Chapter 18: Into the Lombard Plain, September–October 1944
The 5th Armoured Division’s Advance from the Marecchia
We will debouch into the Valley of the Po”, the troops of the 1st Canadian Division had sung to the tune of “Lilli Marlene” as they fought through the hills towards Rimini. This achievement, however, was to be reserved for others. The capture of the Fortunato ridge had brought the Canadians to the edge of the valley, but now once again the fates smiled on the foe.
During the last few days of the battle for Rimini the enemy had been desperately hoping for a decisive break in the weather, but only intermittent rains had fallen. On 18 September Kesselring had told von Vietinghoff despondently, “... there is no promise of a change in weather. The rainy season this year is late by two weeks: this is two weeks past the European mean.”1 But even in meteorology the Allies were at variance with the enemy. “The rain in September and October 1944”, declared General Alexander, “was both heavier and earlier in its incidence than the general average of past years seemed to prognosticate.”2 Both sides were thus provided with statistical assurance. In any event, as we have seen, a prolonged downpour on the night of 20–21 September helped the 76th Panzer Corps withdraw in good order across the Marecchia River. Already the Engineers of the Eighth Army had begun their race against the spate that would soon come surging down the stony courses of the rivers beyond and fill the watery mazes of the Romagna.
For long the north Italian plain had held an inviting fascination for the Allied staffs, who saw their armoured formations racing across its level expanse in pursuit of the slower-moving enemy. This illusion, soon to be dispelled, was based on an appreciation of the Bologna sector rather than the much less favourable Romagna, which forms the south-eastern tip of the plain, and on whose threshold General Leese’s forces now stood. To the Eighth Army, skilled in desert and mountain fighting, the Romagna country was to be a new experience. The region is a flat, well-defined narrow
triangle, with its apex resting on the Marecchia near Rimini, two sides formed by the Adriatic coast and the Apennines, and its base by the River Reno and the Valli di Comacchio – the Largest and southernmost of the shallow lagoons in the Po delta. It is crossed by a series of canalized rivers, many of them bounded by high earthen flood-banks, built to confine the swollen torrents caused by heavy rain or the melting of mountain snows. The reclaimed swamp land between these is intersected by a network of long dykes and irrigation ditches. With their bridges destroyed, the majority of these watercourses became tank obstacles, and when filled by the rains of autumn and winter, barriers to infantry as well.
The only possible axes for an advance north-westward through the Romagna were along the Via Adriatica (Highway No. 16), which the Valli di Comacchio forced inland through Ravenna, Argenta aril Ferrara; and the Via Emilia (Highway No. 9), which drew a fairly straight line from Rimini to Bologna, just missing the northern spurs of the Apennines as they fall into the plain. Of the many lateral roads between these two highways the best followed the tops of the flood-banks of the main rivers, and were thus relatively free of vulnerable bridges, though of course not proof against destruction by cratering. South of the Via Emilia communications through the foothills were extremely primitive, and, where the mountain spurs were steep, virtually non-existent. Except then by the two main roads, which, being embanked, were safe from flooding, a main thrust forward across the grain of the country could be made only in comparatively dry weather. In the intervening flats the clay soil, which after even a single shower was greasy and slippery, forming what Lord Alexander called “the richest mud known to the Italian Theatre,”3 in really wet weather became a morass in which vehicles would sink to their axles.
Other factors favoured the Germans. The thickly populated plain was dotted with small villages and farms, which provided them with excellent strongpoints and sniper’s posts; when shelled to ruins these merely became more readily defensible. The fertile soil allowed intensive cultivation, so that manoeuvre and visibility were limited by compact little olive groves and orchards and by the heavily vined trellises which hedged the narrow plots of grain. These matted grapevines were invariably grown in rows parallel to the streams, and thus athwart the line of advance; after breaking through two or three such obstacles a tank might become immobilized by the tangle of wire and vines knotted in its tracks. Taking advantage of the attackers’ restricted observation the enemy would frequently enfilade alternate rows of trees or vines with his machine-guns and anti-tank guns, so as to deal in turn with advancing infantry and tanks. As may be supposed, he missed no opportunity to impede the movement of Allied heavy equipment and tanks by systematically destroying the small bridges and culverts over the numerous water obstacles. It is true that many of these difficulties arising
from the nature of the terrain were obvious to the Canadians from the beginning, but it was only when the battle had passed into the Romagna that their full effect upon operations were to become apparent.
The 2nd New Zealand Division, the first of the two armoured formations under General Burns’ command to get under way, pushed forward on 22 September along the coast against stiffening resistance to the line of the small Canale Viserba, which crossed the Via Adriatica about a mile beyond the Tiberius bridge4 (see Map 21). That night three divisions of the 5th Corps (the 46th, the 1st Armoured and the 4th Indian) attacked over the Marecchia on a wide front south-west of Santarcangelo,5 and on the following morning, as we have noted, General Hoffmeister’s 5th Division entered the battle.
For the next few days, until the enemy should show his hand, the Eighth Army’s exploitation was to be carried out by the 1st Canadian and the 5th Corps – each being assigned one of the two available main roads. The Canadian intention was set forth in an instruction issued by General Bums on 17 September. While the 5th Corps attacked across the mountain spurs overlooking the Via Emilia and advanced along that highway on Bologna, the Canadian Corps was to clear the diverging triangle of river-laced flats on the Army’s seaward flank. Bums directed the 2nd New Zealand Division on Ravenna, using as its axis the Via Adriatica; the 5th Armoured Division was given the area between the two main highways, and pointed towards the distant target of Castel Maggiore, a small town six miles north of Bologna. Successive bounds for the Corps’ advance had been set (a bit ambitiously as events turned out) at the lines of three major rivers – the Fiumicino, the Savio and the Ronco, the last some 25 miles beyond the Marecchia.6 To gain the first of these Hoffmeister had to cross two smaller watercourses, potentially serious obstacles if the rains continued – the Uso, which pursued a winding course northward past Santarcangelo, and its tributary, the Salto, which crossed the divisional axis about two miles farther west.
Because of the poverty of routes forward the GOC planned to begin his advance on a comparatively narrow frontage, using the 12th Infantry Brigade. With no major road heading north-westward within the divisional sector Brigadier Lind’s battalions would make the best of their way along the general axis San Vito–San Mauro–Sant’ Angelo (a course roughly paralleling the Via Emilia) and secure bridgeheads over the Uso, Salto and Fiumicino Rivers. In order to maintain momentum they would by-pass any centres of enemy resistance, leaving these to be reduced by the 11th Brigade. The armour would be brought well forward ready to exploit soft spots in the enemy’s defences, or to take the lead should that prove feasible. Once the 12th Brigade had crossed the Fiumicino, the 11th would move into the lead.7
At 9:00 a.m. on the 23rd the Princess Louise Dragoon Guards began attacking out of the 28th British Infantry Brigade’s bridgehead along a secondary road which ran north-westward from Santa Giustina to the River Uso at San Vito.8 Less than 1000 yards along this route, however, troops of the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division were holding the tiny hamlet of Casale, and the even smaller handful of houses at Variano, among the vineyards 500 yards to the east.9 Almost immediately Lt-Col. Darling’s troops came under heavy artillery and mortar fire from these enemy positions as well as from the high ground about Santarcangelo on the left. The attack lost momentum and by midday had bogged down completely; by nightfall the Princess Louise casualties numbered 80 killed and wounded.10 A squadron of Strathcona’s attempting to support the infantry found its task hopeless. The vinerows were only 50 yards apart and the short fields limited visibility to 400 yards. Tank commanders had to keep their hatches closed because of mortar fire and the accurate German sniping. “More than ever before or since”, wrote the regimental historian, “we were dependent upon the infantry to scout ahead for the carefully concealed self-propelled guns.”11
Lind now ordered the Westminsters to outflank Casale and Variano by a right-hand thrust down a narrow road which reached San Vito from the east. The new attack began at 3:00 p.m., but the infantry soon encountered machine-gun fire, which held them up until after dark. A Strathcona squadron coming forward in support ran into a minefield, which immobilized five tanks; two more bogged down in the soft, deep ditches along the route which the infantry were following. Daylight found the Westminsters and the remaining Strathconas dug in about a mile east of San Vito, with the Panzer Grenadiers maintaining a firm grip on the near bank of the river.12 In the hope of breaking the deadlock the Brigade Commander attempted another outflanking step, and directed the 1st Canadian Light Anti-Aircraft Battalion – using not more than two companies, for the unit constituted his brigade reserve – to seize the east bank of the Uso at one of the river’s many bends, about 500 yards downstream from San Vito.13
At midday on the 24th Lt-Col. W. H. Buchanan (who had succeeded Lt-Col. W. C. Dick in the command of the battalion) sent one company forward around the Westminsters’ right flank. But the enemy was alert to any such move. Making full use of the ample natural cover in the area he first checked the accompanying troop of tanks and then sent the infantry to ground with intense small-arms fire. An attempt by a second company to get forward during the afternoon was equally fruitless, as was an attack by the two reserve companies, which the Brigadier ordered committed during the night. But daylight brought better fortune. A concerted battalion attack with armour and artillery support met only light opposition, and by midday Buchanan had two companies holding the river road.14 In the meantime the Westminsters had drawn up to the northern outskirts of San Vito. On the
brigade left the Princess Louise, having occupied Variano and Casale, came forward during, the afternoon (of the 25th) to clear the few remaining enemy from the town.15
Brigadier Lind’s plan was to seize a bridgehead some 4000 yards wide; a depth of 1000 to 1200 yards would ensure the engineers at work on vehicle crossings relative immunity from the enemy’s mortars. The Princess Louise would secure the left flank opposite San Vito while the Light Anti-Aircraft Battalion, crossing just north of the village, got a footing on the road leading north-west to San Mauro. Two miles downstream The Governor General’s Horse Guards, brought forward by General Hoffmeister to clear his right flank, had reached the river after many delays from cratered roads and obstructing ditches. Their commander, Lt-Col. A. K. Jordan, was ordered to take the far bank (aided by the Westminster’s “B” Company, which had joined him at dusk on the 25th), and to push forward to the Rio Salto along his present axis – a secondary road which reached San Mauro from the north-east.16 Both bridges in the 5th Division’s sector had been blown, but the Canadians found only a small amount of water flowing in the gravelly river bottom, which in the San Vito area was about 20 feet wide, so that infantry could cross anywhere. More important, there were several fording-places passable by tanks.17
The passage of the Uso began late on the 25th in a heavy drizzle that made the banks greasy with mud. On the left the Princess Louise met only light shelling; by daybreak all their squadrons*
* Although converted to infantry the Princess Louise continued to refer to their sub-units as “squadrons”.
