‘one of the best military information services with which we have been in contact on all fronts, was reactivated and remained in operation until the city was liberated. In July, the Tuscan Committee of National Liberation (C.T.L.N.) issued orders to the partisan formations gathered around Florence to converge on the city. This amounted to a total of about 3000 men. On 29 July, the German military commander in Florence ordered the evacuation of the neighbourhoods facing the Arno by the citizens. The Germans ordered the evacuation of the dwellings surrounding the Arno, and several thousand inhabitants (including the approximately 5000 refugees in Palazzo Pitti) were forced to move to makeshift accommodation. It is no coincidence that in the municipality of Florence alone, the total number of deaths in 1944 (9356) exceeded the number in the previous year by almost 3700. This figure is worth giving an approximate idea of the effects of the last phase of the conflict: to the several hundred killed during the fighting, as a result of bombing or the bursting of ordnance, were added the deaths caused by localised epidemics and in general by the worsening living conditions . On the 31st of that month, German engineers began to undermine the bridges over the river. Only the Ponte Vecchio was saved at the price, however, of the destruction of the medieval quarters of Por Santa Maria and Via Guicciardini, whose ruins were also mined. On 1 August, the Allies crossed the river Pesa and settled in the hills within sight of the city.
On August 3rd, the German command declared a state of emergency in Florence. It was then that the Florentine members of the C.T.L.N. gathered in permanent session waiting to give the order for insurrection. On the night of August 3rd, the German sappers detonated the charges they had prepared, destroying all the bridges in the city. At dawn on August 4th, the first South African vanguards of the British 8th Army arrived at Porta Romana and penetrated the Oltrarno together with the C.T.L.N. fighters.
In the same period, the German sappers placed numerous anti-tank mines and charges on the bridges over the river Greve near Ugnano and Mantignano, in the Mantignano water station and numerous anti-tank mines were placed also in the streets.
On the night of August 3rd, the German sappers detonated the charges they had prepared at service bridge over the river Greve, the one that carried water from the Mantignano water station towards Florence. Only one bridge crossing the Greve was still standing, controlled by the German, the Mantignano bridge, named “il ponte dei cazzotti – (Punch Bridge)”.
A large part of the city remained without water. On the morning of 4 August, the Ponte di Mantignano, known as the ‘ ponte dei cazzotti ‘, was manned by a German patrol that was approached by a few local people who offered to dissuade the soldiers from causing further destruction and inconvenience. Among them were Ascanio Taddei, an 18-year-old worker, commander of the Patriotic Action Squad (SAP) from Ugnano and Mantignano, his brother Renato, Alimo and Ivan Cini, Silvano Masini, Gino Romoli and Gino Del Bene both from San Bartolo and others. After the negotiations at the bridge, the Germans returned to the Command.
The partisans of the SAP, meanwhile, took advantage of this to render the mines placed under the arches of the bridge harmless. Shortly afterwards, the Germans returned with the intention of blowing up the bridge. Seeing that the mines had been disabled, they turned against the partisans and began a firefight near the ‘little bridge’. The clash turned in favour of the partisans and the Germans retreated, settling on the north bank of the Arno.
In the early afternoon hours of 4 August, the partisan squad, aided by the SAP of San Giusto commanded by Cesare Ciappi, decided to deactivate the mines planted by the Germans at the Mantignano power station. After checking that there were no Germans inside, the partisans entered the building through a side window and proceeded to de-mining the booster pumps.
Once the work inside the aqueduct was finished, the group headed towards Via di Fagna, near the church of Santo Stefano in Ugnano, to continue mine clearance operations. At the end of the day, there were five dead in the ranks of the partisans of the 1st SAP zone: Gino Catarzi , Gino Del Bene, Alfredo Marzoppi, Silvano Masini under the command of Ascanio Taddei .
