Chapter 16: The Breaking of the Gothic Line, 25 August–2 September 1944
The Enemy Bewildered
Now that the Canadians were preparing to enter the passage that would lead them between the Etruscan Apennines and the sea into Lombardy, the enemy’s uncertainty as to their whereabouts would soon be at an end. Field-Marshal Kesselring’s anxiety was natural enough. The onslaught which had carried the Allies some 260 miles*
* The shortest distance from Cassino to Florence by main highways is 258 miles. The distance as the crow flies is 220 miles.
from the Garigliano, through three lines of prepared defences and two major battles in twelve weeks, must soon be renewed; and the commitment of a corps held in reserve would indicate the direction of the Eighth Army’s impending effort to break through to the Po.
Impressive as the Allied achievement had been, it had fallen short both, of the enemy’s fears and our own expectations. The withdrawal of seven divisions for the invasion of Southern France had deprived General Alexander of more than a quarter of all his forces. At the same time new formations arriving to reinforce the Germans had brought them a net gain of some four divisions by mid-July.1 As we have seen, the enemy rallied. Hard fought rearguard actions slowed us down. At the beginning of August Kesselring’s Army Group was still formidable, and the Allied Armies in Italy had yet to turn defeat into debacle. At left and centre the wall of the Apennines still stood in the way, bending north-westward from Arezzo and Florence to hem in the approaches through Tuscany, before blocking them out altogether on the coast at Spezia. On the right, the alternation of lateral ridge and river, though no longer interminable as it had seemed in the previous winter, still favoured the defence.
Captured documents, including the Tenth Army’s war diary and the dramatic detail of Kesselring’s telephone conversations with his commanders, yield up the enemy’s story. They reveal how little the Germans made of the tangle, how impossible they found it to appreciate which way General
Alexander would strike next. This inability to discern the movements and the purposes of the Canadian Corps is characteristic of the manner in which the enemy’s Intelligence was outwitted in the campaign as a whole. We have already noted the faulty interpretation put upon the appearance of Canadian tanks at the Trasimene Line, when the Germans, taking the part for the whole, confidently looked for the “interpolation of the Canadian Corps in the area west of Lake Trasimene”;2 and the missing piece in the puzzle had not been found when the 2nd Polish Corps began its great advance towards the seaport of Ancona at the beginning of July. “If only I knew where the Canadians are!” lamented Wentzell to the Army Group’s Chief of Staff.3
Towards the middle of the month the Poles (now in position to put in their brilliant attack on the port) were reported to be regrouping. “This may mean several things”, von Vietinghoff told Kesselring on the 13th. “Either Eighth Army says: ‘The Poles are getting nowhere; we might take them out and put in the Canadians.’ Or he may also say to himself: ‘It seems to go well in the centre. I will take the Canadians there and push ahead.’” “Which centre do you mean?” asked Kesselring. “The Tiber valley,” replied Vietinghoff.4
It was in the centre that General Alexander at this time actually proposed to assault the Gothic Line. Undeterred by the loss of the divisions intended for France he did not at first alter his plan to get through the mountains by the shortest route, the ascent between Florence and Bologna (see Sketch 9). The hazards of topography were great; but since the weight of the Fifth and Eighth Armies was already on the west and centre, to attack on a front from Dicomano to Pistoia would require a minimum of regrouping, and catch the enemy while he was still on the run. The offensive would be launched by both armies, the main power being given to their adjoining wings. Using two fresh corps (the Canadian and the 5th British) with five divisions already under their command and a new one (the 1st British Armoured) then arriving in Italy, the Eighth Army would carry the bulk of the attack through the mountains and be responsible for the advance to the Po. The weakened Fifth Army (now reduced to one armoured and four infantry divisions) would thrust towards Modena but would not be expected to exploit far beyond.5
The time to be saved by attacking the German centre seemed to decide the issue, though there was little to choose between the terrain there and on the extreme right. The direct route to Bologna, the most important objective south of the Po, was high and defensible. The more roundabout way along the Adriatic shore, though lower, was cut across by the west-to-eastward trend of the hills and watercourses which formed a continuous series of barriers northward from the Sangro. The argument against it appeared to be
clinched by the conclusion of the Eighth Army’s planning staff that an attack along the east coast would not only be difficult to mount, but would neither allow us to bring the necessary concentration of forces to bear, nor offer any good opportunities for exploitation. To get involved in a series of river-crossing operations would be playing into the hands of a withdrawing enemy.6 When minds were changed and the time came to launch the offensive here instead of in the centre, it would at least be essayed with eyes open. Meanwhile, the enemy had to be deceived into thinking that he was about to be attacked in the coastal sector now.
The Germans were therefore encouraged to believe that large forces were being concentrated behind the Poles, who were to create just such an impression by their own movements, aided by the traffic and activity of signal detachments and reconnaissance parties sent over from the Canadian Corps and from the British 1st Infantry and 1st Armoured Divisions.7 Kesselring was already alarmed by the new Polish tactics of driving through his lines with tanks massed on a narrow frontage, and agreed to meet von Vietinghoff’s request to be reinforced by the 1st Parachute Division.8 Then the Allied deception scheme brought him added cause for concern. The presence of soldiers wearing the red diamond of the Corps or the rectangle of the 1st Division on their sleeves beneath the “Canada” patch was duly observed in the Polish area. An enemy agent faithfully reported what he had seen to his employers. That was on 21 July, three days after the Carpathian Lancers had entered Ancona.9 Events seemed to be moving towards a climax.
“Possibly the Canadian Armoured Division is there,” Kesselring prompted his Army Commander on the 22nd. “We hear constantly about the Canadians being in the rear area”, von Vietinghoff replied, “but it is quite possible that they are being saved for the attack on the Green Line. Farther up the coast the terrain is more suitable for their attack.”10
It was a shrewd forecast, though as yet, ironically, not General Alexander’s intention. The notion seemed to be confirmed by an appreciation from the 5 1st Mountain Corps’ Intelligence indicating that strong Canadian and British forces were being assembled on the Adriatic flank for a major offensive.11 It was precisely the impression which the deception scheme was intended to convey. However when on the 23rd (the day on which the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade began supporting the 8th Indian Division’s advance from Poggibonsi)*
* Above, p. 476.
an Italian deserter declared that the 5th Canadian Armoured Division was moving north from Siena, the whole matter was again in doubt. Wentzell pressed the Fourteenth Army’s Chief of Staff for clarification, since the 1st Parachute Division was being moved to the coast on the assumption that the Canadians would be committed there against the
Tenth Army.12 This idea of impending Canadian action on the eastern flank prevailed, and by the end of the month the 51st Mountain Corps affirmed that the 1st Division was actually in the line with the Italian Liberation Corps on the Polish left, an illusion reproduced (albeit with a question mark) in the “Enemy Situation Map” issued by the Tenth Army on 2 August.13
But with all the shipping and warships assembling in the Mediterranean for what soon proved to be the Allied descent on the south coast of France Kesselring feared anew that his own coasts were about to be attacked – an obvious resort in a campaign being fought against the grain of a country designed by nature to segregate the north from the south. He decided that his forces on the Adriatic must therefore be deployed in depth and measures taken to meet the possibility of a seaborne hook delivered in the region of Rimini and Ravenna. A break-through to the north from Florence (a centre of communications as well as of art) was always a possibility, but difficult to believe in. A sea- and airborne operation aimed at his deep flank on the Ligurian coast seemed to him more likely; for the Allies would hardly have sufficient mountain troops, and would think his prepared defences too strong, to attack him frontally in the Northern Apennines.14
The Allied Change of Plan
Such thoughts were already disturbing Lt-Gen. Sir Oliver Leese. He had no mountain troops at all. The French Corps, with the best training and experience in mountain warfare of all General Alexander’s forces (it included the only regular mountain division), was committed to ANVIL. Without such troops, a battle through the high passes might fail. There was no chance of outflanking the enemy by sea; every available craft would soon be bound for the Riviera. The only alternative was to make a surprise attack on the Adriatic front, hitherto rejected for reasons of distance and of time. Leese resolved to put these views to the Commander-in-Chief.
General Alexander met Leese on the airfield at Orvieto on 4 August. Sir Oliver there convinced him that the difficulties of the frontal attack through the mountains with the two armies operating on such closely contiguous axes might prove too great. Briefly, informally, while they sheltered from the sun beneath the wing of a Dakota, Leese set forth his argument for a change of plan. The Eighth Army as a whole had had comparatively little experience of large-scale operations in the mountains. Pack transport trains and similar requirements for such ventures were as yet only improvised. The mountains would prevent the Army from exploiting its superiority in armour and artillery, which in combination had proved so effective in Africa and more recently against the Hitler Line. The Adriatic
coast route, however, seemed to offer a more familiar kind of battlefield, the chance of “set-piece” cannonades for the artillery, and for the armour the prospect of breaking out into the northern plain. While General Leese would give his whole endeavour to carrying out whatever strategy might seem best, he said frankly that his confidence in his ability to break through the centre of the Apennines position was not as great as he could wish.15
These considerations decided the issue. General Alexander agreed with the proposal that the plan be changed; the frontal attack might now carry too much risk. “It was anything but certain”, he wrote later, “that our heavy blow in the mountains of the centre would take us through to our objective and if the first attack there fell short of expectations the advantage would be all with the defenders.” They had by far the easier lateral communications, and once it was clear that the Allied strength was concentrated at one point, they could very rapidly build up a counter concentration. “On the new plan”, said the C-in-C in his Despatch, “we should be able to employ what I call the strategy of the ‘two-handed punch’ or, more orthodoxly expressed, the strategy of attacking two points equally vital to the enemy (i.e., Ravenna and Bologna) either simultaneously or alternately in order to split the reserves available for the defence.”16 Thus Operation “Olive” was conceived, to be kept in the greatest secrecy, and at the outset with only the minimum reference to be made to it on paper. Under this injunction the planning staff at Leese’s headquarters set about the tremendous task of moving the main strength of the Army over the mountains.
The Army Commander lost no time in informing General Burns and General McCreery (the GOC 10th Corps) that the previous plans were being modified.17 But before anything else was done the existing cover plan must be cancelled and a stop put to advertising the seeming presence of the Canadians on the Adriatic now that they were really to concentrate and attack there. It was necessary to resort to a double bluff, to call the enemy’s attention to the seaside hoax of July and to put up a show of being about to scale the mountains in August. The success of these measures was essential if the Allies were to achieve strategic surprise. How far were the Germans taken in?
The attempt to identify the 1st Canadian Division in action with the 13th Corps failed. For some unaccountable reason, the enemy did not spot the Canadians in the line. Although the people of Florence moved freely about the positions held by General Vokes’ troops during their three-day stay in the city neither Fascist nor spy seems to have been quick-witted enough to report the red patches to the German Intelligence. The records of the Fourteenth Army reveal only a few casual references to the Canadians, who were then believed to be held in reserve to the south. But the enemy’s oblivion could scarcely be undisturbed by the clouds of dust and the
mechanical din raised by the thousands of vehicles which crawled in endless convoy up out of Umbria and down into the Marches. The arrival of new divisions of unbadged, anonymous soldiery, with all their guns and tanks, could not go unnoticed. What did he make of this?