were across, closely followed by a troop of Lord Strathcona’s which forded the river without trouble.18 They overcame stiffening resistance in the fields on the far bank (each side knocking out an opposing tank), and by mid-morning had secured their final objectives, a pair of north and south roads about 1000 yards beyond the Uso.19 The Light Anti-Aircraft Battalion, slow in starting, crossed about three-quarters of a mile north of San Vito. Their initial bridgehead was not more than 200 yards deep, and they were without anti-tank guns, for the rapidly rising river washed out a barrel culvert which the 14th Field Company RCE had constructed.20 Nevertheless Buchanan put in a pre-dawn attack and reached the first of the two lateral roads. In the meantime an enterprising troop of the 16th Anti-Tank Battery RCA had made its own fording place and manhandled its guns over into the bridgehead;21 and shortly afterwards additional Strathcona tanks crossed on a scissors bridge with which the sappers had hastily replaced the broken culvert.22
On the right flank the brigade’s third bridgehead was successfully established by the remaining Westminster companies, which had joined Lt-Col. Jordan’s tanks at the San Mauro road. They were assisted on the far bank by “B” Company, which had made an earlier crossing about a mile
upstream. The Horse Guards continued to be held up by the minefield; its clearing brought a score of casualties (15 of them fatal), incurred when several mines exploded simultaneously, apparently set off by a trip-wire. To save time one squadron moved south, crossed the river on the 12th Brigade’s bridge, and at last light rejoined the Westminsters, who were now at the first of the lateral roads and only 500 yards short of the Rio Salto.23
It had taken the 5th Canadian Division four days of unexpectedly bitter fighting (which cost the 12th Brigade and its supporting troops 350 casualties) to force the first of the score of rivers between the Marecchia and the north Italian plain. On the Corps right the New Zealanders had made just as slow progress in driving the remnants of Heidrich’s paratroopers over the Uso.24 The 5th Corps had done best on its right. After the 1st Armoured Division had captured Santarcangelo and crossed the Uso on the 25th, the 56th Division had overcome stubborn opposition along the Via Emilia, and was close to the Fiumicino at Savignano.25 But General Keightley’s two divisions in the Apennine foothills – the 46th and the 4th Indian – could not keep pace, and only had light forces over the Uso by the 26th.26 After the Eighth Army’s outstanding achievements south of the Marecchia, these meagre gains were disappointing. General Alexander summed up the situation in a none too optimistic signal to Field-Marshal Wilson on 26 September: “The trouble is that my forces are too weak relative to the enemy to force a break-through and so close the two pincers. The advance of both Armies is too slow to achieve decisive results unless the Germans break and there is no sign of that.”27
The German Decision Not to Withdraw
Nor would there be any such sign if. Hitler could help it. Field-Marshal Kesselring had already recommended to the German High Command the course that the Allies had reason to expect he might follow – a withdrawal of his forces behind the Po, where he could regroup while carrying out delaying actions south of the river.28 A timed programme for such a move – aptly code-named “Autumn Fog” (Herbstnebel) – had been worked out at a planning conference at Tenth Army Headquarters on 30 August.29 The proposals were carried to Germany by General Rottiger, and submitted to the Fuhrer on 23 September. As might have been expected, Hitler turned them down flatly, and immediately sent word to the C-in-C that he must adhere to. the basic intention of defending the Apennines and the Western Alps. Three days later Kesselring was promised 20,000 men by 1 October. On 27 September he again requested authority to initiate “Autumn Fog”, basing his plea on the continued pressure against his southern front and the increased air attacks on his forward and rear areas. He was concerned too about
possible landings on the Riviera and along the Tenth Army’s Adriatic flank. Above all he drew attention to the constantly growing danger in the Bologna–Imola area, where an Allied break-through would not only threaten the Tenth Army but might also place the Ligurian Army in the north-west in jeopardy. These representations failed to move Hitler. On 5 October Kesselring was notified that “the Fuhrer, for political, military and administrative reasons, had decided to defend the Apennine front and to hold upper Italy not only until late Autumn, but indefinitely.”30
Some of these reasons had already been expounded by Rottiger on his return from Germany. At a conference of Kesselring with his Army Commanders on 28 September, his Chief of Staff quoted Hitler as saying that “a withdrawal of the front behind the Po might be too much of a shock for the German people.” The wartime production of industrial Northern Italy, which was still working at high pressure, could not be sacrificed; “the loss of the Po plains would have a most deleterious effect on the food situation, as it would mean that the food supplies for the forces committed in Italy would have to come from Germany.”31 Accordingly the, Tenth Army received instructions that had a familiar ring. Without waiting for the C-in-C’s second appeal to Hitler von Vietinghoff sent a strongly worded directive to all his corps and divisional commanders. They were “not to relinquish one foot of soil to the enemy without inflicting heavy casualties. ... The enemy’s reserves are not inexhaustible. Heavy casualties in particular would press very heavily on him. The battles of Ortona and Cassino have demonstrated this.” The final word was on tactics – “Depth and again depth; reserves and again reserves.”32
Meanwhile, in the last few days of September, the enemy was in sore need of the breathing space which the Eighth Army’s inability to exploit its earlier successes had given him. Although pressure had lessened on the Adriatic front, in the mountainous central sector the Fifth Army’s determined thrusts toward Imola and Forli were threatening to cut off the whole of the 76th Corps. To meet the critical situation in the Santerno valley, where the inner wings of the two German armies had been forced apart by the American penetration, Kesselring had agreed on the 22nd to move the 44th Division from the Cesena area and place it under command of the Fourteenth Army at the threatened sector.33 The resulting gap in the Tenth Army’s order of battle was to be filled by the 94th Division, which had enjoyed a quiet summer in the Udine area at the head of the Adriatic, undergoing complete reorganization after its mauling in the battle for Rome.34 As yet the enemy was not seriously worried by the Eighth Army’s new attacks, which the Tenth Army’s war diary described on the 24th and 25th as merely “reconnaissances in force”.35 The expected major Allied offensive in the Adriatic sector had not materialized by the 26th; as a precaution von Vietinghoff’s forces reported themselves echeloned far to the rear in order to escape the weight of any
preliminary artillery or aerial bombardment. On that day General Herr accurately divined Allied intentions when he informed his superior that his opponent seemed to have changed his policy of large-scale attacks for one of maintaining constant pressure with smaller forces.36
The unexpected difficulties which the 12th Canadian Brigade had encountered in reaching and crossing the Uso caused General Hoffmeister to put the 11th into the lead earlier than he had originally intended. The changeover took place during the night of 26–27 September, and next morning Brigadier Johnston began advancing towards the Fiumicino River with two battalions. Having been warned that rivers might be in spate in a few hours he directed the Irish Regiment on San Mauro, with instructions to go all out to seize a bridgehead there; on the right The Cape Breton Highlanders were given the Horse Guards’ former axis and ordered to secure the bridge at the village of Fiumicino.37
The Irish had no difficulty in crossing the Salto, which while an obstacle to tanks had been left undefended against infantry. By mid-afternoon they had reached San Mauro. While the 5th Division’s artillery continued to shell the village, the infantry pushed on to the Fiumicino, now about 1000 yards distant. Under cover of darkness “A” and “B” Companies reached the near bank, but lost touch with Lt-Col. Clark’s headquarters as wireless communications failed. Details of subsequent events are hard to establish, but it appears that in the early hours of the 28th “A” Company waded the river and reached a road junction 300 yards to the west. About 8:30 a.m. it was surprised by a superior force of infantry and tanks of the 26th Panzer Division,*
* The 5th Armoured Division’s advance inland was taking it obliquely across the 76th Panzer Corps’ divisional boundaries, which ran parallel to the coast. At the Uso the 12th Brigade had been opposed by the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division; the line of the Fiumicino from Savignano to Fiumicino was held by the 26th Panzer Division.38
and sent back a runner to bring aid. Little was available, for the 5th Armoured Brigade’s tanks were still behind the Salto. From the east bank of the Fiumicino “B” Company rushed a platoon forward, but by the time it reached the road junction, the unequal fight was over. The enemy had withdrawn with their captives, leaving behind one wounded and nine dead Canadians. Fifty-three of “A” Company were taken prisoner; only one rifle section, left behind to cover the river crossing, survived.39 It was an inauspicious introduction to the river which was said to be the Rubicon†
† Other claimants to the, distinction were the Uso and the upper Pisciatello.
crossed by Caesar, unopposed, nearly 2000 years before. The failure however taught a useful lesson: not again in Italy in the 11th Brigade was a company dispatched to take a battalion objective.40
On the brigade right The Cape Breton Highlanders, advancing like the Irish without armoured support, had forded the Salto on the afternoon of
the 27th; but stiffening resistance by the 29th Panzer Grenadiers had halted them at the western edge of Villa Grappa, a hamlet only 500 yards from the Fiumicino River.41 On the 28th the Brigade Commander ordered the Cape Breton CO, Lt-Col. R. B. Somerville, to reach Fiumicino village, and to seize the bridge there which was reported to be still intact.42 At the same time, following the pattern of the 12th Brigade’s tactics at the Uso, he sent his reserve battalion, the Perths, across country on the Highlanders’ right to secure the river road at a point half a mile north of Fiumicino.43
It was dark before Somerville’s men could get forward, for during the daylight hours the enemy kept the area almost continuously under heavy artillery and mortar fire. They were in the village by ten o’clock, but were too late to save the bridge, which the Germans had demolished early that morning.44 Farther north The Perth Regiment had secured its objective by last light.45
Heavy rain throughout the 28th cancelled Brigadier Johnston’s planned night assault across the Fiumicino. By the morning of the following day mud and washed-out bridges and culverts had made most of the roads in the rear impassable. None of the fords across the Marecchia and Uso could be used, and at the former river the only bridge to survive the floods was the time-tested Ponte di Tiberio.46 In a few hours the Fiumicino grew from a shallow stream into a muddy torrent, 30 feet wide, which no patrols could pass. The withdrawal of the last of the enemy over the lower reaches of the river was reported by Runkel “to have been something indescribable. Men drowned and some guns were literally washed away. ...”47 All that the battalions of the 11th Brigade could do was to consolidate their existing positions.48 To the right of the Canadians the 2nd New Zealand Division had reached the river on a two-brigade front,49 so that the Corps was now holding the east bank from San Mauro to the sea.
The mortaring and shelling that continued to harass The Cape Breton Highlanders did not prevent a distinguished visitor, the Minister of National Defence, from paying them a call on the afternoon of 30 September. Despite the urgings of the corps and divisional commanders to keep out of the front line, Colonel Ralston went forward in an armoured scout car to visit the unit which he had commanded (as the 85th Battalion CEF) in the First World War.50 It was one of many meetings with Canadian troops which the Minister crowded into a busy nine days in Italy. Everywhere he went he invited the men to discuss their problems with him, and of their commanders and senior staff officers he made searching inquiry regarding the efficiency of the Canadian forces and all matters affecting their general welfare.51
Colonel Ralston took special care to inform himself of the situation with respect to reinforcements.*
* The whole problem of Canadian reinforcements will be treated in detail in a subsequent volume of this History.
He learned from Brigadier E.G. Weeks,
who as Officer-in-Charge, Canadian Section, GHQ 1st Echelon, was responsible for keeping CMHQ posted regarding the theatre’s needs in manpower, that if the 1st Canadian Corps continued to be actively engaged in operations, by approximately 10 October all general duty infantry reinforcements would have been committed and there would be no reserve. As a result the infantry units of the Corps would then have to fight at slightly below their authorized war establishment. While they would still be considerably stronger than the battalions in the British formations of the Eighth Army (which, as we have seen, had been temporarily reduced to a three-company basis), the prospect was unacceptable to General Bums, and he urged that units under his command should be maintained at full strength. In discussions with General Leese the Minister asked Sir Oliver’s views on the possibility of reducing the 1st Canadian Division by one infantry brigade. Strongly deprecating this suggestion, Leese declared that the Division was undoubtedly the best in the Eighth Army, that it could always be relied upon to take on a tough job successfully, and that any reduction in its infantry would be a mistake.52
The Halt at the Fiumicino, 28 September–10 October
At a meeting with his Corps Commanders on 25 September General Leese had attempted to read the enemy’s mind. He appreciated that once the Tenth Army had lost the high ground south of Savignano von Vietinghoff would not try to make a prolonged stand anywhere east of the Savio River. In the wider part of the plain which the Eighth Army was nearing none of the rivers, unless they were in spate, seemed a sufficiently great obstacle to invite a protracted defence. Experience taught however that the enemy would strive to impose the maximum delay on the Allied advance. There were two main courses open to him. He might continue to fall back under pressure, in which event Leese proposed to continue the advance with the 1st Canadian Corps directed along the plain towards Ravenna and Argenta, while the 5th Corps, with its left in the foothills, followed the Via Emilia. On the other hand the Germans might manage to stabilize firmly enough on some line to necessitate a strong, coordinated thrust to dislodge them. In this case the Eighth Army would regroup for an attack on a three-corps front. The 2nd Polish Corps would be brought up to take over the coastal sector, and both the Canadian and 5th Corps would step to the left.53 Once the enemy had been driven back to the line Argenta–Imola the axis of advance would swing northward, and the task of crossing the Po would be given to the Canadian Corps.54 During the next two days, as the enemy’s steadfast
resistance persisted, Leese decided to adopt the second course. On the 27th he ordered General Anders to relieve the New Zealanders at the coast.55
At this point command of the Eighth Army changed hands. On 29 September Sir Oliver left to assume the duties of Commander-in-Chief, Allied Land Forces South-East Asia. He was succeeded by Lt-Gen. Sir Richard L. McCreery, who had commanded the 10th Corps from the time of the Salerno landings. The worsening weather and the extension of the flooding on the coastal flank had delayed the move forward of the Polish Corps, and McCreery’s first action was to modify the plan for regrouping the Army. He shifted the Poles to his mountainous left flank (where the 10th Corps with only one infantry battalion at its disposal had been “containing” the German 356th Division), intending to pass them down the Savio valley against Cesena, and so outflank the enemy opposing the main body of the Eighth Army in the plain.56 No one knew better the difficulties of fighting through the hills than the 10th Corps’ former commander, yet he appreciated that the Poles could accomplish more there than in the waterlogged coastal region. Various problems arose in putting the new scheme into effect, however, and it was not until 14 October that General Anders took over the 10th Corps’ sector. By then the Eighth Army’s centre was nearing the line of the Savio and Highway No. 71. Accordingly the Poles were directed to strike forward to the next lateral road – Highway No. 67, which descended the valley of the Montone north-eastward to Forli57 (see Map 23).
