Chapter 5: The Gothic Line
I: A Strategic Blunder?
ON 15 August 1944, 11 days after the first Allied troops entered the southern suburbs of Florence and nine weeks after the cross-Channel invasion of north-west France, the Seventh US Army (part American, part French), under General Patch, landed on the French Mediterranean coast; within a month it had driven up the valley of the Rhone and linked up with General Patton’s Third US Army. ‘There was no development of that period,’ General Eisenhower has stated, ‘which added more decisively to our advantage or aided us more in accomplishing the final and complete defeat of the German forces than did this secondary attack coming up the Rhone Valley.’1 But among those who take the very opposite view are Churchill, Alexander, Mark Clark, and a host of military journalists and historians.
General von Senger und Etterlin, who commanded 14 Panzer Corps at the time, says that ‘the many setbacks of the Allies in the Cassino battles and the frustration of their plan to destroy the German army group after the May breakthrough in many respects prejudiced their designs in Central Europe, even if they anticipated an early victory after France had been invaded. The immediate consequence of the delays on the Italian front was that operation “Anvil” started too late. It should have preceded “Overlord” or at least have occurred simultaneously, in which case it would have attracted the German reserves and thus facilitated the main landings in Normandy. That indeed is the object of all secondary offensive operations, whether they originate on land or from the sea.’2
Another German, Rudolf Böhmler,3 asserts that the invasion of southern France ‘accomplished exactly nothing. ... Hitler at once withdrew all German forces from south and south-western France; and most of the ports4 in western France were already in Allied hands before the Franco-American forces ... had reached Lyons. The German First and Ninth Armies extracted themselves so skilfully that General Patch had little prospect either of surrounding any major formations or of exercising any influence at all on the operations in northern France or Belgium.’5
‘Whatever value the invasion of Southern France may have had as a contribution to the operations in North-western Europe,’ wrote General Alexander, ‘its effect on the Italian campaign was disastrous. The Allied Armies in full pursuit of a beaten enemy were called off from the chase, Kesselring was given a breathing space to reorganise his scattered forces and I was left with insufficient strength to break through the barrier of the Apennines. My Armies, which had just been built up into a strong, flexible and co-ordinated instrument, inspired by victory and conscious of their own superiority, were reduced once more to the shifts and improvisations which had marked the previous winter and faced again with the problems of overcoming not only the difficulties of the Italian terrain and the stubbornness of the enemy’s resistance, but also the lack of manpower on their own side.’6
This argument is supported by von Senger: ‘German resistance in the Bologna area [where Fifth Army attempted to debouch from the northern Apennines into the plains] in the winter of 1944/45 could not have been so effective if several Allied divisions had not been withdrawn.’7
Fifth Army had been deprived of the French Expeditionary Corps – whose mountain troops ‘were expected to repeat in the Apennines their feats in the Aurunci mountains’8 – and 6 US Corps, altogether seven of its best divisions, which were inadequately replaced by one American division (the 92nd Negro) and the 25,000-strong inexperienced Brazilian Expeditionary Force.
Had Alexander’s armies been capable of breaking through the Gothic Line and entering the Po valley at this stage, the gains to the Allies might have been of inestimable value: possession of the
Po valley would have facilitated the strategic bombing of the war industries which had been transferred to eastern Germany; it is not inconceivable that a thrust through the Ljubljana gap in Yugoslavia might have opened the way for an advance to Austria or Hungary and the Danube valley, which would have deprived the enemy of the raw materials from south-east Europe vital to his war effort. Success in such a venture, however, would have depended on the capacity of the Allied armies to penetrate what Churchill had given the misnomer of the ‘soft underbelly’ of Europe, actually a ‘hard-shelled back’9 of rugged country not very suitable for armoured warfare.
The opinion that an Anglo-American drive into south-east Europe might have prevented some countries from falling into the Russian sphere of influence has been expressed by General Clark, who succeeded Alexander as commander of the Allied Armies in Italy (redesignated Fifteenth Army Group) in December 1944 and later was Military Governor of Austria. He claims that ‘a campaign that might have changed the whole history of relations between the Western world and Soviet Russia was permitted to fade away, not into nothing, but into much less than it could have been. ... the weakening of the campaign in Italy in order to invade southern France instead of pushing on into the Balkans was one of the outstanding political mistakes of the war. ... I am firmly convinced that the French forces alone, with seven divisions available, could have captured Marseilles, protected Eisenhower’s southern flank, and advanced up the Rhone Valley to join hands with the main overlord forces. The VI American corps, with its three divisions, could then have remained in Italy. The impetus of the Allied advance in Italy would thus not have been lost and we would have advanced into the Balkans. ... I later came to understand, in Austria, the tremendous advantages that we had lost by our failure to press on into the Balkans. ... Had we been there before the Red Army, not only would the collapse of Germany have come sooner, but the influence of Soviet Russia would have been drastically reduced.’10
Southern France, says Böhmler (his vision enhanced by hindsight), was ‘an area that Hitler could afford to evacuate without undue loss from either the military or the economic point of view. ... he was far readier to strengthen the front in Italy than to put up a fight for the possession of Provence and south-western France. ... Anvil was an unmistakable indication of Allied intentions. Hitler knew that he need not worry any more about Italy
and the Balkans. ... Anvil not only made nonsense of the whole Italian campaign, but also threw the whole Allied strategy in western Europe out of gear; and both these repercussions were to have tragic consequences for Europe. They presented Hitler with a chance to stabilize the Western Front and to sacrifice his last strategic reserves in his ill-fated Ardennes offensive – those reserves which, a little later, would have been able to hold up the Red flood from the east. And in that case, it would have been Eisenhower and not Zhukov who marched in Berlin. Then again, had not Anvil snatched the spear from Alexander’s hand, it would most probably have been the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes that would have flown victoriously over the Ballhausplatz in Vienna.’11
Thus Böhmler, like Clark and others, presumes that an Allied offensive beyond the Italian frontier would have succeeded. Nevertheless the Allied armies might have been checked – as they had been in the peninsula south of Rome – and it might have become necessary to divert part of the Allied effort from north-west Europe. ‘That the Allies were not diverted from the northern campaign may even have been England’s salvation. For otherwise, Hitler might eventually have pulverized Britain with V-2 projectiles from launching platforms in the Low Countries.’12
The Anglo-American decision to invade southern France had been influenced by the Soviet ally: it had grown out of the discussions between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin at the Cairo-Teheran conferences of November–December 1943. Until that time no firm agreement had been reached by the Big Three on how, when and where to defeat Germany. The British had wanted to strike at German-occupied Europe from the edges of the Continent, especially from the Mediterranean theatre, and to launch a cross- Channel invasion when the enemy already had begun to collapse. This policy of attrition and opportunism was opposed by the Americans, who ‘wanted to concentrate forces early at a selected time and place to meet the main body of the enemy head on and defeat it decisively.’ The Russians ‘wanted a second front, they wanted it soon, and they wanted it in the West. Each Anglo- American postponement of this second front added fuel to the fire.’13
The stand taken by Stalin at Teheran finally fixed Anglo- American strategy: he promised that the Soviet Union would intervene in the war against Japan as soon as Germany was defeated; he declared that overlord (the cross-Channel invasion, the opening of the Second Front) should be the ‘basic’ operation for 1944, and he favoured the attack on southern France, in support of overlord, above all other undertakings in the Mediterranean. Despite the British Prime Minister’s eloquence and persuasiveness, therefore, the Americans gained the decision they had desired. Nevertheless Churchill opposed the anvil operation (which became known by another codename, dragoon) until a few days before the launching of the invasion. He pleaded with Roosevelt: ‘Our first wish is to help General Eisenhower in the most speedy and effective manner. But we do not think this necessarily involves the complete ruin of all our great affairs in the Mediterranean, and we take it hard that this should be demanded of us. ...’14