The Tenth Army was at first undecided and confused. General Herr, the Commander of the 76th Panzer Corps, which now held the Adriatic sector (his headquarters had changed places with Headquarters 51st Mountain Corps on 8 August),18 told von Vietinghoff on 17 August that during the past few days the volume of traffic in the mountains had been “rather striking”. He assumed the phenomenon to be one of supply extending far inland and linked with the brisk unloading going on in Ancona. Yet it involved as many as 300 vehicles an hour. It must be a large-scale movement, possibly by reconnaissance units coming in to replace some of the non-British (Exoten) troops. He had ordered his divisional commanders to get hold of a prisoner somehow. A dead Englishman had been found in the area where the commotion was going on.19
Compared with this vagueness a Fourteenth Army intelligence appreciation, issued on the following day, was firm and remarkably correct:–
From reliable source: Unusually large supply movements are being carried out at the present time in the Adriatic sector. They include bridging equipment. In connection with the intensive aerial activity in that sector, it seems that the enemy there is making preparation for large-scale operations.20
Fortunately for the Allies this acute interpretation of the evidence was either disbelieved or ignored at Kesselring’s headquarters, possibly as coming from too far afield. As for the Tenth Army, the enemy went so far as to commit himself to a precarious manoeuvre of regrouping and withdrawal. On 15 August the Allied landings had taken place in Southern France (see Chapter XX), and demands soon reached von Vietinghoff for two of his divisions (the 15th Panzer Grenadier and the 5th Mountain) for service in France.21 Faced with the impending loss of these two formations, and in order to ease the continued pressure of the Poles on the weary 278th Division, the Army Commander issued orders during the night of 21–22 August for a withdrawal to new positions*
* This was the “Red” Line, which in the Adriatic sector ran inland behind the Arzilla River, just south of Monteciccardo, roughly parallel to and four miles north-east of the Metauro22 (see Map 18).
about three miles in front of the main defence line.23 On the 23rd the Parachute Division reported that the Poles (who were fighting what General Anders afterwards considered to be their heaviest battle along the Adriatic)24 had crossed the Metauro, only ten miles down the coast from Pesaro, and were digging in on both banks of the river.25
The Eighth Army’s attack was to be made on the heaviest scale. The plan provided for a simultaneous assault by three corps in line. On the right the Poles were to outflank Pesaro and seize the heights north-west of the town, a task that was all they could now be expected to perform, being unable, cut off from their own country as they were, to draw upon any large pool of reinforcements to make good their losses. They would then be withdrawn into army reserve. In the centre the Canadian Corps was to capture the high ground west of Pesaro, and thence cut across the front of the Poles to the coast at Cattolica and thrust up Highway No. 16 towards Rimini. Farther inland the 5th Corps, under the command of Lt-Gen. C. F. Keightley, would advance towards Bologna and Ferrara. The mountainous central region on the Army’s left was to be the responsibility of the 10th Corps, with only one division and a scratch brigade group under command. When the enemy had become heavily engaged, the Fifth Army, strengthened with the 13th British Corps, would launch its complementary attack northward from Florence against Bologna.26
The Gothic Line Defences
The Gothic Line or, as Hitler in less heroic mood had caused it to be renamed, Green Line (above, p. 460n) barred the way for some 200 miles across the peninsula from the coastal plain south of Spezia on the Ligurian coast to the Foglia River and Pesaro on the Adriatic. As we have already noted, the original German plan for the defence of Italy had been to hold nothing south of the Northern Apennines, and with this in view construction of the Line began in the autumn of 1943, only to be broken off, as the nature of the campaign started to change, in favour of work on defences farther south.27
The shock of the Anzio landings had brought an order from Kesselring to Armeegruppe von Zangen to push work on the Apennine position “with the utmost energy”.28 However, difficulties of procurement because of the higher priority given to the completion of the Gustav and Hitler Lines retarded progress, and the work proceeded in fairly leisurely fashion until 2 June, when the imminent fall of Rome impelled the German High Command to issue a comprehensive order for the accelerated development of the position.29
This document, which German sources usually refer to as “The Gothic Order”, was signed by Field-Marshal Keitel and began with the words: “The Führer has ordered ...” Point by point the various tasks were enumerated and the means of completing them defined. Sectors threatened by tanks (the eastern half of the Line was considered most vulnerable in this respect)
were to be protected by Panther turrets on steel and concrete bases such as had been used in the fortifications of the Hitler Line. Thirty of these were to reach Italy by 1 July; an additional 100 Organization Todt steel shelters were already en route, 40 of them switched from previous assignment to the defences of the Pyrenees. Construction of fortifications at the main lines of attack, “even on those mountain fronts which are considered almost inaccessible”, was to include where possible rock-tunnelling and the carving out of fire embrasures (a rock-drilling company was to be brought from Norway), in order to give ground and anti-aircraft artillery protection against bomb attack.
The entire line was to be shielded by extensive minefields, and by an obstacle zone ten kilometres deep, to be created “by lasting demolition of all traffic routes, installations and shelters”. This would involve evacuation of the civilian population from the whole area of construction (altogether about 20 kilometres in depth); for which purpose, and for “recruiting” male labour forces, the Plenipotentiary General in Italy*
* The plenipotentiary representative of the German Armed Forces in Italy, charged with maintaining liaison between the German High Command and the Italian Fascist Republic, was General of the Infantry Rudolf Toussaint. He had the dual function of conducting negotiations involving materiel and personnel, and of exercising the territorial command over the German troops in Italy.30
was to be immediately provided with 2000 German soldiers. This civil labour would be formed into battalions built around German cadres withdrawn from the older age-groups of fighting troops. Under the supervision of engineers of the Organization Todt they would work with Italian construction forces released from the abandoned defences of the Caesar Line.31 During June and July further particulars on construction came in a series of explanatory instructions (Einzelanweisungen) issued by Armeeabteilung von Zangen.†
† Armeegruppe von Zangen was redesignated Armeeabteilung von Zangen on 19 May 1944.32
The sudden interest of the German High Command in the development of the Gothic Line, contrasted with the Fuhrer’s usually negative attitude towards the construction of positions in the rear areas, came as a welcome surprise to Army Group “C”, although, as events were to show, it did not come soon enough.33 The work forged ahead, but attainment fell far short of intention – a situation which gave cause for anxiety to many German officers who from bitter experience of the Hitler and Caesar Lines knew the disastrous consequences of formations withdrawing too late into unfamiliar and. unprepared positions. On 18 June the 51st Mountain Corps’ Chief of Staff, Colonel Karl Heinrich Count von Klinckowstroem, complained to General Wentzell that the Green Line was “in no condition for defence”, and asked that his Corps might be allotted the sector which it was to occupy, in order. that it might detail “position construction officers” with appropriate staffs “so that construction may make real progress.” His presumptuousness
met instant rebuke. “The construction of the Green Line is not the affair of the Corps”, Wentzell told him sharply. “The present task is to hold the Frieda Line. The Corps should keep its eyes to the front.”34
Time was pressing, and by the end of June von Zangen was emphasizing in his supplementary instructions the need for concentrating upon the construction not of major but minor installations, which could “be made serviceable for fighting operation in time.” All leaders and commanders were “sternly reminded of their supervisory duties”, and signs of laxity in the movement of supplies to the construction sites brought an injunction condemning the practice of delegating successively the duty of ensuring safe delivery “until finally a corporal (as the last administrative centre) bears the final responsibility.”35 Kesselring’s last general order for work on the Gothic defences, issued on 11 August, decreed that the position must be completed by the end of the month; though he admitted that “whether the line will be occupied before or after 1 September depends on the situation.”36
In spite of the time gained to the enemy by the delaying battles at Lake Trasimene and Arezzo and at the approaches to Florence, the Gothic Line was still unfinished when the Allies attacked in the Adriatic sector at the end of August, and in some mountain sectors it was only in the early stages of development.37 The greatest depth of defence was in the west coastal belt, where a seven-mile zone of anti-tank obstacles barred the approaches to Spezia. In central Italy the Line ran along the southern slope of the Apennines in front of the mountain passes, each of which was defended by positions at various degrees of readiness. By far the strongest of these, fortified with anti-tank ditches, concrete casemates and tank gun turrets, was the Futa Pass, on the main Florence–Bologna highway.
Over most of the front topography itself made the approaches formidable enough without much aid from military engineers, and although the eastern end of the Line, running along the northern slopes of the Foglia valley to Pesaro, employed less difficult natural obstacles than the forbidding escarpments of the centre, such advantage as there was still lay with the enemy. The Line was anchored on the cliffs between Pesaro and Cattolica to secure it from a short amphibious hook – even had General Alexander had the craft to make one. The defile between the foothills and the sea was narrow, ending some twelve miles inland where the ground climbed steeply and the Foglia improved as an obstacle. Within these limits the hills gave excellent observation across the floor of the valley and ran contrary to the Allied line of advance. The corridor was thickly sown with defences, although here as elsewhere much still had to be done.* An anti-tank ditch crossed it,
* A comparison of German maps recording progress in construction reveals that of thirteen Panther turret installations planned for the sector on 2 July, only four were actually under construction on 4 August. Work on machine-gun positions and other lesser installations had advanced much more rapidly.38
and the enemy had sited minefields, pillboxes and tank turrets with his usual skill – though in haste, and with less than his wonted thoroughness.
