Chapter 19: The Battle of the Rivers, December 1944
The Canadian Corps in Reserve
When the Canadians went into reserve at the end of October there was talk in the messes that the Corps might shortly be withdrawn from the Mediterranean theatre to join the First Canadian Army in North-West Europe; and the appointment on 2 November of General McNaughton as Minister of National Defence strengthened this opinion. Other rumours were rife-one going the rounds that the Corps was slated for Burma.1 Events soon showed, however, that in the immediate future at least the existing role would not be altered.
There were several changes in the higher commands of the Corps. On 5 November Lt-Gen. Burns relinquished the appointment of Corps Commander. Although he was an officer of very distinguished abilities, nevertheless there did not exist between General Bums and the British senior officers that personal relationship of friendly mutual understanding which is so important. There was some suggestion that the lack of confidence expressed by the Commander of the Eighth Army after the fighting in the Liri Valley (above, p. 451n) had in time come to be known to the Corps Commander’s Canadian subordinates2 (who as we have seen had in July assured him of their own confidence in him). This combination of circumstances produced a situation where it was impossible for him to carry on as GOC Yet in leaving the Corps General Bums could look back on a satisfying record of achievement by the Canadian formations under his command. As he subsequently reported to General Crerar, the Corps had taken “all objectives assigned to it, inflicting heavy losses on the enemy, which comprised the best German divisions in Italy. Though progress was not always as rapid as desirable, nevertheless, during our periods of action, we went farther and faster than any other Corps.”3
Maj-Gen. Vokes carried on as acting GOC until the arrival from Holland on 16 November of Lt-Gen. Charles Foulkes, former commander of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division. Vokes then left for North-West Europe to take over the 4th Armoured Division from Major
General H. W. Foster, who in turn came to Italy and the command of the 1st Division. Pending General Foster’s arrival, Brigadier J. D. B. Smith, General Burns’ Brigadier General Staff, commanded the 1st Division, his place at Corps Headquarters being taken by Brigadier George Kitching.4
It was well into the first week of November before all units of the Corps found accommodation in the reserve area. Hard fighting had considerably reduced the number of buildings capable of keeping out the rain; practically every building of any size still standing was roofless and windowless.5 Rear Corps Headquarters remained at Rimini, while Main Headquarters moved back from Cesenatico to Riccione, which also housed the headquarters of the 1st Division and two of its brigades. The establishing of the 3rd Brigade at Cattolica, five miles farther along the coast, kept the infantry division fairly well concentrated. Maj-Gen. Hoffmeister’s formations were less closely grouped. The 12th Brigade at Morciano was reasonably near Divisional Headquarters at San Giovanni in Marignano; but the 5th Armoured Brigade was at Cervia, 30 miles to the north-west, while the 11th Brigade at Urbino could only be reached, because of the state of the intervening roads, by a detour of 50 miles.6
The extensive training with which all were occupied during November was enlivened by the introduction of several new types of equipment, some of which had already proved their value in North-West Europe. The 12th Battalion Royal Tank Regiment demonstrated the Crocodile flame-throwing tank to each unit of the 5th Armoured Brigade;7 every infantry battalion was issued four carrier-mounted Wasp flamethrowers,8 and infantry and armoured units received an allotment of the smaller man-handled Lifebuoys.9 About mid-November the infantry brigades received their first Weasels*
* The amphibious Weasel (“M29C”) was developed from the American “M29” Light Cargo Carrier, a half-ton vehicle originally designed for the First Special Service Force to use in operations in snow.10 Its light construction and its wide tracks particularly suited it for use in swampy ground; afloat its low freeboard made it unsuitable for navigation in other than calm water.11
– tracked amphibious carriers with a reputation of having a good performance in mud.12 Engineer training emphasized, as might be expected, bridging and rafting. An important development of the earlier “Plymouth” bridge (see Chapter XIII) was the “Brown” bridge, which was produced under the direction of Capt. B. S. Brown, of the 4th Field Company RCE. It was designed to span an 80-foot gap under assault conditions, like its predecessor being brought into position on two tanks, but having the advantage that no tank was lost in the launching.13 The infantry’s urgent requirement for a lightweight portable footbridge was met by the introduction of the “Olafson” bridge (invented by Capt. E. A. Olafson, RCEME, on the basis of a suggestion made by Brigadier Bernatchez).14 Fifteen-foot lengths of half-inch pipe were welded into sections 18 inches wide, each weighing 200 pounds; by connecting these together a gap of 45 feet could be spanned.15
There was time now for relaxation. The Auxiliary Services soon had cinemas, clubs and recreation centres in operation in Riccione, Cervia and Urbino; and Canadian entertainment units, including two detachments of the Army Show, were kept busy throughout November giving performances to large and appreciative audiences.16 Every brigade area had its full programme of sports. At Rimini a display of war art attracted more than 3600 all ranks, who saw 169 exhibits representing the work of British and Canadian official war artists and other contributors serving in the Allied forces.17 Seven-day visits to Rome and Florence began early in November; but the most welcome news of all was the announcement of the inauguration of a programme of 30-day leaves in Canada (see Volume I, Chapter XIII). The first fortunate group, all of whom had qualified by having five years’ continuous overseas service*
* Since September (when 88 applications were approved) members of the Canadian Corps had participated in the “Tri-wound Scheme”, which had been modified to give a six-month tour of duty in Canada or the United Kingdom to personnel with three years’ continuous overseas service who had been wounded twice.18
(time spent in a theatre of operations counted double), sailed from Naples on 30 November, in time to be home for Christmas.19 Those who remained in Italy might derive some consolation from officer-led discussions on the problem of rehabilitation, in preparation for the time when the termination of hostilities should allow them too to return to Canada.
The Operations of Porterforce, 28 October-30 November
We have noted that not all the units of the Canadian Corps were in reserve during November. Serving with the 27th Lancers as part of Porterforce were The Governor General’s Horse Guards, The Royal Canadian Dragoons and The Westminster Regiment (which was supported by the mortars of the 12th Independent Machine Gun Company (The Princess Louise Fusiliers)), as well as certain artillery and Engineer units (at various times the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Field and the 2nd and 5th Medium Regiments RCA, and the 12th and 13th Field Companies RCE).20 Lt-Col. Horsbrugh-Porter’s tasks were to protect the 5th Corps’ right flank, capture Ravenna, and thereafter to continue opening up Highway No. 16 to the north and west.21 His field of operations extended some ten miles inland to the canalized lower Ronco, which at the outskirts of Ravenna joined the Montone to form the Fiumi Uniti. Of the numerous canals and irrigation ditches intersecting these treeless flats the principal barrier was the Fosso Ghiaia, which crossed the front about three miles south of the Uniti (see Map 24). Two of the three routes converging on Ravenna from the south were in this sector – the Via Adriatica on the right, and the provincial highway from Cesena in the centre.
Highway No. 67 from Forli, following the west bank of the Ronco, ran within the 5th Corps’ boundary.
When Porterforce took over from the 5th Armoured Division on 28 October, the Horse Guards (formerly with Cumberland Force) had advanced without their tanks along the Via Adriatica three miles beyond the Bevano River, across which patrols of the 27th Lancers on their left were also operating.22 Facing the force from secure positions behind the dyked Ghiaia was the 114th Jäger Division,*
* Unfortunately no records of the German Tenth Army after 31 October 1944 are available. From the enemy formations opposing the Canadians during their last months in Italy the war diary of only the 114th Jäger Division (for September-December 1944) has come to light.
commanded by Colonel Hans Joachim Ehlert, while west of the Ronco were elements of the 26th Panzer Division.23 On the 29th the Horse Guards were relieved by The Royal Canadian Dragoons, who found themselves in a completely novel situation. The enemy’s breaching of the Savio dykes had spread a great sheet of water over the countryside, across which the Via Adriatica reached like a causeway, broken at intervals by a demolished bridge or the flooding of some lower stretch of the road. Along that highway troops and vehicles moved “like the targets in a penny shooting gallery”, and enemy artillery was prompt to take advantage of so fine an opportunity for practice.24 Slowly the Dragoons edged forward on foot, their supplies being brought forward in DUKWs, and by the end of October “D” Squadron had reached the Fosso Ghiaia.25
In a sharp action on the 31st the squadron cleared the last enemy outposts from scattered houses south of the Ghiaia. Heavy mortar and machine-gun fire assailed the Canadians as they approached the canal, and the small house in which the squadron commander, Major A. L. Brady, had established his command post received six direct hits from a German 88. This fire killed two of Brady’s staff an officer who was relaying his orders back, and his headquarters sergeant. He himself was wounded and knocked unconscious. On regaining consciousness he repaired his telephone line in full view of the enemy and successfully called down artillery fire upon the offending gun. He then rallied the assault troop, whose leader had been killed, and personally led them to the final objective on the canal bank.26 Thus was gallantly won the first of four DSOs. awarded to officers of The Royal Canadian Dragoons in Italy. Meanwhile on Lt-Col. Landell’s left the 27th Lancers, who with a better network of secondary roads over which to move had to contend with muddy but not flooded ground, occupied San Stefano and San Pietro in Vincoli between Highway No. 67 and the Cesena–Ravenna road, although the enemy astride the central route continued for many days to cling to defended positions south of the Fosso Ghiaia.27
The situation changed little during the opening days of November. The colourful Popski’s Private Army came under command of Porterforce on the 1st and took over the sector between the Via Adriatica and the coast. Major
Peniakoff established his headquarters in the Pineta di Classe, a pine forest on a ridge of sand dunes stretching across the Ghiaia east of the highway,28 and from this island base DUKWs transported his heavily-armed jeeps over the flooded land and along the coast to launch a series of hit-and-run raids which reduced one by one the enemy posts south of the Fiumi Uniti.29 Porterforce had been given full authority over the operations of the Partisans in its sector, who, organized into the 28th Garibaldi Brigade by the Italian Committee of Liberation in Ravenna, for several weeks had been harassing the Germans in the surrounding country. On 28 October about 300 of these guerrillas, believing that the Eighth Army was about to enter Ravenna, marched down the Cesena road while German reliefs were in progress and reached the Allied lines in safety. A detachment led by a burly stone-mason, Ateo (“Atheist”), joined forces with Popski on the coast, while others worked with patrols of the armoured-car regiments, furnishing welcome information about the enemy’s positions.30