The President’s reply affirmed that he would not deviate from the strategy proposed at Teheran: ‘The exploitation of “Overlord”, our victorious advances in Italy, an early assault on Southern France, combined with the Soviet drives to the west – all as envisaged at Teheran – will most surely serve to realise our object – the unconditional surrender of Germany. ... I am mindful of our agreement with Stalin as to an operation against the south of France, and his frequently expressed views favouring such an operation and classifying all others in the Mediterranean as of lesser importance to the principal objectives of the European campaign. ... I cannot agree to the employment of United States troops against Istria and into the Balkans, nor can I see the French agreeing to such use of French troops. ... For purely political considerations over here, I should never survive even a slight setback in “Overlord” if it were known that fairly large forces had been diverted to the Balkans.’15
Churchill has denied that anybody ‘involved in these discussions had ever thought of moving armies into the Balkans; but Istria and Trieste were strategic and political positions, which, as he [Roosevelt] saw very clearly, might exercise profound and widespread reactions, especially after the Russian advances. ... On military grounds he [Stalin] might have been greatly interested in the eastward movement of Alexander’s army, which, without entering the Balkans, would profoundly effect all the forces there, and ... might produce the most far-reaching results. On a
long-term political view he might prefer that the British and Americans should do their share in France in the very hard fighting that was to come, and that East, Middle and Southern Europe should fall naturally into his control.’16 Churchill apparently had not seriously considered ‘the question that so frightened the U.S. staff – the ultimate costs and requirements of an operation in the Balkans. ... the Balkan question was never argued out in full and frank military or political terms during World War II.’17
Should Roosevelt have committed troops to a campaign in the Balkans – or south-east Europe – as well as in France and Italy, he most likely would have jeopardised his chances of re-election as President in November that year. The much-publicised Second Front and the liberation of France – which had helped the American colonies in the war for independence – were acceptable even to those who thought the war against Japan should have priority over the struggle for Europe, but Roosevelt judged that the American people would react differently to the diverting of United States forces to the Balkans or elsewhere in south-east Europe. There was some suspicion of British intentions in the Balkans, and public opinion had not yet been wakened to the Communist threat in eastern Europe.
The decision to invade southern France has often been described as one of the worst blunders of the Second World War. The post-war critics of American strategy presume that had the Allies entered south-east Europe the Russians would have been held in check. But it is by no means certain that they could have achieved this result; instead they might have become so involved in this region that they would have had to divert forces from the western front, which might have permitted the Russians to advance farther into Germany, perhaps all the way to the Channel. Had the western Allies entered the Balkans in the face of the advancing Red Army, ‘there is also no assurance that new embroilments might not have been begun then and there as the Americans feared. With the traditional balance of power upset, Great Britain growing weaker, the Russians intent on pushing their strategic frontiers westward, and the United States determined to leave Europe soon, more drastic measures than the temporary diversion of some Western military power – largely U.S. power at that – would seem to have been required to check the Russians and assure the peace of Europe.’18
When the decision to invade southern France extinguished British hopes of an advance beyond the northern frontier of Italy, the need for an assault on the Gothic Line lost its urgency. An argument put forward by Mr Churchill in 1943 was still valid: because of the anticipated requirements of overlord he had proposed an alternative to advancing beyond the narrow part of the Italian peninsula: ‘I should like it to be considered whether we should not, when we come up against the main German positions, construct a strong fortified line of our own, properly sited in depth. Italian labour could be used on a large scale for this purpose. Italian troops could naturally take part in defending the line. Thus, by spring, we should be able in this theatre either to make an offensive if the enemy were weak, and anyhow to threaten one, or on the other hand stand on the defensive, using our air power, which will in the meantime have been built up, from behind our fortified line and divert a portion of our troops for action elsewhere either to the West or to the East.’19
If this policy had been adopted in the summer of 1944, most likely the Germans would have retained large bodies of troops in northern Italy because Hitler would not have allowed a withdrawal across the plains of Lombardy to the Alps. ‘But the directors of Allied strategy fell between two stools.’20 They neither agreed to an offensive into the Balkans (or south-east Europe) nor called a halt in front of the Gothic Line; instead they ordered Alexander, with weakened forces, to advance over the northern Apennines and close to the line of the River Po, where he was to secure the area from Ravenna on the Adriatic coast through Bologna and Modena to the Ligurian coast north of Leghorn; and should the situation then permit, he was to cross the Po to the line Padua- Verona-Brescia at the northern edge of the plain. It was hoped that these advances, together with the invasion of southern France, would cause the enemy to withdraw from north-west Italy and thus make an offensive in that direction unnecessary.
While it cannot be denied that the Italian campaign, by achieving its object of containing ‘the maximum number of German forces’ in the peninsula, contributed to the general victory in Europe, it can be argued that the same result might have been accomplished more economically had Allied strategy taken a different course.
II: On the Banks of the Arno
When the South Africans and New Zealanders entered the triangular portion of Florence south of the Arno on 4 August, the enemy had retreated to the Heinrich Mountain Line, which passed through the northern outskirts of the city, but had left outposts on the north bank of the Arno. He intended to continue holding the Heinrich Line along the river on each side of Florence, even if the Allies broke into the Heinrich Mountain Line north-west of the city, where he expected a thrust to be made and planned to seal off a penetration.
The Allies, who had proclaimed their desire to avoid fighting in Florence, seem to have hoped that the Germans would evacuate the city as soon as 13 Corps threatened to cross the Arno and envelop it. The corps was prepared to attempt a bridgehead up to the time that its troops reached the southern suburbs. The New Zealand Division’s intended role was to advance on the west of the city: 5 Brigade group was to occupy a bridgehead as far as the Mugnone stream, which passed through the northern part of the city. The 1st Canadian Division was then to take over this sector and the New Zealand Division was to sidestep westward to 8 Indian Division’s sector to screen the deployment and preparations of 2 US Corps for an attack over the river.
The first part of this plan depended on a reasonably easy crossing of the river against little German resistance. At 6 p.m. on 4 August Brigadier Pleasants reported to General Freyberg on 5 Brigade’s prospects: ‘I do not think it is on tonight. The time factor is against me. If we could have [crossed] it might have had a surprise value. He has spandaus on top of the houses in the town.’ The General replied: ‘It is not on unless he is out of the town. I would not shoot at the town.’ Later he told the corps commander that the plan for that night ‘would not be on as it is really an operation to get across. They will try with patrols. ... Sappers say doing a low level crossing will be difficult and the other [way] is a 200 feet span [bridge]. Canadians will take over the situation as it is. ...’21
The immediate occupation of Florence would have brought the Allies an excellent propaganda victory, which would have been good for the morale of their troops and the Italian civilians; it also would have denied the enemy control of the system of roads that converged on the city and thus hindered his moving troops and stores for the Heinrich Mountain Line; and it would have saved
much suffering among the Florentines, who lived most wretchedly while besieged between the two armies.