All in all, even though limitations of time had prevented full implementation of the Fuhrer’s order of early June, the work accomplished by the end of August represented no mean achievement. A report submitted to Kesselring on 3 September revealed the state of completion of the defences in the Tenth Army’s sector on 28 August. Most impressive were the figures for the minor types of installations – 2375 machine-gun posts, 479 anti-tank gun, mortar and assault-gun positions, 3604 dug-outs and shelters of various kinds (including 27 caves), 16,006 riflemen’s positions (of trees and branches), 72,517 “T” (Teller, anti-tank) mines and 23,172 “S” mines*
* The “S” mine (Schrapnellmine) was an anti-personnel mine, frequently laid in conjunction with “T” mines. When set off by being stepped on or by trip wires, its inner casing leaped from 3 to 5 feet into the air, scattering its charge of about 350 ball-bearings or scraps of steel in every direction and inflicting casualties up to a range of 200 yards.39
laid, 117,370 metres of wire obstacles, and 8944 metres of anti-tank ditch. Only four Panther turrets however had been completed (with 18 still under construction and seven more projected), 18 out of an intended 46 smaller tank gun turrets (for 1- and 2-cm. guns) were ready, and of 22 Organization Todt steel shelters being constructed, not one was finished.40
During the third week of August the 1st Canadian Corps and the 21st Tank Brigade, destined soon to test the adequacy of these defences, moved to the Adriatic coast. Their destination lay about fifteen miles inland from Ancona. From the starting point at Foligno wheeled convoys followed a north-easterly course through Fossato and Fabriano to a dispersal point near Iesi, the journey by night taking about eight hours. Because the tracks of tanks and Bren-gun carriers would have destroyed what road surface remained (the use of transporters was ruled out as these 34-wheeled Juggernauts were a constant source of delay on the mountain roads), the Chief Engineer 1st Canadian Corps, Brigadier Colin A. Campbell, was ordered to open an alternative one-way tank route which would avoid the main highways and would not require any Bailey bridging equipment.41 A route was picked 120 miles long, following secondary roads through Spoleto, Camerino and Macerata, and early on 10 August Corps Engineers†
† The place of the 14th Field Company RCE (which had gone to the 5th Armoured Division in June) was now being filled by the 264th Field Company R.E., a British unit with much experience in North Africa and Italy.42
began construction of the necessary culverts and diversions. In five days the 12th and 13th Field Companies RCE, assisted by sapper units of both Canadian divisions, had essentially completed the task.43 At dusk on 15 August the Corps began its tortuous, two-pronged move over the Apennines, travelling only by night, and without headlights. By 20 August, states the Engineers’ account of the undertaking, modestly playing down their own contribution,
the whole Corps ... had mushroomed into being on the Adriatic front. ... The rapid and comparatively unobtrusive movement of such a ponderous force over long distances across mountainous country was a tribute to the staffs concerned and a true example of the mobility of the modern Army.44
Preparations for the Attack
The orders for the Allied offensive were issued on 16 August. General Alexander defined his intention as “to drive the enemy out of the Apennine positions and to exploit to the general line of the lower Po, inflicting the maximum losses on the enemy in the process.” The assault by the Eighth Army to break through into the Po Valley and there to seize Ferrara and Bologna would be covered by ostentatious preparations by the Fifth Army simulating a coming offensive by both armies on the front between Pontassieve and Pontedera (twelve miles east of Pisa), the sector originally chosen for the main attack. The Fifth Army would actually be getting ready to strike at the enemy’s centre on the axis Florence–Bologna with the 2nd US and the 13th British Corps as soon as the Germans had drawn sufficient forces away to counter our blows on the Adriatic. D Day for the Eighth Army was to be 25 August, and General Clark was to be ready to attack at twenty-four hours’ notice from the 30th.45
It was now becoming possible for General Alexander to gauge the effect of the invasion of Southern France on the course of his operations in Italy. The rapidity of the Allied advance up the valley of the Rhone, where the enemy was soon in full retreat, made it appear that if the Apennines were breached the Germans would be obliged to evacuate the whole of north-west Italy to avoid encirclement. They must then fall back to a shorter line from Switzerland to the Adriatic. This would free General Clark’s left flank, so that he could bring the weight of his Army over to the right to thrust across the Po against Mantua and Verona. The Eighth Army would make for Venice, our lines of communication being so far stretched by this time as to require possession of its port as a prime necessity for the maintenance of our forces. Such was Alexander’s projection of the offensive into the plain, once the Allied Armies had broken into it. As events transpired these axes of exploitation were not to be followed that summer or autumn either, but to await the great victory in the spring of 1945, a climax which the Canadians were not destined to share.46
Since the maintenance of morale is high in importance among the principles of war, General Leese did not fail to convey a sense of vigorous self-confidence to the audience of senior staff officers whom he briefed on the morning of 24 August in the resplendent baroque interior of the theatre at Iesi. In a brilliant eighty-minute resume of the history and prospects of
the Eighth Army, Sir Oliver reviewed the events which had taken the Army across Italy twice in the past four months, and defined the task that lay ahead – to destroy the enemy standing between it and the port of Venice.
A big battle would have to be fought to get through the Gothic Line: and we had chosen carefully where to fight it. The terrain would not be easy, the General warned. In fact, the only effective method of forcing an advance northward was by the use of seaborne hooks. But by the irony of fate, there had never been enough landing craft or airborne troops for this. Our main assets were tanks, guns and aircraft, and it was in the Adriatic corridor that these could be used to the best advantage, the Army having at its disposal 1200 tanks, 1000 guns and ten divisions. The air forces available were not overwhelming, for the Desert Air Force had now the task of covering the whole front. The essential part of the plan was to drive ruthlessly on: pockets of resistance would be left behind, to be cleaned up later. Whichever corps broke through the Army Commander would reinforce with fresh divisions. The Army was now probably larger than it had ever been before: it was better trained and more experienced. He was convinced of its ability to fight decisively what might be the last big battle in its victorious history. Sir Oliver’s racy informality, the clarity of his presentation, the scope of his discourse, and his abounding confidence made an impression that his audience were unlikely to forget.47
The Canadian part in the battle General Burns intended to be carried out in four phases, which he defined in an operation instruction issued on 21 August. The four-mile front assigned to the 1st Canadian Corps centred on Montemaggiore, on the immediate left of the Poles, whose sector would be reduced to the seven miles next to the coast (see Map 18). In the initial assault the 1st Canadian Infantry Division would establish bridgeheads and crossings over the Metauro. In the second phase the advance would be carried as rapidly as possible to the Foglia, ten miles to the north-west, in order to reach the Gothic Line before the enemy, realizing that he was being attacked in strength, could be ready with a well-entrenched garrison. The third phase, the breaching of the Line, provided the necessary elasticity. If the enemy were caught on the run, the infantry would push on through the defences without waiting for the armour; otherwise a full-scale attack would be mounted with both Canadian divisions. There were alternatives also for the final phase. Either the divisions would advance together on parallel axes, or on reaching Cattolica the 5th Armoured would press on alone up the coast road to Rimini.48
The way had already been prepared by the Desert Air Force, which carried out the preliminary phases of the air plan with effects now to be read in the records of the Tenth Army. Attacks on supplies, on movement, on the Line itself, on railways, and on the Po bridges kept the enemy sorely harassed.
His telephone conversations for days were filled with recitals of endless difficulties caused in extricating the 5th Mountain Division and the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division from the battle area for transfer to the west.49 For two days prior to the assault Allied aircraft took on targets in the central sector in the hope of distracting attention away from the coast, and at night redoubled their intrusion on German movements.50
Despite General Leese’s intimation that air support would be somewhat limited, provision for the battle itself was encouraging. On the day of the assault 100 medium bombers would harass the Line itself with fragmentation bombs, and be ready again on the morrow if developments permitted; 300 mediums would attack the belt of defences on the outskirts of Pesaro; six squadrons of Wellingtons would hit the Line by night. Close support, both prearranged and impromptu, would be given by armed reconnaissance aircraft, and by fighter-bombers operating from the cab rank.51 Cab rank had become a tactical device as heartening to our troops as it was demoralizing to the enemy, whose own air force seldom appeared in the sky, and then only in pitiful numbers.
Artillery support was impressive. It included in addition to the 1st Canadian Division’s artillery the 1st Army Group RCA and the guns of the 4th British and 5th Canadian Divisions and some Polish batteries; in all ten field regiments (two of them self-propelled), one heavy and four medium regiments, and a heavy anti-aircraft battery would back up the 1st Corps’ attack.52 The Commander, Corps Royal Artillery, Brigadier E. C. Plow, was given the responsibility of coordinating the counter-battery programme on the entire Eighth Army front. All other fire in support of the Canadian assault was to be controlled directly by the CRA 1st Canadian Division, Brigadier W. S. Ziegler, and his staff.53
The nature of the ground and the sequence of attacks to be made on the ridges dominating the approaches into the corridor seemed to require a series of concentrations and targets in line rather than the more usual creeping barrage. These concentrations were to come down in belts 400 to 500 yards in depth and were timed to move forward 100 yards in six minutes,*
* This was a slower timing than in previous Canadian operations, in which the scheduled rate of advance of the barrage had varied from 100 yards in two minutes (The Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment’s attack near Villa Grande) to 100 yards in five minutes (the assault of the Hitler Line).
according to the assumed rate of advance by the infantry. Reaching the perimeter of the bridgehead at approximately two o’clock in the morning, an hour before the troops were expected to arrive on their objectives, the bursting shells would help them to recognize the limits of their penetration for the first phase. Provision was made for protective fire on both flanks and for concentrations in depth; and besides the counter-battery programme to be carried out by
the heavy and two of the medium regiments, the enemy’s known mortar positions were to be bombarded by the heavy anti-aircraft battery, the two self-propelled regiments of 105s, and the forty 4.2-inch mortars of the two Canadian divisions.54
No part of this weight of fire was to fall upon the enemy’s positions at the outset. The initial move was to get the 1st and 2nd Brigades (on the right and left respectively of the Corps front) across the Metauro to the line of the Via Flaminia (Highway No. 3, two miles beyond the river) by one minute before midnight. The crossing was to be made silently until the road was reached. Then the guns would open up, and the infantry would move forward to establish a bridgehead 3000 yards deep and extending some four miles south-westward from Borgo Lucrezia, a village within the Polish boundary. Each brigade would use two battalions, and would be supported by a regiment of the British 21st Tank Brigade. The armour would go over by two crossings, which the divisional Engineers were to complete by an hour before first light – at every crossing one lane for wheels and another for tracks.55 To aid surprise, until the assault was well under way the tanks were to be held several miles to the rear, out of earshot of the enemy.56
All this meant work for the sappers, who for five days were checking for mines and bulldozing the routes forward to the Metauro. Much of their mine-lifting they did by day, preferring the hazards of being shelled to the unpleasantness of dealing with mines in the dark, though throughout the night before the attack they pressed on their construction of Bailey bridges at sites on the approaches to the river.57 Infantry patrols working with them on reconnaissance reported the crossing-places to be in good condition, with few mines found and the whole front quiet.58 But experience of previous river fordings had shown the congestion and delay that could result if too many vehicles were allowed to approach and jam the crossings at the same time. The normal arrangements by “Q Moves” and the divisional Provost were therefore supplemented by the organization of brigade traffic-control platoons, each coordinated with a section of Provost under the Staff Captain, and in liaison with the battalions and supporting arms. Priorities were arranged for the passage of troops and vehicles at each crossing; control points, route signs, and wireless were all part of a scheme which soon proved its necessity.59
The brigade commanders issued their orders on the 24th. On the far bank of the Metauro in the divisional sector of attack four distinct ridges led away from the river, providing a well-defined approach into the hinterland for each assaulting battalion. Opposite the two easternmost of these Brigadier J. A. Calder (who had succeeded Brigadier Spry in the command of the 1st Brigade) put in the 48th Highlanders and The Royal Canadian Regiment,
right and left-the 48th to ford the stream at 11:10 p.m., the RCR five minutes later. Their objective for the first phase was the lateral road running east from Borgo Lucrezia, about 1200 yards beyond the Via Flaminia, and would include the village of Saltara.60 Brigadier Gibson proposed to send Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry over on the right at 11:35 p.m., and The Loyal Edmonton Regiment on the left 50 minutes later. The 2nd Brigade’s objectives were on a line with those of the 1st Brigade, and included the village of Serrungarina and heights (Points 241 and 233) in the most westerly spur within the divisional sector. The 12th Battalion Royal Tank Regiment, supporting the 1st Brigade, and the 145th Regiment Royal Armoured Corps, supporting the 2nd, would come out of harbour in the rear and be at the crossings before first light on 26 August. The anti-tank batteries, medium machine-guns and 4.2-inch mortars operating directly under Gibson’s orders were to follow the axes of the advance, to be available to the leading battalions as required during the second phase.61
At six o’clock in the evening of the 24th General Burns took over from General Anders command of the river front and the screen of Polish troops north-west of Montemaggiore. (It is not unlikely that the sector now held by the 1st Canadian Corps included the lost site of the Battle of the Metaurus, where Hasdrubal’s defeat in 207 B.C. saved Rome from Carthaginian domination.) The Poles remained to cover the Canadian concentration, as they did that of the 5th Corps on the left, until the leading troops had passed through. They then slipped across the front to their own now narrower sector and reverted to the command of their own Corps.62 More than three days had elapsed since Anders’ troops had arrived at the Metauro, and the interval gave time for enemy agents to make what they could of the formidable concentration going on behind the Polish screen. These agents were obviously at work. The Household Cavalry Regiment reported on the 24th having seen signal flashes from the church tower at Mombaroccio in enemy territory answered from a church tower behind our own lines at Montemaggiore.63 Two days later a raid on a church in a neighbouring village caught two Italians in the act of hiding binoculars, maps and a mirror. One of the Canadian artillery regiments, the 17th Field, blamed these individuals for the very accurate shelling of its positions by the enemy.64 It was possibly because of such activities that prisoners from the 211th Grenadier Regiment (71st Infantry Division) were able to claim later that they knew Canadians were opposite them on the evening of the 25th, two hours before the attack went in.65 But these exchanges, whether sound report or mere coincidence, did not prevent the enemy from being taken by surprise. In carrying out a retirement to the outworks of the Gothic Line the Tenth Army was as unsuspecting of the impending attack as the Eighth Army was ignorant of the opponent’s withdrawal.