In the meantime the 5th Corps, which had been held up south and east of Forli for a week or more by bad weather and the stubborn enemy, on 7 November attacked with the 4th and 46th Infantry Divisions between the Ronco and the Rabbi. The drive made good headway against bitter opposition, and on the 9th Forli fell to the 4th Division; by the 14th the British Corps had reached the Montone along its whole front.31 These successes had their effect on the coastal flank, where Colonel Ehlert began slowly to draw back towards Ravenna.32 By the middle of the month Porterforce was over the Fosso Ghiaia and mopping up the remaining scattered enemy posts south of the Fiumi Uniti.33 The Germans yielded ground readily. There was a brief skirmish on the 17th when a company of the Westminsters, who had relieved The Royal Canadian Dragoons, assisted a patrol of the King’s Dragoon Guards (who had replaced the 27th Lancers) to clear the village of Molinaccio, less than three miles from Ravenna.34 Two days later non-Canadian elements of Porterforce on the Via Adriatica, operating under the name of River Force, ousted a troublesome enemy rearguard from a sugar factory about a mile south of the Fiumi Uniti, capturing nine prisoners.35
On the 25th the 1st Canadian Corps took over from the Eighth Army operational control of Porterforce, which did not yet, however, lose its identity. As first step in the regrouping for a renewal of the offensive, the Westminsters, with a squadron of The Governor General’s Horse Guards under command, relieved troops of the 10th Indian Division on the 5th Corps’ extreme right flank. In their new sector east of San Pancrazio the Canadians found the enemy well dug in and showing no intention of withdrawing across the Montone except under strong pressure. But the weather remained bad, and overflowing canals and rivers reduced activity by either side to aggressive patrolling. As the month closed Porterforce passed under command of the 5th Armoured Division and its Canadian units
rejoined their parent formations.36 Their brief service with the force had been arduous, but their contribution worth while. At a cost, up to 24 November, of 56 British and 30 Canadian casualties, Porterforce had secured the Eighth Army’s right flank, and had taken 171 prisoners, killing and wounding probably as many more.37 For another ten days the force, reduced in effect to the 27th Lancers and. Popski’s Private Army, continued as a separate command, and, as we shall see, played an important part in the capture of Ravenna.38
The Planning of Operation “Chuckle”
Final plans for the resumption of the main effort were drawn at a conference of the Army Commanders on 26 November. They recognized that it would be desirable for the Eighth Army to be across the Santerno River before the Army Group struck its concerted blow. General McCreery had in fact begun a full-scale attack on 21 November with this object; but it was not expected that the task could be completed before the end of the first week in December.39 Then, on word from General Alexander, some time after the 7th (depending upon the weather) the two Armies would launch a combined offensive to secure Bologna-the Eighth by a westerly thrust north of the Via Emilia, and the Fifth by a drive northward along Highway No. 65. They would meet in the area of Budrio, nine miles northeast of the city (see Map 23).40
On 29 November McCreery confirmed verbal instructions already given his Corps Commanders. He planned to attack with three corps up – the Canadians on the right, the 5th Corps on the Via Emilia and the Polish Corps on the hilly left flank.41 Simultaneous operations on this broad front were made possible by the existence of a suitable axis of advance between Highways No. 9 and No. 16. This was the secondary road which left the Ravenna–Faenza lateral near Russi and ran west to Bologna, passing through Bagnacavallo, Lugo and Massa Lombarda. To reach the Santerno, its intended start line in the combined offensive, the Eighth Army had first to advance over two other major rivers, the Lamone and the Senio. (McCreery felt the forecast of bridgeheads over the Santerno by 7 December too optimistic, and in an appreciation to Alexander’s headquarters suggested that he would do well to have crossed the Senio by that date.)42 The Canadian Corps was allotted the new axis and directed to capture Russi, cut Highway No. 16 north-west of Ravenna in order to ensure the fall of that city, and then advance through Lugo to establish a bridgehead over the Santerno in the general area of Massa Lombarda.43
The joint attack initiated by the 5th Corps and the Poles on 21 November to capture Faenza and the high ground to the south-west did not make the
expected progress. From bridgeheads which General Keightley had earlier secured over the Montone south-west of Forli the 46th Division fought slowly westward, while the 4th Division, turning north across the Via Emilia, began pushing back the tired 278th Division from the fertile flats between the Montone and the Lamone. To secure his defence positions on both rivers the enemy fell back to a switch-line about a mile in front of the Faenza–Ravenna road. On the left the Poles advanced across the Marzeno tributary to the Lamone, and by the 26th both corps were holding the east bank of the river on a broad front extending as far north as Scaldino, four miles downstream from Faenza. The city itself was still in the hands of the 26th Panzer Division, now depleted to a fighting strength of less than 1000.44 Blocked by stubborn resistance at the Montone opposite San Pancrazio, the 10th Indian Division then swung a brigade across the river at Highway No. 9 to attack northward along the left bank. The result was a holding which was to provide the Canadians with a jumping-off place for their big assault. Heavy rain now brought operations to a halt, and the end of the month found the Germans facing the Eighth Army from behind a water barrier that began along the Lamone and ended at the Fiumi Uniti, and which was broken only by the five-mile switch-line running from Scaldino through Albereto to the Montone bridge at Casa Bettini, roughly three miles upstream from San Pancrazio (see Map 25).45
Early in November the Canadian Corps Headquarters had worked out plans to capture Ravenna by an encircling attack which involved an amphibious landing north of the city.*
*A battalion group formed around the Seaforth Highlanders was to land in DUKWs at the base of the Comacchio spit and drive inland to cut Highway No. 16 at Mezzano, where it would link up with a 3rd Brigade thrust northward through Russi.46
Someone’s sense of humour gave the proposed operation the code name “Chuckle”, and when the scheme was abandoned in favour of the army group plan the name was retained to designate the Canadian part in the Eighth Army’s offensive. Planning for this began two days after the arrival of the new Corps Commander, and on the 21st he informed his divisional commanders of his intentions. On its return to the line the Corps would take over the Eighth Army’s front from Casa Bettini to the sea. The 1st Division, attacking through the 10th Indian Division’s holding west of the Montone, would seize Russi from the south and thrust forward on the Corps axis across the intervening rivers to Lugo. The 5th Armoured Division would advance on the right, cut Highway No. 16 near the Lamone and capture Ravenna. The timing of the Corps’ attack would depend on the Indian Division’s capture of the Casa Bettini bridging site – the first good one north of Faenza.47
The ground ahead of the Canadians was no more promising than that over which they had fought during late September and October. The three major rivers which flowed north-eastward across the axis of advance all ran
between high flood-banks, which gave the enemy excellent observation of the intervening flats and provided him with sites for burrowed-out shelters and machine-gun positions.48 Although numerous streams and canals drained the flats between the main watercourses, with the coming of the winter rains the ground, true to its marshy origin, was likely to become water-logged and obstructive to movement off the main roads. As in earlier operations bridging was to be a major problem, largely because of the great difficulty in developing suitable approaches over the sodden fields. To move forward between the rivers was an arduous task; to cross them a formidable one indeed.
Aided by these natural defences the enemy was holding the long front opposite the Canadian Corps with only two divisions – the 114th Jäger on the coastal flank as far inland as San Pancrazio, and the 356th Infantry Division to its right. Both were part of the recently formed 73rd Corps, commanded by General of Infantry Anton Dostler. The new headquarters, created on 1 December by the conversion of the Venetian Coastal Command, had come into being in order to ease the strain of administering 30 divisions in Army Group “C” with only seven corps headquarters (three of them German–Italian).49 It was believed by Canadian intelligence staffs that both divisions confronting them were under strength in artillery, and without tanks, for all known reserves of armour had been identified with the 76th Panzer Corps in the Faenza sector.50
The 1st Division’s Repulse at the Lamone, 2-5 December
On 25 November Brigadier Smith (Maj-Gen. Foster did not assume command until 9 December) held a conference in the Teatro Dante, in Riccione, at which he briefed all officers down to company and squadron commanders on the 1st Division’s role in the forthcoming attack. The operation was designed in four phases: the 3rd Brigade was to drive north from the Indians’ bridgehead, take Russi and force a crossing over the Lamone River; the 2nd Brigade would then seize Bagnacavallo and establish a bridgehead over the Senio; the third phase assigned to the 1st Brigade the capture of Lugo and exploitation to the Santerno; and in the final stage the 3rd Brigade would re-enter the battle and capture Massa Lombarda.51 General Foulkes had decided to start the 5th Armoured Division’s assault also from the bridgehead west of the Montone, so that it would be closely correlated with the 1st Division’s effort in the opening phase. To this end one battalion of the 12th Brigade would concentrate behind the 3rd Brigade and, simultaneously with Brigadier Bernatchez’s attack, thrust along the left bank of the river and clear the San Pancrazio area for bridging operations. Brigadier Lind’s units would then push north, secure the village of Godo
on the Faenza–Ravenna road, and cut Highway No. 16 two miles east of the Lamone. At the same time other elements of the 5th Division would drive on Ravenna from the west while Porterforce moved in from the south. The 11th Brigade, in reserve for the initial stages of the operation, would be ready to face up to the Lamone beside the 12th, with both formations prepared to assist Brigadier Smith’s drive westward.52 Against an enemy reported to be poor in gun strength the 1st Division would have the support of its own artillery and the 1st Army Group RCA. For the first two phases of his attack Brigadier Smith was allotted all available Wasp flamethrowers, as well as a squadron of Crocodiles, which would pass to the 5th Division after the Lamone crossings were secured. Planned air support included the employment of rocket-firing US Thunderbolts, working for the first time with Canadian troops in Italy.53
On 28 November the 3rd Brigade and its supporting arms moved from its rest area to concentrate between the Ronco and the Montone north of Forli. As the Indians had not yet secured the bridging site at Casa Bettini their engineers began to work on an alternative site 1000 yards upstream.54 The Canadian passage into the bridgehead was complicated by the fact that north of Highway No. 9 the Montone was spanned by only a low-capacity pontoon bridge and two footbridges; so that all heavy vehicles had to cross the river at Forli, where the one available road along the west bank was rapidly breaking down under the weight of traffic. The shallow bridgehead was already crowded with road-bound tanks, vehicles and guns, whose deployment into the adjacent farmyards had been prevented by the shrewd enemy’s destruction of. the entrances across the deep wayside ditches.55
The ground dried enough on the 30th for the 10th Indian Division to manoeuvre their tanks; thus supported they attacked and secured Albereto, and out of its ruins picked 40 German dead.56 This gain loosed the enemy’s stubborn hold on Casa Bettini, which was cleared early on I December.57 At first light the Canadian marching troops began crossing the Montone and by late afternoon the brigade had taken over the bridgehead, relief being accelerated by the completion of the Indians’ Bailey bridge during the morning. At 9:00 p.m. General Foulkes assumed command of the whole area from Albereto to the coast.58 There were now three Canadian battalions in position between Albereto and the Montone. On the left was the Royal 22e Regiment, its outer flank covered by two squadrons of The Royal Canadian Dragoons; the West Nova Scotias were in the centre; and on their right, near Casa Bettini, were the 4th Princess Louise Dragoon Guards, waiting to lead the 12th Brigade’s attack.59 As they settled into their positions the forward troops could see through the leafless vines the roofs of Russi, less than three miles to the north.