The Allied troops in the Florence sector had to contend not only with aggressive German patrols day and night, but also with Italian fascists, who wore no recognised military uniform and sniped from the upper storeys of buildings. German artillery and mortar fire inflicted casualties, but no retributory shellfire could be directed against the city. The Germans, unable to cope with the provision of food, water and sanitation for the city’s large population, withdrew their rearguards behind the Mugnone on 10 August, and next day patrols from 8 Indian Division (which had replaced 1 Canadian Division) penetrated as far as this stream. The engineers made a ford across the Arno and opened the Ponte Vecchio for light vehicles, which permitted the Allied Military Government to deliver provisions to the Florentines, many of whom had gone without food, water, gas, electricity and sanitary services for several days. German raiding parties, usually with one or two tanks or armoured cars, clashed with the British and Indian troops garrisoning the city.
The 8th Indian Division handed over its commitments in Florence to 1 British Division on 16 August, and a day or two later the Germans, again because of their inability to feed the part of the city still in their hands, withdrew to the Heinrich Mountain Line. Meanwhile, in the loop of the Arno east of Florence, 4 British Division, after a hard fight, drove the enemy across the river, and some 15 miles west of the city 2 NZ Division cleared the south bank in the vicinity of Empoli. From Pontassieve to its boundary with Fifth Army west of Empoli, Eighth Army then stood on the line of the Arno.
When the New Zealand Division replaced 8 Indian Division in the Lastra a Signa – Empoli sector, its role was to screen the deployment and preparation of 2 US Corps, which proposed to take part in a co-ordinated attack by Eighth and Fifth Armies to force the enemy back to the Gothic Line. The New Zealanders were to clear the south bank of the Arno before the Americans crossed to secure Monte Albano. Although the Americans did eventually take over this sector, the attack was cancelled because of a change in the Allied armies’ plan.
In the Florence sector the Maori Battalion was relieved by the Loyal Edmonton Regiment and the Divisional Cavalry patrols by Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, and 5 Brigade handed over command to 2 Canadian Brigade on 5 August. As it was
unnecessary to hold a brigade in reserve to meet a counter-attack in the Lastra a Signa – Empoli sector, all three New Zealand brigades, replacing those of 8 Indian Division, went into the line along the river, 4 Brigade on the right, 6 Brigade in the centre, and 5 Brigade on the left flank facing the German pocket holding Empoli and the ground in the fork of the Arno and Elsa rivers.
The roads in this sector were extremely poor, narrow and dusty, and those near the river could be watched by the enemy. The changeover on 6 and 7 August, therefore, was arranged so that the New Zealand units went into position and the Indian units came out with the minimum of congestion and observation by the enemy. Prisoners taken in the next few days claimed that the enemy had known or suspected that a relief was taking place and had accepted the opportunity to relieve some of his own front-line troops at the same time. Nevertheless the Germans reported a week later that Empoli was being attacked by Indian troops.
Fourth Brigade, with a narrow front, had only 22 (Motor) Battalion forward; 6 Brigade, with a much wider front, placed 26 Battalion on the right, 25 in the centre and 24 on the left; 5 Brigade went into position with 21 Battalion forward on the right, 23 on the left and 28 in reserve. The foremost infantry posts were anything from half a mile to two miles from the Arno. The no-man’s land on the south bank contained German strongpoints in buildings, as well as many Italians still living in their houses, refugees, partisans, fascists, and sympathisers and agents for both sides.
The commander of a machine-gun platoon attached to 3 Company of 22 Battalion about 3000 yards from the Arno near Lastra a Signa says his men shared with an infantry platoon, an artillery observation post, and the Italians who were still in residence, a house combined with a church on the highest part and another house on the reverse slope of the nearest range of hills to the river. ‘The accommodation is somewhat cramped. ... However, any roof is welcome as the weather is showery at present. We are combining our usual role with that of infantry posts as a protection to the hill against possible patrols. ...
‘We have a wonderful panorama from our positions, of the Arno plains and the mountains of the Gothic line beyond. The Arno runs through olive groves and cultivated ground to where it disappears into the sprawling suburbs of Florence on our extreme right. On the far side of the plain Prato is visible guarding the mouth of one of the passes through which runs a main road to Bologna. Straight out in front, across the river from Lastra, is Signa, still held by Jerry. ...
‘Most of the roads round here run along the tops of a series of parallel ridges and large stretches are under observation. ... Consequently only jeeps can use the road in daylight and even they have to idle along to avoid raising dust. We had done about a mile down the exposed part when Jerry started putting down a stonk about 500x22 short of the road. ... half a minute later there was a screech and he dropped a clutch of three squarely over us. ...’ Miraculously unscathed, the men in the jeep forgot about the dust ‘and put the accelerator down through the floor. ...’
Later the same machine-gunners found themselves in ‘quite the most luxurious place we have ever scored so far in Italy, being a modern three-storeyed building, with eight or nine rooms on each floor. The owner is in England and part of it is occupied by Italians but we have plenty of room. ... Someone leaning too heavily on a panel this afternoon accidentally exposed a secret cache which on being investigated yielded two large stone jars of about 3-gallon capacity, each full of preserved eggs, about twelve pounds of fine white sugar and a dozen or so bottles of assorted vermouth, spurmanti, vino santo and a peach liqueur. ...’23
The enemy strongly held the town of Empoli; farther west, where the Americans of Fifth Army had not advanced much beyond Route 67, he still controlled the ground bounded by the Arno, the Elsa and this highway. As 5 Brigade had been given too large a sector to hold comfortably while attacking Empoli, a group called Steeleforce,24
by Lieutenant-Colonel Steele,25 relieved 26 Battalion under 6 Brigade’s command, which allowed the 26th to go into position between 21 and 23 Battalions in 5 Brigade’s sector on the night of 9–10 August. Two companies of 23 Battalion, relieved by the 26th, moved over to the western flank near Osteria.
During the Division’s stay in this sector 5 Brigade’s occupation of the town of Empoli and the country to the west as far as the Elsa River brought most of the fighting; 4 and 6 Brigades were able to edge most of the enemy across to the north bank of the Arno by patrolling and by stepping up their forward posts until they were in control of the south bank.
Some patrols accompanied American engineer parties whose task was to reconnoitre the river and its approaches for the proposed crossing. The small town of Montelupo was found deserted and was occupied by a company from 25 Battalion. The enemy had mined many of the roads and tracks and had felled trees across some of them; he also had left cunningly designed booby traps in buildings. Clashes between New Zealand and German patrols caused casualties on both sides. Strict control had to be exercised over the many civilians moving about the countryside, and a curfew imposed. Italians reported that German patrols wore civilian clothes to pass over the river in greater safety.
An advance to the river was planned to start on the night of 10–11 August. Fourth and 6th Brigades were scarcely involved; 5 Brigade was to clear the ground between Empoli and the Elsa River, an operation which would outflank the town and, it was hoped, induce the enemy to withdraw. The chief obstacle, apart from the enemy himself, was the railway embankment carrying the main line to the west. The only crossing places were on the Osteria–Santa Maria and the Osteria–Marcignana roads, and both would need attention from the engineers before tanks could use them.