The rains which had halted the Canadian Corps at the Fiumicino continued for the first ten days of October, and cancelled a succession of plans for a major assault across the river. The most ambitious of these, calling for a set-piece attack on the night of 7–8 October by two of Burns’ divisions in conjunction with a three-division assault by the 5th Corps,58 had to be shelved in favour of a “wet weather” plan with limited objectives, determined by the difficulty in moving forward supporting arms. But on the evening of the 8th it was decided that the ground was too wet even for the “wet weather” plan, and the Canadian attack was again postponed.59 During this static period units of the 12th Brigade which had taken over Brigadier Johnston’s positions on 2 October, were ordered to patrol nightly across the Fiumicino to learn the enemy’s dispositions.60 The arrival of the cold, wet weather was officially recognized in the brigade order of 3 October: “Effective immediately winter underwear long, as issued, will be taken into wear.”61
Meanwhile the German Tenth Army reported that its divisions on the Adriatic flank had benefited from the lull in operations, which gave them time “for recuperation and for the improvement of their deeply echeloned positions”, thereby enabling them to look forward “with confidence” to the
resumption of large-scale fighting.62 Much of this preparation was to be wasted, however, for by 7 October General McCreery had made up his mind to shift the main weight of the Eighth Army to the left.63 Early progress by the 5th Corps in the foothills south of Highway No. 9, where the rains had been less damaging to the advance, testified to the wisdom of this decision. On the Corps’ left flank the 10th Indian Division had relieved the, 4th (soon to be moved to an occupation role in Greece),64 and on 6 and 7 October it crossed the Fiumicino in conjunction with the 46th Infantry Division on its right (see Map 21 and Sketch 10). The capture of the 1600-foot Mount Farneto by the Indians threatened to turn all the German defences northward to the. Via Emilia; and on the 10th the 46th Division, having beaten back a determined counter-attack against its open right flank, took Longiano, a town about two miles south of the highway, overlooking the east bank of the Scolo* Rigossa.65
* A scolo is a drainage canal, commonly formed by canalizing a stream.
With the right wing of the 76th Panzer Corps thus endangered, the 90th Panzer Grenadier Division fell back along the Via Emilia from the Fiumicino to the line of the Rigossa canal.66 On the same day the 56th Infantry Division crossed the Fiumicino at Savignano and their Engineers bridged the swollen stream.67
The Canadian part in the Eighth Army’s regrouping began on 8 October, when General McCreery directed General Burns to take over the Via Emilia from the 5th Corps. There the 1st Canadian Division would relieve the 56th Division, which was badly in need of a rest after its heavy casualties in the recent fighting.68 Next morning Bums assigned his three divisional commanders their roles in the new plan. While the 5th Corps continued to attack with two divisions through the foothills, the 1st Canadian Division, leading the advance in the 1st Canadian Corps’ sector, would maintain pressure along Highway No. 9. North of the railway the 2nd New Zealand Division would relieve the 5th Canadian Armoured Division and form a strong guard for General Vokes’ right flank.69 With the 5th Corps front becoming the zone of main effort General Keightley would continue to use the Via Emilia as his chief maintenance artery, while the bulk of the administrative and supply traffic of the 1st Canadian Corps would move on Highway No. 16.70 As a result of the regrouping the Canadian Corps became responsible for an eight-mile sector extending from 1000 yards south of the Via Emilia to the sea.71 The prospect of campaigning over this area was a grim one. “All divisional commanders,” records General Burns in his diary, “pointed out the very bad going and expressed the opinion that we might be drifting into the carrying on of an offensive in similar conditions to those of last autumn and winter, where the hard fighting and numerous casualties resulted in no great gain.”72
The Crossing of the Pisciatello and the Advance to Cesena, 11–19 October
The return of the 1st Canadian Division to action ended a brief rest period in the Cattolica–Riccione area. The programme of reconditioning by means of intensive training, enlivened with various forms of local entertainment and short visits to leave centres in Riccione, Florence and Rome, came to, an abrupt halt on 9 October, as General Vokes’ troops left their billets to begin the relief of the 56th Division.73
It was the GOC’s intention to advance with the 1st Brigade as far as the Pisciatello, a canalized stream crossing the divisional sector about two miles east of Cesena, and then to use the 2nd and 3rd Brigades for the final attack to the Savio.74 At midday on the 11th The Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment began leapfrogging its companies out of the 56th Division’s bridgehead west of Savignano. First contact with the enemy came about four o’clock, at the crossroads immediately east of the Scolo Rigossa. There, says the unit diarist, “a fierce fight ensued and the enemy withdrew, leaving a few killed and four P.W.”75 Patrols led the way across the stream during the night, and by next afternoon the battalion was holding a bridgehead some 500 yards deep astride the Via Emilia. The enemy’s increased mortar and artillery fire now gave warning that he would resume his rearward movement only under pressure. The 1st Brigade was in range of the guns of two German divisions, whose common boundary crossed the railway line which ran less than a mile north of the Hastings’ positions. Immediately beyond the railway the small manufacturing town of Gambettola, on the west bank of the Rigossa, was held by a battalion of the 9th Panzer Grenadier Regiment (26th Panzer Division); on the Canadian side of the track was a battalion of the 361st Panzer Grenadier Regiment – left flanking formation of the 90th Panzer Grenadier Division. Half a mile west of Gambettola one Grenadier company was guarding Bulgaria, a scattered hamlet astride an important lateral road which crossed the front of both Allied corps.76 The 5th New Zealand Infantry Brigade*
* From 10 to 14 October the 4th Princess Louise Dragoon Guards was under command of the 5th New Zealand Brigade, protecting the New Zealand right flank at Fiumicino village.77
in whose sector of operations Gambettola lay, had taken Gatteo, a mile west of the Fiumicino, but had been halted farther north in front of the hamlet of Sant’ Angelo, which the enemy was holding as a strong outpost of his front along the Rigossa.78 The New Zealanders were thus two and a half miles behind the forward Canadian positions, so that concern was felt for the 1st Brigade’s lengthening right flank. As a measure of security The Royal Canadian Regiment moved forward south of the railway
to the line of the Rio Baldona, a small drainage canal about a mile east of the Rigossa.79
Late on the 13th Brigadier Calder ordered the Hastings and Prince Edwards to seize the lateral road and clear Bulgaria, so that the advance along the highway might be resumed. He assigned Lt-Col. Cameron the support of a squadron of Lord Strathcona’s Horse, backed by the firepower of the divisional field artillery and a medium regiment. Field regiments were keeping up extremely well, and during the 13th they were able to bring down harassing fire on Bulgaria, which also came under four attacks by fighter-bombers called forward from cab rank.80
Bridging difficulties delayed the start of the Hastings’ attack on the morning of the 14th. The Engineers had successfully dropped an Ark into the Baldona at Highway No. 9, but a similar attempt to span the wider and deeper Scolo Rigossa failed. German demolitions to the existing masonry bridge were reported to have left too narrow a roadway for the passage of tanks, but as H Hour approached, the Strathconas decided to venture the passage of the damaged structure. The first Sherman proved the reconnaissance report inaccurate by three feet, and the rest of the squadron were quickly across the river.81
At 7:30 a.m. a Strathcona troop led the attack against the crossroads south of Bulgaria. As the tanks flushed the Germans out of houses and weapon-pits along the way, “B” Company of the Hastings followed closely behind to mop up stragglers and consolidate the objective. The main assault on Bulgaria began shortly after midday. The armour drove northward along the lateral, with the Hastings’ “C” Company in high spirits keeping pace in the roadside ditches, while the artillery brought down a timed concentration on the village. As the attack closed in the fire lifted to targets beyond, and Hastings and Strathconas systematically began clearing the battered buildings. The technique used ten months before at Ortona again proved its worth. The tanks blasted the buildings with high-explosive and machine-gun fire, and the riflemen completed the job. By 4:30 p.m. the area was secure.82 The action was, in the words of the Strathconas’ historian, “a spontaneous demonstration of genuine, whole-hearted cooperation between infantry and tanks.” The feeling of mutual confidence was the more remarkable in that the two units had met only four days before;83 it was the first time in the Italian campaign that a regiment of the 5th Armoured Brigade had been assigned a role in support of the 1st Infantry Brigade.
That night the 90th Panzer Grenadier Division reported the loss of Bulgaria after “heavy fighting and severe casualties”.84 By Canadian count these included 60 prisoners and considerably larger numbers of killed and wounded.85 The action had cost the Hastings and Prince Edwards eleven killed and nine wounded.
That same night (14–15 October), as Sant’ Angelo fell to an attack by the 28th (Maori) Battalion of the 5th New Zealand Brigade,86 the enemy
loosened his front opposite the New Zealanders, who crossed the Scolo Rigossa to the north of the railway on the 15th and entered Gambettola unopposed. With his right thus secured Brigadier Calder ordered the RCR into the lead. By nightfall on the 16th the battalion had gone only two miles along the Via Emilia, to reach the most easterly of the upper Pisciatello’s three branches – according to the maps in the hands of the Canadians another claimant to the name Rubicon. The 48th Highlanders, covering Vokes’ left flank, were keeping abreast south of the highway, and on the 17th both units crawled forward a few hundred yards to the next tributary – the Donegaglia.87
In order that the 1st Division might approach the Savio on a two-brigade front, it was necessary to change the divisional sectors within the Corps. Following discussions on the 15th with General Vokes and General Freyburg (who had resumed command of the 2nd New Zealand Division), and with the Army Commander next day, Bums directed the Canadian division to take over a wider frontage on the Pisciatello and Savio Rivers. The road running almost due north from Bulgaria to Ruffio replaced the railway line as the interdivisional boundary.88 Instructing Brigadier Calder to keep pressing towards Cesena, Vokes now ordered the 2nd Brigade to close up to the Pisciatello north of the railway. At eight on the evening of the 16th the Seaforth crossed the tracks north-west of Bulgaria, and by dawn two companies were holding a 1000-yard front which extended along the river from the railway bridge to Ponte della Pietra, a village on the paved road joining Cesena to the seaside resort of Cesenatico. In their new positions on the right bank the Seaforth were harassed all day by 88-millimetre and machine-gun fire.89
Early in the afternoon of the 17th Lt-Col. Bogert, who had taken over command of the 2nd Brigade on 6 October when Brigadier Gibson was evacuated on medical grounds, issued his orders for the assault over the Pisciatello. The Edmontons were to make a silent crossing near the railway and then swing north to roll up the enemy positions along the west bank as far as Ponte della Pietra. The river was neither wide nor deep enough to be an infantry obstacle, and about 300 yards north of the railway bridge was a ford which it was hoped might be developed as a crossing-place for tanks. With armour on the far bank it was proposed to deepen and widen the bridgehead sufficiently to allow the Engineers to replace the demolished stone bridge which gave the village its name.90
Shortly after ten that night the leading company of Edmontons waded the stream. In pouring rain they pushed north along the far bank to the ford, where they became involved in close fighting in the darkness. About midnight the battalion commander, Lt-Col. J. R. Stone (Bell-Irving had returned to command his old unit, the Seaforth Highlanders) sent a second company into the fight. The fully aroused Panzer Grenadiers resisted
stubbornly, and daylight found the Edmontons fighting a shifting battle for the possession of a bridgehead roughly 500 yards square.91 Up to this point the attack appeared to be going well enough, but at six o’clock the engineer reconnaissance party reported that the sandy river bottom made the ford unsuitable for the passage of heavy equipment; nor was it practicable to put in close-support bridging at this point. At once the whole picture changed, for without protection against enemy armour the infantry would be in an unpleasantly vulnerable position during the daylight hours. To give the Edmontons some measure of anti-tank support the Brigade Commander ordered a troop of self-propelled M-10s that was with the Seaforth to be brought forward to the east bank.92
Meanwhile an officer of the 12th Battalion Royal Tank Regiment, refusing to accept the sappers’ findings as final, had made a personal reconnaissance of the ford and decided that his Churchills could safely use it.93 His judgement proved sound, and at 2:00 p.m. a troop of tanks and a third company of infantry crossed into the bridgehead, to put new life into the Edmontons. With the added help of an extensive artillery and counter-mortar programme they began extending their holdings. By half-past six they had cleared Ponte della Pietra and pushed westward about 800 yards.94 Much of the credit for this success must go to the skill and daring of a non-commissioned officer of “C” Company, Corporal G. E. Kingston, who took command when his platoon officer was wounded early in the assault. Kingston led his men across fifty yards of fire-swept ground to capture a number of German machine-gun posts, and although wounded proceeded thence to clear a group of farm buildings from which the enemy was directing artillery fire on the Edmontons’ crossing-place. In this final episode the platoon captured 21 Germans and killed four. Kingston won an immediate DCM, the fourth to go to the Edmontons during the campaign.95 During the night the bridgehead was enlarged sufficiently to allow the 3rd Field Company RCE to build an 80-foot Bailey bridge at the site in the village.96 Farther south the 1st Brigade, having failed to advance, beyond the Donegaglia on the 18th, was relieved by the 3rd Brigade during the night.97
The Eighth Army had now overcome the last major water obstacle before the Savio. On the 1st Division’s right the 6th New Zealand Brigade held a substantial bridgehead over the Pisciatello north of Ruffio, from which units of the 4th Armoured Brigade were preparing to break out;98 south of the Via Emilia the 5th Corps was on the ridges overlooking the Savio and the 46th Division was moving northward on Cesena;99 while on the Army’s advanced left wing the Polish Corps, having launched its attack from the head of the Savio valley on 17 October, was making solid progress across the hills towards the Montone.100 Meanwhile the western jaw of the Allied pincers continued to close in as the Fifth Army, maintaining remorseless
pressure in the mountainous central sector, ground daily nearer Bologna and the vital Highway No. 9.