That night Brigadier Bernatchez gave his battalion commanders their final instructions. The brigade objectives lay on two major communications
which crossed its front beyond Russi. About a mile and a half north-east of the town was the important junction of the Faenza–Ravenna highway with the road leading west through Bagnacavallo to Massa Lombarda – the route selected as the main Corps axis. A thousand yards north-west of Russi the railroad from Ravenna split into two lines running west to Bologna and south-west to Faenza. The 20 foot embankment which carried the more northerly branch across the open ground between the Lamone and Bagnacavallo provided, as events were to show, a defensive position of singular advantage. The West Novas on the right were to by-pass Russi and seize the road junction to the north-east. At the same time the Royal 22e would attack to secure the line of the railway west of Russi and if possible take intact the northern railway bridge over the Lamone. This done, the Carleton and Yorks, in reserve, would be prepared to assault across the river downstream from the bridge. On the right flank the Princess Louise, which had been placed temporarily under Bernatchez’s command for the preliminary moves, would revert to its parent formation at H Hour and clear the west bank of the Montone to San Pancrazio.60
A thick screen of smoke laid down ahead of the start line by the guns of the 1st Field Regiment briefly obscured the sunny morning skies across the 3rd Brigade’s front, as, promptly at nine o’clock on 2 December, 36 Spitbombers of the Desert Air Force began strafing and bombing enemy positions ahead of the curtain. It was the Canadian Corps’ first introduction to an Air Force “Timothy” target.61 After thirty minutes the infantry began to assault behind a series of heavy artillery concentrations.62 Initially the two 1st Division battalions met little opposition as they pressed forward across the familiar network of drainage ditches, and by eleven o’clock the West Novas were closing to the Scolo Via Cupa – a rather wider ditch with five-foot dykes which crossed their path about a mile south of Russi. Here they met much more determined resistance, and although “B” Company gained an insecure footing astride the obstacle, an attempted breakout failed, and in the late afternoon the remainder of the battalion was still on the near bank.63 On the left the Royal 22e had made three unsuccessful attempts to eliminate a strong enemy position at a junction on the Faenza road two miles south of Russi; German SPs had knocked out two tanks of the supporting squadron of North Irish Horse.64 “The enemy”, reported von Vietinghoff that night to the High Command, “has been attacking the sector of 356 Infantry Division since midday with strong forces supported by tanks and ground-attack aircraft, accompanied by heavy artillery fire, and during the afternoon he extended his attacks to the right wing of the 114 Jäger Division. ... In several counter-thrusts it was possible to throw back the spearheads repeatedly, and with the last available forces ... more or less to seal off the penetration.”65
As the brief winter day came to an end, the 3rd Brigade prepared to renew its attack. The Germans did the expected by pulling back under cover of
darkness, enabling the Royal 22e, advancing again shortly before midnight, to make good progress. Lt-Col. Allard’s instructions to by-pass enemy strongpoints where possible were so well followed that “C” Company reached the railway junction north-west of Russi at 3:00 a.m. and in a short fight drove off the surprised enemy.66 The West Novas did equally well. “B” Company had managed to keep a platoon on the north side of the Via Cupa, and behind this slender bridgehead sappers of the 4th Field Company RCE worked through the night installing a Bailey bridge.*
* The Engineers’ achievement owed much to the inspired leadership of Lieutenant J. E. Reesor, who was awarded the MC. He made the preliminary reconnaissances in broad daylight under small-arms and mortar fire, and throughout the moonlit night, as this heavy fire continued, by his own example rallied his men to the effort required to complete the task.67
At two in the morning two companies crossed the narrow ditch and pressed northward, followed at 4:30 by supporting arms moving over the completed bridge.68 When Lt-Col. Saunders’ leading troops entered Russi at seven o’clock they found it clear of enemy, but at the northern outskirts they met a hail of fire from the railway beyond.69 The brigade accomplished little more that day (3 December) as the inner wings of the two enemy divisions held firm, denying the approach to the Lamone.70 During the afternoon the Royal 22e pushed into the triangle formed by the two railway lines and the river, only to be stopped by fire from front and flank. On the right the West Nova Scotias were held short of the railway, still nearly two miles from their road junction objective.71
Late afternoon brought word that the 5th Armoured Division had cut the railway east of Godo, and with the prospect of lessened resistance on his right flank Bernatchez decided to commit his reserve in a fresh attempt to roll his stubborn opponents back to the Lamone. At 9:30, under cover of a thick fog which blotted out the full moon, the Carleton and Yorks attacked through the Royal 22e, directed on the northern railway bridge and the crossing of the Bagnacavallo road a mile downstream. Simultaneously from the Russi area the West Novas struck north across the railway.72 They found that the Germans had withdrawn across the Lamone, so that apart from small pockets of resistance still east of the river they were opposed only by heavy shelling from the far bank. The Carletons reached the destroyed rail and road bridges at 8:00 a.m. on the 4th,73 and were joined on the river bank by the Royal 22e in the fork of the railway.74 As the 3rd Brigade had been fighting for more than forty-eight hours, during which its infantry battalions had suffered 106 casualties, the divisional commander now gave to Brigadier Calder the task of securing a crossing over the Lamone before the enemy should have an opportunity to settle into his new line.75
The 1st Brigade’s effort began inauspiciously. Early in the afternoon (4 December) the Hastings and Prince Edwards, following a “Timothy” air attack and preliminary artillery fire, tried to seize a small bridgehead south of the road bridge. Unfortunately there had been no opportunity for
reconnaissance, and the magnitude of the Lamone obstacle seems to have been badly underestimated.76 Fifty yards from the river the leading company suddenly met intense machine-gun and mortar fire which defeated all efforts to gain the top of the near dyke. A renewed attempt an hour later also failed, and the acting GOC called off the venture.77 It was decided to use the RCR and the Hastings in a more deliberate assault at one o’clock that night (the latter battalion to be handled by its Second-in-Command in order to give him experience).78 During the evening patrols from both battalions went forward and with great caution and no little difficulty crossed the steep, grass-covered flood bank – 25 feet high on the land side, 40 feet on the river side – to the water’s edge. An RCR patrol commander was drowned while attempting to swim the river; his men returned with word that the water was five feet deep and 35 feet wide, fast running and icy cold.79
Brigadier Calder planned to attack on a mile-wide front, with the RCR on the left immediately north of the railway and the Hastings on the right just above the Bagnacavallo road (see Sketch 11). Battalion objectives were about 500 yards beyond the lateral road which ran below the far dyke. His supporting artillery included all the fire resources of the division as well as four medium regiments.*
* The 1st, 2nd and 5th Medium Regiments RCA and the 3rd Medium Regiment RA.80
At ten minutes before H Hour the medium guns started shelling the river road, and as the infantry crossed the start line the 25-pounders began firing a series of prearranged targets reaching back from the west bank.81 At first things went well on the left. The bulk of “A” and “B” Companies of the RCR were ferried over in assault boats manned by “D” Company, and gained the lateral road without meeting opposition. The only setback came when one platoon of “B” Company attempting to cross on the ruins of the railway bridge was practically wiped out by mortar fire. At 3:00 a.m. “C” Company, crossing on two Olafson bridges, pushed forward to enlarge the bridgehead, but in the darkness swung too far to the left and ended up alongside the railway.82
The first light of day was beginning to filter through the thick grey mist which shrouded the river flats when elements of a specially formed counterattack group, having advanced along the south-west side of the high railway embankment, launched a sharp attack against the bridgehead. The 114th Jäger Division recorded:–
Through the counter-attack, which had been ordered by the Division and organized by the commander of 741st Jäger Regiment, and which was carried out by the Divisional Reconnaissance Battalion [A.A.114] reinforced with assault guns and engineers and elements of 356 Inf Div, the enemy bridgehead was first sealed off, then reduced and, after particularly effective support from our own artillery, smashed. ...
Special commendations for their role in this attack were recorded for “elements 356 Recce Bn” and the 17th Company, 741st Regiment.83
Seldom have the advantages of a covered approach been more effectively demonstrated. The RCR were caught without armour and with virtually no anti-tank defence; two Littlejohns rafted over before daybreak were not yet in position, and the obscuring fog prevented effective use of the battalion PIATs. From machine-guns lining the 20-foot crest the Germans poured a hail of fire into “B” Company on the left flank and soon overran its headquarters; leaderless, and reduced to less than thirty in number, the survivors withdrew to the dyke. “C” Company, farther forward, suffered even more heavily. Caught in the outburst of fire from the railway above them before they had dug in, the troops prepared to make a stand in a large stone farmhouse. Before long shells from a self-propelled gun shooting through a breach in the embankment brought down the building on their heads, and under the covering fire German infantry closed in on the survivors. Only twelve men managed to extricate themselves and join “A” Company and the remnants of “B” Company at the river road. There they prepared to make a stand as the battalion commander sought to retrieve the situation by sending over his reserve company. By that time, however, the enemy had rung down a solid curtain of fire along the river line and attempts to cross only brought further casualties.84
On, the right flank the Hastings, preparing to deliver their second attack in twelve hours, suffered an unfortunate reverse when, as a result of forming up ahead of the start line agreed upon with the artillery, they came under fire from the medium guns.85 That was at one o’clock. A new attempt was made
at four, and by seven o’clock three companies had crossed by assault boat and footbridge and were in contact with the RCR on their left. A little later they encountered the first enemy resistance, as small-arms fire hit them from houses along the Bagnacavallo road. Wireless communications were poor – the massive wall of the dyke shielded the 18-sets sh and the Hastings were beset by rumours, including one that the RCR had abandoned its bridgehead. For a time Battalion Headquarters had no contact with its forward troops, and shortly after 11:00 a.m. word came that the three companies had retired to the near bank.86 Upon learning of this withdrawal the RCR received permission from the Brigade Commander to pull back their remaining company. “The apparent success of 0630 hrs”, recorded the RCR diarist bitterly, “had turned into a ghastly failure before 1200 hrs.”87
That night von Vietinghoff reported, “The bridgehead over the Lamone which had been formed north-west of Russi was smashed in a determined counter-attack which was carried out in perfect cooperation with the artillery, and in which the enemy suffered considerable casualties.”88 In less than twelve hours these had numbered 164 for the two Canadian battalions involved. Of a total of 205 all ranks of the RCR who crossed the river, 29 were killed or died of wounds, 46 were wounded and 31 became prisoners of war. The Hastings casualties numbered 58, the majority of them from the fire of the supporting guns.89 The Canadian repulse was followed by changes in the command of the brigade and The Royal Canadian Regiment and the replacement of the Hastings and Prince Edwards’ Second-in-Command.