The next day, a secret telephone line was launched across the Vasari Corridor on the Ponte Vecchio: the liberation forces and the Resistance forces waiting in the occupied city came into contact. In the days that followed, until 10 August, the Allies and partisans fought the Nazis from the left bank of the Arno with a series of duels between sharpshooters, while German mortars, stationed in Fiesole and on Monte Morello, pounded the Oltrarno. On the night of 10-11 August, the Wehrmacht troops retreated from the city center to take up position on the line of the ring road avenues. At 7 a.m. on the morning of 11 August, the C.T.L.N. issued the order for insurrection; the Martinella of the Palazzo Vecchio and the bell of the Bargello gave the signal with their tolling; the fighting against the Germans began immediately, while the provisional government of the city met in Palazzo Medici Riccardi, which assumed all civil and military powers. It appointed the mayor, Gaetano Pieraccini, and the city council, the president of the province, Mario Augusto Martini, and the provincial council; and, while the fighting was going on along the line of the Fortezza da Basso and the boulevards, it worked to guarantee essential services to the citizens of the already liberated Florence.
The fighting continued until 20 August, when the Germans also abandoned the northern part of Florence. The high-ranking Allied officers who were welcomed by Mayor Pieraccini and members of the C.T.L.N. wrote in their official reports that to have found on the way of their advance a city that had liberated itself and was already able to govern itself was ‘a new fact never encountered during the entire Italian campaign’. The battle of Florence was over and won.
During these weeks, there were serious problems in the supply of food and drinking water, as well as in the management of hospital and first aid services. The destruction of the bridges had led to the destruction of all the pipelines connecting the two banks of the Arno, only the two pipelines of the Ponte Vecchio were saved. The work of restoring the city’s main services: water, electricity, roads, sewers, mine clearing and hospitals was the work of the Engineer Corps of the British 8th Army and the American 5th Army.
The work of restoring the town’s utilities was begun in August, and by the end of September, much of it was accomplished. The work continued, however, throughout the winter and spring, the utilities being constantly repaired to serve a greater and greater area. The work was first under the direct control of Lieutenant Colonel G. W. Barris, 73rd CRE, and after 12 January 1945, under 77th CRE, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel A. J. Kennedy.
The Rehabilitation of Florence
Army Engineer Troops
Eighth Army advance party arrived 4 August 1944 and main body 10 to 12 August 1944. The units were under Major J. E. Fennellow, R. E., and consisted of:
278th Works Section, R.E.
158th Bomb Disposal Platoon, R. E.
1st Canadian Drilling Section, R.C.E. () • Detachment, 290th Army Troops (*)
Total strength 95 all ranks.
(*) withdrawn when fifth Army took over
Fifth Army advance party arrived on 23 August 1944 and main body 24 to 31 August, except for one company which came up on 19 September.
It consisted of:
73rd C.R.E. Works
588th Army Troops Company. R.E.
697th Artisan Works Company, R.E.
698th Artisan Works Company, R.E.
287th Works Section, R.E.
88th Mechanical Equipment Platoon, R.E.
15th Stores Section, R.E.
Total strength 921 all ranks.
Other troops were involved to bring electricity to Florence:
540th Electrical and Mechanical Company, RE
92nd Engineer Regiment
The 540th Electrical and Mechanical Company, RE was, on the outbreak of World War II, a company of Renfrewshire Fortress Engineers, RE and this unit’s organization was as follows:
HQ at Fort Matilda, Greenock
No 1 (Electric Light and Works) Company at Greenock
No 2 (Electric Light and Works) Company at Greenock
The unit formed part of the Clyde Coast Defences during the early part of the war. On 5 December 1940, one company was converted into 540th Electrical and Mechanical Company, RE, in the War Office Reserve, earmarked for overseas service. 540th E&M Company served in the Italian Campaign 1943-45
Florence had no water, when the Army reached it, other than the muddy Arno River, on whose banks the city stands. The normal city water is pumped electrically from three places on the South bank-Anconella, which has wells and a filter bed; San Niccolo, a booster station from Anconella; and Mantignano wells. The first two were in our hands from 12 August; Mantignano not till 5 September.