On the right of a north-south irrigation ditch about a quarter of a mile west of Empoli 26 Battalion advanced northward with two companies on a narrow front. Both soon ran into fire from machine-gun posts along the railway embankment. On the right C Company overcame this opposition, crossed the embankment and occupied its objective, the village of Santa Maria, about half a mile west of Empoli. The neighbouring village of Empoli Vecchio was taken by a platoon of B Company under C’s command. On the left D Company came up against more determined resistance
from mortars and machine guns sited to cover the railway crossing on the Osteria – Santa Maria road. These posts were not subdued until a number of Germans had been killed and six taken prisoner. D Company then advanced rapidly northward until the leading men reached the objective, the village of Avane, about a mile along the road from Empoli. When D Company occupied the western end of the village, the enemy fell back into houses on the east and stubbornly resisted all attempts to drive him out. The New Zealanders waited for tank and artillery support.
Damage to the road from Osteria and mines slowed the progress of the tanks (two troops of A Squadron, 19 Regiment). By 4.15 a.m. the sappers with a bulldozer had cleared the road as far as the railway and levelled a demolition at the crossing, but the Shermans had gone only 200 yards beyond this when they came to a large demolition thickly sown with mines. As the clearing of a way past this obstruction would take several hours and it was nearly daybreak, Brigade Headquarters ordered some of the tanks supporting 23 Battalion to try to cross the front to help the infantry at Avane.
With a wider sector to cover, 23 Battalion advanced with three companies forward. A and D Companies, on the right and in the centre respectively, reached their objectives in a bend of the Arno practically unhampered by the enemy. Well before daybreak A was in the village of Riottoli and D in Vitiana and Pagnana.
C Company, on the left, moving up the road to Marcignana, was followed by C Squadron of Divisional Cavalry (with a platoon of B Company attached), two troops of A Squadron, 19 Regiment, and the support weapons. There was a demolition south of the railway crossing, where the embankment had been blown and mined, and another demolition on the other side. As the infantry mounted the embankment they came under machine-gun fire from a nearby house. The tanks brought their guns to bear on the house while the infantry assaulted it. The enemy gave in quickly, yielding five prisoners, and C Company continued without further opposition to the turn-off to Marcignana, where its men drove back another enemy post.
By dawn C Company was in Marcignana and in control of the road to a demolished bridge on the Arno. The company was joined by C Squadron, Divisional Cavalry, which had much difficulty in negotiating the narrow lanes but eventually found a suitable ford over the Elsa River.
The sappers cleared the demolitions at the railway crossing on the road to Marcignana, and one troop of tanks worked its way to the vicinity of Pagnana, while the other troop turned eastward along the road leading to Empoli with the intention of joining A Company of 23 Battalion at Riottoli. In response to the request for tank support at Avane, this troop continued past Riottoli, but was halted by a large demolition.
An unexpected action had occurred during the night when A Company, 26 Battalion, moved up in rear of C to guard against a counter-attack from Empoli. A platoon sent to take a position on the railway embankment encountered an enemy party marching from the direction of Empoli. A brisk skirmish ended when other men from A Company came to assist. Seven of the enemy were captured and the rest driven off. The prisoners revealed that their party, about 60 strong, was to have taken reliefs and supplies to posts along the railway.
Fifth Brigade now held positions on three sides of Empoli, and hoped that the enemy would pull out of his own accord. A patrol from A Company, 26 Battalion, approached the town from the west but was forced back by machine-gun fire. A small patrol from B Company, 28 Battalion, entered the town from the east, but the enemy appeared in its rear and cut off retreat, so it continued on through the town to C Company, 26 Battalion, at Santa Maria. Another patrol from A Company, 26 Battalion, worked its way along the railway and entered the town by the station, on the south side; it proceeded unmolested as far as the main square, but came under fire when it approached some men in civilian clothes, so took cover and also found its way out to Santa Maria.
B Company, 28 Battalion, supported by artillery fire, entered Empoli from the south in the evening of the 11th, and broke into groups to deal with small parties of the enemy. C Company, 21 Battalion (which was east of the town) was sent to reinforce the Maoris, some of whom had reached houses overlooking the river, and sappers began to clear a route for tanks of B Squadron, 19 Regiment, two troops of which arrived before dawn. The enemy shelled and machine-gunned the town and its approaches at daybreak, and several clashes occurred when daylight disclosed the locations of opposing troops. Many German dead were found unburied in the streets and houses. One gruesome discovery was four bodies, believed to be of partisans, with their heads severed and the skin flayed from the soles of their feet.
While Empoli was being cleared on the night of 11–12 August, D Company of 26 Battalion waited for tanks to get through to help it clear the eastern part of Avane. Apparently the company was apprehensive of a counter-attack, for it called upon the artillery for numerous defensive-fire tasks, but when patrols set out to investigate, the enemy had gone. The engineers cleared the road from Osteria as far as Empoli Vecchio, but when they tried to work along the road from Santa Maria towards Empoli they came under fire from buildings to the north. After a short concentration on these buildings by the artillery and tanks, a platoon from C Company set out to clear them, but met such determined resistance that it had to call off the attack.
Except on the immediate west of Empoli, 5 Brigade’s front was comparatively quiet by the evening of the 12th. A, C and D Companies of 28 Battalion were brought up to relieve 21 Battalion in the town and in some small villages to the east of it. An assault on the strongpoint between Empoli and Santa Maria was delayed while attempts were made to get tanks of A Squadron, 19 Regiment, over the irrigation ditch. This proved too much of an obstacle in the dark, and while the tanks were still west of the ditch, A Company of 26 Battalion attacked with two platoons supported by the artillery. The platoon on the right ran into fire from machine-gun posts and lost two men killed and 11 wounded. Meanwhile the tanks were guided over the ditch and fired on the buildings. The other platoon closed in, only to find that the enemy had gone, abandoning his weapons and equipment. As the light improved, however, fire came from positions farther east, apparently from men in civilian clothes.
Brigadier Pleasants ordered the Maoris in Empoli to wipe out this opposition. In the afternoon of the 13th A Company, 28 Battalion, with sappers and five tanks of B Squadron, 19 Regiment,
in support, advanced from the vicinity of the railway station along the western side of the town. They encountered enemy posts where the Santa Maria road entered the town, and these the tanks shot up at point-blank range. About 25 of the enemy were killed and five surrendered. The searching of buildings absorbed so many men that a platoon was sent from B Company to assist.
That night spandaus and Nebelwerfers fired continuously from the north bank, probably to cover the retreat of any troops who had been left south of the river. By daybreak on the 14th all organised resistance on the south bank had ceased.
While Empoli was being occupied, patrols of C Squadron, Divisional Cavalry, reconnoitred west of the Elsa River, but were restricted in their movement by shelling from American artillery. On the morning of the 13th contact was made with a patrol from 91 US Division who stated that the village of Isola was to be occupied that evening. Before the American troops moved in, Isola and the area occupied by C Company of 23 Battalion were showered by propaganda leaflets fired from 2 US Corps guns, which also distributed them on 4 Field Regiment’s area farther east next day.
As soon as the south bank of the Arno was under Allied control and the Americans’ preparations completed, 2 US Corps was to extend into 13 Corps’ sector by taking over from 2 NZ Division. The enemy still had a few posts west of Lastra a Signa, but apparently these were considered of little significance after Empoli had been occupied. Although it was known by this time that the Americans’ projected advance north of the river had been cancelled or postponed, 85 US Division relieved 4 and 6 NZ Brigades on the night of 14–15 August and 5 Brigade the following night. Several German patrols approached during the relief, and one overran an American machine-gun post in a position from which 22 Battalion men were withdrawn.
The New Zealand Division assembled in the Castellina area, about 10 miles north of Siena, and came under the direct command of Eighth Army on 17 August.
