Chapter 17: The Battle of the Rimini Line, 3–22 September 1944
The Offensive is Checked
Less than a dozen miles of foothills and coastal plain separate the Conca from the larger Marecchia River, whose course down through Rimini and under the ancient Ponte di Tiberio roughly marks the southern limit of the low lands in and adjoining the Po Valley, known historically as the Lombard Plain. Allied hopes were high that the impetus of the offensive, renewed and strengthened by the fresh blows which the Fifth Army was about to deliver, would quickly carry the formations of the Eighth Army across this. narrow interval and into what was expected to be the wide field of exploitation beyond. Yet the train of events was to show that we were being too sanguine. Checks and disappointments were in store; for the enemy was to contest vigorously every spur and ridge tapering down seaward from the mountainous left flank. What was to have been a headlong pursuit turned into a bitter, creeping battle which lasted eighteen days.
The Canadian Corps order for the advance beyond the Conca had been issued on 1 September, when an enemy collapse seemed imminent. It set four bounds for the operation – the long finger of high ground pointing north-eastward through San Clemente and Misano towards Riccione (see Map 20); the Marano River, midway between the Conca and the Marecchia; the crest of the San Fortunato ridge, a well-defined feature two miles south-west of Rimini; and finally the Rimini–Bologna railway, north of the Marecchia. The 1st Division was directed along Highway No. 16 through the flat coastal area; General Hoffmeister’s forces were assigned the more rugged ground on the left. General Vokes decided to lead with his 1st Brigade; the armoured division’s advance was to be made by the 5th Armoured Brigade, with the infantry of the 12th Brigade to “mop up and consolidate”.1
When the two divisions crossed the Conca early on the morning of 3 September, they were repeating the experience of other assaults over dried-up
river beds farther south. The stream offered no serious obstacle, and the troops quickly expanded their bridgehead. They began to climb the low ridge between San Clemente and Misano in the face of straggling fire coming down the hillsides from scattered enemy who appeared to have little conviction that they were there to stay. On the right The Royal Canadian Regiment rolled along the Via Adriatica in TCVs, having received a report that the paratroopers were pulling back to Rimini.2 But 1000 yards south-east of Riccione a blown bridge covered by fire from houses near the beach halted them, and soon afterwards they became involved in the general fight for the seaward end of the Misano ridge. The Germans were holding the strongly built Palazzo Ceccarini on the wooded extremity of the ridge and the squalid hamlet of Santa Maria di Scacciano a mile to the south, and these became the limits of the Canadian race up the highway that day.3 Towards the Corps’ left the Strathconas and the Westminsters had taken Misano by last light and mounted the ridge beyond, with the 1st Canadian Light Anti-Aircraft Battalion keeping pace farther west.4 The positions which were holding up the Canadians near the coast, but which the left wing had overrun without serious difficulty, formed a defence line designated on German maps “Green Line II”, a hastily executed project on the eastern slope of the Misano spur, some ten miles behind the Gothic Line itself.5
To the Germans the day was a critical one. They felt that if they could weather the storm during the hours of daylight on the 3rd, the arrival during the night of the 71st Panzer Grenadier Regiment behind the joint of the 26th Panzer and 1st Parachute Divisions would ease the situation, and they could expect to hold in front of the Marano. Their senior commanders even then were of the opinion that the Eighth Army could be brought to a halt, and that a stalemate might well ensue. Their main hope at the moment rested on the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division and its able commander, Maj-Gen. Dr. Fritz Polack, whose 71st Regiment, as expected, was in position on the Coriano ridge by the morning of the 4th. On the 26th Panzer Division’s right was the newly-arrived 98th Infantry Division (commanded by Lt-Gen. Alfred Reinhardt). Its planned replacement of the 71st Division had been cancelled, and General Raapke’s troops remained in the line holding a reduced sector between the 98th and the 278th Divisions on the 76th Corps’ extreme right flank. During the day General Heidrich rejoined his division, which, strengthened by the addition of Reinhardt’s 117th Grenadier Regiment and a “blocking group” from the 162nd (Turcoman) Division, was responsible for the area between Coriano and the coast.6 With these dispositions made Kesselring was so confident that the front would hold as to go off and spend an uneventful day with the Fourteenth Army.7
In the evening, however, when he returned to his own headquarters, he heard that the armoured spearheads of the 1st Canadian and 5th British Corps were threatening to sever the head of the crucial feature at Coriano. Reports were confused and contradictory. Nobody was able to give him any definite information, and his Corps Commander, General Herr, even appeared to have thoughts of further withdrawals. Kesselring seemed to sense that all he had done might still be of no avail. To make matters worse, during his absence General Warlimont, Deputy Chief of the Armed Forces Operations Staff, had appeared at his headquarters. On inquiring whether the enemy could be driven back by a counter-attack, the visitor had been told that Army Group “C” would be very happy if it succeeded even in stemming the Allied advance. Kesselring’s exasperation that night culminated in a towering rage. He threatened to replace corps and divisional commanders who were able to think of nothing but retreat. Caught between Hitler’s obsession for clinging to the indefensible and the preference of his field commanders for more normal tactical doctrine, he expressed his vexation by creating a scene clearly intended to exact the maximum performance from all concerned. Prolonged plain speaking crackled over the wires till far past midnight, when the more even-tempered von Vietinghoff managed to calm his superior by alluding (among other things) to the German casualties, and declaring that he knew of no man who could better the performance of General Herr.8 (This testimony to Herr’s first class leadership, and the high fighting quality of his troops, indirectly reflected credit on the Canadian formation opposing them.)
To General Bums and his divisional commanders it was becoming apparent that the enemy might fight a delaying action up to a line through Rimini and San Fortunato, with Coriano as an outpost, before making a stand. They agreed that if his resistance there were strong, the Canadians would have to pause and mount a full-scale attack.9 On the morning of the 4th the Corps Commander flew on reconnaissance over the Conca, with his eyes on the country towards Rimini and the north-west. An hour later he met General Leese, who discussed the grouping of the Corps for operations beyond Rimini, projecting the line of advance through Ravenna and Ferrara and thence to the crossing of the Po. But when Bums saw his commanders again in the afternoon, they could only report that the Germans were still holding the reverse slopes of the long Misano ridge.10 The enemy was evidently going to make a fight of it even in front of the Marano.
From Mount Gallera, a slight eminence on the ridge about a mile west of Misano, a low spur branched northward for two miles to the hamlet of Besanigo. The road along its crest seemed to offer a good means of advance to Brigadier Cumberland’s 5th Armoured Brigade, which attacked early on 4 September with the New Brunswick Hussars, supported by the
* Notable in the Westminster attack was the gallantry of a junior officer, Lieut. H. A. Miller, who under heavy mortar and small-arms fire, “moving well in front of his platoon, skilfully led it to the objective” and organized the subsequent defence. Three times he crossed a fire-swept area 1500 yards wide to carry to Battalion Headquarters valuable information about the enemy’s positions. For this Miller was awarded the MC.11
Tanks and infantry battled forward 1000 yards before they were brought to a halt by vicious mortar and anti-tank fire coming from enemy detachments on the Besanigo ridge itself and from the parallel Coriano feature to the west.12 “B” Squadron of the Hussars, fighting on the exposed left flank, was pinned down all day in spite of desperate efforts to extricate it by “A” Squadron, which engaged the Coriano positions and fired all its smoke shells in an effort to blind the enemy’s guns. The day’s action cost the armoured regiment six tanks,13 but brought to one of its members, Sgt. W. P. Fleck, the unit’s first DCM of the war. In the late afternoon, when failing light prevented the crew commanders from seeing the movement of enemy infantry (some of whom had already knocked out a Sherman with a Faustpatrone), Fleck dismounted with his corporal and led his tanks forward to their objective, with machine-carbine and grenades killing five Germans in slit-trenches on the way, and capturing eight more. Although wounded by a shell splinter the intrepid sergeant then carried out a reconnaissance with his squadron leader until he collapsed from loss of blood.14
Nearer the coast the 1st Brigade could make little headway. An RCR assault on the northern end of the ridge was driven back; and a plan, put in hand on the 3rd, to take Santa Maria with a mobile force of Hastings and Prince Edward companies and a squadron of the 48th Royal Tanks met little success. Demolition of all bridges over the many small streams between the Conca and Riccione held up the armour, but during the night of the 3rd–4th two Hastings companies got into the village outskirts. In the morning the tanks came up, but much hard and bitter fighting throughout the day failed to dislodge the stubborn paratroopers.15 After dark that evening the 48th Highlanders outflanked Santa Maria to the west, as Brigadier Calder developed a three-pronged attack to break the deadlock. By early morning the village and the Palazzo Ceccarini were in Canadian hands.16
A hard left hook by The Cape Breton Highlanders and The Irish Regiment of Canada won Besanigo on the morning of the 5th.17 Later in the day the 48th Highlanders crossed the four-foot wide Melo, but an attempt by the RCR to take the village of San Lorenzo in Strada, half a mile beyond, failed.18 The 1st Brigade was left at the Melo; in the four days which followed the crossing of the Conca its battalions suffered more than 300 casualties. Until the 1st British Armoured Division (in its first fight since Tunisia in the spring of 1943) could throw the Germans down off Coriano, the Canadian flank and left rear would be exposed to the enemy’s command
ing observation and fire, which had a four-mile sweep across the alternation of grain plot and vineyard from the ridge to the sea. Coriano remained untaken, and both right and centre began to be afflicted by the paralysis that had stricken the left.