All pipes across the river had been demolished except two on the Ponte Vecchio. This famous bridge was the only one left standing, but to prevent its immediate use the Germans demolished the houses at both ends and sowed the debris liberally with mines. So liberally, in fact, that three of the nine laying party were killed on their own mines. The pipe from Mantignano had also been destroyed where it crossed the Greve river but the booster pump was preserved by the demining action of the partisans of the 1st Zone SAP.
Eighth Army small team of Army Engineers set to work to get some water going. Three water points were established, one on the South side on 10 August and two on the North bank on 16 August.
By 18 August, 1,200,000 gallons per day were being pumped across Ponte Vecchio. Only one of the pipes here would hold water and it was leaking, but water reached the street hydrants for half a mile radius from the North end of the bridge. To get this supply, a 23-year-old petrol engine was coaxed to go and ran one pump till 8 September, when it finally packed up. It just managed to hold on till a new diesel engine had been installed on one or the other pumps. A small generator was also located and coupled to the diesel pump belonging to the filters-. Enough electricity was produced to run a second pump.
The three old turbo pumps at San Niccolo, relics of the original pre-electric water supply, were serviced and put into operation. A new weir gate had to be fitted. This was done under fire on 12 August. Much to the annoyance of its builders, a Division unit blew it up the same night to get a patrol back and they had to build another one.
On 23 August, Firth Army took over.
Little more could be done to increase the supply till electricity was available, but the installation of another diesel started by Eighth Army was completed and a small turbo generating station three miles upstream was repaired and linked in. Shellfire made work on this overhead line a most uncomfortable occupation, when the morning mist cleared. These brought the daily total up to 2,100,000 gallons by 1 September.
Meanwhile repair of the three main pipes across the river commenced. One of these, in a gallery under the weir at San Niccolo, had to be abandoned temporarily owing to flood. It was finally completed late in September. A temporary 18-inch welded pipe was also laid on top of the weir. This was fixed with steel stirrups leaded into holes bored in the weir and stood up to a lot of battering till the record flood of 2 November tore a 25-yard gap in it.
By 11 September, a 400 KW generator was set up and three serviceable mains bad been established across the river. Twelve breaks had been disclosed when the debris was cleared from the Ponte Vecchio pair. The filter bed and flume leading to it were repaired. That day 3,800,000 gallons were pumped to the city and dried the wells out in doing it. The filter beds were also filled. In four days, the water started to come through and by 21 September 7,000,000 gallons were pumped, the normal maximum for that time of year.
Meanwhile, work on the Mantignano system was in hand, The reconnaissance party crept along the dusty white roads to it on 6 September, being pulled up three times by the Police for exceeding the speed limit of five miles per hour and being greeted by a couple of close ones on arrival.
All the wells had risen end flooded the pump motors. Two of the main pumps were serviceable, sufficient for present needs. Five miles of overhead line had almost all its wires off and the low-tension control panels had had a shell through them, but the transformers and high-tension switch-gear were untouched. A shell had burst the main in one place. The aqueduct with its 28-inch main lay in the bed of the Greve river.
Work started on these jobs next day, also on two 18-inch steel pipes, which were laid across the river in the underslung story of the triple-triple Bailey at Ponte Vittoria.
For a quick job over the Greve, the washouts on either side of the river were joined by a 16inch pipe on a low-level pile bridge. This was later replaced by a high level 39-inch steel pipe on a 30-foot-high timber pile and trestle bridge on the line of the aqueduct.
On 18 September, all was set and pumping started, but early next morning a break developed a mile up the line. This was followed by another and it was not till 24 September that a regular 5,000,000 gallons per day was put through. This brought water to the top floor of 5-story buildings. Taller ones have their own booster pumps.
Various other minor pipes were repaired, high level pumps at the reservoirs were started up and Florence water supply was back to normal–except when the electricity failed. Even that may have been normal too.