The Capture of Ravenna, 4 December
While the 1st Division was thus contesting the Lamone crossing, the 5th Division had been making more satisfying progress in its task of clearing the Corps’ right flank. General Hoffmeister’s operations began on the morning of the 2nd, it will be recalled, with the 4th Princess Louise Dragoon Guards attacking north-eastward along the left bank of the Montone, and so avoiding the necessity of an opposed river crossing at San Pancrazio.90 Like the 3rd Brigade on its left, the battalion at first met only light opposition; but this stiffened about a mile and a half from San Pancrazio, directly east of the bend in the Scolo via Cupa where the West Nova Scotias were having trouble. There were no further gains during daylight.91 Meanwhile, on orders from Brigadier Lind, the Westminsters, whose role originally had been. to remain east of the Montone until San Pancrazio had been captured, had taken advantage of a heavy fog which hung over the river flats during the morning to put one company across in assault boats south of the village. The enemy’s slow reaction showed that he had not expected this move, and before he could
rally, the Westminsters had secured a firm bridgehead. By dark, having bridged the river with a chain of assault boats, Lt-Col. Corbould had two companies closing in on San Pancrazio.92
In the meantime The Lanark and Renfrew Scottish Regiment had followed the Princess Louise across the Montone and moved up on their right. At 6:00 p.m. Lind ordered both units to advance. Threatened with enclosure between the 12th Brigade’s two wings, the Germans fell back on Godo. Towards dawn on the 3rd the Lanarks linked up with the Westminsters on the river bank, and by eight o’clock they had together cleared the long straggling village of San Pancrazio. The brigade now made good strides forward. Passing around the Lanark and Renfrews’ right flank, the Princess Louise waded the Scolo via Cupa and after a rapid cross-country march cut the Ravenna road just east of Godo. This achievement, as we have already noted, brought a further withdrawal of the Germans opposing the 1st Division and enabled the Lanarks, who had been held up by fire at the canal, to occupy Godo before nightfall.93
It was part of Brigadier Lind’s original plan that once the brigade had cleared the west bank of the Montone the Westminsters should strike northward from San Pancrazio with all speed to seize the crossroads at the village of Piangipane, midway between Russi and Highway No. 16.94 At 4:00 p.m. Lt-Col. Corbould set off with Battalion Headquarters and his three motor companies, all moving in single file across country, heavily laden and on foot. During the night they ambushed an enemy column of sixteen vehicles on the Ravenna road, knocking out with their PIATs two 75-mm. SP guns and three half-tracks. There were six Canadian casualties, against ten Germans killed and 23 taken prisoner.95 By daylight on the 4th engineers of the 10th Field Squadron had opened the road from San Pancrazio to Godo, allowing two squadrons of The British Columbia Dragoons (Lt-Col. H. H. Angle had taken over command of the regiment on the death of Lt-Col. Yokes) and a battery of anti-tank guns to come forward.96 Thus supported, and with the road beyond Godo swept of mines by the 5th Assault Troop CAC, (see above, p. 474n),97 the Westminsters entered and cleared Piangipane early in the afternoon.98
With armour and wheels over the Via Cupa the tempo of operations quickened. South of Ravenna Porterforce had observed signs of an enemy withdrawal, and already strong patrols of the Lancers and Popski’s Private Army were crossing the Fiumi Uniti.99 Spurred on by this competition two squadrons of the Princess Louise accompanied by a squadron of the Dragoons pushed rapidly eastward from Godo. The only opposition came from a lone Panther tank guarding the junction with Highway No. 16; it knocked out one of the BCD tanks before falling victim to the squadron’s guns. A few minutes later (it was now 4:00 p.m.) the tanks were stopped by a demolished bridge a mile west of Ravenna, but the infantry entered
the historic city alone and joined hands with the 27th Lancers in Garibaldi Square.100
The capture of Ravenna, once the seat of the imperial court of the Western Roman Empire, and now a provincial centre of 30,000 population, was significant chiefly for the accommodation the city offered the Eighth Army for winter quarters and administrative installations. Although Ravenna retained its ancient status as a seaport by virtue of the six-mile long canal connecting it with the Adriatic at Porto Corsini, the satisfactory railway position enjoyed by. the Allies*
* At the end of November the full development of Rimini as a railhead made it possible to dispense with the one at Ortona and thus eliminate an extremely long road-haul. On 4 December the Cesena railhead began supplying the 5th Corps and Polish Corps, and plans were in hand to bring Forli similarly into use.101
made its use as such unnecessary, and no immediate steps were taken to sweep the offshore waters of mines or to restore the harbour facilities, which had suffered severely from Allied bombing and German demolitions.102
In a release to the press the Allied High Command, in one of its rare identifications of a unit by name, credited the fall of Ravenna to “a brilliant encircling movement by the Princess Louise Dragoon Guards which outflanked the city and forced the enemy to withdraw to avoid being trapped.”103 Due recognition must also be given, however, both to the contribution of Porterforce and the activities of the Partisans in the desolate flats north of the city. The 900 guerrillas making up the 28th Garibaldi Brigade were commanded by an Italian officer, Lieutenant Arrigo Boldrini, who worked under the nom-de-guerre of “Major Bulow”. Bulow had visited Corps Headquarters on 20 November and had been briefed on the part his force was expected to play in the coming offensive.104 On his return journey, which was made through squall-roughened seas by rowboat from Cervia, he took with him Major D. M. Healy, an Italian-speaking officer of the Corps intelligence staff, who was to provide liaison between General Foulkes and the Partisans.105
Until the main Canadian offensive began Bulow’s men were chiefly employed in gathering intelligence of the enemy’s movements and strength for Major Healy to pass to Corps Headquarters by wireless. In order to deceive the vigilant enemy Healy employed the very young, the aged and the infirm – though he found that to extract accurate military information from such untrained observers required “the patience of an angel, an inexhaustible supply of cigarettes and a fund of good humour.”106 More popular with the bulk of the Partisans were the raids on the enemy’s patrols and isolated posts. On 2 December, in coordination with the Corps attack, the 28th Garibaldi Brigade commenced an all-out effort against the German communications and rear installations. Five aircraft dropped the Partisans arms and supplies, and patrols of Popski’s Private Army brought by rowboat along the canals 60,000 rounds of small-arms ammunition. At daybreak on the 4th a band
of 300 attacked Porto Corsini, and after brisk fighting in which both sides suffered several casualties, settled down to hold the garrison in siege. The most spectacular effort, however, was made in the area lying immediately south of the Valli di Comacchio. There on the 5th the Partisans seized Sant’ Alberto and three neighbouring villages, withdrawing only when counter-attacked by a German force of five self-propelled guns, several armoured cars and some lorried infantry.107 On 7 December the bulk of Bulow’s irregulars were withdrawn on orders from Corps Headquarters to Ravenna, where they began refitting in preparation for further service.108 During their main operations from 3 to 6 December they had taken 27 prisoners and had counted 37 German dead; Major Healy estimated that at least 75 of the enemy had been killed and from 30 to 50 wounded.109
The last phase of the 5th Division’s plan went without a hitch. By the time Piangipane was secure General Hoffmeister had brought Brigadier Johnston’s 11th Brigade forward from Cervia to take over his right flank. Advancing through the Westminsters in the late afternoon of 4 December the Perths on the right and the Irish on the left, each supported by BCD tanks, cleaned out the pocket between the Lamone and Highway No. 16, the Germans blowing the bridges at Mezzano and Villanova as the Irish approached.110 West of Piangipane the Lanarks and the Westminsters cleared to the interdivisional boundary, and by the morning of the 6th the armoured division had closed up to the Lamone on a five-mile front.111 Cut off by the 11th Brigade’s sudden thrust, the left wing of the 114th Jäger Division, forming the extreme eastern tip of the German Tenth Army, was forced to fall back towards the Valli di Comacchio, harassed all the way by persistent bands of Partisans.112
The Corps Assault Across the Lamone, 10–11 December
The December offensive had not opened simultaneously on all parts of the Eighth Army front. Both Godo and Russi had already fallen to the 1st Canadian Corps when on the night of 3 December the 46th Division of the 5th Corps and the Polish 3rd Carpathian Division launched a joint attack across the Lamone south of Highway No. 9. The British drive against the Pideura ridge six miles south-west of Faenza met stiffening resistance in broken ground which restricted deployment of the infantry and seriously impeded the supporting tanks. On the 7th the 46th Division took Pideura village from the German 305th Division, which, however, retained its hold on the main ridge to the north. Farther south the Polish Corps had secured the left flank by capturing Montecchio and the surrounding high ground, and
was threatening to cut off enemy troops retiring before the 13th Corps’ advance up the Imola road (see Map 23).113
It seemed to von Vietinghoff that the Allied intention was to force him to commit his main reserves in the threatened area and thus weaken the Bologna sector, and so for a time he did nothing to aid the hard-pressed 76th Panzer Corps. By the 8th, however, when the temporary lull in activity on the Canadian front suggested that the Eighth Army’s main effort might be along the Via Emilia, he had brought over the 90th Panzer Grenadier Division from behind Bologna and committed it south of Faenza between the 26th Panzer and the 305th Infantry Divisions.114 Next day the Panzer Grenadiers launched against the 5th Corps’ bridgehead a violent counterattack, which the 46th Division repulsed with great skill and determination, inflicting severe damage also on the 90th and 305th Divisions. Unfortunately General Keightley could not press this advantage, for the relief of the 46th Division was long overdue, and regrouping of his Corps could not be further delayed.115 The Tenth Army was afforded little breathing space however, for almost at once the front west of Ravenna burst into flames as the divisions of the 1st Canadian Corps stormed over the Lamone.
Immediately after the 1st Brigade’s failure to secure a bridgehead west of Russi, General Foulkes’ headquarters had begun preparing for a coordinated attack by both divisions on the night of the 6th. Meteorological reports that day, however, gave warning that storms in the mountains might soon result in flooded rivers which would not only jeopardize the winning of crossings over the Lamone but might also sweep away the Montone bridges in the rear. General McCreery therefore decided to postpone the attack until a return of the water levels to normal should assure the operation a reasonable chance of success.116 The enforced wait gave the Canadian formations an opportunity to extend their reconnaissances and complete their regrouping for the attack. On 9 December Brigadier Smith surrendered command of the 1st Division to Maj-Gen. Foster, and took over the 1st Brigade.117
The delay was tiresome to the waiting troops, who twice carried their boats forward to the river bank in preparation for attacks that were cancelled, each time losing a night’s rest. Often the worst part of a battle is the contemplation of it, and positive steps were taken to see that morale should not suffer. “The apparent indecision of the last two days must make good grousing for the men,” wrote Brigadier Johnston on the 8th to his battalion commanders. “I want every man to understand the reason for the action taken.” His message to the troops reminded them of the assurance given earlier by the C-in-C and the Army Commander that they would not be asked “to fight both weather and enemy”; it told them of the adverse meteorological reports and what these implied; and called on them to be prepared “to act quickly when the weather is in our favour, and in the meantime to accept the delay with resignation.”118 For the next few days
hostilities were confined to occasional artillery exchanges; on the 9th Traversara, on the far bank opposite the Lanark and Renfrew, was heavily attacked by the Desert Air Force.119
The Corps plan provided for a two-divisional assault on a four-mile front, with the 5th Division crossing at Villanova and Borgo di Villanova (two villages on the west bank of the Lamone roughly two and three miles respectively above Mezzano), and the 1st Division attacking immediately south of the main axis. The initial effort in each sector would be made on a single brigade front, although on the left the 1st Division’s subsequent exploitation to the Senio called for the successive employment of all three of its brigades.120 Playing upon the German sensitivity in the 5th Corps’ sector, the 43rd Indian Lorried Brigade was to make a feint attack on the Canadian left shortly before the main effort; and it was hoped to add to the enemy’s confusion by staging a diversionary fire demonstration on each flank of the 5th Division’s attack.121
The terrain to be covered was not encouraging. Between the Lamone and the Senio, the eastern bank of which represented the final goal of the Corps operation,122 lay four miles of country with physical characteristics already unpleasantly familiar to the Canadians. The passage of the Lamone promised to be but the first of a series of contests to win bridgeheads over strongly defended water barriers. In the space of less than two miles the Corps front was crossed by three dyked water courses – the Fosso Vecchio, the Canale Naviglio and the Fosso Munio – while on the right the Fosso Vetro, just east of the Vecchio, was a fourth obstacle in the path of the armoured division.