The wisdom of General McCreery’s tactics was now apparent. The thrust by the 5th Corps had caught the enemy unaware, adding to the predicament in which the Fifth Army’s offensive had placed him. The German withdrawal northward had brought an increasing number of von Vietinghoff’s formations out of the foothills into the plain, so that at the very time that the Eighth Army began shifting its weight to its inland flank there were five German divisions*
* From the coast the 1st Parachute, the 29th Panzer Grenadier, the 26th Panzer, the 90th Panzer Grenadier and the 278th Infantry Divisions.101
between the Via Emilia and the sea, and only two (the 114th Jäger and 356th Infantry Divisions) opposing the British 5th and 10th Corps in the mountains (see Sketch 10). All but the last of these formations were part of the 76th Panzer Corps, and on 8 October, in order to have unified command over the forces defending the approach to Cesena from the south, General Herr took over the 356th Division from the 51st Mountain Corps.102
It was not to be expected that the enemy would maintain for long a greater strength than was necessary on his coastal flank when the demands for reinforcement farther inland were so pressing, especially since the Via Emilia provided him with the means of rapidly shifting his formations from one part of the front to another. First to be moved was the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division, which received orders on 8 October to intervene at the junction of the 356th Infantry and 114th Jäger Divisions south of Cesena;103 four days later Kesselring directed its immediate transfer to the Fourteenth Army so as to stiffen the resistance against the 2nd US Corps’ drive on Bologna.104 By that time the need for thinning out the 76th Panzer Corps to meet the demands of the central front was being recognized by everyone except General Heidrich at the coast. That independent paratrooper was holding 7000 fresh reinforcements between the Po and the Adige Rivers, and had visions of fortifying and defending Ravenna. Reminded by Kesselring that such considerable forces could not be kept out of the fighting at such a critical time, Heidrich cited direct orders from Hitler and Goring to rebuild his division forthwith “for Fuhrer and Reich!” Kesselring disallowed the plans for the Ravenna area; but on 10 October his Chief of Staff was to complain, “Heidrich has prevailed again. OBSW wants to talk to Hermann [Göring] about this; but they already have enough other troubles up there.”105
On 17 October von Vietinghoff, who for some days had been anxious to break contact east of the Savio so that he might regroup and strengthen his right wing,106 requested that General Herr, who was now under orders to give up the 90th Panzer Grenadier Division to the 51st Mountain Corps,107 be permitted to carry out a withdrawal to avoid encirclement. Army Group Headquarters, however, under strict injunctions from the High Command
not to yield ground in any sector, refused, demanding that Cesena be held.108 The 31-page record of the Tenth Army’s telephone conversations on the 18th abounds with elaborations of von Vietinghoff’s request to the Army Group Commander and echoes by commanders at a lower level and their chiefs of staff. Early in the afternoon Kesselring gave in to the ceaseless pressure, and on his own responsibility authorized a withdrawal behind the Savio.109
As a result of this decision, the 19th saw the 1st Canadian Division advancing on both brigade fronts against negligible opposition. The Patricias crossed the Pisciatello on the newly-completed bridge and headed north-westward towards the Cesena–Cervia road. On the left the 3rd Brigade pushed along the railway and highway towards Cesena. By evening the 200th Panzer Grenadier Regiment had withdrawn from the town, as the transfer of the 90th Division began.110 Patrols of the Carleton and York entered from the east unopposed while elements of the 46th Infantry Division were moving in from the south. Next morning the Carletons and the Royal 22e, in spite of stiffening rearguard action, reached the Savio on either side of the railway, while farther downstream two companies of Patricias took up positions on the river road near the hamlet of Martorano.111 Making equally good progress on General Vokes’ right, the New Zealanders’ 4th Armoured and 6th Infantry Brigades reached the east bank between San Martin in Fiume and Borgo di Ronta late on the 20th.112 Except in the coastal sector, where the 1st Parachute Division was under only light pressure, the enemy was now behind the Savio along the entire front.
Cumberland Force on the Coastal Flank
While General McCreery’s divisions were thus advancing on the left and in the centre, there had appeared on the Eighth Army’s right flank a new style of warfare, ushering in what one Canadian officer called “the era of Groups and Forces”.113 When the decision was taken on 8 October to shift the weight of the Canadian Corps’ effort to the left wing, General Burns was faced with the problem of filling the resultant gap in the coastal sector without weakening his main thrust, while at the same time permitting the mass of the 5th Armoured Division to go into reserve. The solution was found in the organization of a force composed initially of the 3rd Greeksh Mountain Brigade, a group of New Zealand armour and artillery serving as infantry under the name Wilder Force, The Royal Canadian Dragoons (also dismounted), and certain supporting Greek, New Zealand and Canadian*
* Canadian units included the 3rd Field Regiment and 16th Anti-Tank Battery RCA, and the 10th Field Squadron RCE.
Cumberland Force began its short life of eighteen days on 10 October, when it took over from the New Zealand Division the line of the Fiumicino for three and a half miles inland. There was little action until the 16th, when the enemy, conforming with his forced retirement farther inland, fell back west of Highway No. 16 to the Scolo Rigossa. He continued to hold the sandy coastal strip, however, where the belt of wire, mines, concrete “dragon’s teeth” and pillboxes which had been designed to counter a landing from the sea gave him a strong defensive position. On the left The Royal Canadian Dragoons (who in keeping with the current fashion called themselves Landell Force after their commanding officer, Lt-Col. K. D. Landell) took over Sant’ Angelo from the New Zealanders, and by nightfall had patrols near the village of Castellaccio, half way to the Pisciatello. During the next two days The Governor General’s Horse Guards and the 27th Lancers relieved the Greek Brigade and Wilder Force in the right and central sectors. It was the end of campaigning in Italy for the Greeks, who now returned to their homeland for occupational duties.116 Their departure left Cumberland Force with three dismounted armoured units, supported by The British Columbia Dragoons, who used their road-bound tanks mainly to carry out daylight shoots at the request of the “infantry”.117
The 2nd New Zealand Division’s attack over the Pisciatello on the night of the 18th–19th brought a further retirement by the 1st Parachute Division opposite Cumberland Force’s left and centre. Taking due advantage the Dragoons and the Lancers inched forward through the mud to the river, one Canadians crossing about a mile north-west of Castellaccio.118 On the 20th, as the 76th Panzer Corps carried out the major withdrawal sanctioned by Kesselring, General Heidrich, ordered to change places with the 114th Jäger Division on the Corps’ inner flank, pulled his parachutists back towards the Savio.119 The Horse Guards crossed the Fiumicino on the Via Adriatica, and preceded by Lt-Col. Jordan, mounted on a bicycle, entered Cesenatico, the enthusiastic citizens acclaiming them as liberators.120 On the left the Dragoons reached the Cesena–Cervia road, where the 27th Lancers relieved them in the pursuit. Demolitions and scattered actions against enemy rear parties retarded progress; by nightfall on the 22nd the Lancers were at Pisignano, still a mile and a half short of the Savio (see Map 22).121 By that time the Horse Guards, pushing along the coastal road, and aided by Partisans with useful information about the enemy’s movements, had occupied Cervia without a fight. On the 24th both units of Cumberland Force reached the Savio.122
The Savio Bridgeheads, 20–23 October
The Savio River, which General McCreery’s forces must now cross, was a strong natural military barrier, at all times a tank obstacle and when in flood virtually impassable to infantry. The normal water gap was about 50 feet at Cesena, but the sudden spates caused by heavy rains falling over the extensive river basin could quickly produce a torrent threatening to overtop the great earthen dykes, whose crests were 300 feet apart. Allied bombing and German demolitions had put out of commission the high-level bridges on the west side of the town, as well as the crossing at Mensa, six miles to the north; between these points the soft banks and seasonal floodings had through the years defied all civilian attempts to span the river.123 Within this bridgeless sector local inhabitants had established a number of fording-places for passage when the river was low, but in general the approach roads to these stopped at the top of the bank, and the last 200 yards or more provided no solid footing for tanks. To add to the difficulties confronting the Canadians the enemy had mined the steep slope on either side of the stream.124
The Eighth Army allowed the 76th Panzer Corps little opportunity to settle into its new line. Early on the 20th a battalion of the 4th Infantry Division, which had just relieved the 46th Division in the 5th Corps’ sector, waded the river 500 yards south of Cesena, to seize and hold a substantial bridgehead.125 On the same day the 10th Indian Division established a bridgehead at Roversano, three miles to the south, besides making a surprise crossing on the extreme left flank, ten miles upstream from Cesena.126
North of Cesena, however, troops of the 1st Canadian Division met no such immediate success. Directed by his Corps Commander on the morning of the 20th to “get a bridgehead over the Savio”,127 General Yokes arranged with Lt-Col. Bogert that the Patricias should cross that night on a two-company front at the bend west of Martorano. Once they had gained a footing the Seaforth Highlanders would enlarge it to encompass the sprawling village of Pieve Sestina, and would then cut the road running straight north from Cesena to Ravenna.128 Preparations were made hurriedly, and at 5:00 p.m., after preliminary artillery concentrations, the Patricias scrambled down the slippery banks and began wading the muddy river. In some places the depth of the water and the strength of the current compelled them to swim. Trouble soon developed. The enemy was in unexpected strength, holding the river line opposite Martorano with a battalion of the 9th Panzer Grenadier Regiment of the 26th Panzer Division.129 Alerted by the barrage, the Germans quickly got their heads up when it ceased, and greeted the Patricias with a hail of mortar bombs and machine-gun bullets. Only one and a half platoons of “D” Company on the right reached the west bank and these, pinned down during the remaining hours of daylight by the enemy fire, withdrew across
the river after dark.130 “A” Company, late in starting, was caught on the exposed near slopes by the German machine-guns and got only 17 across. Out of communication with the rest of the battalion, the little band clung to a narrow strip of the far bank, being joined by a dozen stragglers during the night. By morning of the 21st a thoroughly aroused enemy was bringing down harassing fire on all eastern approaches to the river.131
Lt-Col. Bogert now gave orders for a brigade attack on a much wider front. Two companies of the Seaforth Highlanders would cross in the area. of the Patricias’ venture while the Loyal Edmontons assaulted with one company 1000 yards upstream, where the Savio made a wide curve to the west (Map 22).132 Artillery support was prescribed on a much larger scale than the actions of the previous weeks had required, although as in the advance to the Pisciatello and the Savio it would be simple, flexible and easily controlled. It would employ the guns of two medium and six field regiments (including the three New Zealand regiments), as well as the 4.2-inch mortars and medium machine-guns of the Saskatoon Light Infantry, firing for the first time as a battalion.133 Following the practice successfully introduced at San Fortunato, the fire plan provided for individual control of successive blocks of supporting fire by each attacking battalion.134
At 8:00 p.m. the barrage opened as Seaforth and Edmontons moved down to the river in pouring rain and plunged into the swift current. Four miles downstream, 71 tanks of the 18th and 20th New Zealand Armoured Regiments began firing in simulated support of an infantry’ assault crossing north of San Martino in Fiume. In this diversionary effort, which lasted 75 minutes, they sent 9000 rounds over the river.135 In the actual area of attack, by nine o’clock leading troops were on the far bank, closely engaged by the enemy. The early loss of the Edmonton company commander brought a temporary break in control, which was quickly offset by the entry of a second company into the battle.136 Despite increasing enemy resistance the attack went well, and shortly after midnight reserves of both battalions crossed. Two Seaforth companies moved westward to Pieve Sestina, meeting only small parties of Germans, for apparently the enemy-had not yet realized the depth of the Canadian penetration. “A” Company, on the left, had little difficulty in securing its road junction just south of the village. “C” Company reached its objective, the shell-shattered village church, about 2:30 a.m., but almost immediately was counter-attacked by an enemy force of three Panther tanks, two self-propelled guns and about 30 infantry. There was barely time for the battalion’s recently-formed tank-hunting platoon,* which
* The tank-hunting platoon had been introduced by The Loyal Edmonton Regiment after the fighting for San Fortunato, and adopted by the other battalions of the 2nd Brigade. Its composition varied from one unit to another, but in general it numbered about 20 men commanded by the second-in-command of the anti-tank platoon, and included an assault section of four PIATs and a fire section of Bren guns and rifles. The platoon was well supplied with anti-tank mines and demolition charges.137
fortunately was with “C” Company, to set out and camouflage its Hawkins grenades and get its PIATs into position covering the likely approaches.138
The action which followed is a striking demonstration of what may be accomplished by well-trained and determined infantry in the face of armoured attack, and is illumined by the gallantry of a member of the Seaforths’ tank-hunting platoon – Private E. A. Smith.139 “C” Company was already under fire from the approaching enemy tanks as Pte Smith led his PIAT team across an open field to a roadside ditch, which offered the close range he needed. Almost at once a Mark V came lumbering down the road, sweeping the ditches with its machine-guns, and wounding Smith’s companion. At a range of only 30 feet, and exposed to the full view of the enemy, Pte Smith fired his PIAT. The bomb stopped the Panther, and its driver made frantic but futile efforts to turn around and retreat. Immediately ten German infantrymen tumbled off the back of the tank and charged Smith with machine pistols and grenades. Without hesitation he moved into the centre of the road, shot down four of them with his tommy gun, and dispersed the remainder. A second tank now opened fire from a safe distance and more Grenadiers began closing in on Smith. But the intrepid Highlander met this second threat just as steadfastly. Replenishing his ammunition from his wounded comrade in the ditch he continued to protect him, fighting off the enemy with his sub-machine gun until they gave up and withdrew in disorder. In recognition of his heroism Pte. “Smoky” Smith (as the Canadian public came to know him) was awarded the Victoria Cross, the third*
* It is worthy of note that each of these three VCs was earned in combat with troops of formations counted among the elite of the German forces in Italy – the 1st Parachute Division at Casa Berardi, the 90th Panzer Grenadier Division at the Melfa, and the 26th Panzer Division at the Savio.