General Leese was not surprised when the 1st Division was delayed by the enemy’s retention of the ribbon of houses along the coast, nor when the precipitous nature of the country in the 5th Corps’ sector kept the 56th British and 4th Indian Divisions echeloned back on the left flank. He had counted, however, on breaking across the Marano in the centre with the 5th Canadian and 1st British Armoured Divisions and quickly reaching the new line which air photographs disclosed the enemy was preparing in the high ground south-west of Rimini.19 But continued German tenancy of Coriano and the Gemmano feature some four and a half miles to the southwest were difficult tactical complications. The full weight and density of the enemy’s reserves had taken effect. Decisively assisted by the now considerable concentration of artillery at their disposal,*
* Statistics compiled by the Canadian Corps show that for the period 25 August to 28 October the Germans had on the Corps’ front an average artillery strength of 158 field, 56 medium and 14 heavy guns, 36 Nebelwerfers and 161 mortars; the Corps itself had under command 240 field, 64 medium and 16 heavy guns (besides regimental and support mortars).20
the Germans snatched a hard-fought success. The Eighth Army’s advance was blocked, its momentum lost. That night a blanket of drenching showers covered the front. Gloomily the Canadian Corps’ Meteorological Officer predicted unsettled weather for several days. By the morning of the 6th the tracks were already slippery as dust began turning into slime. The Marano, which was to have been crossed on the 4th, was to flow on, unassailed until the 14th.21
Leese was now faced with the alternatives of continuing an all-out offensive against the Rimini positions with the Canadian Corps, or of checking in order to build up for a major battle with the whole Army. Knowing that the Corps had been fighting hard for some ten days, and conscious of the great strength that the enemy had concentrated against it, he did not feel justified in committing the Canadians with neither reserves nor rest directly into the low ground ahead, and on an open flank. He determined, therefore, to halt them and regroup the Eighth Army. He informed General Burns of his decision on the morning of the 6th, telling him that in addition to the 3rd Greek Mountain Brigade, newly arrived from the Middle East, he proposed to reinforce him with the 4th British Division supported by the 25th Army Tank Brigade (less one of its regiments). Burns was to make all necessary preparations for a deliberate assault over the Marano. General Keightley, commanding the 5th Corps, was to clear the enemy from the high ground on the left flank – specifically from Coriano and Gemmano, and the hill towns
of Montescudo and Monte Colombo. When this was done the two corps would advance simultaneously over the river.22
Farther to the west Allied troops had yet to close with that formidable length of the Gothic Line into which the remainder of the German forces were now retiring in accordance with an order issued by Kesselring on 29 August.23 The weakening of the enemy’s centre by the transfer of reinforcements to his left wing made it easier for the Fifth Army to concentrate forward in readiness to go over to the offensive. While the 2nd US Corps moved into its attack zone about Florence, the 4th Corps followed the enemy over the Arno, clearing to the northern edge of the Tuscan plain. With the occupation of Pisa on 2 September, Lucca on the 5th and Pistoia on the 12th the American left wing reached the Apennine barrier, and, it may be observed, gained objectives assigned by General Alexander three months before (above, p. 462).24 The time was evidently drawing near for him to unleash the Fifth Army and deliver the second punch of the two-handed attack which he had had in mind since early August.25
He visited the Eighth Army’s front on 8 September to see how things here were likely to affect the timing of the Fifth Army’s attack north of Florence. In the afternoon he called on General Burns at his headquarters to discuss the situation and ask about the state of the Canadian Corps.26 What he saw convinced him that the advance to Rimini could not be continued until the enemy had been driven off the Coriano Ridge. This would take several more days of preparation. Alexander’s original intention had been for the American attack to go in when the Eighth Army had broken through into the plains. But further delay, either through wet weather or the arrival of more enemy reserves in the battle zone, would prejudice the success of the whole operation. The weather had now improved, and a fine spell could not be missed. Accordingly he decided to start the Fifth Army off at once and to give General Clark the full air support he desired. He intended to switch the air forces back again to the Adriatic as the Eighth Army approached the defences south-west of Rimini: they would then be most essential. “It was a pity to lose the total air support in this way during the softening-up period”, General Leese wrote later, “but I am sure that from the point of view of the successful issue of the campaign as a whole, this was the best decision; and in actual fact we had sufficient for our needs.”27
General Clark was ready to go, but on 8 September, the same day that the Commander-in-Chief decided to strike, a further enemy withdrawal eased the way forward for the 13th Corps, and enabled it to take over the hills south of the Sieve River. Two days later the British Corps and the 2nd US Corps began probing the outer defences of the Gothic Line. The advance in that sector might first have seemed to the Germans to be nothing more than a move to keep contact; but when strongpoints within four miles of the Giogo
Pass were captured on the 12th, it became clear that our activity in the centre was a major assault on the Line there.28 That night the Eighth Army renewed its efforts against Coriano Ridge, and in the early hours of the 13th the Fifth Army attacked the main German positions in the mountains. “This”, writes Alexander, “marked the beginning of a week of perhaps the heaviest fighting on both fronts that either Army had yet experienced.”29
The Capture of Coriano Ridge, 13 September
General Leese’s changed plan of operations, as made known on 9 September, would bring the Eighth Army to Ravenna and to the north in three phases. His intentions against Coriano were to have both his corps converge upon the ridge, using the 5th Canadian and 1st Armoured Divisions and covering them by all available artillery – a total of 700 guns. To the left, the 5th Corps would mount an attack on Croce with the 56th (London) Division, while sending the 46th, supported by the 4th Indian Division, to clear the Gemmano ridge and then capture Montescudo. In the second phase of the battle both corps would close up to the Marano and secure bridgeheads, the 1st Canadian Division on the right, the British 4th Infantry (having passed through the 5th Canadian) and 1st Armoured Divisions on the left, where they could overlook the river by capturing the Ripabianca ridge, west of Coriano. General Keightley would protect the left flank by the continued advance of his 46th and 56th Divisions through the hills.30
The third and final phase would carry the Eighth Army across the Marecchia. While the 5th Corps came up on the left with all four divisions, the Canadian Corps would first capture the island of higher ground which rose out of the plain north of the Marano, and was surmounted by the villages of San Martino in Monte l’Abate and San Lorenzo in Correggiano. The Canadians would then scale the wall of San Fortunato which the enemy was busy fortifying over against Rimini. When the Army had thrown bridgeheads over the Marecchia, General Bums would pass either one or both of the 2nd New Zealand and 5th Canadian Armoured Divisions through to exploit.31 On 4 September General Leese had placed the New Zealand Division under the Canadian Corps for planning purposes only. The New Zealanders were now commanded by Maj-Gen. C. E. Weir, who had taken over when Lt-Gen. Freyberg was injured in an aircraft crash on the 3rd.32 During the next ten days General Burns was to have frequent discussions with Generals Weir and Hoffmeister concerning the pattern that the exploitation should follow.33
It was vital for the success of the Army plan, as General Leese explained, that the 5th Corps should be able to keep up the momentum necessary to
contain as many German divisions as possible in the battle on its front. The Army Commander’s chief difficulty lay in the fact that the ground rose gradually inland from the sea, and that there was always some high feature on his left flank to interfere with the forward movement of the troops in the coastal sector. He decided to offset this disadvantage by forcing the Germans to dissipate their fire across their entire line, and by arranging for liberal supplies of smoke with which to protect the advancing troops after they had exposed their left flank to observation from the high ground. “I relied for success”, he summed up, “on decisive and determined break-in action by the Canadian Corps in the coastal sector, and by sustained offensive action by 5th Corps on the left, in order to pin down the enemy all along their Corps front.”34
On 10 September Bums issued his instructions for the battle. The intention read: “1 Canadian Corps will break through and destroy enemy between Rimini 8597 and the line Coriano 8787 – Ospedaletto 8589 – S. Martino 7695 [five miles west and two south of Rimini] and debouch into the Po Valley.”35 The Corps operation was to take place in eight phases – an unusually large number of stages for the development of a planned attack. Briefly they were as follows: the 5th Canadian Armoured Division to attack and capture Coriano Ridge; the 4th British Division to pass through and seize the northern end of the Ripabianca ridge; the same division to cross the Marano and occupy the high ground about Ospedaletto and San Patrignano; the 1st Canadian Division to secure a bridgehead over the Marano and attack the ridge on which San Martino and San Lorenzo stood; the 4th Division to advance to the River Ausa and link up with the Canadians; the 1st Canadian Division to swing towards the sea and contain the enemy to the east; the 1st Canadian and 4th Divisions to attack respectively the San Fortunato feature and the high ground to the south-west; finally, both divisions to advance and establish bridgeheads across the Marecchia River.36
The plan to throw the Germans off Coriano was a simple one. The British would come at the southern end of the ridge from the direction of San Clemente. From the elbow of the Besanigo spur the Canadians (the 11th Infantry Brigade with the Westminsters and squadrons of the 5th Armoured Brigade under command) would attack westward across the intervening valley, down which the, Besanigo stream flowed to join the Melo. Enemy reported by patrols to lie in force on the near bank were to be driven off by gunfire. The sappers were briefed to clear away mines and prepare crossings for the tanks of the New Brunswick Hussars, one squadron of which was assigned to each battalion of the infantry. Of these The Cape Breton Highlanders would go for the north end of Coriano Ridge, the Perths 500 yards to the south, and the Irish would pass through and mop up. The Westminsters, with a squadron of Lord Strathcona’s Horse, would be ready
to exploit success; the other squadrons would provide continuous support with their guns.37
On the same day that these orders were given the Army Group Commander notified Leese that the Fifth Army’s assault of the Gothic Line would start on 13 September, and directed that the Eighth Army should in the meantime drive the enemy north of the Marano in order that its main attack on the Rimini position might be launched on the 14th.38 The Eighth Army could not, however, meet this schedule (the arrival of the 4th Division had been delayed by heavy rain which washed away the Bailey bridges over the Foglia), and the Canadian advance was not resumed until the 13th.39 The 11th Canadian Brigade’s attack was timed to begin two hours after that of the 1st Armoured Division’s on the left. There the 43rd Indian (Gurkha) Lorried Infantry Brigade started off across the slopes against Passano at 11:00 p.m. on the 12th. By midnight the battalions were on their objectives, and though house clearing by the 18th Lorried Infantry Brigade in San Savino was slower, the Canadian flank was now secure. Promptly at one o’clock on the morning of the 13th the entire corps artillery began bringing down barrages on the enemy’s front and concentration on either flank to prevent his reinforcement from right or left.40
The guns had been firing deceptive shoots for some days previously, and this shattering climax left the enemy so stunned and confused that the leading Canadian elements were able to close with his positions in the darkness. The Cape Breton Highlanders had early success on their right, where they passed well clear of Coriano; but their left companies ran into mines at the crossing in front of the town and had to advance through the heavy defensive fire which the thoroughly aroused enemy was bringing down.41 Other things went wrong. Wireless communications broke down and the battle became difficult to control. South of Coriano, however, the Perths were on the ridge by 2:30 a.m.; they brought up their reserve companies, and in the next two hours made themselves firm within 3000 yards of the town.42
It was time for the armour to come up. The Engineers had followed the infantry into the valley with three “Sherman-dozers” to gouge out the Besanigo’s steep banks, which were too high for the tanks to climb. Two of these bulldozers broke down, and the sappers had to work in the open under fire; but by half-past five the crossings behind the Perths were ready, and the New Brunswick Hussars rumbled through at first light, followed within an hour by the tanks supporting the Irish and The Cape Breton Highlanders. During the night the Perths had been menaced by German tanks moving around their objective, but now the presence of Canadian armour on the ridge kept the enemy from attempting to counter-attack, although the Panzer Grenadiers in Coriano were to resist the Irish bitterly all day. The defenders had sited their own tanks in the town, and had turned each house
into a stronghold, from which the attackers had to extract them almost one by one. It was nine o’clock next morning (14 September) before Brigadier Johnston’s headquarters could report the town clear, and midday before the castle-topped mound on the western outskirts was proved free of Germans.43 The Irish and the New Brunswick Hussars captured one tank intact, and took 60 prisoners. That was by no means the whole tally, however, for as the Canadians battered their way in from the north, the mass ‘of the garrison flowed out over the slopes to the south to fall into the hands of the British, who counted fourteen officers and 775 other ranks passing through their divisional cage on the 13th.44 That night the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division was to report “considerable losses in men and materiel”.45 The fighting on 13 September cost the 11th Canadian Brigade 210 casualties. Hardest hit were The Cape Breton Highlanders, who lost 22 killed and 63 wounded.