The activities of the 5th Army Engineer Corps
Two 400 KW generating sets arrived on 7 September on 40-ton transporters. They were pulled off onto timber foundations sunk in the ground and one was in operation from 11 September. The other was ready by 13 September, but had to be cannibalized to keep the first one running, while several new parts were made.
Unloading was no easy job. The front wheels of the tractor nearly left the ground several times, as the timber skids under the sets had only 6-inch bearing on the transporter trackways, which made friction very high.
No transformers came with the sets; local ones had to be adapted. Valdarno Electric Company produced 4 x 260/9,000 V x 300 KW ones, and altered them by bringing out the star points. Two of these in series raised the voltage from 400 V to 6,800 V and tramway auto transformers 6,800/10,000 V brought the voltage right for connecting to the mains.
Low Tension cable took some finding; nothing large enough could be found. The sets finally had three cables for each phase to the switchboard and five cables for each phase from there to the transformers. This installation is not in accordance with “normal” practice, but it works.
The main supply from Nera Montoro, 110 miles to the South, was brought into Florence on 17 September. The Hydro Electric Power Station which is situated in the valley below the town of Narni, is the plant which supplies Rome & Florence & many other big town in the North of Italy with electricity, this plant has not been damaged by the enemyin his retreat northward. Alongside this plant runs the Roma-Berlin road which has suffered with German demolition.
The majority of the work was done by 540th Electrical and Mechanical Company, R.E., of No. 1 District, but 50 bays of very badly demolished line were put right by 92nd Engineer Regiment. Electricity was brought from Nera Montoro to Casalnuovo at 60 KV. Thence to Florence at 30 KV. Initially this was transformed on a 3,000 KW transformer specially brought up by transporter.
The Italians had saved the large transformer at Casalnuovo by burying them under debris. Considerable repair was necessary and three months exposure to the weather had let a lot of water into the oil. The first one was not quite ready by 17 September. On this date, 56 cabins in Florence had been connected and 31 were energized with a peak load of 3,000 KW. By 14·Novermber, 172 cabins had been connected and 104 energized, and all kinds of expedients were in force to keep the load down to the allotment of 7, 000 KW.
The role of the South African Engineer Corps
The SA Engineer Corps as always, was in the forefront and SAEC Corps Troops under Lt-Col Jack Scott contributed greatly to the open up of communications for supplies to enable XIII Corps to keep up its advance from Cassino to Florence.
Operations of 5th US Army and 8th Army in Italy made extremely heavy demands on Engineer stores, not only for fighting the battle and maintaining ever-increasing lines of communication, but also for the building of the large base installations necessary to maintain in the two armies. To produce the greatest possible number of items in Italy the slow production methods employed by the Italians would have to be revolutionized. By the time 6th SA Armored Division had reached Florence, numerous factories in Italy were ‘under new management’.
With this in view, the Engineer Production Staff was increased and was given 80 SA Engineer Base Workshops (EBW) of 12 officers and 200 men under command of Lt-Col Campbell-Pitt. The CO divided the unit into East and West Detachments, one on each side of the Apennines, to take over inefficiently managed Italian concerns and run them by direct labor, or to employ the whole factory on a contract basis.
The military through routes were on the whole in good order. This standard has been maintained and improved. Ponte Vecchio approaches had to be cleared, first to enable pipe repairs to be carried out and secondly to make this into a civil traffic route across the river.
The eastern approach to the South end of the bridge was completed on 6 September, despite the efforts of the Fine Arts Society to impress on us that Art was more valuable than either water or movement. On this road lay the Columbaria Library with its ground floor still standing, and also the remains of the Ghibelline Tower, two corners only, one vertical and one leaning 2 degrees out of plumb.
Work was begun with a 3/8-yard shovel, but this was too slow, and two D-7 dozers were brought in, which pushed the rubble into the river. The library was skirted with great care, but no books of value were found in the road or in the debris at either side. The Italian representatives of the Society worked in close collaboration with us and dozers were stopped often for them to check what was being pushed away.