and last to be granted a Canadian in the Italian campaign.140 The counter-attack had cost the enemy dear. In addition to the tank put out of action by Smith the Seaforth platoon had knocked out with their PIATs and mines a second Panther, a half-track, a scout car and two self-propelled guns – an impressive bag for an infantry force with neither tanks nor anti-tank guns, and one which reflected the highest credit on the platoon commander. Throughout the action Sergeant K. P. Thompson, in the words of the recommendation which brought him a well-deserved DCM,†
† The bitter fighting to cross the Savio brought to units of the 2nd Brigade one VC, four DCMs and four Military Medals.
“with complete disregard for his own safety moved across open ground swept by enemy fire, from one PIAT position to another, encouraging his men, re-siting the weapons to counter the enemy’s moves, and controlling the defence.” Later “C” Company discovered a third Mark V bogged down in a ditch near the scene of the fight. It was captured intact and subsequently went to help solve the equipment problems of Popski’s Private Army.141
Half a mile upstream the Edmonton had recovered from their initial setback, and by daylight “D” Company was 300 yards west of the river among the handful of houses shown on the map as Case Gentili. There the Germans launched a counter-attack similar to that which had struck the Seaforth a few hours earlier; tanks and infantry forced the Edmontons back, and took a number of them prisoner. It was only a temporary check, however. At 7:15 “C” Company, which had been joined by the survivors of “D”, launched a “counter”-counter-attack upon Case Gentili, assisted by a concentration which Lt-Col. Stone called down from the 3rd Medium Regiment RA. On the heels of the bombardment they re-entered the hamlet, finding it nearly flat and peopled by dead or spiritless enemy.142 The missing Edmonton were released and 35 of their captors taken prisoner.143
These successes by the 2nd Brigade were causing the enemy considerable uneasiness. The heavy German casualties from the preliminary artillery fire and the bad going for tanks were jointly blamed for the failure of “promptly initiated counter-thrusts” to reach their objectives.144 “This is quite a mess at Crasemann’s”,* commented Rottiger to Wentzell early on the 22nd. “Yes” replied the latter. “It was a fierce artillery shoot there during the night, and contrary to expectations, and in spite of being thrown back repeatedly, the enemy renewed his attacks with a will. He now has a bridgehead, but the thing has been stopped due to his difficulties in crossing the water with tanks and heavy weapons. We are in difficulties too, because in the counter-attacks our tanks bogged down.”145
It was, indeed a temporary stalemate, though if anything the odds were with the Germans. At ten that morning (22 October) when General Vokes visited 2nd Brigade Headquarters, Lt-Col. Bogert was able to report a bridgehead more than a mile wide, with a depth of 1400 yards in the Seaforths’ sector. But the situation was not as good as might first appear, for the Engineers, who throughout the night had explored every possibility of bridging the rapidly rising Savio, could hold out no hope of getting supporting arms across the river for at least 24 hours. Furthermore, the bad weather prevented close support by the Air Force.146 While the divisional commander was still with Bogert, however, an officer of the 145th Regiment RAC (whose tanks were supporting the 2nd Brigade) brought word of a crossing-place near Borgo di Ronta, about a mile downstream from Martorano. Engineers confirmed that the site seemed suitable for bridging. Accordingly the Patricias – who since the relief of their troops on the west bank by the Seaforth had been employed in supplying the other battalions of the brigade with food and ammunition and assisting in the evacuation of casualties and prisoners – were ordered to move a company to cover Borgo di Ronta and prevent enemy interference with preparations for an attack in that area.
* GOC 26th Panzer Division, replacing von Lüttwitz, who had gone to command an army on the Eastern front.
Early in the afternoon “D” Company, supported by a troop of British tanks, occupied the village, from which the 2nd New Zealand Division, anticipating its relief*
* The withdrawal of the 2nd New Zealand Division into army reserve initiated a programme of resting and regrouping the formations of the Eighth Army (see below, p. 594). The departure of the New Zealanders ended an association which had begun when the Division came under command of the 1st Canadian Corps seven weeks before.
by the 5th Canadian Armoured Division, had already retired.147
The plan was for the Patricia company to assault over the river at midnight. Two companies from The West Nova Scotia Regiment (the battalion having been placed under Bogert’s command for the operation) would then expand the bridgehead sufficiently to link up with the Seaforth and provide protection for sappers to bridge the river. The goal was the Cesena–Ravenna road, and as the new attack went in the Seaforth would push north-eastward from Pieve Sestina while The Loyal Edmonton Regiment renewed its attempts to break out at Case Gentili.148
The rain, which had stopped during the morning of the 22nd, began falling again in the early evening, causing the swollen Savio to rise still higher. At Borgo di Ronta things went wrong from the start. Surprise was lost when the Patricias bumped into a German standing patrol on the near bank, and were unable to prevent some of its members from escaping to the other side. By the time the first platoons had crossed, shuttling two assault boats forward and back on a rope, the defenders had come to life. “D” Company of the West Novas reached the far bank in strength, and began fighting its way northward, clearing farmhouses and taking some prisoners; but “A” Company, following about 4:00 a.m., was caught by a strong force of German infantry and tanks before it could establish a foothold.149 There was bad news now from the Engineers, who reported that the spongy banks and rising water had defeated all efforts to build a bridge.150
In these circumstances the Commanding Officer of the West Novas, Lt-Col. A. L. Saunders, ordered “A” Company to withdraw. There was no communication with the Patricia platoons, whose company commander, fearing that a water crossing would put his wireless set out of commission, had remained on the east bank.151 It was later learned that one platoon had been cut off and overwhelmed; the remainder joined elements of the West Novas and withdrew with them to the home bank. By eight o’clock only Saunders’ “D” Company remained on the far side, and it was in an unenviable situation. It had reached its objective, a farmhouse 300 yards west of the Savio,152 but was under pressure on three sides from self-propelled guns, tanks and infantry. Fortunately its No. 18 set was still working, and the company commander, Major J. K. Rhodes, was able to bring down artillery fire which broke up every German attempt to launch a combined attack by infantry and armour. From the east bank of the river a troop of M-10s of the 15th Anti-Tank Battery RCA knocked out an enemy SP at 400 yards and shot up the buildings concealing the German infantry.153 Rhodes
continued to direct his company’s defence until the house which he was using as an observation post “literally crumbled around him” under direct hits; whereupon the wireless set, which had miraculously escaped harm, was moved to a nearby shell-hole. But the impossibility of bridging the. river made “D” Company’s heroic efforts of no avail. With the concurrence of General Vokes, the West Novas were withdrawn shortly before midday under a heavy smoke-screen.154 Major Rhodes was awarded the DSO.155
Early that morning General Burns arrived at General Vokes’ headquarters and learned of the failure of the Borgo di Ronta attack. After discussion with his divisional commander he decided to make a second attempt, using fresh troops, and conveyed this intention to the Army Commander by telephone. General McCreery, however, appreciating that the operations of the 5th Corps west of the Savio would soon bring about a further withdrawal by the 76th Panzer Corps, ruled against committing the 1st Division to another brigade operation, and directed that it concentrate on maintaining the 2nd Brigade’s bridgehead opposite Martorano. Over the rest of the Corps front operations were to be confined to active patrolling. The 5th Canadian Armoured Division, having just relieved the New Zealand Division and taken Cumberland Force under command, would reconnoitre the river on its front for a possible crossing, which in view of the relatively low calibre of the troops which had replaced the parachutists, could probably be made without much difficulty.156 For the 2nd Canadian Brigade’s achievement McCreery had the highest praise. “The way your Brigade secured a big bridgehead,” he wrote to Bogert on the 25th, “smashed all enemy counter-attacks, and surmounted all the difficulties of having no bridge behind was magnificent. ... Well done indeed.”157 The four days’ fighting had cost the brigade (including The West Nova Scotia Regiment) 191 casualties, 33 of them fatal.