The weather was good, the countryside interesting and varied, and the New Zealanders felt that the war was progressing well. Nevertheless General Freyberg was displeased. He had come to the
conclusion that very strict action would have to be taken against looting and improper dress. ‘People were getting more interested in what they were going to get out of the advance than anything else. This struck at the very root of morale. Another thing was hats. It is now impossible to know when going along the roads whether a man is an Italian or a New Zealander.’26
When war passed through a closely settled and almost feudal region like the Chianti, it was inevitable that works of art should be destroyed. The Italians were permitted by the Germans to remove many of the treasures of Florence to isolated villas outside the city, and the owners of the villas themselves often possessed collections of great value. Where these villas escaped the ravages of war the responsible Allied authorities took charge of their contents for safe keeping. Undoubtedly, however, many items found their way into the hands of New Zealand (and other) troops, some to be damaged, lost, or sold to civilians, others to be kept with care and sent or taken home.
Officers were as culpable as other ranks, if not more so, possibly because they had a greater appreciation of values and better opportunity of getting parcels past the censor. But some troops had no compunction in blowing open a bank safe (as happened in San Casciano), looting the art treasures of a large villa, freely helping themselves to the contents of a wine cellar, or to a pig or some fowls from a small homestead. Some units looted systematically, justifying their actions by the excuse of the communal good; their acquisitions then included what might be used by the unit, such as stocks of wine, china, cutlery, musical instruments, clothing, and even articles which could be sold to bolster regimental funds. Many of the officers’ messes were soon equipped with rare and valuable china and cutlery.
The other cause of concern was the almost irresistible urge of some men to add variety to their clothing, a trend which had first manifested itself in North Africa. During the advance to Florence they took to civilian clothes, probably as a release from the dull sameness of army uniform, or perhaps because civilian life seemed closer than for some years. Men could be seen carrying out their duties, eating, resting or sightseeing (possibly with an eye to looting) in oddly assorted garments. The Maoris, with their innate sense of humour and greater lack of self-consciousness, were perhaps the worst offenders. For example, when a jeep took a meal to a company close to the banks of the Arno and only a few hundred yards from the enemy, one of the cooks wore a black bell-topper and his assistant a light brown bowler hat; in the queue several men
wore Borsalino or ordinary felt hats of different shades; others kept the hot sun from their faces with women’s straw hats, some of them embellished with fruit and flower motifs; one man was clad in a bright pink shirt and the tie of an exclusive London club. The food was served in receptacles ranging from standard army dixies to plates with embossed ducal arms and borders of cherubs.
This urge to dress with distinction was not confined to the Maoris. A pakeha tank crew brewing tea behind their Sherman included a trooper wearing a beautiful fawn bowler; another (rather unnecessarily in the heat) had a well-cut black overcoat with wide astrakhan collar negligently thrown around his shoulders; they were eating from a set of china plates which probably would have fetched about a year’s army pay in a peacetime antique shop.
In the villages and the suburbs of Florence shellfire and demolitions had scattered goods from deserted shops and houses, and men picked up what took their fancy. Tavarnelle yielded a shop of piano accordions which attracted a procession of Maori and pakeha musicians or would-be musicians. These cumbersome instruments were carried through the Division’s subsequent advance; some were discarded, others sold, but for a long time there was a background of tremolo wheezings at convivial gatherings. A few accordions eventually reached New Zealand.
Most of the men just took what appeared deserted and unwanted– goods spilled from demolished buildings where they soon would have been ruined by the weather and the passage of the army. Nevertheless a few keen professional looters searched for easily transportable articles, such as jewellery and ornaments, or cut pictures from their frames, with the thought of how much they could get for them in Rome or back home. Among this group were some senior officers who should have set a better example. The knowledge among the other ranks that their officers were trafficking in loot made the enforcement of regulations on this practice almost impossible.
The General spoke about discipline at a conference of brigade staffs and the heads of divisional services on 8 August. He said an analysis showed that about three-quarters of the Division’s casualties were from shell or mortar fire, and the total casualties in the latest operations were one-fifth of the force exposed to the enemy. ‘The shellfire was not heavy. If the German battle discipline was the same as ours their forces under our shellfire would have
been annihilated. There seems to be a slackness of leading and a slackness of battle discipline.’27 A definite battle routine in the occupying of a position should give cover from shell and mortar fire. ‘You don’t mess about in the open. ... I cannot help but think that casualties are due to lack of experience of junior leaders and the absence of battle drill. When you see a force going forward you see it straggling and not under command. You don’t see any proper battle formation and I don’t think in a lot of cases that the men are properly under control.’ The General, however, qualified these strictures by saying ‘we have taken every objective and the men have fought magnificently. What I am worried about is the large number of casualties we have had in the last operation from shellfire.’28
He then spoke about dress and drink. He had ‘a great deal of evidence’ against units which made him certain that battalion, company and platoon commanders were ‘not doing their job. Isolated instances are funny but they are far too frequent now and they are getting the Division a very bad name. ... There are dozens of cases of vehicles moving all over the country in search of either loot or drink. ... I take a very serious view of it. ... I want you to get this question of drink, this question of pillage, this question of dress under control. If you explain to the men the very bad impression that we are giving to South Africans, Canadians and British, I am sure they will realize it must be taken in hand.’29
Divisional Headquarters issued over General Freyberg’s signature a very strict memorandum on discipline, which quoted cases of misbehaviour with wine, women and loot, and threatened that a charge of neglect of duty might be brought against the officer or NCO who had authority over the offender. A tightening up of discipline reached down through the units. The Maori Battalion, for example, drew attention in routine orders to the high alcoholic content of Italian wine and the restriction on the carriage of liquor in army vehicles, and forbade the wearing of unauthorised headgear at all times, the wearing of any item of clothing not part of the uniform, and the wearing of tan boots or shoes of any colour by other ranks. The indiscriminate firing of arms was to cease. All men were to get rid of any loot they possessed, but ‘requisites, furniture, such as radios, or tables or chairs which in the sincere opinion of the company commander (and no one else) would be of worth or value to the coy as a whole may be retained.’30
The decision that other ranks could not stay in Rome overnight was causing so much dissatisfaction that Divisional Headquarters issued an apology and explained that this decision had been taken on the level of the President of the USA and the Prime Minister of Great Britain. The GOC had made representations to have this decision altered so that other ranks could stay overnight at the New Zealand Forces Club. It was understood that the reason for the restriction was diplomatic, as well as the difficulty in finding suitable accommodation in Rome for all members of the Allied forces in Italy. Complications might arise if permission was granted to New Zealanders and not to British, American, Canadian, South African, Indian and Polish troops.
Two officers who shared a double bedroom and a bathroom at the Quirinale Hotel agreed that General Freyberg ‘must have done a smart piece of work in securing it as an exclusive New Zealand Club. ... It was the most palatial place we had ever stayed in. ... The main lounge downstairs is circular, with a domed glass roof supported by marble pillars, and luxurious furniture. A special stage is occupied at lunch and dinner times by a first rate Italian orchestra. ... It is a wonderful atmosphere to eat a meal in. ... There are three spacious dining rooms, a wine bar, hairdresser’s shop, canteen, tea garden and many small services such as parcel-wrapping, guides to the city, information, etc.