As the Irish were so deeply involved in Coriano, the Westminsters and their squadron of Strathconas were ordered up through the Cape Bretons to sweep the enemy off the crest to the north.46 The German machine-gunners and snipers stood their ground as long as they dared, but by half-past four in the afternoon they had gone, leaving a dozen corpses and some 80 prisoners behind them.47 Two things in particular contributed to their rout. According to General Herr, the Allied smoke-screens blinded his guns and prevented them from aiming at observed targets;*
* The effectiveness of the artillery smoke-screen was ensured by observation-and correction if necessary-from air observation posts. During September the 25-pounders of the 1st Canadian Division fired 25,000 rounds of smoke out of a total of 262,000 shells expended.48
and Allied aircraft destroyed his daylight counter-attacks and caused heavy casualties to his reserves.49 Operations of the Desert Air Force in support of the Eighth Army indeed reached a peak on the day that Coriano Ridge was captured – to be followed by a week of sustained effort at only a slightly lower level as the stubborn battle continued. During the twenty-four hours ending at sunset on 13 September DAF aircraft dropped more than 500 tons of bombs, flying 900 sorties, 700 of them against targets on the, immediate battlefield.50
The beginning of the battle had thus yielded good results, and the great thing now was not to miss a moment in hitting the enemy hard again, giving him no chance to make a fight of it at the Marano. The 5th Corps had loosened his grip on the hills to the left, and though opposed by strong counter-attack, General Keightley’s forces were climbing into position to close up to the river when the Army should surge forward again on the morrow. Prompt action by the Corps would prevent the Germans from impeding the crossing either by clinging to the Ripabianca ridge or striking from new positions on the slopes behind Ospedaletto. The troops of the
5th Canadian Armoured Division, having fulfilled their part of the operation, were relieved by units of the 4th British Division, and withdrew to concentration areas about San Giovanni for rest and reorganization.51 Although they did not know it, their aggressive tactics had won them added stature in German eyes. An analysis of Allied fighting methods submitted by the 76th Corps’ Chief of Staff on 11 September contained the significant observation: “Enemy armoured formations, particularly Canadian tanks, no longer sensitive to artillery fire, but carry on even under heaviest fire concentrations.”52
The enemy was in a bad way. His formations holding the line on the 12th were now shaken and bleeding. Besides the 29th Panzer Grenadiers, on whom the brunt of the attack against Coriano had fallen, the 71st and 98th Infantry and 26th Panzer Divisions had all been badly mauled. In poorest shape were the already depleted 98th and 71st Divisions, opposing the 5th Corps on General Herr’s mountainous right flank.53 Ravaging bombardment and furious assault had caught the Germans sooner than they had expected. They had known that the spring was being coiled, but they were surprised that it had been released so quickly.54
To Kesselring the day’s intelligence came as a shock, as the record of his telephone conversation with his Army Commander reveals:–
Kesselring: I have just returned and heard the terrible news. Will you please inform me of the situation.
von Vietinghoff: The depth of the penetrations cannot be ascertained with accuracy as yet. ... The front has been greatly weakened.
Kesselring: We must realize that tomorrow will be a day of great crisis.
von Vietinghoff: We are certain of this; all day we have been racking our brains about how to help, but we have nothing left.55
There were indeed no reserves ready to throw in before the German formations in the line were bled beyond recovery – although three divisions were on the way. At the end of August the Fourteenth Army had been ordered to send the 20th Air Force Field Division (Maj-Gen. Erich Fronhofer) to the Adriatic as an army group reserve,56 and on 6 September Kesselring had telephoned General Lemelsen to transfer the 356th Infantry Division to the Tenth Army.57 On the same day von Vietinghoff was cheered by word that the 90th Panzer Grenadier Division, which since early August had been serving with the Ligurian Army on the Franco–Italian border, was being shifted to the Po Valley, west of Ferrara, a change of location which brought it within 100 miles of the Rimini battle front.58 But on the 13th all three divisions were still concentrating, and could not yet be committed. At least one of them had been considerably delayed as a result of interdiction by Allied bombers. On 10 September the Tenth Army’s war diary noted that “as the stretch of railway line from Rimini to Bologna is being bombarded
steadily and systematically by the enemy air force, entrainment of 356 Inf Div formations cannot take place on the section Imola–Forlimpopoli, and the Division is entirely dependent on marching.”59 Yet even with these new forces available there was no certainty as to which part of the front would take the next blow, and the situation was now further complicated by the launching of the Fifth Army’s attack in the centre.60
In these desperate straits the enemy gained the breathing space he needed by the Allied inability to exploit the successes of the 13th. The 1st British Armoured Division was prevented from advancing farther that day by the discovery that the Fornaci stream, which had seemed to trickle innocently between them and the Marano, had been swollen by the rain into an obstacle for tanks. Farther north the relief of the Canadian Armoured Division, which was to have taken place on the 13th, was delayed until next morning by heavy shelling of the 4th Division’s leading brigade as it came forward to attack through the Canadian positions.61 On the 14th Kesselring passed his crisis.
Beyond and below the Allies’ newly won outposts on Coriano Ridge the Marano River was still a mile away to the north and north-west; a mile farther on the defensible hump of San Lorenzo in Correggiano blocked the way to Rimini; two more miles and the last isolated spur of the foothills darkened the skyline at San Fortunato and Le Grazie. The sudden capture of Coriano merely confronted the Canadians with these further obstructions; just as every other gain by the Eighth Army on the Adriatic coast had been succeeded by new obstacles during the long, wasting progress northward from the Biferno. “It was a hard fight”, said General Leese of the winning of Coriano, “and a decisive action in the battle.”62 But it was only the beginning. The capture of Coriano Ridge introduced a week of fighting in which the Eighth Army was to suffer an average of 145 killed and 600 wounded every day, and from which it would not completely recover for many months.63
First Crossings Over the Marano, 14 September
During the night of 13–14 September British sappers bridged the Fornaci, and early next morning the 4th Division began pushing forward across the narrow ravine.64 Between them and the sea the Canadian right wing had come to life again. After a week of patrolling and small-scale action by raiding parties from both sides, the 1st Division launched its drive to seize a bridgehead across the Marano with two fresh brigades. The 3rd Canadian
Brigade had relieved the 1st astride the Melo on 7 September, and had then quietly sidestepped westward as the 3rd Greek Mountain Brigade, assigned by General Leese to the Canadian Corps to gain battle experience,65 secretly took over a 200-yard sector south of San Lorenzo in Strada (which was still in German hands). By a common irony of war the Greeks were committed, not in the mountains according to their training, but in the coastal flats, where their role was not expected to involve much heavy fighting. On their right were The Royal Canadian Dragoons, charged with clearing the narrow but closely built-up strip between Highway No. 16 and the sea.66
In the early hours of the 14th the Greeks broke gallantly forward towards the Marano. Their task was to secure the right flank of the Canadian attack by capturing a number of enemy-held farmhouses along the river road running south-west from San Lorenzo in Strada. Although their own right was under continuous fire from German paratroopers in San Lorenzo (which was not taken until the morning of the 15th), they cleared a number of these strongpoints – the most troublesome being the Case Monaldini and Casa Monticelli in the centre of their front – at a cost of more than 100 casualties.67 For this and subsequent operations the brigade was strengthened by New Zealand forces – a tank squadron from the 20th Armoured Regiment and a company of the 22nd (Motor) Battalion, which had been brought up to Riccione on 13 September as a reserve.68 Also under the Greek Commander, Colonel Thrassivoulos Tsakalotos, were six troops of anti-tank guns, drawn from the three batteries of the 1st Anti-Tank Regiment RCA, as well as the reorganized Saskatoon Light Infantry’s mortar company and one of its three machine-gun companies. These Canadian sub-units had joined the Greek forces when the 3rd Canadian Brigade was relieved, and they remained in action with them until after the fall of Rimini.69
The 3rd Canadian Brigade, attacking west of the Greeks, was temporarily under the command of Lt-Col. M. P. Bogert, who had taken over on 5 September when Brigadier Bernatchez was hurt in a flying accident.70 On the left The West Nova Scotia Regiment had a harsh and noisy morning under fire from every weapon that the Germans could bring to bear, as well as from some Allied guns, so confused and ill-reported was their situation.71 Though they became involved in house-clearing with bayonet and grenade in the Ghetto del Molino, a hamlet on the river road about a mile southwest of San Lorenzo in Strada, the right bank of the Marano was theirs by noon, except for some persistent enemy pockets and two troublesome self-propelled guns. Then came their master-stroke. One of their companies, approaching the bridge that carried the road from Coriano, saw that it had not been blown. A platoon officer, Lieutenant G. M. Hebb (later killed in action), with great courage dashed across and tore the wires from the charges – and the road to the north lay open.72 The right battalion, the
Royal 22e, after a costly morning full of casualties made themselves firm beyond the river, together with the 12th Royal Tanks supporting them.73 The Division was now on the start line for the third phase of the battle, that must lead across the bare, harvested fields to the ominous ridge of San Lorenzo in Correggiano, the next objective of the 3rd Brigade.
The tenacity of the attacking troops and the determination of their commanders had saved the approach to the river from coming to an ineffective halt under the fierce opposition put up by the enemy from house, trench, and tank. There was a brief thirty-minute postponement of H Hour for the next phase, and at half-past two both battalions pressed forward again, while the guns bombarded the way in front of them. The enemy replied vigorously with all his guns and mortars. The deadliest fire came from his armour and anti-tank guns, some concealed on the high ground ahead, some lurking in positions at the bends of the Marano to the east of the Canadian crossing-places. It took the leading sections of the Royal 22e two hours to cover 200 yards through the fields. The battalion’s objective was the northern half of the long feature, held by troops of the 1st Parachute Division, but its approach to San Martino would take it obliquely across the front of the 29th Panzer Grenadiers in San Lorenzo.74 Three times the “Van Doos” assaulted, but each time they were driven back with heavy casualties until at last the sun went down and twilight hid them from view. They had still gone only half way to the ridge, but further advance was impossible until the battalion on the left had secured San Lorenzo. On orders from the acting Brigade Commander the Royal 22e dug in about a mile north-west of the river.75 The battalion’s blackest day of the war had cost it 32 killed and 61 wounded.
The West Novas’ effort had been equally fruitless. One of their companies was reported to have reached San Lorenzo through the dreadful turmoil of the afternoon’s struggle, but one by one the accompanying British tanks had been destroyed and the infantry had been beaten back. At seven that evening two companies had attacked again without armoured support. They failed to reach the top. Last light found the battalion consolidated about half a mile short of San Lorenzo. The brigade would evidently have to make a more deliberate effort against San Lorenzo, which as a breakwater to San Fortunato was holding back the tide of the Canadian attack. That the enemy might be given no time to recover a new attempt was ordered for 3:30 in the morning.76
The situation was similarly unresolved but a little more promising in General Burns’ left sector, where the 12th Brigade of the 4th Division had secured the north-eastern tip of the Ripabianca ridge, and in a scattered action on the farther side had driven down to the Marano and seized a bridgehead at Ospedaletto. That was as far as General Ward’s troops could
go that night. With the hill village of San Patrignano looming 300 feet above them in the darkness the sappers pushed a bridge over to be ready for the 28th Brigade to cross at first light on the 15th.77 The enemy had now lost the entire Ripabianca ridge, for the 5th Corps had closed up in strength on the Canadian left. The 1st Armoured Division held positions on the ridge due west of Coriano, and on their left the 56th Infantry Division overlooked the Marano from the vicinity of Sensoli. Farther south Monte Colombo had fallen to the 46th Division, which was now menacing Montescudo.78
General von Vietinghoff, quick to appreciate that the battle was about to be joined on the next range of hills behind the Marano, took prompt action. He relieved the battered 98th Division in the Montescudo sector with the 356th, which had at last arrived, and ordered the 20th Air Force Field Division forward to the Rimini area. He pulled out the remnants of the 71st Division and packed his front with infantry at the point of greatest pressure by closing in on the centre from both flanks.79 He relied on this concentration, backed by his artillery, the rough terrain and the onset of an autumn climate which impeded manoeuvre, to hold the Allied attack.
The 3rd Brigade Takes San Lorenzo in Correggiano, 15 September
Busy with this regrouping, the enemy could not keep either of General Leese’s corps from making some headway on the 15th. The 5th Corps finished its scouring south of the Conca, as the 4th Indian Division finally cleared the Gemmano ridge. North of the river the 46th Division took Montescudo, but was stopped on the crest west of the village. On General Keightley’s right flank both the 56th Division and the 1st Armoured Division were across the Marano, and holding off German counter-attacks.80 In the sector of the Canadian Corps the 1st Division and the 4th British renewed their thrust forward from the river.