The situation on the Army’s left front gave grounds for optimism. The bridgeheads gained by the 5th Corps on the 20th had been held and, in the case of the 10th Indian Division, greatly expanded. The 12th Infantry Brigade’s position west of the Savio at Cesena was considerably strengthened on the 21st by the completion just above the town of a causeway, formed by leapfrogging three Arks (a fourth was later added) into line across the river bed. By noon seven British tanks were in the bridgehead.158 To the south the Indians, with two bridges over the river, assaulted late on the 22nd behind a heavy artillery bombardment, and advanced three miles to seize Mount Cavallo, a commanding height in the watershed between the Savio and the Ronco (see Map 23).159 Farther west the indomitable Poles, fighting through exceedingly rugged terrain, had by 22 October captured the Mount Grosso massif between the headwaters of the Bidente and the Rabbi* and started to advance down the valleys of these two rivers towards Forli, the
* The former, and more easterly, of these rivets becomes the, Ronco two miles south of Meldola; the other joins the Montone at Forli.
enemy’s next main stronghold west of Cesena. German resistance in the mountains slackened on the 24th, and by the 27th the Polish left was in Predappio Nuova, birthplace of Mussolini, while the right was within three miles of Meldola, which the 5th Corps was threatening from the east. By then the Tenth Army had retired behind the Ronco.160
Meanwhile General von Vietinghoff’ s actions were being influenced to an increasing extent by the events at the inter-army boundary, where the gravity of the situation south of Bologna remained undiminished. In the first two weeks of October Maj-Gen. Geoffrey Keyes’ 2nd Corps, carrying the Fifth Army’s thrust northward between the Santerno and the Reno Rivers, had driven a deep salient into the German positions, so that at some points forward troops could look down into the Lombard Plain. The exhausted US Corps launched a final offensive on 16 October, to such good effect that four days later the 88th Division had captured the towering height of Mount Grande, less than five miles from the Via Emilia.161 This Allied success emphasized to von Vietinghoff the need for further reinforcing the danger zone from the 76th Panzer Corps. On the 22nd he gave General Herr permission in the event of continued Allied pressure to take his line back roughly two miles on either side of the Via Emilia to a position midway between the Savio and Bevano Rivers.162 Next day it was decided that the 1st Parachute Division should join General Baade’s 90th Panzer Grenadier Division on the Tenth Army’s right wing.163
The 23rd was a busy day for Field-Marshal Kesselring, who had just announced important changes in his command organization. In order to place the entire battle area under unified control the inter-army boundary would be shifted westward to bring the 1st Parachute Corps under von Vietinghoff’ s command. In addition the commanders and headquarters staffs of the 51st Mountain Corps and the 14th Panzer Corps would be exchanged. (General Feurstein’s departure was regretted at Tenth Army Headquarters, where it was ascribed to political considerations.)164 The reduced Fourteenth Army and the Army of Liguria in the north-west would be welded into a new army group,165 to be commanded by Marshal Graziani.*
* Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, Viceroy of Ethiopia in 1936-31, became Chief of the Italian General Staff in October 1939, and commanded all Italian Forces in Libya in 1940-41. After the Italian Armistice Mussolini made him Minister of National Defence in his Fascist Republic, and in August 1944 he was placed in command of the Armee Ligurien, formerly the Armeegruppe von Zangen.166
These changes were to come into effect next day, and all headquarters were occupied with the necessary arrangements. During the morning the C-in-C South-West visited the three divisions facing the Canadian Corps, moving on afterwards to the critical part of his front. In the late afternoon he called at the headquarters of General Polack’s 29th Panzer Grenadier Division in the Bologna area. He did not complete his crowded schedule, however. At eight that evening,† unconscious, and with a severe head wound, he was reported as
† In Field-Marshal Kesselring’s Memoirs the date is incorrectly given as 25 October.167
being at a casualty clearing station of the 90th Panzer Grenadier Division midway between Bologna and Imola. His car had collided in the darkness with a gun coming on to the highway from a side road. He was taken to a base hospital at Ferrara,168 and did not return to control of operations until the middle of January.
During Kesselring’s absence von Vietinghoff assumed the appointment of C-in-C South-West and the command of Army Group “C”; General Lemelsen took over the Tenth Army, being succeeded as commander of the Fourteenth Army by General of Artillery Heinz Ziegler.169 The new Army Group Commander lost no time in challenging the High Command’s policy of clinging to ground. On the 24th he announced his intention of pulling back the Tenth Army during the next month to a permanent defence position which would run from Bologna to the Comacchio lagoon – a bold suggestion which surprisingly enough seemed acceptable to Hitler (with the usual reservations).170 That same afternoon von Vietinghoff ordered a further withdrawal of the 76th Panzer Corps to a new line along the Ronco and Bevano Rivers.171
Signs of the impending retirement were apparent on the 1st Canadian Division’s front on the 23rd. The 26th Panzer Division’s forward zone was inactive, and in the afternoon German shelling of the river eased sufficiently for the 3rd Field Company RCE to start bridging operations at Martorano. During the previous 24 hours the company had managed to get two cable ferries into operation at this site, using assault boats singly and combined into light rafts. By this means much-needed supplies, ammunition and equipment, including four “Littlejohn”*
* A two-pounder anti-tank gun having a tapered bore in order to increase its muzzle velocity. During the last half of October two troops of the 90th Anti-Tank Battery RCA were equipped with these guns, whose mobility and high penetrating power made them particularly suitable for river-crossings.172 This was the first use of the guns in Italy.173
anti-tank guns and even a jeep, had reached the Seaforth and Edmontons, and more than 70 casualties and 200 prisoners had been evacuated from the bridgehead.174 As yet heavy vehicles and tanks could cross only by the Ark causeway above Cesena, although within the city limits British sappers were at work on the great stone Ponte Vecchio. In their successful attacks upon the Savio bridges the Desert Air Force had spared this historic structure at the request of the Eighth Army,175 but the central arch had been blown by the retreating Germans.176 By 3:00 a.m. on the 24th the Canadians had a Class 9 floating bridge ready for use at Martorano, and as a result the flow of materiel into the bridgehead greatly increased.177
The Divisional Engineers now had considerable stocks of Bailey equipment at the Savio. “We must have accumulated most of the bridging available in the 1st Canadian Corps”, observed one of their officers. “So far we have been unable to use any of it.”178 The enemy’s withdrawal on the 24th intensified the need for getting tanks into the pursuit, and at six that evening
the 4th Field Company began work on a 60-foot low-level Bailey immediately south of the demolished railway bridge. The job was finished and armour was crossing by daylight.179 The result of this labour was short-lived, however. As though asserting its independence the Savio, swollen by an all-night rain, rose in spate on the morning of the 26th and swept away the Ark causeway and all crossings in the Canadian Corps’ sector. Fortunately the old Roman bridge, which for centuries had withstood the river’s vagaries, survived this latest ordeal. The broken arch had now been spanned by a Bailey, and for the next three days it carried the heavy traffic of both the 5th and the Canadian Corps.180
The Pursuit to the Ronco
General Herr had timed his withdrawal well. When early on 24 October the 12th British Infantry Brigade attacked from its Savio bridgehead under a heavy artillery barrage, the blow fell mainly on empty ground. There was only perfunctory resistance from German rearguards, and by nightfall the British had crossed the Bevano. A northward shift in the inter-corps boundary gave the 4th Division the Via Emilia, thereby enabling General Ward’s leading troops to reach the Ronco late on the 25th.181 In the Canadian sector the lack of suitable bridges which had handicapped the 2nd Brigade’s efforts to cross the Savio was now to slow the pursuit to a snail’s pace. There was no active opposition, yet on the 24th the marching Patricias, leading the brigade’s advance from the Cesena–Ravenna lateral, covered only two miles.182 At midnight the Carleton and York drew level along the railway.183 Next morning the two battalions crossed the narrow, undyked Bevano ditch and on the 26th arrived at the Ronco, six miles farther west. The enemy was in evidence on the far bank, but apart from an interchange of shelling and sniping the area remained quiet. Orders came from General Vokes to both brigades to reconnoitre across the river but not to attempt a major passage. But the speed and depth of the current, matching that of the Savio, kept Canadian patrols on the east bank, which they actively explored from the railway to the village of Bagnolo, three miles downstream. They found no sign of the enemy, although from civilians they heard many tales of German activity farther north.184
The bitter fighting which had accompanied the 1st Division’s efforts to cross the Savio had had no counterpart on General Burns’ right flank. It will be recalled that the 5th Armoured Division had relieved the New Zealanders on the night of 22-23 October,185 when the 11th Brigade took over a three-mile stretch of the river road extending north to Mensa. Cumberland Force, now under General Hoffmeister’s command, remained in its old sector astride Highway No. 16.186
In spite of the 5th Division’s role of conducting only limited operations, the general German withdrawal on the morning of the 24th seemed to justify a crossing of the Savio. Accordingly during the afternoon the Irish Regiment went over unopposed in assault, boats and established a bridgehead at Mensa,187 the Perths later crossing two miles upstream. The completion of two bridges next afternoon set the stage for the pursuit.188 Overcoming the hindrance of a few mines and demolitions, by late afternoon on the 25th the Cape Bretons and the Irish were at the Bevano.189 These advances were duplicated in the coastal sector, where Cumberland Force units followed the 114th Jäger Division (which had replaced the paratroopers between the 20th and 22nd)190 across the Savio, to line up with the 11th Brigade at the Bevano. After dark on the 25th the 27th Lancers waded the river west of Castiglione di Cervia, while four miles downstream a company of Perths, placed under command of The Governor General’s Horse Guards, crossed near the broken bridge on the Via Adriatica.191 Next day an enemy patrol unsuccessfully attacked the Perths’ positions, leaving behind four dead and two prisoners.192 It was a minor skirmish and significant only because it marked the end of action by Cumberland Force; for by that time arrangements were all but completed for the withdrawal of the 1st Canadian Corps into reserve.
Allied Plans for the Winter Campaign
Even before the Eighth Army reached the Savio General McCreery had decided to relieve the Canadians. Although all three corps of the Army had been committed during October, British and Polish divisions were not as urgently in need of a rest as those of the Canadian Corps; the latter, except for the 2nd New Zealand Division, had been almost continuously engaged in operations since the offensive began in August. As we have seen, both Canadian formations had suffered heavily during the bitter fighting from the Metauro to the Marecchia, when the 1st Division was committed for 28 days and the 5th Division for seventeen. Each had been employed in turn in the ensuing advance, and although neither had then experienced really heavy fighting, the exacting conditions of weather and terrain had prevented full recuperation from the earlier strain. A relief was clearly necessary, but the Army Commander’s problem was to find suitable replacements.
There were no fresh formations available. Of the four divisions in reserve, the 46th had only just gone into rest, the 4th Indian Division was earmarked for duty in Greece, and, as we have already noted, a general shortage of infantry reinforcements had left the 1st Armoured and 56th Infantry Divisions no longer operational. There was virtually no reserve of armour (although the limited opportunity of employing tanks in such terrain made this less serious).193 Realizing the difficulties of advancing in strength across the increasingly formidable water obstacles barring the direct route to Ravenna, and with the example of Cumberland Force to guide him, McCreery decided
to replace the Canadian Corps in that sector with light forces operating under command of an improvised headquarters. This would of course throw still greater emphasis on the operations of the 5th Corps along the Via Emilia and in the Apennine foothills; but towards the end of November, when the Army’s advance had reached better going on the right of the highway, the rested Canadians could be committed to good purpose.194
It will be obvious that this regrouping formed part of the wider programme which General Alexander and his Army Commanders had drawn up for the Army Group as a whole. In spite of the unprofitable struggle against an enemy aided on one flank by the barriers of rivers and waterlogged plain, and on the other by strong mountain fortresses on which the snows of winter were already falling, fighting was to continue without abatement. This policy followed General Eisenhower’s decision to wage a winter campaign on the western front, in the hope of bringing about a German collapse either directly or, by the attrition it caused, in the spring. In keeping with the role of the Italian campaign to supplement the Allied offensive in Western Europe, the Allied Armies in Italy were called upon to assist the operations about to be launched in that theatre. “I considered four possible courses to make that contribution:” writes Lord Alexander, “to transfer troops from Italy to the west, to employ troops from Italy in Yugoslavia, to continue the offensive on the Italian front at full stretch to the limits set by exhaustion and material shortage or to halt the offensive now and build up for a renewal in greater strength at a later date.” General Eisenhower chose the third course as likely to have the greatest effect on the operations he was contemplating (for at that time no extra troops were needed in France, and an offensive in Yugoslavia was not likely to influence the Western front).195
From the information available at his headquarters there appeared to General Alexander no certainty that the war against Germany would end in 1944, and he thus foresaw the necessity of launching a sustained offensive in his own theatre in 1945. In a letter to his Army Commanders on 10 October he directed that “active offensive operations with all available forces” were to continue as long as the weather and the state of ‘the troops should permit (it was hoped that the enemy would be driven back to the line of the Adige River and the Alps); this would be followed by a period of active defence by minimum forces in order that all formations might be rested and trained for a renewal of the offensive in the spring.196
The heavy but unprofitable fighting in which the Fifth Army was engaged during the next two weeks* and the lack of replacements for the Eighth Army
* On 9 October Clark notified Alexander that at the existing rate of wastage the Fifth Army would be 8000 infantry short by 1 November. In response to Alexander’s personal appeal, General Eisenhower at once undertook to dispatch to Italy by air 3000 reinforcements from the resources of the European Theatre of Operations.197 A simultaneous request by Mr. Churchill to President Roosevelt to deflect two or three American divisions to the Italian front was refused on the grounds that there was no hope of destroying Kesselring’s army that winter and that the terrain and weather would prevent any further decisive advance in 1944.198
forced a modification in the Allied plans,199 and by 29 October, when the Commander-in-Chief conferred with Generals McCreery and Clark in Siena, it was apparent that Allied objectives in the near future must fall far short of the Adige line. It was now doubtful whether Bologna and Ravenna could be captured before closing the campaign for the winter – a date which would be largely governed by the timing of the spring offensive, tentatively set to open on 1 February.200 On the 30th Alexander advised General Wilson of his plans for the next three months. During November the Fifth Army, whose operations he had ordered suspended on 27 October,201 was to rest and refit. The Eighth Army would continue with two corps its current offensive along the Via Emilia to drive the enemy out of his salient between Forli and Mount. Grande, while at the same time advancing on Ravenna. Both armies would prepare for a combined effort during the first half of December against Bologna, and Ravenna if not already in Allied hands; but all offensive operations would have to cease on 15 December, in order to allow adequate time to prepare for the 1945 campaign.202
The relief of the Canadian Corps, originally scheduled for the morning of 27 October, was delayed by the destruction of communications across the rampaging Savio.203 At midday on the 28th the 5th Armoured Division handed over its commitments between the mouth of the Savio and the Ronco at Bagnolo to “Porterforce”, a group of British and Canadian armoured (some dismounted) and artillery units commanded by Lt-Col. A. M. Horsbrugh-Porter, commanding officer of the 27th Lancers. At the same time the 12th Lancers of the 5th Corps relieved the 1st Division along the Ronco south of Bagnolo. The whole of the Canadian Corps (excepting the units with Porterforce) now passed into Eighth Army reserve.204
Thus Operation “Olive”, the final stage of which was to have been an armoured drive across the Romagna plain, finished its course at the banks of the Ronco. The Canadian Corps’ advance of but 23 miles in 33 days was in marked contrast to the spectacular gains made during the heavy fighting through the Gothic Line. On only two occasions after 23 September – in the fight of the 12th Brigade to reach the Uso and the 2nd Brigade’s struggle for its Savio bridgehead – had the Corps been committed to anything more than light encounters with enemy rearguards. The slower tempo is reflected in the casualty figures for this final phase of “Olive”, which cost the Canadians 355 officers and men killed, 1471 wounded and 92 taken prisoner as against the total of 3896 battle casualties sustained between the Metauro and the Marecchia.