‘Our four day stay including board and meals cost us 650 lire or 32/6. Morning and afternoon tea with cakes was provided free and NZ ice cream could be bought for 5 lire a carton. Every morning and afternoon the club arranged conducted tours to places of interest in the city. Twenty men in a 3-tonner with a genuine Italian guide constituted each party, and each tour would be to a couple of places – the Pantheon and St. Peters or the Sistine Chapel and Raphael’s art gallery or perhaps the Castel San Angelo and the Foro d’Italia. ...’31
New Zealanders on six-day leave who could not stop overnight in Rome could stay at an Eighth Army rest camp seven miles outside the city. If they were too late to catch the last bus they would have to walk this distance – or else stay in Rome and risk being caught by the military police. A New Zealand rest camp was set up at Civita Castellana (on Route 3 north of the city) for four days’ leave and an organised day trip to Rome. In addition a day-leave scheme was started to take as many as 1100 men to Siena, where the South Africans had opened their officers’ restaurant, warrant officers’ club and other ranks’ club to New Zealanders.
Some New Zealanders even managed to take what they thought might be their only chance of seeing Florence, where ‘there was still a little shelling and partisan versus Fascist encounters. While we were there a few shells went overhead to the south side of the river and others crashed into the north-western approaches. ... Almost all the troops in the city were armed and patrols of four or five armed with rifles and tommy-guns were still walking round. Partisans were scattered over the city but though ready to go into action seemed to be going about their everyday business. Their “uniforms” consisted of a mixture of civilian and army clothing and each one wore a large red, white and green neckerchief for identification. Some were armed with pistols sticking out of their hip pockets while others had rifles or beretta tommy-guns. They were a motley, unorganised looking mob, but they are undoubtedly a great worry to the hun, and a help to the allies in locating the Fascists. ...’32
As the Allied armies advanced into northern Italy the partisans increasingly hindered the enemy and contributed to his defeat.
IV: The Rimini Corridor
An army approaching the 200-mile-long Gothic Line from the south was confronted on its left wing by a coastal belt too narrow to offer it passage, across the centre by a cordon of heights rising to over 6000 feet and nowhere much less than 50 miles deep, and on the right by an alternation of ridge and river as the Apennines spread their tapering fingers towards the Adriatic. On this natural barricade the Germans had begun to develop their defensive system in the autumn of 1943 in the expectation of abandoning Italy south of this line, but when Kesselring’s bolder strategy prevailed the work languished and it was not until early June 1944, with the fall of Rome imminent, that it was strenuously resumed at Hitler’s orders. Although nowhere completed in accordance with the lavish plans of the High Command, by the end of August fortification had become formidable in parts of the line, especially in the western coastal strip, in the passes through the central mountains and on the Adriatic, where the cliffs between Pesaro and Cattolica gave protection against amphibious threats. On this flank an anti-tank ditch from the sea to the foothills, wire entanglement, minefields and tank turrets emplaced in concrete and steel had been hastily prepared, and along the beaches kiosks which once had sold ice cream now concealed spandaus and anti-tank guns.
Unless the Allied armies could burst through the Gothic Line before winter, the enemy might stand there as he had stood the previous winter on the Gustav Line. If, however, the Allies could reach the plain beyond the Apennines before the rains came, their mobility and fire power might carry them to the River Po or even beyond to the southern threshold of the German Reich. Thus, as autumn succeeded summer, General Alexander’s problem became a race against the seasons. His hopes of an irruption into the northern plain were sobered but not destroyed by his waning strength in the Italian theatre. By mid-July he had lost seven divisions – more than a quarter of his forces – to southern France, while the enemy had gained the equivalent of four divisions. This deterioration of comparative strength encouraged him to hasten the attempt to breach the Gothic Line.
Alexander could attack through the mountain defile leading from Florence to Bologna or along the Adriatic coastal corridor which opened out into the plain at Rimini. His original plan had aimed to save time. Since the advance to Florence had gathered the strength of the Allied armies mostly in the centre of the peninsula, it would have been quicker to assault the Gothic Line through the mountain passes. He therefore had ordered the two armies to attack on a 30-mile front east of Pistoia, with the main weight on their inner, adjoining wings.
General Leese, however, had second thoughts about this plan, and at Orvieto airfield on 4 August, as they sheltered from the sun under the wing of a Dakota, he explained his doubts to Alexander. The invasion of southern France had removed from Italy the Allies’ best mountain troops – the French Corps – and Leese had no abounding confidence in the ability of his Eighth Army, untrained and ill-equipped for mountain warfare, to pierce the central Apennine position. On the eastern coastal sector, on the other hand, it would be fighting in more familiar terrain, where it could exploit its advantage in tanks, guns and aircraft without the distraction of another army fighting beside it for the same objective and sharing the same system of rough, winding and inadequate roads. These military and psychological arguments won the day.
Moreover, the eastward shift of Eighth Army would permit Alexander to employ a double thrust – one prong towards Bologna, the other towards Ravenna. This would divide the defence and lessen the enemy’s superiority in lateral communications which might have enabled him to block off a single penetration by the rapid switch of his reserves.
Conceived in great secrecy and for some time sparingly committed to paper, Alexander’s new plan was elaborated by his
headquarters on 16 August. The intention was to ‘drive the enemy out of the Apennine position and to exploit to the general line of the Lower Po, inflicting the maximum losses on the enemy in the process.’ The major effort was to be Eighth Army’s drive through the Adriatic defences into the plain, with exploitation up to and over the Po at Ferrara and north-west along Route 9 (the Emilian Way) to Bologna. Fifth Army was to be ready to strike north on the Florence-Bologna axis when Alexander judged that, in order to stem Eighth Army’s attack, the Germans had sufficiently weakened their centre.
Now Leese could hope to deploy his mechanised might and avoid a tedious grinding progress through the mountains. Eighth Army would concentrate for the attack ten divisions, 1200 tanks and about 1000 guns, and would fall upon the enemy with the weight of three corps: the Poles, the Canadians and 5 Corps, in that order from the sea inland, would strike simultaneously. A weak 10 Corps was to hold the quiet mountain sector flanking Fifth Army. The New Zealand Division would be in reserve.
By a prodigy of organisation and engineering skill Eighth Army transferred itself and all its impedimenta eastwards across the Apennines in eight days – a vast lift in which NZASC units played their part. Travelling by night over twisting, dimly-lit roads, it passed about 11,000 vehicles every 24 hours across the mountain divide and took with it 1,000,000 shells and 12,000,000 gallons of petrol. The offensive opened on 25 August.
While these preparations were going forward, the New Zealanders were taking life easily in their rest area among the wooded Chianti hills. Those who were not on leave in Rome or at the beaches of western Tuscany could explore the narrow streets and handsome squares of the old hilltop town of Siena. The day before Eighth Army launched itself towards the Gothic Line the New Zealanders lined a hot, dusty road to greet ‘a very important personage’. From the back of an open car a bulldog figure wearing a khaki drill uniform splashed with orders, a topee and sunglasses, waved or gestured the ‘V’ sign: it was Winston Churchill’s fourth visit to the Division.33
By this time the Division was under orders to move. With the ultimate object of taking up the pursuit across the northern plain,
it was directed to a concentration area near Iesi, about 15 miles inland from the Adriatic port of Ancona. All round the clock through the last week of August New Zealand tracks and wheels stirred the dust along the 220-mile route. Most of the tanks in three main convoys, and the 3500 wheeled vehicles in six, spent a day or a night at Foligno, where some of the tanks were loaded on to transporters for the last stage to Iesi. Throughout the move security was served once again by the removal of all insignia, a ban on wayside visitations, wireless silence, and by a bogus wireless traffic at Castellina.