By the 10th the weather had improved and the rivers subsided sufficiently for the Canadian Corps to strike. The 5th Armoured Division led off, hoping to take the enemy by surprise. At 7:30 in the evening the Perths and The Cape Breton Highlanders slipped across the Lamone in assault boats.123 There had been no preliminary artillery bombardment at the points of attack, but on either flank the night was in an uproar as the 5th Armoured Brigade opposite Mezzano and the 12th Brigade in the Traversara area strove to divert the enemy’s attention by firing everything from rifles to anti-aircraft guns. By eight o’clock any surprise had been lost, and the thunder of the divisional artillery was added to the din.124 Half an hour later the guns of the 1st Division opened up with a series of concentrations which introduced a novel fire plan.125 After raking the battle area for thirty minutes they fell silent, resuming their bombardment after a pause of twenty minutes. It was hoped by the designers of this stratagem – and as results proved not without good grounds – that during the interval the Germans, assuming that an assault was imminent, would emerge from their shelters to man their forward defences, and would thus be caught in the open when the barrage unexpectedly began again.126
Three battalions of the 1st Division now moved to the river’s edge with unit pioneers and carrier parties from the rear echelons bearing the assault boats and Olafson bridges. Their sector of attack was that in which the 1st Brigade had suffered its bloody repulse a week before, but this time the benefit of experience, a more careful reconnaissance, a superior artillery plan and the employment of an additional battalion in the assault were to ensure a complete success at the minimum cost. At half-past nine, by the eerie glow of searchlights which anticipated the rise of the moon, the crossing began – at the right the Carleton and Yorks astride the broken bridge on the Bagnacavallo road; at the left the 48th Highlanders (placed under Bernatchez’s command for the operation)127 on both sides of the railway embankment; and the West Nova Scotias in the centre. The two flanking battalions achieved immediate and overwhelming success. Early difficulties with the footbridges (the Highlanders’ was a span too short, and the Carletons’ sank at one end during the launching) were overcome by putting the assault companies across in boats. The swiftness of the attack, combined with the artillery deception, demoralized the defenders of the western dyke, and by midnight both battalions held firm bridgeheads covering their crossing-places.128 During the night the Carleton and Yorks alone took 84 prisoners, at a cost of only twelve casualties,129 and the commander of one of their assault companies declared: “I have never seen so many wounded, maimed and dead Germans in another area of similar size.”130
By contrast the West Novas for a while fared badly. Their sector immediately below the railway bridge, scene of the RCR’s earlier attempt, was apparently under close watch by the enemy. Heavy defensive fire fell on the assembly area, disorganizing one of the assault companies, and at the river edge the other was met by an inferno of mortar and machine-gun fire. It was relying solely on an Olafson bridge for its passage, and when the swift current capsized this before any troops could cross, there was a forced withdrawal to wait for assault boats to be brought up.131 About midnight, however, Brigadier Bernatchez, exploiting success already attained, directed the West Novas to attack inwards through the bridgeheads of the two flanking battalions. The plan worked, and by first light the two jaws of the pincers had met.132 As they cleared the west bank of the river the West Novas learned the strength of the enemy’s defences; in addition to destroying two SP guns which had been firing through gaps in the dyke, they discovered on the reverse side of the embankment numerous weapon-pits near the crest and a series of deep and strongly timbered dug-outs spaced at intervals of 20 feet, “impervious to artillery fire, and equipped with every possible device including electric lights.133 Before daylight on the 11th engineers of the 1st and 4th Field Companies had two light rafts in operation, and with gratifying promptness each infantry unit received its anti-tank guns. During the next 24 hours these crossings were developed into Class 9 floating bridges, although
the heavy enemy fire kept daylight work at a minimum. The situation was considerably relieved on the morning of the 13th, when the 13th Field Company completed a 160-foot Bailey bridge on the Bagnacavallo road.134
With all three assault battalions west of the Lamone Brigadier Bernatchez ordered the Royal 22e Regiment to pass through the Carleton and Yorks and expand the bridgehead to the Fosso Vecchio. Lt-Col. Allard had excellent support from the artillery and from medium machine-guns and heavy mortars of the Saskatoon Light Infantry, firing on prearranged targets, but the Germans gave way so reluctantly that by nightfall his battalion had covered only 2000 yards astride the Bagnacavallo road and was still 500 yards short of the canal. The West Novas and the 48th Highlanders were then in less advanced positions south of the railway. The 22e penetration had been along the common boundary of the German 356th Infantry and 114th Jäger Divisions, whose inner wings had now been rolled back on a three-mile front.135
The attack by the 5th Division had gone well. Before the enemy in Villanova could brace himself for the assault the Cape Bretons were over the dyke and into his midst. The village yielded 43 prisoners, and by two in the morning the Cape Bretons had reached the Via Aguta, a lateral road a mile beyond the river. On the left the Perths had taken Borgo di Villanova without trouble and were advancing along the Via Cocchi, which led north-west to the Naviglio Canal.136 Judging the time ripe to commit his reserve battalion Johnston sent The Irish Regiment of Canada across the river at Borgo di Villanova to drive to the left and link up with the 1st Division. By first light on the 11th the Irish had seized the junction of the river road with the Via Cogollo – the next road south of the Via Cocchi linking the Lamone and the Naviglio. Pushing rapidly westward they captured intact the Fosso Vetro bridge, and after beating off two small counter-attacks reached the Fosso Vecchio about midday, to be halted by its demolished bridge. Lt-Col. Clark’s troops had then advanced 3000 yards, taken 50 prisoners and killed and wounded probably as many more.137 Much of the success in both divisional sectors had been due to the sterling work of the DAF, whose 312 sorties on the 11th was its biggest effort in close support of the Canadians for any single day in December.138
The blows struck by the 1st Canadian Corps had caught the German 73rd Corps without any available reserves, for, as we have observed, von Vietinghoff had consistently viewed the renewed Eighth Army offensive as an attempt to draw off his strength from the Apennine front, and he had only with the greatest reluctance brought the 90th Panzer Grenadier Division into the battle against the 5th Corps. Yet if Dostler was to seal off the Canadian penetration west of Ravenna he had to have early assistance. Accordingly a battle group was hastily assembled from formations of the 76th Panzer Corps in the Faenza area. It included the reconnaissance battalion of the 90th Panzer Grenadier Division and a battalion of
the 278th Infantry Division, plus an advance battalion of the 98th Infantry Division, which von Vietinghoff had decided to throw in to bolster the 114th Jäger Division’s crumbling right flank. Early on 11 December this scratch force counter-attacked the northern end of the 5th Division’s bridgehead.139
The onslaught hit the Westminsters, who had been committed that morning under Brigadier Johnston’s command on the 11th Brigade’s right, north of Villanova. German infantry supported by from 15 to 20 tanks and self-propelled guns moved in from the direction of Highway No. 16 (which westward from Ravenna is more commonly called the Via Reale than the Via Adriatica) and although engaged by aircraft of the Desert Air Force, closed on the Canadian positions. After a sharp, hour-long struggle the Westminsters beat off the attack, taking several prisoners and damaging four of the German tanks with their PIATs. Two further attempts by the enemy during the afternoon failed,140 and by nightfall his chance had gone, as the devoted efforts of the Engineers, working continuously under, direct fire, enabled the Canadians to face the Germans on more equal terms. At 6:45 that evening the 10th Field Squadron completed a Class 9 floating bridge which allowed light vehicles, carriers and anti-tank guns to cross into the bridgehead. Nearby the 14th Field Company had a heavier (Class 40) pontoon bridge ready for tanks shortly after 5:00 a.m. on the 12th;141 and the completion that same night of a Bailey bridge eight feet above the water ensured a crossing in the Corps sector even should the Lamone suddenly rise.142 That evening Brigadier Lind took over command of the 5th Division’s right flank from Villanova to the Via Reale.143
By midday on 12 December it was apparent that the enemy’s main forces had withdrawn behind the Naviglio in the sector between Bagnacavallo and the highway. The 1st Brigade, which General Foster had put in on the right of the Royal 22e Regiment on the previous afternoon, had met only light artillery and mortar fire in crossing the Fosso Vecchio. At 8:30 a.m. the Hastings and the RCR (commanded now by Lt-Col. W. W. Reid, former CO of the Perths) reached the Naviglio about 2,000 yards downstream from Bagnacavallo,*
* The name goes back to the days when the horses of travellers approaching Bagnacavallo received involuntary baths in the flooded low ground about the town.
having linked up with the Irish, who were maintaining their steady advance along the Via Cogollo.144 In the 5th Division’s centre The Perth Regiment reached the Vecchio at the Via Cocchi,145 as did the Princess Louise Dragoon Guards a mile and a half downstream.146 The 5th Armoured Brigade had kept pace on the extreme right flank. Early on the 12th the 8th New Brunswick Hussars drove their tanks across the Lamone at Villanova, and moved north along the Via Aguta to Highway No. 16, where they met dismounted patrols of Lord Strathcona’s Horse which had crossed on the rubble of the Mezzano bridge.147
The Naviglio Bridgeheads, 12–15 December
Canadian soldiers peering over the top of the Fosso Vecchio’s eight-foot dyke on the misty afternoon of 12 December could see some 500 to 700 yards away across flat, treeless fields their next objective, the Naviglio Canal, whose 20-foot earthen embankment formed their western horizon. The Corps Commander planned to force the passage of the canal by a simultaneous attack of both his divisions. On the right General Hoffmeister’s 12th Brigade would seize a bridgehead opposite Villanova deep enough to reach the Fosso Munio, which here was a quarter of a mile west of the Naviglio. General Foster’s intention was for the 1st Brigade to assault with one battalion a mile and a half below Bagnacavallo, with the 2nd Brigade standing by for exploitation.148 Tanks of the armoured brigade would support both efforts. Civilians reported that the Naviglio was dry, the Germans having dammed it near Faenza a few days earlier in order to provide a better water obstacle in that sector.149
In the meantime the enemy was taking hurried steps to reinforce the 73rd Corps, whose battered formations were in no condition to withstand for long a renewed Canadian assault. The remaining regiments of the 98th Infantry Division arrived from positions near the Futa Pass and by the 13th had been inserted between the 356th Infantry and 114th Jäger Divisions.150 General Dostler thus faced the Canadian Corps with a comparatively fresh division deployed in the danger area between the Vecchio south of Bagnacavallo and the Naviglio west of Villanova; in spite of Canadian advances the outer wings of his two flanking divisions still rested on the Lamone. Prisoner identifications revealed that the weakened ranks of the 114th Jäger Division had been stiffened by the arrival from north of the Po of “Field-Marshal Kesselring Machine Gun Battalion No. 1”. This unit had been formed in November and had served with the Fourteenth Army until 4 December, when Army Group ordered its transfer to the Tenth Army. On 11 December it was placed under the command of the Jäger Division.151 (In the closing months of the campaign each of the two German armies in Italy employed one of these heavily armed units.)152
The attack on the Naviglio began between nine and ten o’clock on the night of the 12th. The two assaulting battalions of the 12th Brigade, the Lanark and Renfrews on the left astride the Via Cocchi, and the Princess Louise Dragoon Guards 2500 yards farther north, successfully negotiated the fire-swept flats west of the Vecchio but met a stubborn and aggressive defence along the banks of the Naviglio. Only two squadrons of the Princess Louise reached the far side, and these were rapidly cut into isolated segments by furious counter-attacks. At the same time increased enemy fire on the
eastern approaches prevented reserve squadrons from moving forward to the canal. Stragglers bearing alarmist reports of the fighting began arriving back at the start line, and at 1:40 a.m. the acting CO, Major A. E. Langston (who had taken over from Lt-Col. Darling on the 9th), ordered what was left of his forces to withdraw to the Vecchio.153 The battalion had lost 21 killed, 46 captured and 21 wounded in the night’s action. On the left the Lanarks were stopped by heavy fire from a group of enemy-occupied houses on the far dyke (identified on the map as Osteria.*)
* The designation “Osteria” (Italian for “inn”) appears frequently on large-scale maps, and was commonly treated as a place name in the records of both sides.