The Enemy Surprised
So far as the Tenth Army was concerned, 25 August was a quiet day. The sun shone brightly and it was very hot. General von Vietinghoff was even away on leave, and so was Heidrich, the paratrooper.66 Von Vietinghoff’s staff were actually more concerned with events behind their lines than with the offensive which, still unknown to them, would break that night all along their front. A conference was being called to deal with the problems that would arise in the event of a sudden rush of traffic across the Po, left virtually bridgeless as a result of the Tactical Air Force’s blows in mid-July67 (see above, p. 464). When Kesselring telephoned that morning to ask what was new, the Chief of Staff told him that nothing special was happening. The withdrawal to the intermediate line had proceeded according to plan. It was still not clear what the enemy was doing. But because the situation was so obscure, the Tenth Army wanted to pull something into reserve. Half of the 334th Division would be out by the 30th. “Otherwise nothing of importance?” asked Kesselring. “Otherwise nothing,” replied Wentzell. They must watch what their opponent was doing on the coast though, for when he saw Heidrich’s men there, he might take his forces farther inland.68
The opponent intended to do nothing of the kind. And he had changed his shape. From the brave but emaciated Polish Corps, its divisions reduced to two brigades, he had grown into a great army of three corps and ten divisions, about to hurl its weight into the Adriatic corridor. Of this Wentzell knew nothing. Occupied in the rear with a broken line of supply, in the forward areas with withdrawal and regrouping, and ignorant of the identity and intention of the enemy confronting it, the German Tenth Army, its General and his most tenacious divisional commander on leave, was in no posture to meet the offensive now about to strike it.69 The blow would fall initially on three divisions of the 76th Panzer Corps – in order from the coast the 1st Parachute, the 71st Infantry and the 5th Mountain Divisions.
To the thousands of Allied soldiers standing quietly to arms, General Leese gave his message:
You have won great victories. To advance 220 miles from Cassino to Florence in three months is a notable achievement in the Eighth Army’s history.-To each one of you in the Eighth Army and in the Desert Air Force, my grateful thanks.
Now we begin the last lap. Swiftly and secretly, once again, we have moved right across Italy an Army of immense strength and striking power – to break the Gothic Line.
Victory in the coming battles means the beginning of the end for the German Armies in Italy. Let every man do his utmost, and again success will he ours.
Good luck to you all.70
To the Canadians General Bums spoke words of warning, as well as of exhortation. The enemy had no effective air force, was short of weapons, ammunition and men, but would still fight bravely and skilfully until the final surrender. The only way to compel that surrender was to attack him relentlessly with all their strength, ruthlessly using their superiority in weapons, until his resistance collapsed.
Let everyone of us go into this battle with the determination to press forward until the enemy is destroyed; to strike and pursue until he can fight no longer. Then, and only then, shall we have won what we, as Canadians, have been fighting for-security, peace and honour for our country.71
It was a quiet night, the air was mild, and by half-past eleven the moon had gone down and the sky was full of stars. After the uninterrupted rumble of traffic behind the front on previous nights a breathless silence held. The heavy processes of concentration and assembly were over. The planners had done their work. Everything was ready. A few minutes before midnight officers and men at General Bums’ headquarters stood watching in the darkness. The infantry would be across the river by now and making their way up through the olives to the Rome road. Then at one minute before the hour the guns opened up, their flashes playing over the sky-line like summer lightning, their thunder arousing the coast and disturbing the slumber of the inland mountains. The assault had begun.
The leading battalions had little trouble in reaching their first objectives. They met no enemy at the river. They found the water gap in this dry season narrow for the fording, the water nowhere more than three feet deep. Soaked at worst only to the thighs, they groped their way in the dark up to the Via Flaminia and got to their check points on time. When the storm of their supporting artillery broke, they pushed forward up the slopes into the hilly country beyond the road. They ran into few of the enemy, and entered the villages of Saltara and Serrungarina unopposed. Still under cover of darkness, they quietly took up position along the perimeter as set down in the plan. At first light the tanks were ready to follow them across the river to join in the coming day’s battle over the hills toward the Foglia.72 The bridgehead was won.
The handful of prisoners taken belonged, as had been expected, to the 71st Infantry Division. From them intelligence officers learned of the division’s withdrawal to the chain of hills (Monte della Marcia, Monte della Croce, Monte della Mattera) which overlooked the Arzilla from the south, the highest ground between the Metauro and the Foglia. The news was disconcerting, for to the Canadians – who had as little knowledge as the German rearguard of what was in the mind of the Commander of the 76th Panzer Corps – it suggested that the enemy had anticipated the offensive, and that the attempt to take him by surprise had
failed.73 It was a heartening compensation for the 1st Division to learn from prisoners’ reports (confirmed by visual evidence on the ground) that its supporting artillery fire had caught enemy troops on the move and inflicted heavy casualties.74
According to prisoners the Germans had suffered badly in front of the Poles, where Heidrich’s 4th Parachute Regiment, in the act of retiring, had been stricken in the open by the heavy fire.75 This intelligence the Canadians received with grim satisfaction, for they knew to their cost how ferociously the paratroopers fought, and having met them in Ortona and at the Hitler Line they looked to encounter them again somewhere along the coast. Following them up, the Poles had occupied Borgo Lucrezia and pushed up the valley of the Secco, a small tributary of the Metauro, to clear the Eighth Army’s right flank. On the left, the British 5th Corps had also crossed the Metauro unopposed, and Montefelcino, two miles beyond the river, lay safe in the hands of the 46th Division.76 The second phase could now begin.
The Advance from the Metauro Bridgehead, 26-27 August
Maj-Gen. Vokes ordered his brigadiers to resume the advance at 7:30 a.m. on the 26th. He stressed the importance of speed, in order to get over the Foglia on the heels of the enemy before his infantry could tumble into the defences behind it.77 But the Canadians must first assail a clump of three heights immediately in their path – the 1600-foot Monte della Mattera, flanked to the west by the lesser Mount San Giovanni and to the east by Point 393, which bore on its summit the Convento Beato Sante. The 1st Brigade would make for the convent, the 48th Highlanders leading and the RCR in echelon to the left. The 2nd Brigade would send the Seaforth against Monte della Mattera and the Loyal Edmontons to take Mount Sa Giovanni.78 From these vantage-points the troops would overlook to the north-west successively the village of Mombaroccio, the valley of the Arzilla River, and the remaining spur that stood between them and the Foglia.
Maintaining their progress of the night before, the leading battalions advanced steadily against very slight opposition. This was fortunate since mines, craters and demolitions sometimes prevented the tanks from keeping up with the infantry. The 12th Royal Tanks on the right were delayed in this way before they could get over the Metauro, and did not catch up with the 1st Brigade units until noon, four and a half hours after Vokes had ordered his troops into the second phase.79
At midday the enemy shelling increased, and as the Canadians began to close in upon their objectives the German rearguards let out a sporadic
clamour of mortar and machine-gun fire. Members of a battalion of the 211th Panzer Grenadier Regiment were entrenched in sufficient numbers among the trees fringing the Convento Beato Sante (in company strength, as reported by prisoners and confirmed by the intensity of their fusillade)80 to make it necessary to mount an attack. But this could not be done until the tanks had come up, and was later put off again until after dark. In all it took elements of four battalions to encompass this feature and the surrounding country. On the left the Seaforth Highlanders cleared Monte della Mattera about noon after a short fire fight; but one company sent north-eastward to try the defences of the convent was driven back by small-arms fire.81 The RCR moving forward in the centre through Cartoceto, made the attack on the convent hill after darkness had fallen, in time to take only a few prisoners as the bulk of the enemy pulled out beforehand.82 On the right the 48th Highlanders had a company cut off by enemy fire pouring from a strongpoint north-east of the convent, until a company of The Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment came up with two troops from the 12th Royal Tanks and in a sharp engagement cleared out the resistance. The Germans there had been well armed (they left behind them a 7.5-cm. cannon and one of their two 20-mm. self-propelled guns), yet the Hastings lost only one man killed. Earlier, however, they had suffered more than a score of casualties when German shelling hit the battalion area about midday.83
On the Division’s left, The Loyal Edmonton Regiment had gained its objectives by about midnight. One of its companies moved during the evening around the ridge from Monte della Mattera to take undefended Mount San Giovanni in the rear, and two more passed through to awaken enemy at the point of the bayonet on Mount Marino, a mile to the north. The Edmontons pressed home their advantage on their luckless opponents, and the feature was captured, with seven German horses and eight German soldiers left alive in Canadian hands, as the Edmonton diarist carefully records.84
Amongst the traffic swarming over the Metauro in the wake of the fighting that day, in a congestion of ration lorries, kitchen trucks, ammunition trains, ambulances, guns, tanks, and sweating soldiers, an unescorted open car brought a visitor to whose gaze the sight of the Eighth Army’s offensive might have seemed no more than a neglected sideshow in the strategy of the war as a whole. But the imagination of Mr. Churchill, as the figure in sun helmet and tropicals was at once recognized to be, could not fail to be moved by this spectacle of a mechanized army crawling through the hills towards the still far off plains, raising great clouds of dust that wrapped the countryside in a pall greyer than the olives, masking men’s faces so that they looked like lepers. He had telephoned General Burns in the morning to wish the Canadians success;85 and now in the afternoon, after a difficult interview with General Anders on the future of Poland and all that was then
happening in Warsaw,86 he drove over with the C-in-C to the Canadian sector. Crossing the Metauro, he came up with elements of The Royal Canadian Regiment near Saltara, and in an area endangered by mortar and artillery fire had the battalion’s positions and objectives pointed out to his expert eye, the forward companies being in contact with the Germans only a few thousand yards in front. “This was the nearest I got to the enemy”, Mr. Churchill was to write, “and the time I heard most bullets in the Second World War.”87 The Prime Minister’s visit, bruited among the troops, served to assure them that though the Italian theatre of operations might have ceased to be a main factor in the war, yet Mr. Churchill had been there, and that in so far as he was allowed, he had shared their battle with them.