These early September days around Iesi were a time when it was good to be young and a soldier in Italy. Trees and vineyards offered shade from a sun that sometimes drove the Fahrenheit thermometer up to the hundred mark. The land gave up its autumn yield of peach and pear and tomato; football posts overtopped the olives; and not far away, across tracks white with dust, the Adriatic lazily washed its long beaches, a sea no less deeply blue than the sky it mirrored.
At the request of the Greek Government and with the approval of the New Zealand Government, 3 Greek Mountain Brigade was placed under the aegis of the New Zealand Division. The brigade was composed mainly of men whom war had made exiles; it had been recruited from the reliable elements of two brigades of the Greek Royal Army which had mutinied for political reasons while stationed in the Middle East. It comprised three battalions of infantry (each of three companies only), a regiment of field artillery and attached troops, but had neither armour nor engineers. Of its 3000 or more officers and men, some had seen action in Albania and at El Alamein. General Freyberg inspected the brigade at Taranto on 17 August and was much impressed by the Greeks’ bearing. The brigade joined the Division a few days later and did an exercise under New Zealand supervision to familiarise its officers with methods of co-operation of all arms and to test its organisation and communication.
The Greek commander, Colonel Thrassivoulos Tsakalotos, appealed to General Freyberg on 31 August for permission to march through Rome: ‘... from the time the Greek Expeditionary Force ... had set foot on Italian soil I felt the soldiers’ desire to pass through Rome in order not to avenge but to efface an abominable action of the Italians in Athens, i.e., the sacrilege of
the Acropolis by the hoisting of the Italian flag, action achieved with the complicity of the Germans. ... For the moral satisfaction of the whole of Greece, the Army Commander and yourself are kindly requested to consent to take the salute of a March Past in Rome itself, of a Greek detachment of officers and men, made up of representatives from all units, and exclusively from those who fought in Albania. ...’34
General Freyberg tactfully replied that ‘while sympathising with your natural feelings in this matter, we as New Zealanders would also have liked to march through Rome but it was not allowed.’35 He was certain General Alexander would not agree to the suggestion. This Tsakalotos accepted without further ado.
As well as taking a brigade of foreign troops under command, the Division absorbed reinforcements and a new hierarchy. Officers and men of the 4th Reinforcements (except a few in key positions who could not yet be spared) were replaced by newcomers and by veterans returning from furlough to begin their second tour of service with the Division. On the morning of 3 September, the fifth anniversary of the outbreak of war, General Freyberg was landing in his reconnaissance aircraft on the airstrip at HQ Eighth Army when a sudden gust of wind tipped over the light machine. Painfully injured in the right side, the General had to undergo an operation the same afternoon, and was expected to be unfit for duty for six or eight weeks. On his recommendation the New Zealand Government appointed Brigadier Weir36 to temporary command of the Division. On Brigadier Inglis’s departure for home a few days later, the command of 4 Armoured Brigade devolved upon Brigadier Pleasants. Command of the other two brigades already had changed hands. On relinquishing the post of CRA to Brigadier Queree,37 Brigadier Parkinson took over 6 Brigade from Brigadier Burrows, who assumed command of the 5th.
From the southern bank of the Metauro River, the starting point of Eighth Army’s offensive, to the Marecchia River, the south-eastern boundary of the north Italian plain, the corridor between the sea and the Etruscan Apennines undulates for about 30 miles in a succession of spurs and watercourses. The Gothic Line, behind the Foglia River, lay only a dozen miles or so from the Metauro, and it was the hope of the Allied command that by its unexpected appearance on the Adriatic flank Eighth Army would be able to startle the enemy out of these prepared defences before they could be fully manned. General Leese conceived the battle as a rolling offensive that would catch the Germans off balance by surprise and keep them so by unremitting pressure.
Crossing the Metauro in the last hour of 25 August, the five assaulting divisions of the Polish, Canadian and 5 Corps led off into something of a vacuum. The enemy in this sector, 76 Panzer Corps, had chosen this moment to regroup and withdraw upon the out-works of the Gothic Line. Missing the full weight of the opening thrust, the Germans remained in ignorance of Eighth Army’s secret concentration, and it was not until late on the 28th, after a copy of General Leese’s message to his troops had fallen into their hands, that they awakened to the disagreeable reality. Though they reacted by the immediate transfer of two divisions of 76 Corps, it was too late to save the Gothic Line. The Canadians and the British corps were across the Foglia on the 30th and were soon biting deep into the long-prepared but still incomplete and barely-manned defences. Many minefields were found still set at safe, some Panther turrets had not been mounted and lay where they had been dumped, and enemy tanks and infantry coming up hurriedly were defeated in detail. By 3 September the enemy had taken refuge behind the next obstacle, the Conca River; and the Canadians, swinging right to the sea at Cattolica, allowed the Poles, as planned, to be withdrawn into army reserve. As General Alexander afterwards remarked, Eighth Army ‘had swept through a fortified line... almost as though it were not there.’38
The New Zealand contribution to this success was confined to a few hundred 25-pounder rounds. When the possibility of a deliberate assault on the Gothic Line was foreseen, Eighth Army decided to strengthen its artillery cannonade. From the seaward side it called in the aid of two naval destroyers and a gunboat, which thickened the bombardment on the coastal sector. From its own resources, it appointed, among other gun groups, the New
Zealand field artillery – 5 and 6 Regiments to 1 Canadian Division and 4 Regiment to 46 British Division of 5 Corps. The collapse of the German defences, however, made the services of the three regiments almost redundant. A few tasks were fired by 5 and 6 Field Regiments, which were deployed between 31 August and 2 September in hilly country between the Metauro and Foglia rivers; and 4 Field Regiment, which went into action on 2 September a few miles farther inland, fired little if at all. The swift advance soon outran the range of the guns. But sterner battles lay ahead.
Beyond the Conca men, terrain and weather checked Eighth Army. The men were the reinforcements Kesselring had switched from his right and centre. The terrain was the stiff spur taking its name from the village of Coriano and thrusting out from the hills to Riccione. The weather was the torrential rain that fell from the 5th to the 7th, turning dust into mud. Its impetus lost, Eighth Army now had to pause for a set-piece assault. Judging that the enemy’s centre was now as weak as it ever would be, Alexander decided to unleash Fifth Army for its attack through the mountains towards Bologna and the plain. A new and fierce phase was to open on the night of 12–13 September.
While Eighth Army regrouped, General Leese made plans that promised work for the New Zealanders. In proposing to launch his two strong corps against the last series of obstacles before Rimini, he relied on the Canadian Corps to make the decisive breach on the coastal sector while 5 Corps kept pace on the left and prevented the enemy on the inland heights from pouring fire down upon the Canadians’ exposed flank. Accordingly, the Canadians were strengthened by taking over 4 British Division; and on 13 September the New Zealand Division, which had been under Canadian command for planning since the 4th, came under operational command.
With this order of 10 September there began for the Division a regime of fluctuating intention and provisional plans, during which it made piecemeal moves to the coast behind the advancing battle line. The prime cause of this suspense was uncertainty whether the divisions already in action could complete their task unaided or whether the New Zealanders would have to help them to force an entry into the plain before pressing on to exploit it. In the event, the door was to be pushed open for the New Zealanders.