The pre-dawn attack by the West Novas against San Lorenzo in Correggiano failed – the seriously depleted squadron of the 12th Royal Tanks being in no condition to provide effective aid. Another squadron was ordered forward, and at half-past eight infantry and tanks went in together.81 Over the bare fields salvoes of mortar bombs cracked and spouted. A Tiger tank engaged, was hit and set on fire., The enemy opened up with his machine-guns and called down his artillery, taking further heavy toll. One of the attacking companies lost all its officers. Control was disrupted when the enemy shelled for more than an hour the house occupied by Battalion Headquarters. The action grew confused, but the West Novas, drawing
strong support from the skilfully led British armour, fought their way forward slowly and stubbornly, until by early afternoon they gained a foothold among the outlying shell-battered buildings of San Lorenzo. By four o’clock they had taken the main part of the village – a score of houses clustered on the crest, with the church, as usual, on the highest ground of all. Every available man and weapon were ordered forward to help consolidate, and by half-past six all was secure.82
The 3rd Brigade had done equally well in mounting the feature farther north towards San Martino in Monte l’Abate. Aided by the progress of the attack on their left, the Royal 22e, reinforced by a squadron of the 48th Royal Tanks, pushed off at half-past two in the afternoon. Their first objective was the Palazzo des Vergers, which lay about 500 yards north of San Lorenzo, just east of the road along the ridge. This balustraded mansion of 700 rooms, with its deep cellarage providing ample protection for headquarters staffs, and its flat roof giving long perspectives over the surrounding country, was an attractive possession for either side. Almost at once five of the British tanks were knocked out – two of them hit from the Rimini airfield over on the right. Then the squadron commander’s tank fell victim, and he himself was killed. Nevertheless, in the face of vicious fire from enemy small arms and tanks the infantry, covered effectively by their own artillery, dashed across the open ground to the ridge, made their way relentlessly up into the grounds of the Palazzo, and with the help of the tanks which were still running, took the place by storm. With this prize in hand the force wheeled to the right and set off northward astride the road leading to the dozen scattered houses which made up San Martino. The manoeuvre stirred up a hornet’s nest of machine-guns on the reverse slopes of the ridge, and when the tanks went down to silence them they became exposed to the full view of the enemy over towards San Fortunato and lost another of their number.83 One Royal 22e company and its tanks reached the church on the northernmost knoll and drove the enemy out of the nearby houses. The main ridge now appeared to be secure, although the enemy still held a group of houses on the west side of the hamlet, and there might be harm lurking on the Belvedere spur – a 150-foot rise crowned by farm buildings, half a mile to the south-west of San Martin – or anywhere in the flats beyond, where 3rd Brigade patrols were already feeling forward towards the Ausa.84
But actually the situation at San Martino was more precarious than was realized, for although the two forward battalions now had their supporting weapons with them, there were still enemy prowling about on the ridge itself and among the fields eastward towards the sea, where the 48th Highlanders and the RCR, ordered forward on the morning of the 15th, were unable to get past the airfield.85 Then things began to go wrong. The Canadian
positions at San Lorenzo and at the Palazzo were firm enough, but the exposed knoll of San Martin was allowed to, slip back into enemy hands. During the night of 15–16 September General Vokes moved his reserve brigade up to the San Lorenzo ridge in preparation for the assault on San Fortunato. Unfortunately, presumably through faulty liaison in a confused situation, the Royal 22e company at San Martino was withdrawn*
* The CO of the Royal 22e later declared that “the unit [Seaforth] did not take over our Company localities but took positions as given to them by their CO” Fearing to be caught by daylight, on orders from his own brigade headquarters, he withdrew his company.86 On the other hand a 2nd Brigade account states that “during the takeover ... the actual group of buildings of S. Martino ... were not occupied by R. 22e R., who were holding the high ground this side.”87
before the relieving Seaforth Highlanders had taken over.88 Quick to seize the opportunity, some of Heidrich’s paratroopers, creeping in from fire-trench and dug-out on the reverse slopes, and covered very accurately by their guns on San Fortunato, repossessed the village and prepared to exploit its obvious tactical advantage to the full. When the leading platoon of the Seaforth went up on the morning of the 16th to occupy San Martino, members of the 1st Parachute Regiment declared themselves as garrison with bursts of fire which quickly sent the Canadians to ground.89 Misjudgement and fatigue on our side and the initiative of some fifty determined men on the German had changed the tactical face of things, and this easy focal victory for the enemy was to affect the course of the main battle for the next three days. The Canadian Corps’ right and centre had been halted nearly two miles away from their main objectives; the 2nd Brigade was still 900 yards short of the start line along the embankment of the Rimini–San Marino railway. So long as the enemy remained in full surveillance of the battlefield from San Fortunato, General Bums’ left would also be held up.
On that flank the 4th British Division, attacking from its bridgehead at Ospedaletto, had troubles of its own. The lie of the land across the Marano was similar to that at Coriano and the region to the south, reproducing the rolling hills and open valleys devoid of cover and the higher elevations to the north and west where the German observers took range for their guns. Higher still, clinging none too effectively to its neutrality, stood the Republic of San Marino, its triple peak of Mount Titano rising more than 2400 feet above sea-level. It would have been surprising if the Germans had refrained from using such heights to watch the course of the battle and direct the fire of their artillery. (A 76th Panzer Corps map of 16 September shows the enemy’s “Rimini Line” cutting obliquely across the miniature state, and subsequent situation traces reveal the 278th Infantry Division holding positions inside the Republic’s boundaries.)90 Nearer to hand, San Fortunato and the spur carrying Cerasolo, right and left of the front on which the
4th Division was to attack, threatened to make the upper Ausa an expensive crossing.
Early on the 15th the 28th Brigade pushed north-westward through the Ospedaletto bridgehead, captured Patrignano, and gained the road along the crest half way to the river. But they were now overlooked from Cerasolo, which, lying within the 5th Corps boundary, was still an untaken objective of the 1st Armoured Division. The 4th Division’s forward battalions were heavily shelled and mortared for the rest of the day and got no farther.91 Next morning the 28th Brigade’s Commander, Brigadier P. G. C. Preston, brought in his reserve battalion to clear his forward slopes; but although early objectives were taken, a strong counter blow drove back the attackers, wiping out one of their platoons and releasing its prisoners.92 It was clear that until the Germans had been driven out of Cerasolo there was little hope of reaching the Ausa. Accordingly Burns arranged with Keightley to extend the Canadian Corps’ operations westward in order that the 4th Division might attack the troublesome feature.93
The 16th was no better a day for the right wing or centre. The Greeks were making slow and heavy progress by the sea. They reported many paratroopers and Turcomans killed and a smaller number captured; but in the struggle across the fire-swept open flats surrounding the thickly mined Rimini airfield their battalions (which were organized at only three-company strength) suffered losses difficult to replace.94 On their left the leading troops of the 1st Canadian Brigade, who were in full view from San Martino, were being subjected to exceptionally heavy shelling and mortaring. The Royal Canadian Regiment had edged forward to the north-west corner of the airfield. The 48th Highlanders, greatly determined but badly cut up, reached a road junction half a mile south-east of the dominating knoll.. But for hours the situation was very difficult. Incessant enemy sniping and accurately placed mortar bombs kept all heads down, and the supporting squadron of the 48th Royal Tanks was badly smashed, up by fire from anti-tank guns and Faustpatronen.95
The day’s fighting produced a noteworthy example of the good work done by junior infantry leaders throughout the Italian campaign. Corporal N. J. McMahon, of the RCR, was in command of the foremost section in the leading platoon of the company attacking towards the Rimini airfield. When machine-gun fire from a nearby house held up the advance, on his own initiative’ he led his men across fire-swept ground to assault the enemy post. In a hand-to-hand fight they killed twelve of the defenders, estimated at a platoon in strength, captured two and put the remainder to flight. Then McMahon, who had personally accounted for five or six Germans, pushed on with his section to seize the company objective. His bravery and initiative brought him the DCM.96
The Reverse at San Martino in Monte l’Abate, 16–18 September
Continued enemy control of San Martino had prevented Brigadier Gibson’s units from completing the relief of the 3rd Brigade. A renewed attack by the Seaforth about mid-afternoon of the 16th had not availed to throw the Germans off the northern end of the ridge; although that evening the Royal 22e and 48th Royal Tanks did succeed in capturing the spur which projected to the south-west – the Belvedere – after a sharp fight against the 15th Panzer Grenadiers which miraculously cost the Canadians no casualties. The victors spent a wakeful night on the alert against attempted counter-attack, and had to fight to hold the position all through the next day. It was not until 8:00 p.m. on the 17th that they could let their tanks go to harbour.97
Elsewhere on the Canadian front the 17th brought little improvement in the tactical situation. The divisional reconnaissance regiment. The Royal Canadian Dragoons, scrambling mostly on foot over the rubble of seaside villas, reached the Fossa Rodella, a narrow ditch a few yards north of the Rimini airfield. The day’s excursion up the strip of coast from the Marano had yielded six German machine-gun posts and three 75s, one of them intact.98 The Greeks, slowly but systematically advancing on either side of the airfield, reached the north-eastern corner, where a dug-in Panther turret which had taken a heavy toll of British armour was destroyed in a daring attack by a single New Zealand tank manoeuvring into range under a smokescreen.99 But persistent efforts by Brigadier Calder’s two battalions in an afternoon attack coordinated with another by the Seaforth on their left came to nothing. At the end of their second day of fighting the RCR had lost 74 officers and men, and the 48th Highlanders 86. With their numbers thus seriously reduced, each battalion was compelled to combine the survivors of two companies into one, and continue operations with only three rifle companies.100
The unsuccessful Seaforth attempt to take San Martino was a costly affair, particularly to the supporting 48th Royal Tank squadron, which from two troops of Shermans and two of Churchills engaged lost six tanks.101 Aided by an extensive fire plan in which all available guns*
* The artillery of the 1st and 5th Canadian Divisions, the 2nd New Zealand Division and the 1st Army Group RCA.102
participated, the attacking “A” and “C” Companies worked their way northward from the Palazzo des Vergers under cover of a thick smoke-screen; but though some infantry sections managed to come within fifty yards of the houses on the knoll, they were beaten back. German artillery on San Fortunato had
every yard of ground about San Martino carefully registered, and the paratroopers there had adopted the effective measure of retiring into dug-outs on the approach of an attacking force, and calling down defensive fire upon the village from their own guns.103 Yet the need to secure the whole of the ridge was most urgent. Shortly before midnight, after a conference between Brigadier Gibson and Lt-Col. Thomson, the Seaforth CO, “B” and “D” companies launched the second Seaforth attack of the day. They encountered the same murderous fire, withdrew, re-formed, moved in again, and again had to withdraw.104 Throughout the night stretcher parties were busy combing the battlefield by the light of burning buildings and haystacks. The Seaforth losses for 17 September were 29 killed, 44 wounded and 17 taken prisoner – a single day’s toll exceeded only by the unit’s casualties on 23 May in the Hitler Line. So San Martino remained the hard core of the enemy’s resistance south of Rimini. With one of his assault brigades for the attack on San Fortunato thus entangled on this intermediate objective, General Vokes was unable to begin his advance across the Ausa until the 18th, and then faced the certainty that his troops would have to fight for their start line.