General Anders’ Corps had made good ground on the seaward flank. Anxious though his soldiers were about the fate of their own country and the desperate straits of its capital, their morale was high. They knew that before all else Germany must be defeated, and that their old adversaries of Cassino, the 1st Parachute Division, awaited them in the hills between the Metauro and Cattolica. The Poles had secured the Canadian right by driving the enemy off Monte della Forche (three miles east of Mombaroccio) into the valley of the Arzilla.88 On the left the British 46th Division was struggling forward up the slopes of Monte della Croce, which it captured next morning.89
It appeared that on General Vokes’ own front the Germans were falling back to the hump of Monteciccardo behind the muddy trickle of the Arzilla, and on this assumption he ordered his two leading brigades to give the enemy no respite, but to push ahead on their own initiative.90 His Intelligence reported the foe to be in a bad way:–
All indications show enemy has withdrawn over Arzilla into last defence positions before Gothic. P.W. reports show unit strength much reduced, weapons scarce but SAA [small-arms ammunition] sufficient. ... Enemy morale bad and many deserters.91
This was a fair diagnosis of the state of Lt-Gen. Wilhelm Raapke’s 71st Infantry Division, whose reinforcements, inexperienced in battle, had been already exhausted by the Poles before they reached the Metauro. When the division crossed the river it was assessed by a German staff officer as being only “fit for defence within limits;”92 on 27 August Wentzell and Rottiger in their daily telephone conversations spoke of the “weary 71st Infantry Division”.93 But as the fighting was to show, the division was still by no means harmless. Far more effective was the 1st Parachute Division, whose boundary with the 71st lay within the Canadian Corps’ sector, and whose line the Canadians thus shared with the Poles. Though one in four below strength, the paratroopers were completely fresh. Young, well trained replacements had been mixed with the seasoned veterans of the summer; on 26 August Colonel Runkel, Chief of Staff, 76th Panzer
Corps, reported to Wentzell that Heidrich had received 2000 reinforcements, although not intending to commit them before 15 September.94 Its fighting quality justly regarded by the German command as superior to that of the ordinary infantry formations committed in the Italian theatre, the Parachute Division had been moved to the Metauro “in good condition and fully qualified for any operational task”.95
Head-on collision with these stalwart defenders would however be delayed a day or two, for on the 27th, as General Vokes had assumed, the enemy continued to fall back into the outworks of his line behind the Foglia. But he made quick pursuit as difficult as possible. Blown bridges, cratered roads, buildings toppled into every defile by his demolition parties, delayed the armour; skilfully posted rearguards and well placed shelling held up the infantry.96 The antagonistic terrain itself, in overall pattern of gullies and knolls, hills and declivities, had a bewildering similarity for the reader of maps. In that maze of undulations liaison was easily broken; line communications were liable to severance by mortar or artillery fire and the treads of the tanks, and wireless was apt to be intermittent or dead.97 Brigades lost touch with battalions, battalions with their sub-units; for three hours one commanding officer could not find his rifle companies;98 and a company of another unit disappeared among the hills for twenty-four hours.99 On or off those primitive roads no wheel or foot was. safe from the hidden mine. Vine and olive might harbour lurking field-grey uniforms at every turn in the track, and thick-walled house, church or monastery afford some garrison shelter from the fire which, despite the general flux and confusion, the attackers were able to call down from the supporting artillery.100 Nor was the weakened Luftwaffe entirely inactive; on the night of the 27th a platoon of No. 1 Canadian Motor Ambulance Convoy suffered 24 casualties, three of them fatal, as an enemy air raid struck their lines south of the Metauro.101
The Fighting at the Arzilla River Line, 28-29 August
Under these conditions the fighting during the next two days enabled the 1st Division to make no more than a lodgement 1000 yards in depth on the far side of the Arzilla, where the German rearguards, entrenched with machine-guns, mortars and anti-tank weapons on the adjacent spurs, defied farther advance. The hill towns of Monteciccardo and Ginestreto in the centre, Point 268 on the right, and Mount Carbone on the left, still in German hands on the 27th, made a defensive line on which the enemy was determined to gain the last hour of time before putting to the test his prepared defences across the Foglia.
The bombing of Monteciccardo on its perch 1200 feet above sea-level by the Desert Air Force that afternoon, and an assault by the Loyal
Edmonton that night, seemed likely at first to give early possession of the town, but the overlong interval between air and ground attacks gave the Germans time to reoccupy the place in force, as the Canadians learned to their cost through some twenty heated hours.102 When the Edmonton CO, Lt-Col. H. P. Bell-Irving, sent his first company in from the right flank at about 1:30 in the morning on the 28th, they found Monteciccardo apparently empty. About ten minutes later, however, they ambushed a company of Germans, marching in to set up defences in the town. Fire from the quickly-sited Bren guns of an Edmonton platoon accounted for an estimated 60 or 70 Germans, and drove the rest of the shattered column to cover. This sudden rout down the narrow street seemed to have settled the ownership of the town, but only for a few minutes. The appearance of a tank which had been following the marching enemy changed the aspect of things. More Germans arrived, and the Canadians, finding themselves engaged from several points, and in the face of the oncoming tank, withdrew to the ridge just outside the town.103 An attack put in during the afternoon, aided by tanks of the 145th Regiment Royal Armoured Corps, drove the enemy back to the western edge of Monteciccardo, where a half-demolished monastery made a stubborn fortress, resisting a violent artillery bombardment. Not until late that evening did a third attack succeed. By that time the enemy had retired, having caused the Edmontons 64 casualties.104
Once Monteciccardo was secured a company of the Seaforth passed through, bound for Sant’ Angelo on its high, terraced mound clothed with cypress and olive, three-quarters of a mile to the north-west. They found the village all but flattened by Allied bombing and shelling, and void of Germans. Before daybreak on the 29th two more companies picked up Ginestreto, 1200 yards to the east, just as cheaply.105 On the divisional left the Patricias, having occupied the lofty village of Monte Santa Maria on the evening of the 27th, were able next afternoon to assist with their fire the exploitation of a 46th Division attack on Mount Gaudio.106 From their new position the units of the 2nd Brigade could now overlook the valley of the Foglia and the outposts of the Gothic Line. General Vokes’ right had closed up too, but not without the most bitter fighting about the wide saddle between the heights in the centre and Mount Belilla – a misnamed 550-foot knoll which the Poles were to take on the following day.107
To the enemy this gap might appear to be an obvious approach to the Foglia; certainly he defended it and the neighbouring hills with great ferocity, sending in two battalions of the 4th Parachute Regiment to bolster the weakening units of the 71st Infantry Division there.108 On the 28th early morning attempts by the Hastings and Prince Edwards to reach the top of Point 268, and the 48th Highlanders to seize a lower feature (Point 146) on the right flank, both failed. It was late afternoon before the 12th Royal
Tanks managed to negotiate the slippery banks of the Arzilla and bring assistance to a company of the 48th Highlanders which had been cut off all day north of the stream. Brigadier Calder ordered all three of his battalions against the enemy-held height, and at 7:15 p.m. the attack went in with artillery support.109 Throughout the night his troops, fighting up the hillsides east of Ginestreto, were vigorously engaged by snipers and machine-gunners, who sighted their weapons by the light of burning haystacks, set on fire for the purpose. At least one of the supporting tanks was destroyed with a Faustpatrone, the Germans turning a flamethrower on the evacuating crew.110 But it was the sort of aggressive defence often put up by the enemy before retiring. By dawn on the 29th the Highlanders were holding Point 146, having suffered 43 casualties, including seven men killed; the Hastings and Prince Edwards had won Point 268 at a cost of eight killed and 24 wounded. As the morning wore on patrols pushed over the brow of the hills into the Foglia valley and reported no contact with the enemy.111
The Assault on the Gothic Line, 30-31 August
In four days’ fighting the Canadian Corps had played a major part in carrying out two of the four phases of the Eighth Army’s operations to break through to the valley of the Po. Together with the two flanking corps, General Burns’ forces had established bridgeheads and crossings over the Metauro. They had advanced to the Foglia, taking nearly forty square miles of ground. They had now to breach the Gothic Line and exploit to Rimini.
Although this domination of the country south of the Foglia left the enemy little time to get his troops firmly set in the Line and bring up reserves, the second phase had not gone as quickly as had been hoped, and General Leese had plans ready for an assault with the whole weight of the Army should that prove necessary. After watching the course of the battle on the Canadian front, Bums had come to face this alternative of pausing at the Foglia for a deliberate attack instead of slipping the 1st Division over quickly before the Germans had recovered. On the night of the 27th–28th he had signalled, “Any likelihood of reaching the Foglia by morning?”, only to receive from General Vokes the discouraging reply, “Seems unlikely.”112 Accordingly, for the next two days the Canadian planners worked on the assumption that a set-piece attack might have to be made.
Yet if the Allied Commanders were in doubt, so were the Germans. They had computed that in the opening bombardment 25,000 shells had fallen on the 76th Panzer Corps’ left wing, although they saw with satisfaction that “where the fireworks took place everybody had left.”113 They drew the conclusion that this was merely an attempt to drive a wedge between the
71st Infantry and the 1st Parachute Divisions. But in the afternoon of the 26th they were growing more concerned. “I think that it is going to be quite an affair on the Adriatic coast”, Wentzell told Kesselring. “The British have appeared on Raapke’s front, and now, at this very moment, comes the news that the Canadians are said to have appeared exactly at the joint between Heidrich and Raapke. Prisoners have been brought in too. Heidrich’s battalion commander swears by his head that they are Canadians.” If the Allies were to throw in all available divisions, the Tenth Army’s Chief of Staff argued, they might collapse the German left wing. At Army Group they agreed. “The direction is the right one, all right”, they said. The immense Allied air activity pointed the same way; and on the morning of the 27th von Vietinghoff was recalled from leave.114
But the German Fourteenth Army was also being alarmed by General Clark’s menaces against its front. The artifice of simulating threats in the centre was succeeding. Reports came in thick and fast of concentrations of tanks in the rear areas, heavy traffic on the roads, great dumps of ammunition, talkative prisoners, a variety of insignia, New Zealand, South African, Greek, and Canadian.115 The continued presence of the 1st Armoured Brigade with the British 13th Corps was again proving itself useful in befuddling the enemy’s Intelligence as to the whereabouts of the Canadian Corps. The Tenth Army got another shock when Kesselring took the view on the morning of the 27th that the whole affair in the Adriatic sector was simply a diversion to prevent a German flanking attack in the west from ruining the invasion of Southern France. “This attack will not be proceeded with in strength”, he predicted.116 Wentzell would have to find out from prisoners what was really happening, for he had no air reconnaissance to help him. “In this respect”, he had admitted to Kesselring the day before, “we are once more totally blind.”117 He could get no information about the Canadians that morning from the 76th Panzer Corps Headquarters: their prisoners refused to speak. Not until the evening could the Germans feel certain that these were from the 1st Canadian Division, and concluded that the 5th Armoured Division could not be far away.118
On the 28th the enemy realized that the Canadians might reach the Line simultaneously with his own troops and before substantial reserves could be rushed into position. Throughout the day the wires were busy with the problem of which units, if any, could be moved up fast enough to stop the gap. Then came one of those dramatic finds that sometimes fall to a groping Intelligence. In June the enemy had captured a British dispatch-rider who carried an Allied Order of Battle showing all our formations across the front from one coast to the other.119 This time they somehow got hold of a copy of the message sent by General Leese to the troops on the eve of the offensive. If not a fake, this gave the clue to Allied strategy in the Italian
theatre of war. Each phrase told its tale: “ ... the last lap ... secretly ... across Italy ... immense strength ... to break the Gothic Line ... beginning of the end for the German Armies. ...” That night the German commanders had convinced themselves of its authenticity, and reached the momentous conclusion that it would now be safe and appropriate to shift the main weight of the Tenth Army to the Adriatic. Late that evening the 76th Panzer Corps received orders to withdraw to the Green Line, which was “to be defended under all circumstances.”120 At 10:35 p.m. von Vietinghoff, back from leave, heard the news from General Herr, the Commander of the 76th Panzer Corps: “On the basis of the captured document it is now certain that the enemy intends to carry out a big push to the plains of the Po.”121 Such was the cost of a single sheet of very inferior paper.