Of the approximately 10,000 volumes and more than 4,000 miscellaneous items owned by ‘La Colombaria’, only 1071 have been saved and are currently kept at the Accademia Toscana di Scienze e Lettere ‘La Colombaria’.
It was unsafe for the machines to approach the leaning portion of the Ghibelline Tower. A committee meeting was held to determine its fate, at which the Deputy Commander of Florence Garrison was present, and it was brought down. The other corner, feeling lonely, fell of its own accord a second later.
The North approach was cleared by 23 September by a 3/4-yard shovel till the 19th, then a 3/8-yard. Eleven thousand yards of rubble were cleared away. Six thousand yards of rubble were removed from the South approach with a 3/8-yard shovel and a D-8 Dozer, but the machines had to be withdrawn for operational work and the clearing was finished by the city.
On these last two works, the Fine Arts Society worked in close cooperation, shoring up buildings, which it wished to preserve, well ahead of the machines. A city gang followed up the machines building a dry rubble retaining wall at each side of the road. The driver of the 3/4-yard shovel had a lucky escape while working. He picked up a trapped Tellermine with his bucket, cutting the pull igniter in half between the striker and the cap. Later, one of the wall builders dug out an “S” Mine and threw it away not knowing what it was. It did not go off though one of the prongs bent on landing.
The initial survey disclosed 2400 meters of damaged sewers varying from 1 to 3 meters in height, some being 6 meters below street level. These were chiefly in the vicinity of the railway stations and yards. Clearance to provide a flow in the main ones was carried out by civil labor under military supervision. The work of rebuilding commenced on 7 September 1944 on contracts let by the local civil authority, all materials being supplied and transported to site by the Army.
Great difficulty was experience in obtaining sufficient bricklayers; Florence had few, and areas up to 10 miles round had to be scoured. The labor roll on this job never rose above 384, while 500 could easily have been employed. Full sewers due to rain considerably delayed the job. As work progressed further, minor damages were found increasing the total length to 2,536 meters.
On 6 November, a shortage of cement necessitated the abandonment of all sewers in uninhabited areas, up to this time, 1100 meters had been completed, and a further 150 meters had been repaired up to arch level. In this period of two months, 131000 bricks have been used and 1410 tons of cement, sand and aggregate delivered at the site.
Mine and Booby Trap Clearance
The 158th Bomb Disposal Platoon, under Lieutenant Comyn, did exceptionally fine work on this. It worked right up forward and was often in front of the Division Field Companies.
On 18 August, it was clearing mines in the debris on Ponte Rosso covered by an Infantry Platoon in the houses in the rear. The 238th Field Company arrived to take over. Lieutenant Comyn withdrew his party except for his lookout men and took the field Company officers into the debris to demonstrate how he searched for mines. He was just about to disarm a Schumine, which he had picked up, when a German suicide squad opened fire on him from a flank. Sapper Smith, one of his lookouts, killed one German with his first shot and completely upset the aim of the other. The Infantry Platoon opened fire and the officers all got out safely.
A new use was found for old arms on this work-rapiers are excellent for prodding for Schumines. During the period 12 August to 7 October, mines and booby traps as below were removed:
“S” Mines 426
Made up Anti-Tank Charges 37
Italian Wooden Box Mines 14
Stock Mines 11
Booby Traps 158
The City civilian bomb disposal gang did very good work in clearing mines in the debris at Ponte Vecchio, under the supervision of this platoon.
Welfare and Hospitals.
Work on three hotels, one club and the railway station, now Fifth Army Rest Center, was begun between 20 and 29 August. Careggi Hospital, the Royal Reception Hall at the railway station, for NAAFI, and the conversion of an Autoparco into a British Rest Center began in September.
 – 1943 – 1945 La liberazione in Toscana – la storia la memoria – Giampiero Pagnini editore 1994
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