The fighting in the hills on the Corps’ left flank delayed the 4th Division’s approach to the Ausa until midnight on 17–18 September. The 28th Brigade’s attack on Cerasolo at first light on the 17th succeeded, but the north-eastern extension of the ridge along the Frisoni spur had to be left for a final assault that night. During the day troops of the divisional reconnaissance regiment worked around it to the right and made contact with the 3rd Canadian Brigade reaching across from south of San Lorenzo. General Ward’s misgivings about being in position in time for the ensuing phase of the Corps’ battle were dispelled, however, when the 6th Black Watch, temporarily under Brigadier Preston’s command from the 12th Brigade, cleared the Frisoni spur half an hour before midnight.105
General Burns had emphasized to Ward the need for the offensive to be carried across the Ausa not later than the 18th and for the timing of the two divisions to coincide if possible.106 As things turned out, however, it was the right wing rather than the left that dragged. When the divisional commanders compared their plans with the Corps Commander on the afternoon of the 17th, Ward proposed to try to get two battalions over the river during the night. General Vokes thought it would be better to clear the ground between his outposts and the Ausa in daylight since the area was still thick with the enemy. It was agreed that each would follow his own plans. After further conference with General Keightley, whose attack on the left would reinforce the effect of the Canadian Corps’ operations, Burns explained his proposals to the Army Commander. Sir Oliver approved.107
The Fighting at the River Ausa, 17–19 September
The obstacle confronting the Corps beyond the Ausa, and which the enemy had selected to be the anchor of his “Rimini Line”, was much greater physically than either the Coriano or San Lorenzo ridges. A bold promontory reaching into the plain from the foothills north of the San Marino Republic, the San Fortunato mass rose sharply to a maximum height of 470 feet above the surrounding country. From the hamlet of Le Grazie, perched on the coastal end less than a mile from the outskirts of Rimini, the ridge extended south-westward for two miles in a rough crescent which had its back to the Ausa. The small San Fortunato village which gave its name to the whole feature*
* While the Allies applied the appellation San Fortunato to the whole ridge, locally the entire feature is known as Covignano.108
consisted of a group of houses clustered about a church on the eastern slope near the central and highest part of the crest. A winding road, in places worn down between 20-foot banks of earth and shale, wandered the length of the ridge, and from a handful of houses marked Covignano on the map, midway between San Fortunato and Le Grazie, a similar sunken track branched westward to San Lorenzo in Monte – another tiny hamlet standing on a projection pointing towards the Marecchia. A mile south-west of San Fortunato the ground dropped to a low saddle, from the far side of which the foothills village of Sant’ Aquilina looked across the Ausa valley to the Frisoni ridge. Sant’ Aquilina was itself dominated by the two prongs of the Ceriano spur – Mount Fagiolo to the north-west and Monte dell’ Arboreta to the south-west. The interdivisional boundary for the Corps attack made the 4th Division responsible for the saddle and the adjoining ends of both the higher features. The Canadian objectives were laid along the main San Fortunato ridge.
The air and artillery attack had already begun. A very heavy bombardment before daylight on the 17th harassed the Germans on the San Fortunato ridge for four hours and immediately afterwards two Canadian and three New Zealand field regiments began supporting the 4th British Division’s assault on the left. The fire was continued and intensified until 5:00 a.m. on the 18th, when the guns opened up in support of the 1st Division’s attack to the Ausa. Smoke-screens were laid to cover the approach of the leading battalions to their start line and smoke shells lobbed on the ridge guided the bombers to their targets.109 General Vokes’ Commander Royal Artillery, Brigadier W. S. Ziegler, had under his control for the main cannonade the guns of four divisions (the 1st and 5th Canadian, the 4th British and the 2nd New Zealand), together with those of the 1st Army Group RCA. Their principal targets were known strongpoints along the ridge and particularly the German batteries sited on the farther slopes and in the flats beyond.110
The supporting fire plans were many and varied, and provided for flexibility of control. In general, they consisted of concentrations and linear targets, _generally in depth, on known enemy positions. These were so arranged in belts that portions could be stopped, paused, brought back, or refired – all at the call of the forward infantry. The fact that only those targets called for were fired on generally made it possible to make available a maximum weight of fire to meet each request.111
The gun battle would be fought out by opponents well matched, mass for mass, for when reinforcing the 76th Panzer Corps the enemy had considerably strengthened General Herr’s artillery. The latest addition had been seventeen 88s of the 590th Heavy GHQ Anti-Tank Battalion which Heidrich committed on the 17th.112 There seemed no immediate shortage of ammunition,*
* During their telephone conversations of 14 September von Vietinghoff told Kesselring with satisfaction: “Yesterday 76 Panzer Corps fired 11,000 [artillery] rounds”.113
as the Eighth Army’s attacking forces already had bitter cause to realize. But the Allied onslaught from the air would go almost unanswered, as mediums of the Tactical Air Force from the Foggia airfields and from bases in Corsica prepared to launch a demoralizing blow against the Tenth Army’s left flank.114 On the 16th the Tactical and Desert Air Forces flew 330 missions in support of the Canadian Corps.115 On the following day US Mitchells attacked troop concentrations in the Rimini area,116 and the enemy’s Intelligence reported that the defenders found themselves hampered by smoke pots, dropped by aircraft of the Desert Air Force to mark the bombline in front of the Allied forward troops.117 On the 18th the number of sorties flown against the San Fortunato feature rose to 486, as 24 light bombers, 228 medium bombers and 234 fighter-bombers were unleashed against the enemy’s strongpoints and gun positions, the fighter-bombers alone carrying 128 tons of bombs to their targets.118 Indeed, the DAF’s effort during this final week of the fighting for Rimini ended a month of close-support operations conducted on a larger scale than ever before in the Italian theatre. Between 24 August and 22 September a total of 11,510 sorties of all types were flown, 8234 of these by fighter-bombers,†
† These included attacks by the City of Windsor Squadron, which had assumed a fighter-bomber role at the end of June, when its Spitfires were fitted with racks to carry a 500-lb. bomb.119
the remainder by light and medium bombers. The, close degree of cooperation between aircraft and the troops on the ground is revealed in the fact that during this four-week period cab rank was filled 317 times, and from it 1103 fighter-bombers flew against 184 targets requested by “Rover David”, the mobile control post on the battlefield.120
Enemy testimony to the damaging blows already struck by Allied air power during the battle is not lacking. “We have tried to carry out a tank attack,” General Wentzell told Rottiger on 13 September when describing
events at Coriano, “but owing to air attacks it is impracticable. 29 Pz Gren Div alone lost 19 tanks which were moving up to the front.”121 The Tenth Army’s Chief of Staff went on to complain that his artillery was suffering from the Allied air superiority – “and when the artillery is silenced fighting becomes a murderous mess.”122 In elaborating his difficulties to the Army Group Commander, von Vietinghoff cited the vulnerability of German troop concentrations preparing to counter-attack. “If the reserves are kept near the front they are decimated by the preparatory fire; if held further back they are dispersed by attacks from the air.”123
The renewal of the battle on the night of 17–18 September brought a strange portent to the enemy as the 4th Division attacked towards the Ausa. German sentinels that night saw the omen of a battlefield illuminated by moonlight, but without a moon. The technique of employing anti-aircraft searchlights for such a purpose had been used in Italy in 1918 (when Lord Alexander, then a brigadier-general, had been on the staff of the Earl of Cavan, the commander of the British forces). During the summer of 1944 details were worked out in rear training areas, and after being successfully used by British and Canadian formations in Normandy in mid-July124 the device was introduced into operations in Italy by the 5th Corps during its attack on the Gothic Line.125 At that time Brigadier Ziegler had advanced the idea for adoption by the 1st Canadian Division. If searchlights could be deployed on high ground and on the flanks to provide cross-illumination on the principal enemy features while the infantry assaulted across the dark, low ground between, the CRA had argued, they would both create surprise and help the attacking troops to their objectives.126 Now the Canadian Corps was trying the lights for the first time, to assist the 4th Division’s attack on the flank. The artifice worked satisfactorily, and during the remainder of its fighting in Italy the Canadian Corps continued to use searchlights provided and operated by the 323rd and 422nd Searchlight Batteries RA.127
To the Germans the innovation was demoralizing. The admission is to be read in the Tenth Army’s war diary for the 19th. “At night, since 18 September, the enemy has been illuminating our part of the battle area with searchlights installed out of range of our artillery, whereby transfer and relief movements, as well as supply operations, which on the field of battle can hardly be carried out except at night, are seriously handicapped. The psychological effect produced on the troops by the battle of materiel itself is heightened by the feeling of helplessness against this new technical weapon.”128
Thus floodlit and stabbed by the flashes of many guns, the night of the 17th–18th saw the eastern wings of the Eighth and Tenth Armies locked in a battle of savage fury. At midnight on the Canadian Corps’ left the
4th Division hit across the Ausa and its annoying little tributary, the Budriolo, which emerged from a re-entrant east of Monte dell’ Arboreta to curve around Sant’ Aquilina on three sides. Although nearly dry, the stream had banks steep enough to make it an obstacle for tanks. The two assaulting brigades aimed for the hills on either side of this deep gully. On the left the 12th, commanded by Brigadier A. G. W. Heber-Percy, crossed the Ausa with tanks of the North Irish Horse and captured Sant’ Antimo, a hamlet between Monte dell’ Arboreta and the Budriolo, taking 50 prisoners and establishing a bridgehead half a mile deep. On the right the 10th (Brigadier S. N. Shoosmith), directed against Sant’ Aquilina, attacked under artificial moonlight originating from searchlights mounted on Coriano Ridge. The assaulting battalion had trouble at the Budriolo, and although its two leading companies captured a bridge intact, they could not make the passage until eight in the morning. As they moved up the right side of the valley they were heavily bombarded with mortar and artillery. Ordered to consolidate, they dug in with two tanks at the Casa Brioli, about half a mile from Sant’ Aquilina, having reached the left end of the brigade objective. By midmorning on the 18th General Ward thus had his forward troops still some 1000 yards short of the road running along crest and saddle towards San Fortunato, and in an exposed and lonely position, for neither the 1st Canadian Division on their right nor the 1st British Armoured on their left had yet crossed the Ausa.129
After seeing the Corps Commander on the afternoon of the 17th General Yokes issued new instructions to the 1st Division. The 1st Brigade was to continue to press with its two battalions across the open flats east of San Martin, in order to convey the impression that the main attack towards Rimini would come in that way. The real assault would be made with the other two brigades – the 2nd on the right and the 3rd on the left. The immediate objectives for both were the railway embankment and crossings over the Ausa; allocation of the final objectives on the ridge placed the village of San Fortunato and northward in the 2nd Brigade’s sector. From a start line running between the Belvedere and San Martino Brigadier Gibson was to assault with Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry and The Loyal Edmonton Regiment. The Edmontons were replacing the Seaforth Highlanders, who, as we have seen, were badly involved in the struggle for the northern end of the ridge. The Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment was to come under Gibson’s command for exploitation beyond San Fortunato.130 On the left the 3rd Brigade would lead off with the Carleton and Yorks from a line running 600 yards westward from San Lorenzo in Correggiano; the West Novas and the Royal 22e would then pass through at the River Ausa.131
The divisional attack started badly. At 4:00 a.m. on the 18th, only an hour or two after the Seaforths’ latest desperate attempt to take San Martino, the Loyal Edmontons moved forward to the assault, in full realization that to secure their start line for the main attack they must storm the paratroopers’ stronghold, which for three days had withstood every Canadian onslaught. “A” and “C” Companies, with tanks of the 145th Regiment Royal Armoured Corps, passed through the hard-hit Seaforth and attacked northward along the bare eastern slope of the ridge. By 5:50 they had reached the first battered houses on the San Martino knoll. For the next two hours tanks and men experienced the same inferno of automatic fire and high explosive which had assailed the Seaforth. They were finally forced to withdraw. The Edmontons had suffered casualties of 21 killed and 37 wounded; of the two troops of supporting armour only one tank was still battleworthy.132 Gibson now ordered Lt-Col. Bell-Irving to pass his reserve companies and tanks to the west of San Martino through the gap made by the Patricias. While “A” and “C” Companies, reduced to a reported combined strength of 40, dug in 500 yards below the shattered village,, “B” and “D” struck around over the Belvedere spur to follow up the apparent success on the left flank.133