It had already been decided on 27 August to bring to the Adriatic coast the 26th Panzer and 29th Panzer Grenadier Divisions from the Fourteenth Army, and to relieve the tired 71st Division with the 98th Infantry Division,*
* “Corps Witthöft”, which included the 98th Infantry Division, the 162nd (Turcoman) Infantry Division (between Cattolica and Ravenna), and the Venice garrison, had come under Tenth Army command on 17 July.122
which had been stationed in the Ravenna–Cesena area since the beginning of August.123 Yet the position of the Tenth Army was still precarious. Nor was it bettered by Kesselring’s refusal to increase the forces coming from the coast defences farther north, where the Army thought that nothing was likely to happen. The C-in-C had not forgotten Anzio and did not propose to gamble against another seaborne hook. On the 29th, the day on which the retreating divisions of the 76th Panzer Corps crossed the Foglia, taking their heavy weapons over with them, von Vietinghoff’s staff thought of the morrow as “exceptionally grave”, for in spite of all acceleration, the approaching reserves could not become effective before the 30th.124
But all these things were hidden from the Allies, and General Burns had to assume that the Germans might have time to occupy the Line in strength before he could get across the Foglia. He had to follow up quickly and at the same time get himself set for an assault, his actual tactics depending upon the resistance encountered at the river. Having relieved the hard-driven 1st and 2nd Brigades with the 3rd (Brigadier J. P. E. Bernatchez) and the 11th (Brigadier I. S. Johnston), he had both his divisions patrolling along the river front while preparing for a concerted attack which would be supported by twelve regiments†
† Extensive research and planning had been carried out at Artillery Headquarters, 1st Canadian Division, in expectation of a set-piece attack on the Gothic Line. Information on enemy locations and movement gathered daily from all available sources was assembled on a large mosaic air photograph, from which were drawn up an intense counter-preparation and harassing fire programme and a detailed fire plan for the main assault. Although this plan was not put into use, the targets selected were valuable in the subsequent provision of close support and the preparation of impromptu fire plans.125
of field artillery.126 With the enemy’s retirement during the night of the 29th–30th August, however, and from reports that armoured
cars of the 12th Lancers (under Polish command) were entering the outskirts of Pesaro, it seemed to General Leese that the Germans had either been completely taken by surprise and were not ready to man the Line, or that they had decided to withdraw their forces from Italy altogether. “I therefore ordered both Corps”, he wrote afterwards, “to patrol very actively at daylight, and to try to gate crash the Gothic Line in accordance with our original plan.”127
From dawn on the 30th the enemy’s positions were subjected to a heavy bombardment from the air, and under its cover patrols got down into the Foglia valley. Three days of Allied bombing had ploughed up the enemy’s minefields and detonated many of his thickly laid mines.128 Some of these had been hurriedly relaid,129 but more than one Canadian patrol went right through the broken minefields and even tapped the outworks of the Line. Their incursions made it obvious that the Germans were not yet there in any numbers. The Army Commander stopped the bombing at midday, in order that the troops might advance, and General Burns ordered both divisions “to push forward with companies followed by battalions” and to try to get a lodgement before the mass of defenders could come up.130 They would find out whether the enemy was occupying the three towns which stood on the edge of the river flats in the Canadian sector – Montecchio and Osteria Nuova to be investigated by the 5th Armoured Division on the left, and Borgo Santa Maria by the 1st Division on the right (see Map 19). If the Germans were few, strong fighting patrols would lead the way, and both divisions would establish bridgeheads through which they could go forward into the hills at dawn on the 31st.131
General Burns and his planners had gained a fair idea of the strength of the Gothic Line from aerial photographs and information supplied by Italian Partisans, and they had the advantage of overlooking the whole position, whose forward defended localities ran along the lateral Pesaro–Urbino road on the north bank of the Foglia. Although there appeared to be no great depth to the defences – as General Leese observed, “Everything was in the shop-window” – the picture, subsequently confirmed in the fighting, was formidable enough. It was true that the Foglia in this season of drought had more gravel in its bed than water and was generally not a tank obstacle; but the low-lying meadows were treacherous, and the valley itself, from one to two miles broad, with every house and tree razed to the ground to clear the field of fire, would be costly to cross in daylight against a well manned defence. The minefields in the river flats were sown in wide overlapping panels and were backed by the anti-tank ditch, some fourteen feet across, which zig-zagged in front of the road through most of the Canadian sector. The slopes beyond were planted with numerous machine-gun posts, many of them encased in concrete and the majority connected by covered passages to
deep dug-outs. Wire obstacles, more formidable than any that the Canadians had yet encountered in Italy, surrounded these positions, and behind them more wire ran in a broad belt along the whole front. This in turn was covered by fire from another zone of mutually supporting pillboxes and emplacements. Killing-ground had been proportioned off with geometric skill. All comers were provided for: anti-tank guns awaited the armour, dug-in flamethrowers the infantry. A mile or two farther back, the few Panther turrets whose installation had been completed commanded a wide sky-line that must leave the attacking tanks (if any got through) exposed in silhouette as they sailed into view over the rising ground.132
The bridgehead which General Burns had named as his Corps objective for the night of 30–31 August in the event of light enemy opposition extended about a mile into the hills behind the Pesaro lateral.133 Its capture would give a foothold on the series of irregular spurs reaching like crooked fingers down to the Foglia from the bulky Tomba di Pesaro–Monte Luro hill mass, which blocked the Canadian axis three miles north of the river. These tentacles ended in sharp promontories more than 100 metres high, which overlooked the towns along the lateral road and provided the enemy with excellent points of vantage from which to meet the attack. Montecchio itself lay within the compass of two of these claws – Point 111, the termination of a long ridge coming down from the north-east behind Osteria Nuova, and Point 120, an abrupt knoll which crowded in upon the town from the west.
During the afternoon of the 30th both Canadian divisions made preparations for the advance ordered by General Burns, each on the alert to take advantage of any opportunities that presented themselves. General Vokes gave the 3rd Brigade the task of establishing the 1st Division’s bridgehead, and ordered the 2nd Brigade forward in readiness to pass through.134 Brigadier Bernatchez selected The West Nova Scotia Regiment to make the preliminary reconnaissance in force with one company, which was charged with breaking into the Gothic Line between Borgo Santa Maria and Osteria Nuova. The bridgehead would then be secured by the rest of the battalion, with the Royal 22e in immediate reserve.135 On the left General Hoffmeister gave the 11th Brigade the task of both establishing and then breaking out of the 5th Division’s bridgehead.136 The key feature, Point 120, which dominated Montecchio from the west, had been reported by a Cape Breton patrol to be virtually unoccupied, with a relief probably taking place.137 Accordingly Brigadier Johnston, judging the situation right for a quick, two-battalion attack, on a prearranged plan, with General Hoffmeister’s concurrence ordered The Perth Regimen( (commanded by Lt-Col. W. W. Reid) to capture Point 111 and adjacent heights to the east of Montecchio, and sent The Cape Breton Highlanders (Lt-Col. R. B. Somerville) against Point 120 and the high ground beyond.138 The 4th Princess Louise Dragoon
Guards (which had been placed under operational command of the 11th Brigade on 25 August)139 would mop up, and the Irish Regiment was in reserve.140 In support of the 11th Brigade battalions were regiments of the 5th Armoured Brigade. Command of the brigade had passed to Brigadier I.H. Cumberland after the June fighting, when Brigadier J. D. B. Smith became Brigadier General Staff, 1st Canadian Corps.
The comparative quiet which had followed the cessation of the aerial bombing continued throughout the afternoon, and with no preliminary artillery bombardment the West Novas moved off at four o’clock. It was about 5:30 p.m. when the Perths and The Cape Breton Highlanders began their attack. Early reports indicated good progress in both sectors, and at 6:00 p.m. a conference at Corps Headquarters viewed the possibility of capturing the Monte Luro heights that night and pushing on to the River Conca.141
Later, however, there were moments when it seemed that the Germans would be strong enough to hold at the line of the river, for the outside battalions of both brigades were repulsed. The minefields across the flats were in themselves a nasty enough hazard to the infantry, and in addition they were swept by merciless fire from the heights above the three towns on the Corps front. The attempt made by The West Nova Scotia Regiment to reach Point 133, north-east of Osteria Nuova, turned into a sad debacle. With all its companies caught in a large minefield midway between the river and the lateral road, the battalion staggered helplessly under a storm of fire from the enemy’s automatic weapons, mortars and artillery, ensnared in precisely the sort of killing-ground which the designers of the Line had intended to create. Unable to move, the West Novas had to be withdrawn, suffering almost as many casualties getting out of the minefield as they had while becoming involved in it. The toll totalled one officer and 19 other ranks killed, and six officers and 50 men wounded.142 The action by the 11th Brigade on the left was at first almost as disastrous, for by this time the Germans had completed their reliefs on Point 120. With the support of fire from tanks of the 8th Princess Louise’s (New Brunswick) Hussars, first one and then two more companies of The Cape Breton Highlanders reached the base of their objective (with one platoon managing to scale the slopes), only to be driven back each time to the Foglia, unable to cope with the ugly little knoll that bristled over the ruins of Montecchio.143 They lost 19 killed and 46 wounded.
But the battalions on the inside fared better. The Perths did well enough to claim to be the first to break into the Line.144 Although previous reports had led them to believe that there were no enemy above the road, and despite delays in bringing their supporting arms and tanks over the river, they managed to install themselves at Point 111 on the edge of the spur
looking down on Montecchio from the north. From there they went on to capture Point 147 to the north-east by the stratagem of pushing beyond it and then doubling back to take it in the rear. The brigade as a whole might have got a better foothold that night but for a serious jamming of the traffic behind the forward battalions and the diversion of tanks of the New Brunswick Hussars and the 98th Canadian Anti-Tank Battery’s self-propelled guns along the wrong route. The error led to their stoppage in a minefield, where they were only able to help the infantry by fire at long range, and where they had to stay until dawn before they could be extricated.145 The delay was further aggravated by the necessity of pulling the Irish Regiment, which had concentrated on the left, across the front to send them in on the right through the Perths, so as to attack Point 120 from the flank while the Cape Bretons engaged it frontally with their fire. A broken bridge on the way, not repaired until 5:30 in the morning of the 31st, made the prospect bleaker still. The Irish suffered casualties of 19 killed and 31 wounded, one company’s fighting strength being reduced to 50 men. Their attack on Point 120 did not go in until noon on the 31st, eighteen and a half hours after the brigade had begun to cross the Foglia.146
Though thus deferred, the outcome was a brilliant success. Battered by the Canadian artillery and distracted by the appearance of a company of the Irish on the spur behind them to the north-west, the Germans on the knoll were caught in the right rear by a second company coming in by stealth from the north-east. Leadership and good fieldcraft won the position, and four officers and 117 other ranks were marched off as prisoners.147 The Cape Breton Highlanders passed through in the afternoon towards Mount Marrone, a sprawling hill on the south-westerly extension of the Monte Luro–Tomba ridge, following up two spirited forays in that direction by squadrons of the New Brunswick Hussars. The Perths struck off to the right to get on the main central spur leading to Monte Luro, the key to the whole German position in this part of the Line.148
The situation had begun to look promising in the centre, too, where Brigadier Gibson had sent the Patricias in through Osteria Nuova.149 Their companies shared the agonizing experience of the West Novas, and in the small hours of the 31st were struggling through a field of Schu* and Teller mines.