Unable to cross the Naviglio, they formed a strong position on the near bank which they held under constant pressure for two full days, suffering losses of 111 – 38 of them fatal.154 Bad weather denied them help from the air, and for a long time they had no tank support, for the hail of mortar and machine-gun fire which the enemy was pouring on the exposed crossings of the Via Cocchi frustrated the bridging efforts of the Engineers. It was mid-morning on the 13th before the 1st Field Squadron RCE using an armoured bulldozer had filled in a passage over the Vetro so that tanks of The British Columbia Dragoons could move up and give the Lanarks supporting fire from the Fosso Vecchio.155 Three hours later an Ark bridge in position in the Vecchio enabled the armour to reach the near bank of the Naviglio.156
Meanwhile the 1st Brigade had met with better success. Forward companies drew back from the Naviglio to allow the artillery to soften up enemy positions, after which the Carleton and Yorks, placed under Brigadier Smith’s command to make the initial assault, swarmed across the dry bed of the canal at the site of an abandoned water-mill. They quickly established a solid footing on the west bank, collecting in the process 45 surprised prisoners. Shortly after midnight the Brigade Commander committed the Hastings on Lt-Col. Ensor’s right, and by 4:15 a.m. on the 13th the two units held a bridgehead 1100 yards wide and 700 deep.157 Ominous sounds of troops and vehicle movement from all parts of the perimeter acquired added significance from a warning by divisional Intelligence that a “possible counter-attack by 190 Recce Regt†
† Actually the 190th Reconnaissance Battalion of the 90th Panzer Grenadier Division.
may be with tanks from the north.”158 In the face of this threat Smith had already ordered the two battalions to hold firm and had directed the RCR to close up to the canal behind the Carleton and Yorks’ left flank. Now, as an additional precaution, he asked for air support over the area as soon as it was light.159
Shortly before eight o’clock German infantry and tanks attacked the Carletons,160 and within an hour the entire perimeter was under assault.161 A serious situation developed. Once the enemy armour was at close quarters it was impossible to employ defensive artillery fire; on the other hand, from two high towers in Bagnacavallo German observers, immune from air attack
because of a low ceiling which kept Allied craft grounded,162 were able to direct their fire with great accuracy upon the Canadian positions. It was impossible to screen these towers by smoke, and although our artillery obtained hits on them, they remained standing.163 Under the repeated enemy blows the defences of the bridgehead began to crumble. In a short time the Hastings’ “B” Company had been cut off and overrun, and Lt-Col. Cameron was obliged to withdraw the remainder of his battalion to the shelter of the canal dykes. By half-past ten renewed pressure was forcing the Carleton and Yorks back to the line of the Naviglio as Ensor reported to Brigade that the situation was “very sticky.”164 Fortunately relief was at hand. Engineers of the 1st Field Company had just completed a bridge over the Vecchio south of the Via Cogollo,165 and soon a squadron of BCD tanks came streaming forward to save the bridgehead.166
While these waited for engineer aid to get them across the Naviglio, the enemy dealt yet another blow against the Carleton and Yorks on the far side. Towards midday three tanks approached from the west, closely followed by infantry. This new threat was mastered by the initiative and daring of two officers, each of whom had won the Military Cross earlier in the campaign. Working together Captain D. E. Smith, commander of the Carleton and Yorks’ “C” Company, and Captain P. G. Newell, an artillery observation officer with the battalion, towed a six-pounder gun by jeep across the canal, and with a hastily organized gun crew manhandled it into position in time to knock out the leading Tiger. Artillery fire called down by Newell and renewed efforts by Smith and his men beat off the German infantry and the remaining tanks. (Both officers were awarded bars to their MCs.)167 By this time the sappers had bulldozed a tank track across the Naviglio, and the first of the BCD Shermans entered the bridgehead.
The arrival of the armour ensured retention of the hard-won crossing, although neither of the assaulting battalions was in condition to regain the ground originally held. Before the day ended they had withstood no less than thirteen determined attacks by the 190th Panzer Reconnaissance Battalion and crack troops of the Kesselring Machine Gun Battalion.168 Both received the Army Commander’s personal congratulations on their achievement.169 The Carleton and York casualties of two killed and 16 wounded had been surprisingly light; by contrast the Hastings had lost three killed, seven wounded and 59 taken prisoner. The task of restoring the bridgehead was given to The Loyal Edmonton Regiment, which the GOC had placed under Brigadier Smith’s command when things began going badly with the 1st Brigade.170 Under cover of artillery fire and smoke Lt-Col. Stone’s troops attacked at 4:00 p.m. in close cooperation with a second squadron of the Dragoons. Fighting continued into the evening, and when daylight failed the battlefield was illumined by searchlights. Although opposition was stiff there were no organized counter-attacks, and by midnight the bridgehead
That evening General Foulkes worked out a plan with General Hoffmeister for utilizing the 1st Division’s now firmly established bridgehead to break the deadlock on the 5th Division’s front.173 Early on the 14th, the Westminsters would be put through the 2nd Brigade to push north along the left bank of the canal. Their arrival opposite the 12th Brigade’s left flank would be the signal for the Lanarks, still in position astride the Via Cocchi, to renew their attack over the Naviglio,174 while on the Lanarks’ left the 11th Brigade, paralleling the Westminsters’ advance, would free the right bank of any remaining enemy.175
This bold left hook was successful. By midday on the 14th Lt-Col. Corbould had a company across the Naviglio and moving northward along the Via del Canale, accompanied by a squadron of Lord Strathcona’s Horse. Ahead of them DAF Spitbombers raked the German positions on both sides of the canal; so close was their support that empty cartridge cases fell among the Lanarks, waiting to enter the fight.176 Softened by this treatment the enemy resisted only feebly. By 9:30 p.m. the Westminsters had reached the Via Chiara, half a mile south-west of Osteria; fifteen minutes later the Lanarks began crossing the dry bed of the canal.177 Westminster casualties numbered only four killed and 16 wounded. Against this they claimed a total of 106 enemy captured.178
The light opposition met by the Lanark assault companies as they swarmed over the canal bank was in marked contrast to what they had encountered two days before. During the night they cleaned up small enemy parties, and by daylight on the 15th they were holding an area 500 yards deep behind Osteria. The Strathconas’ arrival along the canal road at eight o’clock completed the first phase of the 12th Brigade’s operation. By then the Princess Louise Dragoon Guards had begun passing through to join the Westminsters for the attack towards the Senio.179 The first troops at the Munio found the bridges blown, and brisk fire from its far bank clearly revealed the enemy’s intention to hold there. By late afternoon the two battalions had dug in on a front extending 1000 yards downstream from the bend in the canal at the Via Chiara.180 During the day a squadron of The Governor General’s Horse Guards, assisted by a company of Lanark and Renfrews, had cleared the brigade’s right flank by a rapid sweep from Osteria along the west bank of the Naviglio to its crossing over the Munio, half a mile south of the Via Reale.181
Meanwhile the German 98th Division had renewed its violent attacks on the 1st Division’s bridgehead north of Bagnacavallo. Preceded by the concentrated fire of six artillery and two mortar battalions,182 an estimated two companies of infantry backed by seven tanks strove for over two hours
on the afternoon of the 14th to overrun the Edmonton company holding the 2nd Brigade’s right flank. But the defenders stubbornly stood their ground, aided by strong support which included eventually the artillery of both divisions and the fighter-bombers in cab rank. On the left the Seaforth simultaneously drove back lighter attacks without difficulty.183 Lt-Col. Bogert (his promotion to the rank of Brigadier, although effective from 7 October, was not announced until the following January) now brought the Patricias over the Naviglio; and in a series of local attacks on that and the following night all three battalions enlarged the 2nd Brigade’s holding in preparation for a breakout.184 The most spectacular gain was the securing of a road fork (on the Via Guarno, 1000 yards west of the Naviglio) by the Edmontons’ “C” Company after an inspired dash of 400 yards across open fire-swept ground. The charge was led by Lieutenant E. M. K. MacGregor, a platoon commander who had taken over “C” Company when its commander was wounded on the previous day, and was the culminating incident in a sterling display of leadership which brought the young subaltern the Military Cross.185 Daylight on the 16th found the enemy still clinging stubbornly to his main line of resistance from Bagnacavallo to the bend in the Munio; it was clear that a much greater effort would be required to get the 1st Canadian Corps to the River Senio.
As the Canadian advance slowed to a halt the 5th Corps resumed the offensive south of the Via Emilia. On the night of 14–15 December the 2nd New Zealand and 10th Indian Divisions, supported by 400 guns, attacked the Pideura ridge south-west of Faenza, while on their left the Poles closed up to the Senio. It took twenty-four hours of close, bitter fighting with the 715th Infantry and the 90th Panzer Grenadier Divisions for the Commonwealth forces to gain their objectives. The Germans, handicapped by heavy casualties and the loss of their key positions, withdrew across the Senio. On the 16th 5th Corps spearheads reached the river, and Faenza, outflanked on the west, fell into the hands of the 43rd Indian Lorried Infantry Brigade. To the north, however, the enemy still clinging close to the Lamone held the northward progress of the 5th Corps at the outskirts of the city.186
Meanwhile important changes in command had taken place. On 12 December General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson left AFHQ to head the British Joint Staff Mission in Washington. General Alexander, raised to the rank of Field Marshal,*
* His promotion, announced on 27 November, dated from 4 June, the day of the fall of Rome.
became Supreme Allied Commander Mediterranean. Lt-Gen. Mark Clark succeeded him at Headquarters Allied Armies in Italy, which resumed its former designation of Headquarters 15th Army Group. Lt-Gen. Lucian K. Truscott Jr., who had commanded the United States 6th Corps at Anzio and in Southern France, assumed command of the Fifth Army.187 The appointment of these senior commanders
who were already engaged in the campaign meant that their takeover was accompanied by the minimum of disruption. Clark very soon made plain his intention of continuing the existing pattern of offensive, and on the 20th he instructed General McCreery to “proceed with current operations with the object of launching an attack to force a crossing of the Senio River in conjunction with Fifth Army’s attack”, which he hoped to deliver against Bologna a few days before Christmas.188
The 1st Brigade’s Fight South of Bagnacavallo, 16–18 December
Although by 15 December the Canadians had carved a large salient out of the German front west of the Lamone, the 73rd Corps continued to hold firm on either flank and to deny the approaches to the Senio. Opposite the 5th Armoured Division the enemy defended the natural barrier of the Fosso Munio, and farther south he manned a strong switch-line which ran from the Vecchio to the Lamone near Boncellino, within the railway fork west of Russi.