During these last five weeks direct air support of the Canadian Corps’ operations had been severely restricted by the continual wet weather, which reduced flying visibility to zero and turned landing-grounds into quagmires. “How is the weather?” Rottiger asked from Army Group Headquarters on. 22 October, when inquiring about the 2nd Brigade’s attack at the Savio.
“Terrible”, replied Wentzell. “It is raining without a let-up. Militarily speaking it is therefore good for us.” “So he cannot use his Air Force,” agreed Rottiger.205 With discouraging monotony the daily reports of the Mediterranean Allied Tactical Air Force began: “Bad weather continued to hamper operations.”206 On five of the last ten days in September heavy rain kept the Desert Air Force grounded; and during the worsening weather in October, although aircraft from the DAF and the 12th Fighter Command,*
* To replace the 12th Tactical Air Command, which had been moved to Corsica to support the landings in Southern France, the 12th Fighter Command was formed on 20 September from the US element of the Mediterranean Allied Coastal Air Force. On 19 October it became the 22nd Tactical Air Command.207
which was supporting the Fifth Army, were airborne on every day except one, their operations were restricted, and on seven days amounted to less than 100 sorties a day.208 In spite of these limitations – unfortunately two of the blank days were 22 and 23 October, at the height of the Savio fighting – the DAF supported a number of battlefield attacks as well as taking on communications and supply centres behind the front line. Fighter-bombers worried the German movement across the Savio on the 20th, supported the 1st Canadian Division as it pushed out of the bridgehead on the 24th, and harassed the German retreat to the Ronco. The destruction of the Savio bridges by the DAF has already been noted. This achievement, bound up directly with the Eighth Army’s advance, was part of an extensive programme of interdiction in which the Mediterranean Allied Tactical Air Force was responsible for attacks on the enemy’s communications as far as the northern edge of the Po Valley, while the strategic bombers applied their efforts to the Italian frontier and the industrial cities of the north. During October fighter-bombers and medium bombers of the Desert Air Force, ranging far afield between the Modena–Bologna railway and the Adriatic, blasted railway lines and rail traffic, in three days claiming the destruction of 57 locomotives, besides, taking a heavy toll of boats and barges plying the canals.209
The Armoured Brigade in the Apennines
We must now turn our attention to the central sector of the Italian front, where in an earlier chapter we left the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade at the end of August with the 13th Corps, which formed the Fifth Army’s right wing. At that time the brigade had two regiments committed: the Ontarios were supporting the 1st British Infantry Division in the Fiesole sector north of Florence, while the Calgaries, operating under the command of the 8th Indian Division, had crossed the Arno River near Pontassieve (see Map 23). Brigadier Murphy’s headquarters and the Three Rivers Regiment were in reserve.210 General Kirkman’s role was merely to keep the enemy under pressure, expanding his bridgehead if further German withdrawals
allowed, and screening with his forward troops the preparations being made by the 2nd US Corps for delivering the main blow in the Fifth Army’s forthcoming offensive211 – the second punch of the two-fisted attack planned by General Alexander against the Gothic Line. It will be recalled that General Clark was to be prepared to strike along the Florence–Bologna axis, as soon as the enemy’s strength in this area had been sufficiently weakened by withdrawals to meet the Eighth Army’s attack.212
It was indeed a formidable military barrier which confronted the Fifth Army. At its narrowest point, between Florence and Bologna, the range of the Northern Apennines is fifty miles wide. Its average crest elevation is between 3000 and 4000 feet, with individual peaks rising to more than 5000 feet above sea-level. The poorly defined line of the watershed lies well towards the south-western edge, so that the Allies were confronted by the steeper side of the range. The rivers, descending in fairly parallel courses to the north-east and south-west, have scored the main slopes with narrow gorges between long irregular spurs, which have themselves been further corrugated by the erosive action of the numerous tributary mountain streams. The result is a confusion of jagged peaks and broken ridges interspersed with deep pocket-like valleys, which provided the enemy with a series of excellent ready-made defensive positions.213
The roads in this mountainous region followed the rivers, and only a few skilfully engineered state or provincial highways crossed the main watershed. In the 30-mile wide sector which formed the Fifth Army’s central and right flank opposite Florence five mountain passes accommodated the routes over which General Clark’s formations might advance. The two best constructed were the Pontassieve–Forli Highway (No. 67) just inside the army’s right-hand boundary, and Highway No. 65, the main road from Florence to Bologna. Between these highways two secondary routes led across the mountains from the valley of the Sieve – the more easterly from Borgo San Lorenzo through the Casaglia Pass and down the valley of the Lamone to Faenza, the other climbing from San Piero over the Giogo Pass and descending the Santerno to Imola. The fifth route, half a dozen miles to the west of Highway No. 65, was the road running north from Prato to Bologna. We have seen that these obvious gateways to the northern plains had received the careful attention of Organization Todt. Concrete pillboxes, anti-tank walls and ditches, artillery bunkers and machine-gun posts, supplemented extensively by wire and mines, constituted a deep defensive zone in front of each mountain pass. As we have noted, fortifications were strongest at the Futa Pass, whose relatively low elevation made Highway No. 65 topographically the easiest as well as the most direct route from Florence to Bologna.214
General Clark’s plan, made known in an operation instruction issued on 17. August, was for the Fifth Army’s attack to go in between Highways No. 65 and 67, with the 2nd US Corps on the left striking the main blow
and the 13th Corps giving support on the right. The 4th US Corps, between Florence and the west coast, would maintain pressure against the Fourteenth Army’s right, and follow up any German withdrawal. The start line was the eight-mile stretch of the River Arno from Florence eastward to Pontassieve; the preliminary objective was the line of hills between the Arno and the Sieve, about eight miles north of Florence. In the succeeding phase the Army would “conduct further operations to the north to penetrate the Gothic Line.”215 The expected fight in the first phase did not materialize, however, for the early success of the Eighth Army’s offensive at the coast, combined with the threat of an attack by the Fifth Army, caused an enemy withdrawal on the central front. On the night of 7–8 September the 4th Parachute Division fell back from Mounts Morello and Senario, initial objectives of the 2nd US Corps, while opposite the 13th Corps the 356th Infantry Division (which was already earmarked as a reinforcement for the Adriatic front)216 abandoned Mounts Calvana and Giovi.217
On the 9th General Alexander, who had been closely gauging the probable effect that the Eighth Army’s attack would have on Kesselring’s dispositions, signalled to General Wilson: “Have decided to unleash Fifth Army who will now go ahead with their offensive in the centre.”218 Next morning the 2nd Corps began closing to the Gothic Line on a ten-mile front from Highway No. 65 west to the Prato–Bologna road. The 13th Corps, conforming on the right, found no enemy south of the Sieve but only the opposition of broken bridges and cratered roads. Before nightfall patrols of the 1st British and 8th Indian Divisions had crossed the river at Borgo San Lorenzo and Vicchio, while farther east the 6th Armoured Division entered Dicomano on Highway No. 67.219
Early on 13 September, just a few hours after the Eighth Army had reopened its attack on the Coriano ridge, the Fifth Army began its assault on the Gothic Line. The main force of the 2nd Corps attack was directed, as we have seen, up the San Piero–Firenzuola road, instead of along the more heavily guarded Highway No. 65. General Keyes sent two divisions, the 91st and the 85th, against Il Giogo Pass and the dominating heights on either side. It took five days of bitter fighting, in which the assaulting troops were supported by a great mass of artillery fire and air bombardment on a considerable scale, before the stubborn resistance of the German paratroopers was broken.220 By the 18th the 2nd Corps controlled the pass and a seven-mile stretch of the Gothic Line on either side, and the victorious 85th Division was in hot pursuit up the road towards Firenzuola. The elaborate defences of the Futa Pass now lost their significance and were overcome in relatively light fighting by a regiment of the 91st Division; while on the Corps left the 34th Division ended a week-long battle by breaking through between Highway No. 65 and the Prato–Bologna road.221
In the meantime the advance by the 13th Corps, limited both in intention and achievement, had been less spectacular. In order best to assist Clark’s main thrust Kirkman concentrated the efforts of his forces along the left of the two routes of advance assigned to him. He ordered the 1st Division to open up the Borgo San Lorenzo–Faenza road, and the 6th Armoured Division Highway No. 67. The 8th Indian Division was to advance across the watershed between these two routes, in order to outflank the enemy guarding the Casaglia Pass.222
The principal objective of the Indian Division’s flanking attack was the Femmina Morta, a mountain 3700 feet high which dominated the Casaglia Pass from the south-east; but three intervening heights must first be taken. Early on the 13th Maj-Gen. Russell attacked these positions with two battalions of his 21st Brigade. In support of the 1st/5th Mahrattas on the left was “B” Squadron of The Calgary Regiment. Just before sundown on the 12th a troop of tanks moved forward from Vicchio and climbed a precipitous mountain trail to within 2000 yards of Mount Veruca, the Mahrattas’ objective. When the assault went in next day a system of prearranged signals enabled the armour to soften up the German machine-gun posts immediately in front of the advancing infantry, who, records the Calgary diarist, “once again showed their touching and even astounding faith in Canadian tanks by advancing without hesitation one or two hundred yards behind our fire.”223 By nightfall Mount Veruca had been secured with few casualties to the attackers.224 On the Corps left “B” Squadron of the Ontarios, firing from the Borgo San Lorenzo–Faenza road, similarly supported the 66th Brigade, which was leading the 1st Division’s advance.225
During the next several days British and Indian infantry made moderate gains, as the German 715th Division (which since the departure of the 356th Division had extended its front westward to the Tenth Army’s right boundary) abandoned positions declared by disgruntled prisoners to be considerably inferior in construction to those at the main passes.226 As they climbed higher into the San Benedetto Alps the foremost Indian troops passed beyond the limits of jeep supply and had to be maintained by mule team. By 17 September the heights in front of Femmina Morta had been cleared, and on the 18th a hard-fighting Gurkha battalion of the 17th Indian Brigade took the mountain in a five-hour battle.227 This success, coupled with the 2nd Corps’ capture of Il Giogo Pass, brought an enemy withdrawal in front of the 1st British Division, whose forces entered the Casaglia Pass unopposed on 20 September.228 There was no help now that the armour could give until the Engineers had repaired the extensive enemy demolitions on the routes forward, and a Corps order on the 17th granted permission for all but one Ontario and one Calgary squadron to be withdrawn from the line for rest.229 Without delay parties of officers and men from the two regiments were dispatched to Canadian leave centres in Florence and Rome.