Here the divisional commander’s intention had been to get the leading battalions of his 2nd and 3rd Brigades across the railway by 7:00 a.m. The first two companies of the Patricias, with tanks from another squadron of’ the 145th Regiment, had struck off from the area of the Palazzo des Vergers towards a point on the embankment about 1000 yards north-west of the empty shell of San Martino church. But as soon as they began to pick their way through the fields and vineyards on the flats they came under heavy shelling and mortaring. At ten o’clock, having outdistanced their tanks (which had been considerably hampered by the close country and had been reduced to half their strength) and being without anti-tank guns, the Patricias dug in 200 yards short of the railway and more than three hours behind schedule. The total known strength of the two companies was now only 60.134
The prospects for the 3rd Brigade were almost as blighted. The Carleton and Yorks, now under the command of Major J. P. Ensor (Lt-Col. Danby had been wounded on 14 September), took the lead with a squadron of the 12th Royal Tanks on an axis well to the west of San Lorenzo, and by eight o’clock had reached the embankment at several places 1000 to 1500 yards south-west of where the Patricias should by then have been. Here they were hotly received with fire from all arms, and a gun somewhere on the left knocked out one of the tanks. At 10:10 a.m. the battalion reported, “Leading sub-units at ‘Helldiver’ [the Ausa]”, and signalled ten minutes later that the river was a “definite tank obstacle and being held in strength.”135 By now machine-gun fire from hidden positions along the bank had begun to hit the infantry. Anti-tank fire cut into the armour; four tanks had broken
down. To add to the grim picture the forward troops were being strafed by their own aircraft.136 When the smoke drifted away, enemy watchers on San Fortunato and San Martino had no difficulty in picking their targets in the open fields in front of the Ausa, and a storm of artillery and mortar shells began bursting with deadly accuracy on the exposed attackers. At 11:10 word reached Brigade Headquarters of six enemy tanks on the far side of the stream pinning down the Carleton and Yorks. The CO estimated that to advance farther would result in 75 per cent casualties.137 Nevertheless, so vital was the need for developing tank routes across the Ausa that in the early afternoon Lt-Col. Bogert asked whether the battalion could attack again to secure the river. Ensor, assessing probable losses from the intensity of the enemy’s fire, objected that a daylight attack would be suicidal alike for the infantry and for the sappers who would have to prepare the crossings. With this opinion the acting Brigade Commander agreed, and ordered the Carletons to “firm up” their positions.138
Thus the Canadian attack petered out, its right broken at San Martino, its centre in confusion along the railway, its left stuck at the river. The forward troops lay sweating and bleeding in the low ground under direct observation for the rest of the day. In scarcely better plight the 4th British Division clung to their exposed lodgement on the slopes beyond the Ausa and the Budriolo. They could do little but wait until nightfall should enable them to assault the southern end of the San Fortunato barrier from their foothold at the Casa Brioli and Sant’ Antimo.139
The day was recorded by the Germans as one more of successful defence. “After the fiercest fighting and with heavy losses on both sides noted the Tenth Army war diary, “a break-through is averted. Penetrations were either intercepted by local reserves or thrown back in counter-attacks. ...” Due credit was given to the artillery for its “decisive contribution”.140 Not that there had not been anxious moments. About mid-morning, before the Canadian Corps’ attack had ground to a halt, Herr’s Chief of Staff expressed his fears that the 76th Panzer Corps would be forced back to Rimini by evening; and before long Kesselring was to console himself with the thought of the 1st Parachute Division’s proven powers in house-to-house fighting.141
The Assault of San Fortunato Ridge, 19–20 September
Admitting the day’s frustration, the Canadian Corps Commander saw his divisional commanders and adjusted his plan. It was agreed that General Vokes should order his shattered 2nd Brigade to stand fast while the 3rd, with the Hastings and Prince Edwards under command and the 48th Royal Tanks in support, would attack across the Ausa during the night, establish a
bridgehead, and make the assault upon the ridge. General Ward was to improve his positions over the rivers and be ready to attack to the lateral road, his first objective along the spine of the ridge, when the Canadians were established on its head at San Fortunato.142
That night the 4th Division struck again under artificial moonlight. A battalion of the 10th Brigade assaulted towards Sant’ Aquilina, getting across the Budriolo and up the far slope before dawn. The bridging was done quickly, and the armour and self-propelled guns followed through to support a successful rush to the brow of the Sant’ Aquilina–Casa Brioli spur. Before noon Brigadier Shoosmith’s forces held the village, and were within half a mile of the main ridge road. The rest of the 19th was busy with clearing out snipers and collecting some 85 prisoners.143 The front had begun to move again. Over in General Keightley’s territory troops of the 1st British Armoured Division had captured Monte dell’ Arboreta, and though they were soon to lose it again they had at least loosened up the sector to the prospective benefit of the Canadian left wing.144
In the Canadian centre the troops of the 3rd Brigade pushed across the Ausa and gained a footing on the south-eastern slopes of San Fortunato. The Carleton and Yorks began their advance at 9:30 against an alert and uneasy enemy. Machine-guns fired sporadically at them in the darkness, and they came under fairly heavy shellfire. German tanks could be heard milling about somewhere amongst the vineyards. Shortly after midnight, however, two companies were firm on the other side, and work began on the preparation of crossings for the armour. Sherman bulldozers shovelled out trackways to the river. An Ark*
* The Ark was used for spanning narrow water passages with deeply cut banks. A turretless Churchill tank to which were attached fore and aft two American treadway tracks was driven into the bed of the stream. The tracks were then opened out to reach to either bank.145
bridge was put into position; a ditch running across the line of advance was filled in with a fascine.146 The second phase of the brigade operation began at 4:00 a.m., as the Hastings and Prince Edwards and the West Novas climbed the railway embankment and made for the river. Their objectives were respectively Covignano and San Fortunato village.147 At six both battalions were reported at the main Rimini–San Marino road (Highway No. 72), where ahead of them vineyards and grain patches began to ascend to formidable Fortunato. Two squadrons of the 48th Royal Tanks were coming up behind them. By half-past six, the hour set for crossing the highway to scale the heights, all the forward companies were in contact with the enemy.148
The shelling increased in intensity. Barrage brought down counter-barrage. The daylight air billowed with the dust and the fumes of the artillery battle and the blasting from the skies. Yet when the bombing ceased and the barrage lifted, leading sections could see the German infantry pouring
out of their dug-outs, and jumping into their forward weapon-pits.149 Within a minute they were sweeping the hillsides with their machine-guns, sending the Canadians to ground. From well-concealed positions near the crest enemy tanks and self-propelled guns checked the advance of the armour. The whole attack faltered. The West Novas on the left spent a costly and frustrating day, making repeated attempts to steal forward under cover of smoke laid down by the artillery. At best they covered some 300 yards, only to be beaten back. By evening they were along the highway whence they had started that morning, having lost 18 killed and 45 wounded.150
On the brigade right the two leading Hastings and Prince Edward companies had reached the highway before first light, and Lt-Col. Cameron had ordered up his two reserve companies for the assault on the ridge.151 The attack was carried to within thirty yards of the crest by some of the British tanks, which made the most of their smoke-screen for a last push to the top. Crawling in single file up the steepest of tracks, they engaged the defenders, losing a tank to a Faustpatrone. At 11:00 a.m. they had to withdraw, for the Hastings’ companies had not yet caught up, and without their help they could hold on no longer.152 At the base of the ridge the flagging infantry, broken up by heavy fire, succeeded in re-forming under cover of thick smoke. One company pushed forward with tanks to capture the four-way road junction (which bore the code name “Cookstown”) between Covignano and Le Grazie, taking 60 prisoners. But from there the climb to Covignano was too fiercely beset by machine-guns for further progress. The Hastings were stopped on the lateral road which ran midway between Highway No. 72 and the top of the ridge. The British tanks with them had now almost expended themselves: three only were left, and they were low in ammunition. At three o’clock, the infantry dug in.153 An hour later General Vokes conferred with his brigade commanders. Fresh infantry, fresh tanks, renewed bombardment, and, above all, darkness were needed to storm the crest.154
Though the assault remained so far indecisive, the forcing of the defile between the Frisoni ridge and the San Lorenzo feature had resulted in San Martino falling into Canadian hands with no further sacrifice. The surge across the Ausa flats put the parachutist defenders and all of Herr’s troops between them and the sea in danger of being cut off. During the night of the 18th–19th a patrol of the 48th Highlanders reported San Martino to be tenantless.155 Thus ended an unhappy chapter in the 1st Canadian Division’s story as, without triumph, it took over mastery of that blackened knoll and prepared to bury its dead, lying among the broken tanks under the hot September sun. During the 19th the Corps’ right wing swung forward on San Martino’s hinge. Striking northward, the 48th Highlanders left the blood-soaked hill behind them, while the Greeks, working forward from the
airfield, followed up for a mile and a half the enemy’s withdrawal on Rimini.156
That evening the German Tenth Army, recording the day’s conflict as “a battle of materiel of the greatest magnitude”, set itself for another Allied “attempt to break through with massed forces” on the morrow.157 Herr had four regiments defending the battle-scarred ridge of San Fortunato. At the northern tip about Le Grazie, which lay in Heidrich’s sector, was the 1st Battalion of the 1st Parachute Regiment. The rest of the feature was being held by the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division. Along his 2000-yard front south-westward from Covignano Maj-Gen. Polack had packed seven battalions – two from his 71st Grenadier Regiment, a fusilier battalion from the 20th Air Force Field Division, two battalions from the 314th Grenadier Regiment of the 162nd (Turcoman) Division, and two from his own 15th Grenadier Regiment.158 Waiting out the Allied bombardment in the shelter of sunken roads, cellars and underground passages, this ordered confusion of soldiery stood ready to man the weapon-pits overlooking the plain, or fight from the rubble of Le Grazie and Covignano and San Fortunato.
Before sundown on the 19th General Vokes ordered the 3rd Brigade to exploit such success as the Hastings and Prince Edwards had gained, regardless of what might happen to the West Novas. The 2nd Brigade was to infiltrate by night over the southern knolls of the main feature, and having got behind the enemy, seize the outlying spurs of San Lorenzo in Monte and Le Grazie and advance over the flats beyond to establish a bridgehead across the Marecchia.159
The 3rd Brigade’s position was much improved by bringing up the Royal 22e Regiment (who were at the railway) to the left of the West Novas in order to launch them at the Villa Belvedere, a large country mansion 600 yards up the road from San Fortunato. From the fields by the Ausa it was the most prominent building on the ridge and seemed to be at the top of the crest. Actually another massive villa on the far side of the road, the Palazzo Paradiso, stood on higher ground. At Lt-Col. Allard’s suggestion the attack was deferred until last light, in order that the battalion might have the cover of darkness to get a firm grip on the objective and dig in. He intended a two-pronged assault. On the left “A” Company, supported by tanks of the 145th Regiment RAC, would push up to the intermediate lateral some 300 yards south-west of the Villa; on the right “C” Company would by-pass all opposition and make directly for the house itself.160
The Royal 22e achieved a notable success. When for some reason the tanks did not catch up, the artillery covered the delay by continuing their concentrations for another eighteen minutes; thus aided, the companies fought as a team from one point to the next up the steep slopes through a series of short, fierce clashes. Before midnight, with a hundred enemy
captured, they were in possession of the Villa Belvedere, the basement of which became a prisoner of war cage into which Allard’s companies continued to crowd surprised Germans throughout the night. Mopping up in the area was a slow and hazardous procedure because of the darkness and the continuing stubborn resistance. By three in the morning, however, medium machine-guns and anti-tank guns had arrived, and the battalion could assure itself against counter-attack.161 This Lt-Col. Allard did by proceeding “to find, pin down and finally destroy one enemy detachment after another until the whole area was completely free of enemy.” The quotation is from the recommendation which brought the Royal 22e commander a well-deserved bar to his DSO.*
* Allard won the DSO in directing the Royal 22e Regiment’s attack across the Riccio on 30 December 1943.