After crossing the Lamone the 3rd Brigade had maintained steady pressure against this section of the German defences. There had been an unsuccessful attempt by the West Nova Scotias on the 13th to cross the Vecchio south of its demolished railway bridge;189 and on the 15th the Royal 22e in a fierce struggle captured a brickworks midway between the canal and Bagnacavallo, driving off subsequent German attempts to regain it.190 It seemed likely to General Foulkes that the capture of Bagnacavallo would bring about the collapse of the whole line; but a direct assault on the old walled town would be costly and of dubious outcome. A break-through on either side seemed to be the answer. Accordingly he decided to bring his left up to the Naviglio south of Bagnacavallo, and then attack simultaneously over this canal and over the Munio in order to encompass the town. It was hoped that an advance by the 5th Corps northward from Faenza between the Senio and Lamone would ease Foulkes’ task by loosening the enemy defences on his left.191
The Canadian troops assaulting in that sector were faced with the necessity of crossing both the Fosso Vecchio and the Naviglio Canal, and of fighting their main action in an area overlooked by both Bagnacavallo and the towering bank of the Senio, which in that sector ran less than 2000 yards west of the Naviglio. To gain surprise it was planned that the 1st Brigade would ease up to the Vecchio in a series of local advances and then thrust in strength towards the dry canal. The Corps’ main effort would follow, with the 11th Brigade striking across the Munio while the 2nd Brigade took up the 1st Division’s attack south of Bagnacavallo. The inner wings of both Canadian divisions would endeavour to link up west of the town.192 General
Foster’s regrouping was completed by the 16th. South of the railway the 1st Brigade, supported by The Royal Canadian Dragoons, replaced Brigadier Bernatchez’s troops.193 They in turn took over the Naviglio bridgehead from the 2nd Brigade, which thus terminated a stand that had “included some, if not the toughest fighting ever experienced by this brigade – never before has the shelling been heavier or his counter-attacks stronger.”194
At daybreak on the 16th the 1st Brigade began to skirmish forward, the RCR approaching the Fosso Vecchio immediately south of the railway, and the 48th Highlanders on the left working westward from Boncellino. The angle which the German switch-line made with the Vecchio meant that although the RCR start line was only a few hundred yards from the latter, the Highlanders had a mile to cover to reach their objectives – two bridges, as yet unblown, over the canal. But hopes of achieving any easy gains were soon dashed. The troops of the 98th Division were securely dug in and on the alert, having plenty of backing from tanks, artillery and mortars; while a well-planned system of demolitions on the roads and tracks leading to the Vecchio held up the Churchills of the 12th Royal Tanks supporting the Canadian infantry.195 At the end of the first day’s fighting the RCR was still east of the canal, while Lt-Col. MacKenzie’s Highlanders had gone only 800 yards from Boncellino and had suffered 37*
* Among these was a Bren gunner, Private J. A. Bray, who although seriously wounded in the stomach took charge when his section leader became a casualty, and with his fire drove off two counter-attacks (during the second of which a German bullet broke his leg), thereby saving his platoon position. His great fortitude and resolution brought Bray the DCM.196
By late afternoon on the 17th General Foster, deciding that the “nibbling” method had failed, directed Brigadier Smith to mount a full-scale attack on the Fosso Vecchio.198 This went in at 4:00 o’clock next morning, supported by all the Corps artillery within range,199 and initially met with considerable success. On the right the RCR, fording knee deep on the rubble of a demolished road bridge, established a foothold on the far bank, eventually strengthening it to two companies. Thirty surprised Germans, including part of a battalion headquarters (of the 289th Grenadier Regiment), fell into Canadian hands. The success was short lived, however, for at dawn the usual counter-attack by tanks and infantry developed, and the RCR companies, with no anti-tank guns in the bridgehead, were forced back to the east bank. They had sustained 40 casualties, including two officers and 17 men taken prisoner.200 On the left, where the intention was for The Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment to take over the attack, the action was equally disappointing. The battalion had not recovered from the casualties suffered in the Lamone and Naviglio battles. Four company commanders had been killed or captured in those operations, and their replacements had not had time to learn to know their men – or their men them. Rifle companies were woefully under strength, one being made up of drivers, batmen and cooks.
Some platoons were led by corporals.201 A fine display of initiative by the 48th Highlanders’ forward company resulted in the seizure intact of the more northerly of the two Vecchio bridges, but the Hastings, who appear to have become disorganized east of the canal, failed to exploit this success, in spite of urgent messages from the Brigadier.202 Elements of one company joined the Highlanders just across the captured bridge, but the armoured cars of The Royal Canadian Dragoons could not get forward in time along the narrow rain-soaked road. There was no help from the air, for very bad visibility kept aircraft on the ground.203 Shortly before nine o’clock a counterattack by tanks and infantry drove the Canadians back over the stream.204 An hour later the Germans had blown the bridge and the action was over.205 “Our own troops”, declared von Vietinghoff in his daily report to the High Command, “... thus achieve a complete defensive victory, in which 98 Inf Div plays a special part.”206 And in a “Divisional Order of the Day” issued on the 18th, Lt-Gen. Alfred Reinhardt passed on to his troops congratulatory messages from corps, army and army group commanders, and paid special tribute to “the tank crews of 504 Tiger Tank Battalion and 1 Panther Battalion of 4 Tank Regiment, who rendered untiring service in true camaraderie d’armes in halting and throwing back the enemy.207
The Advance to the Senio, 19-21 December
The attempt to break through south of Bagnacavallo having failed, General Foulkes at once went to Hoffmeister’s headquarters and in conference with his two divisional commanders and the brigadiers concerned laid plans for a concentrated attack at the centre of the Corps front.208 It was decided that on the night of the 19th the 11th Brigade should advance over the Fosso Munio in the sector at present held by the 12th Brigade. Simultaneously on the left the 2nd Brigade would launch an assault between the bend in the Munio and the bridgehead which the 3rd Brigade was holding west of the Naviglio. As Bogert’s attack gained momentum he would turn south across the 3rd Brigade’s front to cut off Bagnacavallo, while the 11th Brigade continued forward to the Senio. The two attacks would begin in silence, with prearranged artillery support to be available once surprise was lost. Both the 1st and 3rd Brigades were to stage fire demonstrations, and south of Bagnacavallo a psychological warfare unit was to broadcast battle noises simulating an impending assault.209 Canadian troops, in that sector later reported that the enemy’s reaction with very heavy mortar fire testified to the realism of the noisemakers’ programme.210
The opponents consisted in the main of the three regiments of the 98th Infantry Division – the 289th Grenadier Regiment in front of the 1st Division,
and the 117th and 290th opposite the armoured division.211 A captured order issued on 18 December by General Reinhardt left little doubt of his determination to hold the Munio–Bagnacavallo–Vecchio line. Estimating the Canadian infantry strength at “4 much weakened battalions, 3 weakened battalions and 5 full strength battalions”, supported by “1 armoured brigade and 1 tank battalion”, the GOC directed that efforts to seize the Senio crossings must be counteracted by putting into practice “the principles often propounded by myself”. Defence in the present situation meant “not holding to the last man in one main line of resistance” but the organization of a “deep main sector of resistance ... through the conversion of all heavy weapon positions, HQ, etc., into nests of resistance.” Immediate reserves for counter-attack were to be held well forward in order that they might strike at the most opportune moment – at the first stages of a water crossing or when the attacker had just broken into the main line of resistance; but Reinhardt warned that because of the attackers’ air superiority such counter-effort must be made not by full battalions in closed formation but rather by several simultaneous attacks on the scale of the fighting patrol.212 During the next two days the Canadians were to have bitter proof of the soundness of General Reinhardt’s “principles”.
As a preliminary to the 5th Division’s attack, units of the 12th Brigade secured crossing-places over the Munio in local actions which saw Canadian troops employing flamethrowers against the enemy for the first time in Italy. (It had not been possible in previous operations to get these weapons far enough forward to bring them into use.)213 On the afternoon of the 16th four Wasps followed a Westminster company to the near bank just north of its bend at the Via Chiara and from the dyke top flamed enemy weapon-pits on the opposite side of the canal. The searing flame’s terrifying effect broke the morale of the defenders, who, as the Canadians waded across, “either threw down their arms and ran or surrendered as prisoners.”214 That same evening the Princess Louise Dragoons gained a shallow foothold on the far bank, about 1000 yards downstream,215 but the Lanark and Renfrews’ attempt to extend this on the 19th failed.216
In the area of the 5th Division’s intended attack the 30-foot wide Fosso Munio, flanked by dykes five feet high, was in itself a military obstacle, whose defensive value was considerably increased by the wide field of fire afforded by the muddy flats which extended for 600 yards to the west. Beyond this expanse of plowing the familiar pattern of small grain plots hedged in with rows of poplars supporting the grapevines stretched to the towering floodbank of the Senio. The Via Chiara ran the full distance from the Munio to the Via Rossetta, the lateral road beside the Senio; and 1200 yards to the north the parallel Via Sant’ Antonio began 300 yards west of the canal, though it was little better than a farm track.
At dusk on the 19th the assaulting battalions of both divisions moved into their forming up places and at eight o’clock the attack started, unheralded by artillery fire. The weather was cool, but no rain was falling. Almost at once the attackers ran into strong opposition in all sectors, and there began a bitter fight which lasted all that night and through the next day. The 11th Brigade’s units negotiated’ the Fosso Munio without mishap. The immediate objective of the Irish on the right was a group of farm buildings at the near end of the Via Sant’ Antonio; the Perths, directed along the Via Chiara, were to secure its junction with the Via Guarno, which ran in a generally southerly direction across the 2nd Brigade’s front into Bagnacavallo.217 The two battalions would then advance along the parallel routes to the Senio. The two leading Irish companies had almost reached their first goal when they suddenly came under withering machine-gun fire which aroused the whole area and forced them back. Attempts to advance with artillery support failed, and daylight found them dug into the deep plowing, just forward of the Munio. There they remained throughout the 20th, in full view of the enemy and harassed continually by his heavy mortaring.218
On the left the Perths, crossing through the Westminsters at the bend of the canal, met the same stern resistance when “B” Company had led the way half a mile along the Via Chiara. Lacking cover of any sort – for in the darkness the enemy was firing on “fixed lines” down the straight roadside ditches – the Perths paid heavily, and by midnight they were back at the Munio. An hour later, however, Lt-Col. Andrew sent “A” Company forward in a wide sweep to the right. Overrunning the few enemy posts it encountered, by 3:30 a.m. the company, commanded by Major R. Cole, had advanced 1000 yards from the Munio and was digging in around the Casa della Congregatione, an isolated farmhouse 200 yards north-east of the junction with the Via Guarno.219
While it was still dark tanks of the 2nd Armoured Regiment moved up to the Munio in readiness to support another Perth company in a reinforcing attack up the Via Chiara.220 By great misfortune, however, an Ark bridge put in by the Engineers during the darkness was found to be at a bad angle, so that vehicles could not cross. A fascine was rushed forward and armoured bulldozers began filling in the canal, but by the time this crossing was ready the site had attracted the attention of every enemy weapon within range221 – one observer estimated the rate of fall of artillery shells in the area to be 150 per minute.222 German self-propelled guns covering the crossing from close range knocked out a Strathcona Sherman and two M-10s on the Canadian side of the canal.223 Shortly after 1:00 p.m. the enemy armour was driven off by medium artillery,224 and at two o’clock the first Canadian tanks crossed the Munio under a heavy smoke-screen.225
All this time the “lost” company of Perths, completely surrounded and under unceasing attack, clung to its positions at the Casa della Congregatione.