* The anti-personnel Schu-mine 42 was an easily laid obstacle against infantry, light vehicles and sledges, that could be conveniently substituted for the “S” mine (above, p. 497n). It consisted of a small wooden box with a hinged lid which under a pressure of about 9 lbs. would explode the 7-oz. charge of TNT or picric acid within. The typical injury caused to infantry by the mine was the amputation of one leg below the calf, without harm to the rest of the body.150
They resorted to single file, and, accepting casualties as they went, they got to Osteria Nuova while it was still dark and in the rubble found shelter from the enemy fire which came down at first light.151 The activity
of the Canadian tanks on their left enabled them to take the initiative again westward along the lateral road, where in a brisk action they rounded up large batches of prisoners from the 1st Parachute Division. In the afternoon they took Point 115 behind the village, gathered in more prisoners, and pushed on north-east towards Point 133 on the spur which had been the West Novas’ objective. Accompanied by a squadron of the 48th Battalion Royal Tank Regiment, they ascended the bare slope through a deluge of shells and mortar bombs, seized their objective and captured 97 prisoners, to bring to 231 their total for the day.152 Other British tanks ranging the country between Borgo Santa Maria and the hamlet of Pozzo Alto, a mile to the north-west, made the right flank secure.153
An even deeper wedge was driven in on the 31st by a dashing attack of the 11th Brigade up the spurs that climbed to Point 204, a height on the ridge joining Pozzo Alto to the Tomba spine. It was a fiercely fought action. Elements of the 26th Panzer Division had appeared in the Line (a battalion of the 67th Panzer Grenadier Regiment had taken part in a counter-attack at Montecchio during the afternoon),154 and though too late to stop the inrush of men and tanks through the broken mesh of defences facing the Foglia, they were soon aligned with the 4th Parachute Regiment in combat with the Canadians on the hills behind.155
The attack on Point 204 had been planned as an armoured operation supported by infantry, to be carried out by the 9th Armoured Regiment (The British Columbia Dragoons) and The Perth Regiment.156 But the component forces did not come together. The Perths were prevented from moving by “the severest shelling and mortaring that we had ever experienced”; this fire accounted for most of the 52 casualties they suffered that day.157 The tank squadrons went off without them, and for most of the day had to fight alone over the rolling, treeless countryside. Thrusting through wire and minefield and across a trench system full of paratroopers made merely a beginning, since before they could essay the long ascent to Point 204 the Dragoons had to run the gauntlet of anti-tank guns firing from the Tomba–Mount Marrone ridge across the shallow valley to their left. They went on with great determination, paying a toll which left them at the end of the day with only 18 tanks able to run.158 Their regimental headquarters was virtually wiped out with all its tanks, and their commanding officer, Lt-Col. F. A. Vokes (brother of the GOC 1st Canadian Division), was mortally wounded far forward in the van of a very gallant action. In all the B.C. Dragoons suffered 49 casualties, 22 of them fatal. But the remainder held their ground, until at nightfall they were relieved by the Perths and Lord Strathcona’s Horse, whose commander, Lt-Col. J. M. McAvity, had fought his tanks forward in a precise alternation of fire and movement. Infantry and armour then dug in or leaguered about Point 204. That night
they beat off a counter-attack by infiltrating parachutists. Lt-Col. Reid led the Perths in a successful attack on two enemy self-propelled guns, and though twice wounded continued to direct the defence of his lines until the danger was past and the salient made secure.159 Its right shoulder had been strengthened by the Seaforth, who crouched that night below Pozzo Alto, although it was somewhat exposed over to the left, where The Cape Breton Highlanders were still a mile to the south-east of Mount Marrone.160
Reid was awarded the DSO for his gallantry,161 and, as though inspired by such leadership, two of his men won recognition in the same action.*
* Lance-Sergeant K. M. Rowe, although wounded, led three successive charges to regain his platoon positions after they had been overrun in the counter-attack; these assaults resulted in 20 paratroopers being killed, and ten captured, and the securing of the battalion’s hold on Point 204. Pte. R. D. Saunders took over the leadership of his section when its commander and second-in-command became casualties, and, put up so stout a resistance against the counter-attack that the enemy was forced back in disorder. Rowe received the DCM and Saunders the MM.162
The Capture of Point 253 and Tomba di Pesaro, 1 September
On the last night of August the Canadians thus lay within some 1200 yards of the twin peaks which had dominated their northern sky-line from the time that they occupied Monteciccardo and Ginestreto, and beyond which the country sloped gently down to the widening coastal plain. On the right, Monte Luro rose sharply 940 feet above sea level; the half dozen houses near the crest that had formed the village of Monteluro had been razed by Allied bombing. The companion height, less than a mile to the south-west, bore the name Mount Peloso, but was commonly referred to as Point 253 (its altitude in metres). A short spur off to the west carried the town of Tomba di Pesaro,†
† The town was renamed Tavulla some time before the outbreak of war, and was thus identified by local inhabitants and in German records. Allied and Italian maps and road direction signs used the name Tomba di Pesaro.
which loosely gave its name to the Peloso feature.
The third phase of the Eighth Army’s operation was accomplished. The Gothic Line had been breached, and General Leese had smashed his “shop-window”. Though the paratroopers were still lodged in Pesaro (the place was in any case to be by-passed), the Polish front on the Army right would soon be dissolved when the Germans facing General Anders came to be squeezed out as the Canadian Corps drew closer to the coast. In the more difficult country on the left the 5th British Corps had kept up well with the forces in the centre. Late on the 3 1st the 46th Division had captured Mount Gridolfo after a very stubborn action and had troops fighting for Mondaino, nearly two miles behind the Pesaro lateral.163 A drive to the sea by the Canadians looked imminent. Rimini seemed to be already within
their grasp. For General Burns the next moves were clear. Troops of the 1st Division would scale Monte Luro and reach over to Gradara, which would bring them to the Via Adriatica (Highway No. 16) and probably force Heidrich out before they got there; the 5th Division would capture Tomba and descend on San Giovanni in Marignano, only a couple of miles southwest of Cattolica. Both divisions would exploit to sever the coast highway and seize the Conca crossing, in order to cut off the 1st Parachute Division if it stayed behind too long.164
As August faded into September the mood was buoyant. Through the dust-laden air a vista of the azure Adriatic glistened, serene and refreshing in the heat. To the tired men imprisoned in endless convoy nose-to-tail along the routes bulldozed forward to the front, the end of their journey seemed to be in sight. A traffic sign, read from every vehicle that rumbled by it, expressed the spirit of the hour: “Drive carefully if you want to see Vienna.”165 Men coughed and spat, and their bodies, stripped to the waist, were caked with dust and sweat, yet everyone was cheerful. “In places”, one of them wrote, “the dust lies like powdered snow to a depth of three or four inches. It is impossible to see a moving tank. You are only aware of its presence by the turbulent cloud of dust which accompanies it. ... The most remarkable thing is that in all this filth, fatigue and bodily discomfort the same old time-worn humour and perpetual good nature persist.”166
Action by units of the 1st Division in the early morning hours of 1 September improved the Canadian right flank and provided space to assemble for the attack on Monte Luro. At 6:45 a.m. the Royal 22e Regiment reported that they had taken the ruins of Borgo Santa Maria against light opposition, although it was not until mid-afternoon that with the assistance of a company of the Carleton and Yorks placed under Lt-Col. Allard’s command they finally cleared the German posts and pillboxes on Point 131, north-east of the village.167 During the morning the Seaforth seized Pozzo Alto on its 500-foot hill after two unsuccessful attacks through the Patricias during the night, and drove another 1500 yards north-east to the neighbouring spur at Point 119.168
At a conference held at Eighth Army Headquarters on the afternoon of the 31st, General Leese directed that the attack on Monte Luro would be made jointly next morning by the 1st Canadian Division and the 3rd Carpathian Division. While the Poles were to advance northward from their positions east of Point 131,169 General Vokes proposed to strike with a force commanded by Brigadier D. Dawnay, whose own 21st (British) Tank Brigade would be augmented for the purpose by The Royal Canadian Dragoons and two companies of the Royal 22e Regiment under command, and the
2nd Infantry Brigade in support.*
* During the operations which followed the relationship between Brigadier Dawnay and Brigadier Gibson seems to have been one of “combined command”, with the tank commander being the dominant partner. The arrangement provided a useful lesson in tank-infantry cooperation. The two brigade headquarters were close together, and the two commanders jointly fought the battle from each in turn, as first armour and then infantry assumed the major role.170
After taking Monte Luro the group would push on to the Conca and cut road and railway south-east of Cattolica.171 Preparations for the operation took up most of the afternoon of the 1st, and the assault was ready to go in at 6:00 p.m.
In the meantime the capture of Point 253 by the 11th Brigade had materially improved the 1st Division’s chances of success, for the rout of the enemy from that commanding position had removed the danger of hostile fire from Vokes’ left flank. The enterprise against Mount Peloso was carried out most gallantly by the 4th Princess Louise Dragoon Guards under somewhat remarkable circumstances. Raised as reconnaissance troops and trained to the use of armoured cars as the light cavalry of modem wars, the Princess Louise, as we have seen, had had to adapt themselves after a few weeks’ training as an infantry battalion of the newly formed 12th Brigade, though going into battle for the first time under command of the 11th. The assault was to have been undertaken by The Perth Regiment and Lord Strathcona’s Horse from their positions on Point 204; but in view of the Perths’ heavy losses – they had suffered more than ninety casualties in the last 36 hours, including their Commanding Officer, who was twice wounded in the struggle for Point 204 – and because the armour could not be ready to attack before midday, the plan was changed and the task handed over to the Dragoon Guards at short notice.172
At first light on 1 September the regiment was still scattered along the line of approach, and in coming up to Point 204 the main body ran into a heavy and prolonged concentration of enemy shelling, an ordeal from which they emerged after thirty minutes, badly shaken up and with several casualties. It took most of that morning for Lt-Col. W. W. G. Darling, who had succeeded Adams as Commanding Officer, to get his supporting arms forward and tie in his artillery programme, and it was one o’clock before the attack started.173
As the Princess Louise moved up the saddle towards Mount Peloso, heavy fire from small arms, machine-guns and mortars came down on them; but strongly supported by the Strathcona tanks, which sprayed the hedges and wheat stooks with their machine-guns, they struggled stoutly forward. Fortunately the Germans everywhere about them were not entrenched, for they had evidently been assembling to counter-attack. Caught out of position, they fell easy victims to the tanks. They were found in rows behind the hedges, and crouching or lying in the open; so many of them were killed
that bulldozers had to be used in digging their graves. The attacking troops suffered heavily from the enemy cross-fire, and when Darling reached the foot of the hill, with still some 200 yards of heavy ploughed land to go, he had only forty survivors with him for the final assault with the armour.