On a number of occasions during the attack on San Fortunato he had made his way forward under heavy fire to visit his leading platoons so as to keep fully informed on the progress of the battle; indeed the achievements of the “Van Doos” that day were in no small measure due to their CO’s fine leadership. At 9:00 a.m. the battalion reported company positions in and about the Villa Belvedere, and shortly afterwards announced a company pursuing the retreating enemy westward.162
The 2nd Brigade scored a no less spectacular triumph. Brigadier Gibson had planned that the Loyal Edmontons should penetrate between Covignano and San Fortunato to seize San Lorenzo in Monte, and that the Seaforth should follow through and then swing right to take Covignano and Le Grazie. From the Edmonton objective the Patricias were to make the final dash forward to the Marecchia. San Fortunato was to be left for the 3rd Brigade to deal with. The artillery support for the attack received special attention. Heavy fire would come down along three diverging lanes in a series of overlapping concentrations 600 yards deep and 1000 yards wide. The Edmontons, with one company up, had the lane on the left; the Seaforth attacking with two companies, those to the right. The fire plan was flexible: each block could be brought down or called off by the infantry as the movement of the battle required163 – “like turning a tap on and off”, as one of the Seaforth company commanders described it.164
The Edmontons, after being delayed by Nebelwerfer concentrations and direct tank fire on their forming up area and start line, began moving uphill from the highway at 9:00 p.m. “D” Company was to seize a road junction (code-named “Bovey”) on the farther side of San Fortunato, 100.0 yards west of Covignano; “B” was to pass through and capture the battalion’s main objective, San Lorenzo in Monte; and two companies in reserve would then come up behind to occupy the ground on either flank. Searchlights, beamed behind the 4th British Division to the left, helped in forming up and keeping direction. The Edmontons’ good luck held. Schu-mines† encountered on the
† See above, p. 516n.
lower slopes were quickly taken out by the sappers. Shelling and fairly heavy machine-gun fire from the enemy seemed to be directed elsewhere, and part of the approach was made in the shelter of sunken roads. But it was too much to expect everything to go right. On reaching the top of the ridge between San Fortunato and the Villa Belvedere, platoons and companies fell out of touch with one another as wireless failed and runners missed their way in the darkness. “D” Company suffered casualties and lost some stragglers, arriving only sixteen strong at “Bovey” crossroads, where it was joined by “B” Company.165
Meanwhile Bell-Irving, out of communication with his two forward companies, ordered Captain J. A. Dougan, the commander of “C” Company, which had been following on the left, to push through to San Lorenzo. Near the crest Dougan found a sunken road striking off to the north-west, and conducted his men along it in single file. They ambushed a Tiger and its escort of infantry, and having blown the tracks off with Hawkins grenades, made the final kill with a PIAT. The company commander personally led the charge which routed the accompanying Panzer Grenadiers. A patrol sent into San Lorenzo in Monte found it empty of enemy and by 4:30 a.m. the Edmontons were in occupation. But they were only just ahead of a party of Germans coming up to take over defence of the village. It was the story of Monteciccardo over again. “Our Bren gunners had a grand time against them, mowing them down right and left.”166 A counter-attack developed almost immediately, but Dougan called down artillery fire which quickly smashed the German ranks. “C” Company took 50 prisoners, besides leaving many enemy dead.167 Now that the infiltration was completed supporting tanks of the 145th Regiment were called forward.*
* At first the tanks could not negotiate the sunken road, which was still covered by German tanks. In the darkness Major J. R. Stone, the Edmonton’s Second-in-Command, who had been coolly dispatching and controlling battalion vehicles while under heavy fire, on his own initiative towed a six-pounder anti-tank gun with an unarmoured 15-cwt. truck over the ridge and up to Captain Dougan’s position. For this Stone, who had won the MC for gallant leadership of his company at Ortona, was awarded the DSO.168
By six o’clock they were within half a mile of the Edmontons. This was as well, for there were Tigers in the area, and the whole feature was still alive with enemy; though these were suffering casualties from the accurate artillery fire being directed on them by the Edmonton company commander. His gallantry on San Fortunato Ridge brought Dougan a well-merited bar to the MC which he had won earlier in another assault on an enemy-held height – Hill 736 in Sicily (above, p. 162).169
There was much close fighting yet to be done. The 2nd Brigade plan was working out well, however, with the defenders thoroughly disorganized by the presence of Canadian troops behind and among them. At 3:20 a.m., shortly after the Edmontons had taken the “Bovey” crossroads, Gibson had ordered the Seaforth forward. Passing to the left of San Fortunato “B” and
“D” Companies crossed the Covignano–”Bovey” road, and by six o’clock were fighting in the area of Le Grazie.170 “C” Company was sent along the eastern slope of the ridge to secure the “Cookstown” crossroads, 500 yards north-east of Covignano. At 8:54 it was reported heavily engaged, its commander, Major H. L. Glendinning, having organized his three platoons in an encircling attack upon the important junction.171 Meanwhile units of the 3rd Brigade were pressing the advantage won by the Royal 22e. The West Novas cleared the Palazzo Paradiso shortly before noon, and turned right towards San Fortunato.172 With their defences penetrated on three sides the badly confused enemy troops could do little more than put up local resistance, and though they fought doggedly in scattered groups throughout the morning, within the next few hours their concern was no longer to defend Fortunato but to escape across the Marecchia. The Hastings and Prince Edwards came forward to assist the Seaforth “C” Company, and by midday “Cookstown” and Covignano had been cleared. In their subsequent mopping up the Hastings captured 112 prisoners. The Seaforth were to turn in a total of 214, of which “C” Company claimed 115. For his brilliant handling of the action, and his personal bravery in rescuing a wounded signaller under heavy fire, Major Glendinning was awarded the DSO. One of his non-commissioned officers, Lance-Corporal D. G. Skinner, won the DCM in the same action. With great skill and daring Skinner led his section in a successful assault with rifle and grenade on an enemy-held house overlooking the Seaforth line of approach, and then for three hours beat off a series of German counter-attacks, thereby enabling the rest of his company to win its objective.173
Bridgeheads Over the Marecchia
At 1:30 p.m. (on the 20th) Brigadier Gibson ordered the PPCLI (which Lt-Col. R. P. Clark had taken over from Lt-Col. D. H. Rosser on 17 September) to pass through the Edmontons at San Lorenzo and with the support of a squadron of the 48th Royal Tanks head for the final Corps objective – the Marecchia crossings.174 The enemy were streaming off in the same direction, and artillery fire caught bands of their retreating troops in the gullies leading down towards the river.175 The advantages of observation were at last with the Canadians, who from the San Lorenzo spur had an uninterrupted view into the Romagna plain.
The records of the enemy’s telephone conversations for the 20th reveal that the Tenth Army Headquarters had been slow to appreciate the gravity of the situation. At 9:15 that morning von Vietinghoff told Kesselring that no important advances had been made. But by eleven the scene had changed. “Something unpleasant has happened”, he announced. In the sector held by the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division, the Canadians had succeeded in
breaking through the Turcomans, who were “said to have been battered to pieces.” Polack was sealing off the locality with his last remaining forces, and small groups from the 1st Parachute Division – its final reserves – were being rushed to the spot. Herr wanted to pull his artillery back behind the Marecchia, as some of his batteries were under direct machine-gun fire. But a decision to withdraw across the river was too important for Kesselring to be willing to make before discussing it with his staff. He criticized Polack’s handling of the battle in one respect. “It was wrong of the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division to commit a Turcoman battalion at the front”, he charged.176
After lunch the two Chiefs of Staff were in no doubt about the necessity of falling back. Wentzell declared the situation on the 76th Panzer Corps’ front to be “very strained”. The 29th Panzer Grenadier Division had practically nothing left: the 71st Grenadier Regiment had two hundred men, the 15th Regiment a hundred. The Turcomans had practically disintegrated and so had “the Air Force people” (the 20th Fusilier Battalion) committed there. “I think it will be necessary to withdraw behind the river”, he said. “Yes, there is really nothing else to do”, agreed Rottiger. “One moment, please. I will go and ask the Field Marshal. ... The Field Marshal agrees.”
The decision made Kesselring apprehensive. “I have the terrible feeling that the thing is beginning to slide.” But to Herr, at once closer to the disaster and more far-sighted, withdrawal into the plain was an advantage, an exchange of one terrain for another equally defensible. “He feels – which remains to be seen –,” said von Vietinghoff, “that the plain is no less favourable, as our positions there cannot be seen so well as now, where they are spread out before the eyes of the enemy on the hills.”177 The next few weeks were to resolve even von Vietinghoff’s doubts.
Thus in the afternoon of the 20th the Germans did their best to carry out a fighting withdrawal. The remnants of the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division, hastily organized into small battle groups, made their way out to the north of San Lorenzo in Monte.178 At the crossroads at Monticello, a small hamlet less than a mile from the river, one such group took up a stand with five or six Tigers to check the pursuit. They were engaged by heavy artillery and attacked from the air, but without apparent effect. In the late afternoon “C” Company of the Patricias, whose progress thus far had been seriously hampered by difficulties with wireless communications – ascribed to heavy static and the jamming of the air by the great number of stations in the battle area – approached Monticello and was driven back. The battalion was without anti-tank guns, which could not negotiate the steep slopes of San Fortunato.179 From the brow of the San Lorenzo hill the supporting squadron of the 12th Royal Tanks precipitated a fire fight that went on until nightfall.180
Once again the enemy had demonstrated his mastery of rearguard action. The hindrance of Monticello enabled the German main body to withdraw
across the Marecchia under cover of a sudden deluge of rain that threatened to turn the broad bed. of the river into, an obstacle and drown the pursuit in a sea of mud. It was not until after midnight that the Patricias’ “B” and “D” Companies by-passed the village, to reach the river road by five o’clock on the morning of the 21st. In face of little opposition “A” Company crossed the stony bed of the Marecchia shortly before 10:00 a.m. The enemy had broken contact, and by noon the whole battalion was on the far bank. The Patricias cut the Via Emilia at San Martino in Riparatta and spent the rest of the day enlarging their bridgehead.181
The Greeks Occupy Rimini, 21 September
The capture of San Fortunato Ridge had made’ Rimini untenable to the enemy, even though Kesselring might suggest a last-ditch stand by Heidrich’s paratroopers. On the Canadian right the 1st Brigade was quick to take advantage of the general withdrawal. By mid-morning on the 21st the 48th Highlanders had patrols at the Marecchia, and in the evening the battalion attacked across the river towards Celle. This tiny hamlet at the junction of the Via Emilia and Highway No. 16 was also a 2nd Brigade objective. The Highlanders linked up with the Patricias on the far bank, although machine-gun fire from small but determined German rearguards stopped them short of the village. Before morning leading troops of the relieving 2nd New Zealand Division held the road junction, and the final action by Canadians was the participation by a company of the 48th in a successful dawn attack on Celle.182
The sound of heavy explosions in Rimini during the night of 20–21 September presaged an early German withdrawal, and next day the Greek Brigade occupied the city. A stout rearguard action in the darkness at the outlying hamlet of Santa Maria, a mile to the south, had marked the last of the paratroopers’ resistance, and early on the 21st a Greek patrol reached Rimini’s southern outskirts, to find all the Ausa bridges demolished or badly damaged. Colonel Tsakalotos received permission to go in, and a race ensued between his three battalions and the New Zealand troops serving under his command to capture the city and seize bridges over the Marecchia. The 2nd Greek Battalion reached the main square first, and by eight o’clock the Greek flag was flying from the Town Hall. A pleasing gesture followed in the request for a “Canadian flag” to raise beside it.*
* It is recorded that when no Union Jack or Canadian ensign could be found immediately, the distinguishing red banner displayed by one of the Auxiliary Services organizations was lent and duly hoisted.183
The capture of Rimini was the Greek Brigade’s first major triumph and came in part recompense for two weeks of trying action which had cost it 314 casualties.184 “I was
glad”, writes General Alexander, “that this success had so early brightened the fortunes of that heroic country which had been the only ally to fight by our side in our darkest days and that a new victory in Italy should be added to the fame won in the mountains of Albania.”185
War had laid a heavy hand upon Rimini. Its selection early in the campaign as the Adriatic terminus of the enemy’s Apennine position and its importance as the junction of the main coastal railway with the line from Bologna and the industrial north had made it the object of frequent Allied air bombardments. These raids, directed against railway installations and the bridges across the Marecchia and its Deviation, killed upwards of 1000 Riminesi*
* Most of Rimini’s 30,000 inhabitants’ fled the city, many taking refuge in neutral San Marino, and the then relative safety of San Fortunato.