Again and again it beat back the 98th Fusilier Battalion (General Reinhardt’s reconnaissance unit), and by early morning it had taken twenty prisoners. The final German effort came shortly after midday when some 30 Fusiliers closed in on the farmhouse. But the Perths were ready for them. A solid artillery barrage called down by Major Cole about his position boxed the enemy in, and the defenders’ small-arms fire completed the job. Seven Germans survived, to join the ranks of the prisoners.226 The tide of battle had now turned, for “A” Company’s gallant stand had largely offset the consequences of the bridging mishap at the Munio. At 3:25 the first Strathcona tanks rolled into the farmyard.227 Overhead a clearing sky enabled DAF Spitfires to strafe enemy guns and transport along the road to the Senio.228 Perth casualties to the end of the day were 32 killed and 49 wounded; the Irish losses numbered 42, eight of them fatal. For his skilled leadership and “courageous determination” in holding the brigade bridgehead, Cole received the DSO. His second-in-command, Lieutenant T. Cooper, was awarded the MC.229
The all too familiar pattern of infantry unsupported by armour engaged in costly effort against strong enemy positions was repeated on the 1st Division’s front. Although in that sector no water obstacle barred the way, the many small tree-bordered fields and vinerows restricted tank movement to the roads – and these were all heavily mined. Lt-Col. Bogert had planned his operation in three stages. First the Edmontons and Patricias would strike across the Via Guarno and two more lateral roads to secure the line of the Munio above its second bend; in succeeding phases the Seaforth and Patricias would swing south-west so as to cut off Bagnacavallo while gaining the near bank of the Senio on the left of the 11th Brigade.230
At 8:00 p.m. on the 19th the attack went in silently on a front extending 1000 yards southward from the Via Chiara to the Via Pozzarda. It was soon seen that the enemy had made every farmhouse a nest of strong resistance. One of these was Casa Argelli, about 800 yards east of the Via Guarno. The Edmontons, advancing on the brigade right, found it fortified by machinegun posts and covered by the fire of a self-propelled gun at Casa Peli, a group of buildings half a mile to the west. The attackers were held up for most of the night, and it was only after a fresh company dispatched by Lt-Col. Stone in a wide outflanking move had taken Casa Peli that the Germans relinquished Casa Argelli. It was then daylight, and all across the front and along the flanks the enemy’s self-propelled guns and tanks were giving his infantry strong defensive support.231 Meanwhile the Patricias’ right-hand company, advancing astride the Via Pozzarda after getting past the machine-gunners in Casa Argelli, had captured the ‘junction with the Via Guarno. Under the spirited leadership of Lieutenant W. D. L. Roach the company beat off a strong counter-attack and took 15 prisoners. Roach was awarded the DSO. As day broke two companies pushed on towards the next lateral
road – Lo Stradello; but less than 100 yards from it they were pinned down by vicious fire from three sides, and were only extricated with the greatest difficulty under cover of high explosive and smoke from their supporting guns.232
The morning of the 20th saw little change in the situation. Both Bogert’s units tried to consolidate or add to their gains, while the Engineers worked feverishly clearing the mined roads to let tanks forward. It was an unpleasant and dangerous task, for the resourceful enemy, not missing a single trick, had all his mines covered by machine-gun fire from the open flank north of Bagnacavallo.233 In the afternoon a company of Patricias with a troop of British Columbia Dragoons attempted unsuccessfully to reach Lo Stradello through the Royal 22e Regiment on their left;234 but a similarly supported left hook by the Edmontons through the Patricias at the Via Pozzarda freed the Via Guarno north to Casa Peli, and brought in another 25 prisoners.235 By last light enough mines had been lifted for the tanks and support weapons to advance, and before midnight the Patricias were firm on Lo Stradello.236 The day’s fighting had cost them 17 killed and 28 wounded; the Edmontons had suffered 30 casualties.
The 1st Division had now penetrated from 700 to 1000 yards into the enemy’s defences and was well up with the 5th Division, which had broken through at the Munio farther north. The 98th Division had been hit severely; though General Reinhardt might draw some consolation from the fact that his troops had lived up to their Crimean tradition of fighting to the last man and had regained some of the prestige lost at the Gothic Line, when in two weeks more than 2000 had been taken prisoner.237 Late on the 20th he ordered a general retirement to the relative security of the Senio embankments.238 Throughout the night both Canadian divisions moved forward, as organized resistance practically ceased. On the right, daylight found the Irish along the Via Rossetta.239 The Cape Breton Highlanders mopped up opposite Fusignano, and by midday Brigadier Johnston had the two battalions, supported by anti-tank guns and a squadron of tanks, facing up to the river’s high eastern floodbank on a 4000-yard front.240 In General Foster’s sector the Seaforth passed through the Edmontons and linked up with the Cape Bretons near the Senio.241 During the morning of the 21st the Patricias, moving south along the Munio, reached Bagnacavallo,242 which patrols of the Carleton and York had already entered and found empty of Germans.243 That afternoon Seaforth patrols confirmed that the 98th Division was back to the river and by nightfall the battalion had taken up firm positions which extended the Corps frontage another 3000 yards south to the Bagnacavallo–Lugo road.244
On the Canadian left the enemy’s withdrawal was not so complete. During the day the RCR and the Hastings crossed the Vecchio and Naviglio and pushed to within a few hundred yards of the Senio.245 But opposite Cotignola,
a town on the Senio’s left bank south-west of Bagnacavallo, the enemy kept the 48th Highlanders from crossing the Vecchio until late afternoon, and then held firm at the line of the Naviglio.246
The Canadians had at last reached the Senio, although that difficult obstacle (the Germans still held the dyke on the east bank) and the Santerno River beyond yet lay between the Eighth Army and its intended start line for the final drive on Bologna. Not that the Canadian Corps had any reason to be ashamed of the part it had played so far. A review of its accomplishments in the first three weeks of the December offensive was given by General Foulkes in his Christmas message to the troops. The Canadians had cleared the enemy from 145 square miles of Italian territory (sufficient, said the GOC, “for a two-and-one-half acre allotment for each Canadian soldier in Italy”), and had liberated the city of Ravenna, besides four towns, thirty villages and nearly 1000 smaller communities. In an advance of nine miles they had forced the passage of three strongly defended water lines, compelling the enemy to bring in a fresh division from another part of his hard-pressed front.247 The 14 German officers and 1,656 other ranks taken prisoner testified to the rough handling which the Corps had given this and other formations employed against it.248 All arms and services had contributed to the general success. The gunners had fired 184,000 rounds of shells – the equivalent of 1,200 3-ton lorry loads; the sappers had opened more than 200 miles of road and erected 29 bridges, or more than half a mile of bridging, much of their work being done under hostile mortar and artillery fire; the Signals had laid some 2600 miles of cable, and dispatch-riders had delivered more than 28,000 packets.249 But the cost had been great. In the twenty days since the offensive began on 2 December the 1st Canadian Corps had suffered casualties of 548 officers and men killed, 1,796 wounded and 212 prisoners of war. These were heavy losses, and averaged only six per day less than those sustained in the Gothic Line fighting.
During the last ten days of the year a series of reliefs gave the Canadian infantry short periods of rest and enabled many of them to enjoy the sixth Christmas of the war out of range of enemy artillery and away from the noise of battle. Along the Senio there were numerous small-scale actions as both sides adjusted their front line and jockeyed for key positions on the east bank. South of Bagnacavallo steady pressure from the 5th Corps and the Canadian left wing forced the enemy first from the Lamone to the Vecchio, and then to the Naviglio, which he continued to hold until early in the New Year.250 By Christmas Eve, in a series of sharp actions in which flamethrowers played a useful part, The Governor General’s Horse Guards and the Irish Regiment had cleared the right flank north-eastward from the Via Sant’ Antonio to within a mile of Highway No. 16. There the advance ended, for a strong German garrison still held Alfonsine, where the highway crossed the Senio,251
The Offensive Abandoned
On 20 December, five days after the deadline set by General Alexander at the end of October for offensive operations to cease, Clark notified his Army Commanders that “the time is rapidly approaching when I shall give the signal for a combined all-out attack of Fifth and Eighth Armies.”252 General McCreery was to clean up the area between the Munio and the Senio, and be prepared to assault across the latter river at the same time that the Fifth Army struck northward at Bologna.253 But before the signal was given the enemy made an unexpected move which brought further delay. On the day after Christmas the German 148th Division, with which had been incorporated elements of the newly-formed fascist Monte Rosa and Italia Divisions, struck a sudden blow against General Truscott’s western flank, which was lightly held by the 92nd Division, a formation of coloured troops operating under Army command on the left of the 4th US Corps. By the evening of the 27th the enemy force (which Fifth Army estimates placed at about 1000 German and 300 Italian troops)254 had penetrated five miles down the Serchio Valley. The attack in itself was not serious*
* Alexander suggests that the venture was inspired by Mussolini, who wished for a spectacular success for his new Italian formations.255
(according to one German source its purpose was to take prisoners and relieve the pressure on the 51st Mountain Corps),256 but a successful exploitation might endanger the great supply base of Leghorn. (Ten days earlier on the Western front the enemy had launched his great Ardennes counter-offensive, and the possibility of a similar desperate enterprise in Italy could not be completely ignored.)257 Accordingly the US 1st Armoured Division and two brigades of the 8th Indian Division were moved to the threatened area, and by the end of the month these forces had completely restored the situation.258 Meanwhile however, on 28 December General Truscott directed “a further postponement of planned operations pending clarification of the situation on the west flank.”259
The Eighth Army was even less ready for the joint effort, and on Christmas Day McCreery wrote to Clark requesting that the timing of the two-army attack be reviewed. He pointed out that the heavy fighting during the first half of December had seriously depleted his stocks of ammunition.260 During those fifteen days the Army had used 500,000 rounds of 25-pounder ammunition, and the availability of only 612,000 rounds for operations in the next five weeks would clearly not permit any major offensive during that period. What was worse, any such effort would be made in wintry conditions when the probable absence of air support on two days out of three would increase the demands on the artillery. He further pointed out that the exhausting three weeks of fighting which the Eighth Army had just completed
(during which it had drawn in three German divisions* from the Fifth Army’s front) had reduced by that length of time his Army’s capacity to carry on a simultaneous offensive with the Americans, so that if a joint attack were launched his effort might well be expended by the time General Truscott’s forces most urgently needed assistance.261
The Fifth Army’s own shortage of ammunition, in spite of its two months of limited action, was almost as serious, for reduced allocations to the theatre during November and December had prevented accumulation of a substantial reserve.262 In these circumstances the poor prospects of reaching Bologna that winter were only too apparent to Field-Marshal Alexander. On 30 December he decided to abandon the existing plan and “to go on the defensive for the present and to concentrate on making a real success of our Spring offensive.”263
* The 98th Infantry Division and the 90th and 29th Panzer Grenadier Divisions. Allied and enemy dispositions on the Italian Front on 31 December 1944 are shown in Sketch 12.