But the Germans by this time had had enough. The tanks knocked down the few houses that still stood there, pouring fire into all likely positions, and the depleted Dragoon Guards, who had covered the last fifty yards on their hands and knees (a gait in sad contrast to the high mobility of armoured cars) entered into possession. They found to their great satisfaction that the enemy had evacuated and were scuttling down into Tomba. This first victory of the grounded cavalry had cost them more than 100 casualties, 35 of them fatal, but, as Darling grimly observed, “the main thing was that we had taken our ground.” The Strathconas lost six killed and 24 wounded.174 The success of the Princess Louise was due in no small part to the outstanding leadership displayed by the Commanding Officer, who, in the words of the recommendation that brought him the DSO, “ignoring the continual shelling, machine-gun and sniper fire, visited each company in turn, urging his men on, and by sheer gallantry and personal example led [them] towards the objective.”*
* Major W. J. Salter, who commanded one of the two companies which made the final assault on Point 253, was awarded the MC.
In the early evening the Irish passed through with a squadron of the New Brunswick Hussars to descend upon the almost deserted ruins of Tomba di Pesaro.175
To the Conca and the Sea
The way was now clear for Brigadier Dawnay to drive through on the right for Monte Luro. The infantry selected were the Loyal Edmontons, and they were supported by the 12th Royal Tanks. During the afternoon of the 1st heavy air and artillery bombardments were brought down on the crest and the reverse side of the mount. Among the guns supporting the Canadians were the 25-pounders of the 5th and 6th Field Regiments New Zealand Artillery, which with the 4th Field Regiment had come under General Bums’ command on 30 August.176 The assault was launched at six o’clock. It went extremely well, against comparatively slight small-arms fire, for the preliminary bombing and shelling had been most effective. In turn each company with its squadron of tanks picked up its objectives, their progress directed by Lt-Col. Bell-Irving, commanding the Edmontons, and Lt-Col. H. H. van Straubenzee, the tank commander, from atop the tombstones of Pozzo Alto cemetery.177 Although Monte Luro had been provided with an intricate and deep system of trenches, supported by well protected machine-gun and
anti-tank positions, these defences had been abandoned, and the commander of the company which climbed to the top recorded with simplicity: “We walked on to the objective, took four prisoners and reorganized.”178 By last light the hill was thick with consolidating troops.
The pursuit force was ready. Besides the large seaside resort of Cattolica there lay before the Conca a number of smaller towns and villages, all of which might be expected to house enemy rearguards. Three of these, Pieve, Gradara and Fanano, stood on spurs stretching down from Monte Luro; two others, San Giovanni in Marignano and Monte Albano, were on the flats within a mile of the river. Immediately Monte Luro fell, Dawnay ordered the Patricias and a squadron of the 48th Royal Tanks to advance to the spur running eastward from the captured height. It was his intention that The Royal Canadian Dragoons with a company, of the Royal 22e would then spring forward and cut the coast road and railway south-east of Cattolica, and if possible get a squadron through to seize the crossing over the Conca. Another company of the 22e was to move up behind Monte Luro with the 48th Royal Tanks and advance to Pieve.179
But in the small hours of 2 September the movement of troops became uncertain and confused in this fluid battle through the unfamiliar hills. At about two o’clock, seeing opportunity slipping through his fingers, Dawnay ordered two companies of the Patricias to climb on tanks and press on to cut the railway 2000 yards south-east of Gradara and form a defensive right flank for the division. The mission was accomplished, and when Pieve was clear, he directed the 48th Royal Tanks to swing north and capture Gradara, and the 12th Royal Tanks with the Edmontons to push forward to Fanano.180
The plan worked. From the railway bridge which the Patricias had seized a squadron of The Royal Canadian Dragoons fought forward to the Via Adriatica, continuously under fire from the Germans in the massive old castle which dominated the hilltop village of Gradara.181 Since the 48th Royal Tanks could not get inside the walls of Gradara without the assistance of infantry (and the Patricias could not be withdrawn from their role of protecting the right flank), they had to be content with containing the town; they were able, however, to support the attack on Fanano, which fell to the 12th Royal Tanks and the Loyal Edmontons in the early evening. In a third prong of the combined drive by armour and infantry the 145th Regiment RAC and the Seaforth, held up for a time west of Pieve, where they lost four tanks, pushed rapidly north-westward across the Tavollo and Ventena streams, to find Monte Albano free of, enemy.182
On their left “D” Squadron of the reconnaissance regiment, The Royal Canadian Dragoons, roving widely through enemy country and cutting in with swift patrols, helped to throw the Germans into a deeper state of alarm. By evening San Giovanni was left behind, and the Dragoons went on to
establish a bridgehead over the Conca.183 By that time the Seaforth, moving coastward from Monte Albano, were patrolling into the outskirts of Cattolica. They found the town vacant, for with the flanks collapsed, the 1st Parachute Division had no alternative but to disengage. Pesaro had been abandoned to the Poles, who had taken over the town that morning and were now a mile beyond Mount Trebbio, half way to Cattolica; it was the farthest point they reached before being withdrawn into army reserve.184 The armoured trident had struck home. The Canadians had reached the sea. Before daylight on 3 September the 1st Brigade had slipped the RCR across the Conca north of San Giovanni, to be followed into the bridgehead by the 48th Highlanders.185
The whole of the Corps front now ran along the line of the Conca. Late on the 1st General Hoffmeister had ordered the two fresh battalions of his 12th Brigade to take up the pursuit in the 5th Division’s sector. The 1st Canadian Light Anti-Aircraft Battalion on the right, and The Westminster Regiment (particularly suited for the task since it still retained its transport as a motor battalion) on the left, each supported by a squadron of The Governor General’s Horse Guards, drove forward from Tomba di Pesaro in the early moonlit hours of 2 September. They cleared the spurs of Mount Pedriccio and skirted the flats, hotfoot after an enemy too preoccupied with extricating himself to offer much resistance. In the late afternoon patrols found San Giovanni abandoned and sappers went to work on crossings northwest and west of the town. The pursuit forces made ready to go over in the morning.186 On the farther side the enemy’s guns and vehicles, crowding the roads to the north, were heavily engaged from the air.187
In the small hours of the 2nd Kesselring’s headquarters had ordered the Tenth Army to withdraw its left wing to the line of the Conca.188 The Canadian thrusts to Gradara, Fanano, and San Giovanni had jostled the parachutists hurriedly back over the river. Their 1st and 3rd Regiments got away in fair condition with the bulk of their artillery and most of the mortar battalion, but the 4th Parachute Regiment reported casualties of more than 70 per cent,189 and there were admitted losses of a number of anti-tank and heavy anti-aircraft guns left behind with the dead.190 The Tenth Army’s “Final Appreciation of the Day” had an undertone of relief, however, recording that the attempt of the Eighth Army’s spearhead to cut off the 76th Panzer Corps’ left wing had been foiled “by the stubborn resistance of the strongpoint garrisons, above all in the sector of 1 Para Div. ...” General von Vietinghoff thus had the consolation that the Parachute Division had saved itself from being enveloped, and was forming a new line at Riccione. This line was to be defended at all costs, “above all in order to gain time for the reinforcements to arrive.”191
Army Group “C” was still disturbed about the possibility of an amphibious landing, and alerted the coastal defences during the night. There were reports that vessels had been seen in the offing. These were probably ships of the naval task force placed at Burns’ disposal on 3 September to shell targets ashore on request by his Commander, Corps Royal Artillery. From time to time the force was changed in strength and composition*
* On 6 September the force consisted of the destroyers HMS Loyal, Undine and Urchin, and the gunboats HMS Aphis and Scarab.192
to meet operational requirements elsewhere, but during the next six weeks, until bad weather made observation and reconnaissance by air impossible, the ships hovered on the skirts of the enemy, risking his mines, but wearing down his soldiers’ morale with grim reminder that all three elements were against him.193 Day after day the enemy’s gun-positions and fortifications along the coast were pounded by naval fire, controlled by pilots of No. 657 Air Observation Post Squadron, RAF, which was providing the ground artillery with almost its only means of carrying out observed shooting.194 This squadron of “flying gunners”, which had served briefly with the Canadians in March 1944,195 again came in support of the 1st Canadian Corps at the beginning of the battle for the Gothic Line, with “A” Flight being allocated to the Army Group Royal Artillery, and “B” and “C’, Flights to the 5th and 1st Divisions respectively. It remained with the Canadians until the end of the campaign, and accompanied them when they left Italy.196
On the Allied side there was reasonable cause for satisfaction. “It had been a great success for Eighth Army”, the Commander-in-Chief was to write. “By a combination of surprise in preparation and dash in attack they had swept through a fortified line which had been twelve months in preparation almost as though it were not there.”197 The Army Commander in turn paid tribute to the Canadian Corps. “It would have been a difficult and expensive task to capture the line if the enemy had had time to occupy it properly”, he recorded. “It is, therefore, very much to the credit of the leading divisions that by active and aggressive patrolling and by the quick follow-up of these patrols, they ‘gate-crashed’ the enemy. By doing so we saved invaluable time and a lot of casualties; and indeed at this stage our casualties were remarkably low.” Sir Oliver had a special word of commendation for the manner in which General Hoffmeister’s troops had penetrated the Gothic defences: “A great deal of our success was due to the energy and daring of this Commander and his Division.”198
The moment looked hopeful. With the Canadian Corps about to leap over the Conca and the 5th British Corps ready to pass the 1st Armoured Division through in a dash for the flat’ country beyond, the campaign seemed about to reach a triumphant climax. The fall of Rimini would smash the
hinge on which the whole of the German withdrawal from Northern Italy must swing. But the Germans, as always, had been quick to recover, as we had been slow to exploit. Kesselring had used his easy lateral communications on the far side of the escarpment to slide reserves from one part of his front to the other, to draw upon right and centre to restore his shattered left. After the 26th Panzer Division, flung in to stem the flood pouring through the gap on 29 August, the 98th Infantry and the 162nd (Turcoman) Divisions were being committed, and now, Kesselring’s last reserve from the centre, the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division, dispatched eastward in haste, was soon to come into action.199 The 100th Mountain Regiment of the 5th Mountain Division was halted on its way to the French frontier and brought back into the line. Other defensible ridges still lay between the Eighth Army and the plains, and about one of these, which took its name from Coriano, the village on its brow (four miles south-west of Riccione,), the 1st Parachute, the 26th Panzer and the 29th Panzer Grenadier Divisions, all first-class formations (though two of them had been much reduced by casualties), were hurriedly getting into position.200
Kesselring had thrown in everything he had in order to retrieve his campaign from an autumn disaster. All he could now hope for were the autumn rains.