and caused widespread material damage-both in the old medieval city on the site of the ancient Roman Ariminum and in the newer area between the railway and the sea.186 As the tide of the battle engulfed Rimini further harm came from Allied field artillery and naval guns. German engineers contributed to the destruction-in 1943 levelling wide areas on the seaward side of the city in order to provide fields of fire for their batteries against possible Allied landings, and in September 1944 demolishing the Ausa and Marecchia bridges and tumbling buildings into the main thoroughfares to block the Eighth Army’s advance. Municipal authorities estimated that from these various causes 75% of ‘Rimini’s buildings, many of them famous historic monuments, had been razed or damaged beyond repair.187 But the splendid old Roman triumphal arch, the Arco d’Augusto, dating from 27 B.C., though shaken by blast still stood, and the retreating Germans had left unimpaired the venerable Ponte di Tiberio,†
† This bridge, which carried the Via Adriatica and Via Emilia across the Marecchia, was completed by Tiberius in 27 A.D. Begun during the reign of the Emperor Augustus, it is shown on some maps as Ponte d’Augusto.
sole survivor of the ancient bridges, which the High Command had ordered to be preserved “regardless of the disadvantages entailed”.188
The 1st Canadian Corps was now over the Marecchia along the whole of its front. From Mount Fagiolo in General Burns’ left sector, which 4th Division patrols had reached during the afternoon of the 21st, the 28th Brigade pushed on towards the river, leaving behind its road-bound tanks, which could not move over the sodden ground. Next day two battalions crossed the Marecchia to occupy Santa Giustina and cut the Via Emilia about a mile farther west.189 On the morning of the 23rd the 12th Canadian Brigade took over this bridgehead as General Ward surrendered control of the left flank to the 5th Armoured Division.190 Command of the right sector had passed to the 2nd New Zealand Division on the previous day, and the Corps was now ready with two fresh divisions to carry out the next phase of operations towards Ravenna and the north.191
On the Army left the 5th Corps had been engaged in heavy fighting through the foothills. From a small bridgehead gained over the Ausa at Monte dell’ Arboreta on 18 September the 56th Division had battled for the dominating Ceriano spur, the last before the Marecchia and the open plain. A brigade of the 1st Armoured Division was brought in on the 20th to help break the bitter resistance of the 90th Panzer Grenadier Division, and on the same day the pressure exerted by the Canadian Corps nearer the sea took effect. The enemy pulled out, and the way was open for General Keightley’s forces to cross the river. By this time the 4th Indian and the 46th British Divisions had finished clearing the enemy from the territory of San Marino. They were aided in this task by the 57 members of the state forces of the tiny republic,192 which on 23 September cast aside its neutrality and declared war on Germany.193
“A Great, Hard-Fought Victory”
General Bums entertained a distinguished party to luncheon on the 22nd in the Officers’ Leave Hotel which had been opened in Riccione. His guests were General Alexander, the Rt. Hon. Harold Macmillan (the United Kingdom’s Minister Resident at AFHQ) and General Leese. Afterwards they visited the battle-scorched ridge of San Lorenzo in Correggiano, and then drove across the Ausa up to the pitted skull of San Fortunato.194 From the Villa Belvedere they could look back at the twin peaks of Tomba and Monte Luro, silent reminders of the 1st Canadian Corps’ bitter struggle to break through the Gothic Line. As they turned their eyes to the open plain beyond the Marecchia, it might have seemed that General Leese’s three armoured divisions could now sweep in to the north, driving all before them, and that the campaign in Italy was indeed rushing towards a triumphant close.
Certainly in the twenty-six days since the offensive opened, the face of things in north-east Italy had changed. The Eighth Army had advanced more than thirty miles from the Metauro, and by drawing the weight of the German reserves from the Allied centre and left had eased the Fifth Army’s forbidding task of fighting through the mountains. General Clark’s offensive had begun auspiciously. Instead of advancing by the main Florence–Bologna highway, which would involve an assault upon the Futa Pass, where the German defences were strongest, he had made his principal thrust farther to the east, along the secondary route which crossed the Apennines at Il Giogo and descended the Santerno valley through Firenzuola to meet the Via Emilia at Imola (see Map 23). In fierce fighting which cost its three assaulting divisions 2700 casualties in six days the 2nd US Corps forced the Giogo Pass on 18 September, and pressed northward to take Firenzuola
on the 21st. The subsequent capture of the Futa Pass on 22 September opened the direct route to Bologna. Farther to the east the British 13th Corps, charged with protecting the 2nd Corps’ right flank, fought its way over the watershed and began advancing down the Montone and Lamone valleys, directed on Forli and Faenza.195 The Gothic Line, completely turned at its eastern end, had thus also been pierced over a 30-mile wide front in the centre. The significance of the threat to Imola had not been lost on the enemy. General von Vietinghoff’s Chief of Staff was already suspicious of it, and had warned Rottiger at Army Group, “If he gets the quite correct idea of moving to Imola instead of Bologna, we will be trapped in this pocket here.”196 As we shall see, the Germans were to react against the threat with great violence.
But in achieving all this the Allied strength had been badly extended. The fighting just concluded was rated by General Leese as having been as bitter as any in which the Eighth Army had been engaged. The enemy had resisted with great determination, skilfully making the most of the defensive advantages of the terrain. He had used his artillery with telling effect, and had counter-attacked with the utmost persistence – one village was reported to have changed hands ten times.197 Against the Eighth Army’s claim of having “severely mauled” eleven German divisions and taken over 8,000 prisoners had to be set more than 14,000 casualties, and the loss of 210 tanks.198 “The tanks were easily replaceable,” writes Lord Alexander, “but the men were not…”199 Canadian losses were heavier than for any period of equal length either before or after during the Italian campaign. From 25 August to 22 September the 1st Division suffered 2511 battle casualties, 626 of them fatal. An additional 1,005 were evacuated because of illness. Up to the time of its withdrawal from action on 19 September the 5th Armoured Division lost 1,385 officers and men, including 390 killed. The 4th British Division, which had been in action for ten days, was in somewhat better shape. All four divisions of the 5th Corps were very tired and much reduced in strength.200
The Fifth Army had suffered in proportion; indeed “the general manpower of the Allied Armies in Italy was such as to give rise to anxiety.”201 Measures of remustering and reorganization, however unwelcome, had again to be applied. As a result of 7000 casualties sustained by British infantry units, an infantry brigade in each of the 1st British Armoured Division and the 56th Division was reduced to cadre. The 1st Armoured Division, with the honours of its many battles in Africa, was to be disbanded within three months after its arrival in Italy. Every United Kingdom infantry battalion was cut down to only three rifle companies, with a total strength of 30 officers and 700 other ranks, a change which was bound to affect seriously its tactical efficiency.202
Yet even with such reduction Leese’s battalions considerably outmatched in strength those of von Vietinghoff. The Tenth Army’s condition report for the week ending 25 September reveals that of its 92 infantry battalions only ten, classified as “strong”, had a strength of more than 400, and 16, “fairly strong”, between 300 and 400. There were 26 “average” battalions (200 to 300); 38 had less than 200 all ranks (and two were unreported).203 These figures provide a striking commentary on the cost of the Gothic Line operations to the German Tenth Army, whose 76th Panzer Corps on 15 September, when the battle of Rimini still had seven exacting days to run, had reported a total of 14,604 casualties suffered since the beginning of the Eighth Army’s offensive.204
Now that the Canadian Corps was across the Marecchia and astride the Emilian Way it could look back with pride to a great military achievement. That all eight phases of the operation to which General Burns had committed his forces on 10 September had been carried through substantially according to programme in spite of stubborn opposition and many difficulties was a remarkable tribute to the skill of those who drew the plan and to the aggressive determination of the troops who fought and won the battle. Congratulatory messages came to the Canadians from many quarters, none mariner or more full of encouragement than those from the Army Commander. To General Burns he signalled:
You have won a great victory. By the bitterest fighting since El Alamein and Cassino you have beaten eleven German Divisions and broken through into the Po Valley. The greater part of the German armies in Italy were massed against us and they have been terribly mauled. I congratulate and thank you all. We must now hit hard day and night and force them back over the Po.205
The fighting battalions received a “Well done Canada”, sent personally from General Leese to each unit commander.206 A letter from Colonel Tsakalotos has an interest of its own, as a reminder that the Eighth Army, in which the Canadians were so proud to serve, was, like the Fifth, an army of the United Nations in action. In reply to congratulations from General Vokes the Greek Commander wrote:
I made known your message to all ranks. All us deeply touched thank our div commander and 1 Canadian Inf Div for congratulations. We are happy because they come from glorious warriors. We knew this and now the satisfaction is greater when our small contribution is recognized. Kindly accept respects of Bde and wishes that glory accompanies always yourself and your div. Long live Canada.207
Not least in comradeship was the association with the 21st Tank Brigade, whose squadrons had not flinched from expending themselves in action with the Canadian infantry, and were now withdrawn into army reserve to rest and make good their losses. As we have noted, in the course of its operations in Italy the 1st Canadian Division had been frequently supported by British armoured regiments. Officers and men always believed that they
could have no better company in battle than tanks manned by British crews. It seems also that the crews liked working with the Canadians. The same harmony and esteem prevailed among them as had grown up between the men of the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade and the British and Indian infantry with whom they fought. It was as though the different nationalities strove for each other’s good opinion, at all times making a special effort to go the second mile.
Of the tributes paid to the officers and men of the Canadian Corps for their achievements in the battle for Rimini one, at least, did not reach them. Their gratification at the approbation of General Leese and others might have been the greater had they known that their conduct in operations had won recognition from the Commander of the German Tenth Army. “I am told that the 5th Canadian Armoured Division was excellent”, von Vietinghoff reported to Kesselring during the early stages of the fighting, “ ... though not strong in numbers, the Canadians are right good soldiers.”208