The Three Rivers Regiment, in Corps reserve, continued to carry out traffic control duties on the supply routes.230
The 13th Corps was now firmly planted on the watershed, but the terrain ahead was just as uninviting as that which had been won. The narrow gorges between the rugged spurs gave little room for deployment or manoeuvre, and the advance now became a fight for each successive ridge, which, when gained, “was found to be as much commanded by as it commanded the next.”231 For the present, however, the Corps met little enemy opposition. The serious reverses suffered by both wings of the Tenth Army brought an order on 20 September for the 51st Mountain Corps to pull back to Green Line II*
* In the sector opposite the 13th Corps this position lay about seven miles behind the main Gothic Line. It ran from Portico on Highway No. 67 through Marradi and Palazzuolo to just north of Firenzuola.232
so that by reducing the salient at the centre of von Vietinghoff’s front additional forces might be provided to strengthen the threatened areas on the flanks. The withdrawal allowed General Kirkman’s troops to make important gains, and on the 24th the 1st Division occupied Palazzuolo and Marradi, at the headwaters of the Senio and Lamone Rivers respectively, and only twenty miles from the Via Emilia. On the same day the Indians linked up with the 6th Armoured Division, which had just captured San Benedetto in Alpe on Highway No. 67, five miles north-east of the Muraglione Pass.233 On the 25th, in the first close action for Canadian tanks since they crossed the Sieve, the Ontarios’ “C” Squadron, supporting the 2nd Brigade in the Marradi area, knocked out a German self-propelled gun.234 Then opposition stiffened as the enemy rushed in reinforcements in an attempt to close the gap which the 2nd US Corps had opened up at the boundary between Kesselring’s armies. These could be spared only from the western part of the Apennine position, where the mountain barrier was widest, or from the equally defensible sector between the main drives of the Fifth and Eighth Armies. The 362nd Division (drawn from the 1st Parachute Corps’ right flank opposite Pistoia) and the 44th Division (brought over from Cesena) were inserted in the Firenzuola sector between the exhausted 4th Parachute and 715th Divisions, while the latter’s front was further reduced by sidestepping the 305th Division westward to cover Highway No. 67.235
Meanwhile the grand scale of the enemy’s demolitions continued to keep the road-bound tanks far behind the foremost infantry. The two Canadian squadrons were used chiefly to provide cover for the busy sappers. Every bridge had been blown and in many cases long stretches of the approaches at either end were blasted cleanly away from the face of the cliff.236 The construction of Baileys became a task of extraordinary difficulty, requiring the erection of timber cribbing and piers up to 70 feet high.237 It took thirteen days for the Engineers of the 13th Corps to open Highway No. 67 for one-way traffic between Dicomano and San Benedetto. Gunners of the
6th Armoured Division assisted by 70 Italian wood-cutters cut more than 14,000 logs on the forested slopes of the Pratomagno, and at Dicomano a section of the 1st Drilling Company RCE quarried thousands of tons of rock to be used as “fill”.238
The main thrust of the 2nd US Corps was now being made down the Santerno valley by the fresh 88th Division, which General Keyes had put into action at Firenzuola on 21 September.239 In order to assist this drive the axes of advance for the left and central divisions of the 13th Corps were shifted westward. The capture of Marradi and Palazzuolo had given the Corps control of the first lateral road beyond the watershed, and on the. 24th the 1st Division was ordered to clear this route and then work down the Senio valley. The Indians were assigned the Marradi–Faenza road, and they began opening up as a supply route ten miles of very indifferent track which crossed from San Benedetto to Marradi.240 By the 28th they had freed this of enemy, and while the Engineers laboured to fit it for use by armour, the Calgary squadron with the Division started “to look at maps once more”, cheered by the prospect of again tackling “ground which would begin, but only begin, to be tankable.”241
At the end of September the Fifth Army again regrouped. The 88th Division’s advance had ground to a stop – although by the 27th the American forward positions on Mount Battaglia, between the Santerno and the Senio, were six miles nearer to the plain than were those of the 13th Corps at Palazzuolo. But German redispositions to oppose this penetration had weakened the resistance on Highway No. 65, which now became the principal axis of the 2nd Corps. With the shifting of the inter-corps boundary westward, the 1st Guards Brigade, brought over from General Kirkman’s right flank, relieved the 88th Division on Mount Battaglia, against which a formidable if heterogeneous force drawn from four German divisions was launching frequent and determined counter-attacks.242 On 4 October the 78th Infantry Division, which after its rest in Egypt General Alexander had assigned to reinforce Kirkman’s tiring divisions, took over the Firenzuola–Imola route.243 While the 2nd Corps, attacking on a broad front with four divisions, made the Army’s main thrust towards Bologna, the 78th Division was to push down the Santerno valley, and the remainder of the 13th Corps, relinquishing its drive on Faenza, would protect General Keyes’ right flank by “leaning on the enemy.”244
Although the Fifth Army had now bitten deep into the Apennines, there was little likelihood of an early break-through into the Po Valley. What had begun in September as a general assault on the Gothic Line continued in October as a multi-pronged series of local attacks in which General Clark’s formations exerted unrelenting pressure on the stubborn foe. Each separate thrust sought tirelessly to find a weak spot through which the enemy’s defences might be penetrated, thereby staving off the paralyzing grip of
static warfare. Early October found all three regiments of the 1st Armoured Brigade committed, as the Three Rivers came out of reserve to support the 78th Division along the Corps’ new left-hand axis.245 On the right the Calgaries had two squadrons with the 8th Indian Division in the Marradi area; the Ontarios were with the 1st Infantry Division north-east of Palazzuolo, and for the first few days of October, until Calgary tanks could negotiate the miserable track across from Highway No. 67, also supporting an Indian brigade north-east of Marradi.246
The enemy’s defensive tactics were to block the routes forward – a simple matter of demolition with every road frequently crossing and recrossing its winding river gorge – and to hold the dominating heights between the valleys with strong infantry forces blessed with excellent observation for their supporting artillery. Two such peaks which extended the German defence line southward from Mount Battaglia were Mount Ceco and Mount Casalino, respectively overlooking the Senio and Lamone valleys from the east. It took the 3rd Brigade five days of costly fighting (in which a gallant private of the 1st Duke of Wellington’s Regiment won the Victoria Cross) to capture and hold Mount Ceco. From the road in the valley below Ontario tanks helped in some measure by shelling the German positions, although during the battle and the ensuing counter-attacks the squadron lost three tanks to enemy fire.247
The 2200-foot Mount Casalino guarded an important road fork at Sant’ Adriano, three miles north-east of Marradi, and its retention by the 305th Division blocked the Indian Division’s plan to develop a second thrust towards Faenza by way of the valley of the Marzeno, a small tributary of the Lamone. On 7 October the 19th Indian Brigade gained a foothold on the mountain’s lower slopes, but during the next ten days failed in all attempts to wrest the rocky crest from the defending battalion.248 Finally on the 17th the Calgaries’ “A” Squadron, which had been delayed by heavy rains that made the unmetalled roads impassable, managed to get two troops forward to support an attack by the 17th Brigade. With fire from the tanks silencing enemy machine-guns and mortars in San Martino to the north, the Gurkhas assaulted the summit and in a bitter fight ejected the stubborn defenders, many of whom wore the edelweiss badge of the trained mountain soldier.249
The situation improved somewhat on 22 October when the 305th Division, whose long bulging front on the 51st Mountain Corps’ left flank was now being threatened by the Polish advance east of Highway No. 67 (see above, p. 590), shortened its lines by withdrawing to the north. In fog and rain the Calgary tanks followed the Indians’ slow, two-pronged advance, occasionally shelling enemy positions on neighbouring hills. By the 25th they were about five miles beyond Sant’ Adriano; “A” Squadron was at San Cassiano on the main Lamone axis, while “B” Squadron, swinging to the right, had reached Abeto on the Modigliana road.250
The Three Rivers meanwhile had seen action with the 78th Infantry Division on the Corps’ left flank. Moving forward through II Giogo Pass the first of “C” Squadron’s tanks joined the 38th Brigade on 7 October as it relieved troops of the 88th Division at Castel del Rio, and a week later the remaining squadrons were assembled at Firenzuola.251 The Division’s immediate task was to capture the high Gesso ridge west of the Santerno, German occupancy of which was restricting the salient which the 2nd US Corps was driving towards Bologna. On the 15th the 11th Brigade assaulted Mount la Pieve, a key height five miles north of Castel del Rio. In closer support than usual was the Three Rivers’ “C” Squadron, which during the tortuous move up to Gesso had left one of its tanks at the bottom of a mountain ravine 100 feet deep. The enemy’s machine-gun and artillery fire broke up the attack and disabled three Canadian tanks, although their crews remained in them until nightfall and expended every round of their ammunition in covering the withdrawal of the infantry.252
Two days later the 6th Armoured Division took over the Imola road and the ground east of the Santerno,253 allowing the 78th Division to concentrate its effort on a narrower front. The acting GOC, Brigadier R. K. Arbuthnott, now committed his two remaining brigades, and in the early hours of the 19th the 36th Brigade attacked Mount la Pieve from the west with the support of all the guns in the divisional area. To the infantry’s surprise they met no opposition. The German 334th Division, inserted at the end of September on the Fourteenth Army’s extreme left wing,254 had fallen back to a fresh line of heights south-east of Mount Grande.255 As we have noted above (p. 591), the 88th Division seized Mount Grande early on the 20th, but it took five days of costly fighting by the 38th (Irish) Brigade, assisted in the final stages by the 11th, to capture the towering Mount Spaduro on the other side of the Sillaro valley.256 Two miles to the south-east the 36th Brigade took Monte dell’ Acqua Salata on the 21st,257 although the Grenadiers clung stubbornly to a fortified farmhouse, Casa Spinello, on a high ridge linking the two mountains. From the hamlet of Gesso tanks of the Three Rivers Regiment, which had supported the initial assault by the Irish Brigade, kept Spinello under fire until the 23rd, when the 2nd London Irish Rifles drove the enemy from the rubble piles.258 That night the 11th Brigade completed the clearing of Mount Spaduro. In the opinion of some of the attackers, the fighting about Gesso ridge had shown the 334th Division, not previously regarded as a particularly formidable opponent, “to be as fanatical and determined as the famous 1 Para Div.”259 The formation had earlier won the commendation of the Fourteenth Army for its vigorous counter-attacks at Mount Battaglia,260 and in reporting to Kesselring the action north of Gesso von Vietinghoff added his word of praise for the divisional commander: “There was very hard fighting. Bohlke has again done very well.”261
On October 27th, as we have seen, General Clark suspended the offensive. Bad weather, exhaustion and a shortage of men were the compelling reasons. Exceptionally heavy rain had fallen from mid-September throughout October, dispelling all hope that the over-burdened roads would dry out before the ice and snow of winter claimed them. Artillery support was hampered both by the immobility of the guns and by a general shortage of ammunition. The enemy, on the other hand, always holding the advantage in rear communications, had been able to increase his resources in artillery (the Fifth Army’s forward positions were now within range of heavy railway guns sited in the Bologna area)262 and his fire was inflicting extensive casualties. Allied superiority in air power, which might have had a decisive effect on the German supply routes and gun positions, was neutralized by the deteriorating weather. Except for the recently committed 78th Division every formation in the 2nd and 13th Corps was very tired. A tremendous strain had been imposed on the artillery, Engineers and infantry, who, apart from occasional brief local reliefs, had fought for two and a half months under conditions of extreme hardship.263
The 13th Corps, shifting slightly to the left so as to take over Mount Grande, while giving up Highway No. 67 to the Poles, was ordered to “hold its position defensively,” follow up any enemy withdrawal, and provide its weary troops with whatever rest was possible.264 There was little promise of fighting for the Canadian armour. The task of keeping supplied and building up communications for a renewal of the offensive was given high priority. For most of the next month 100 men of the Three Rivers were employed on road work.265
Thus the regiments of the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade, whose operations north of the Arno had been more of a struggle against topography than against the Germans, now found the hostile weather the most uncompromising foe of all. “Now the rains have come. ...” wrote the diarist of the Three Rivers Regiment at the end of October. “The clouds just let go for twenty-four hours on end, and every gorge and gully becomes a little torrent of water. The [bankseats] for Bailey Bridges soften up, roads are cut up, landslides come down and the results are almost impossible to cope with.”266