Meanwhile General Weir designated 6 Brigade as potential leader of the pursuit across the Marecchia. For this purpose Brigadier Parkinson’s three infantry battalions were grouped with their supporting arms – a British regiment of self-propelled guns and New Zealand armoured cars, tanks, anti-tank guns, mortars,
machine guns and engineers.39 Leaving the rest of the Division at Fano, the brigade group moved forward on the 12th to Gradara, a castled hamlet near the seaside town of Cattolica. There it organised itself into two battle groups, with 24 Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Hutchens) and 25 Battalion (Lieutenant- Colonel Norman) as their respective nuclei, and a reserve.
The renewal of the offensive by Eighth Army on the night of 12–13 September, followed a few hours later by the opening of Fifth Army’s drive among the mountains of the centre, began one of the heaviest week’s fighting of the war in Italy. The doubling of the enemy’s strength on the Adriatic front by the transfer there of the equivalent of five divisions clearly showed his anxiety to keep control of an area that would be vital to him if he were driven off the Apennines; for in that event, to avoid being penned against the Swiss and French frontiers, he would have to retract his line to the north-east, pivoting on the Rimini sector. Between Eighth Army and its immediate goal the main obstructions were the Corianc ridge, the Marano River and the recently improved Rimini line. This last line ran from the north-east boundary of the minute but mountainous Republic of San Marino to the Marecchia and the sea at Rimini and incorporated the Ausa River and the ridge of San Fortunato, the last of the innumerable spurs thrown by the Apennines across a coastal advance.
Coriano ridge fell early to converging thrusts by the Canadians on the right and 5 Corps on the left, the Marano was crossed and by 15 September the bridgehead had been rapidly expanded. The enemy reserved his most desperate resistance for San Fortunato ridge, the key to Rimini and the plain beyond, and it yielded only after a struggle lasting three days.
Though the New Zealand Division had no large share in these hard-fought actions, the gunners and some of the infantry did contribute. While most of the Division prepared and waited, the gunners were summoned into the line, and under skies which the Bofors guns of 14 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment helped to keep clear, the three field regiments first fired a prearranged plan in support of the Canadian and British troops in their capture of Coriano ridge. Then from a series of deployment areas inland from the coastal highway (Route 16), they brought their guns to bear at successive stages of the Army’s advance – the Marano crossing, the
fight for the heights beyond and the bitter contest for the San Fortunato feature – firing now and then at opportunity targets, but engaged for the most part on planned harassing, concentrations and smokescreens.
In the first day of the San Fortunato battle the three field regiments fired an average of more than 1000 rounds an hour; and at its height 6 Regiment alone fired 13,301 rounds (more than 550 a gun) in 24 hours. The men of 5 Regiment, now the Division’s specialist purveyor of smoke, worked long hours in screening the advance. Troops fighting on the more level seaward sector were always liable to outstrip those farther inland, and so it was often necessary to obscure a coastal salient from enemy observation on the heights. All gunners and guns, however, were put to the test. More than once a crisis loomed. Ammunition stocks dwindled, but by hasty borrowings from other regiments or urgent errands to ammunition points they were replenished in time. Guns developed mechanical faults, but the artificer’s skill and judicious resting kept enough of them in action. Therefore no task went unfulfilled.
That the fury of Eighth Army’s artillery and bombing offensive did not expend itself in vain is evident from Vietinghoff’s complaints. The commander of Tenth Army had a sorry tale for Kesselring on the morning of the 15th: ‘He [the enemy] is attacking behind an absolute wall of shellfire. He is ploughing up the whole countryside and carpeting us with bombs. ... Our casualties are even higher than at Cassino. There the men sat in houses and if a house was knocked down they were quite happy in the cellar. But here on the Adriatic I can dig in quickly in the soft ground, but am comparatively easily shattered by shelling. The MDS also report that a big percentage of their patients have been suffering from concussion, completely bewildered and apathetic.’40
No other members of the New Zealand Division played a more fatiguing part in the battles of the Rimini corridor than the field gunners, but 3 Greek Mountain Brigade and the New Zealand troops who fought beside them made closer contact with the enemy. Coming temporarily under the command of the Canadian Corps (but still administered by the New Zealanders), the Greek brigade, with the support of Canadian mortars, machine guns and anti-tank guns, was sent into action to gain battle experience.41 By a perversity of fortune, these mountain troops were committed
on the coastal flats, where they relieved a brigade of 1 Canadian Division (Major-General C. Vokes) on a front of about 2000 yards inland from Riccione Marina. In this country of vineyards and closely tilled fields, the Greeks were pitted against the men of 1 Parachute Division; but, though suffering many casualties, they gave a good account of themselves in the sharp patrol clashes that disturbed the nights in this sector.
As a preliminary to the crossing of the Marano, the Greek brigade was ordered to clear the approaches to the river on its front. An attempt in the early hours of 14 September to capture two clusters of houses known as Monaldini and Monticelli on a lateral road south of the river met with a costly repulse, the Greeks losing more than a third of the troops engaged since the action began. The episode prompted second thoughts. The 22nd NZ (Motor) Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Donald), supported by the
17-pounders of a troop of 33 Anti-Tank Battery, already had been sent forward to a reserve position behind the Greeks. Although it was not intended originally for an active role, General Vokes now instructed the battalion to detach a task force of at least one company to go with all speed to the ‘moral and physical support’ of the Greeks. Donald sent 1 Company (Major O’Reilly). At the same time Major E. W. Aked (of 24 Battalion), now commanding 210 British Liaison Unit, was tactical adviser to the Greeks; he appreciated at once their need for armoured backing, and within a few hours B Squadron of 20 Armoured Regiment (Major Clapham42)joined the task force.
Thus strengthened, the Greeks returned to the assault on the evening of the 14th. In what a New Zealand officer described as ‘a copy-book attack with close support fire from tanks’, Greek infantry occupied Monaldini and New Zealand infantry the neighbouring settlement of Monticelli. Unaccustomed to tank escort, the Greeks needed a little coaxing, and one New Zealand tank commander directed the disposition and digging in of the Greeks on their objective, but it was a happy experiment in partnership. Not only did Greek officers make grateful speeches to New Zealand tank men but General Weir was formally thanked for having sent the brigade, in Aked, ‘an experienced warrior’.43
Beyond the Marano, which they crossed on 15 September, the Greeks began to broach the problem of Rimini airfield, a rectangle a mile long and 1200 yards wide, copiously sown with mines and easily swept by fire from damaged hangars and other buildings around its perimeter. They could still rely on New Zealand help, though now C Squadron, 18 Regiment, replaced the squadron from the 20th, and it was decided to allot to each of the three Greek battalions one tank troop accompanied by a platoon from 22 Battalion. The Greeks maintained the pace set by the Canadians on either side of them. By the 16th, after capturing 20 paratroops and killing perhaps twice as many on the way, they had disposed of nuisances at the south-eastern end of the airfield and were lining the edge of it.
Next day they began to work a battalion down each of the two long sides of the perimeter. Here the Germans had shrewdly sited a 75-millimetre gun so protected by earthworks that only the piece protruding from the Panther turret in which it was mounted showed above the ground. Attempts by several aircraft to bomb it into silence and by 4 Field Regiment to destroy it by gunfire were
unavailing. The task now passed into the eager hands of an officer (Lieutenant Collins44) of C Squadron, 18 Regiment. He led his tank on foot out of the Greek infantry area, and while 4 Field Regiment’s guns smoked the Panther turret, he struck out through machine-gun and mortar fire to a house about half-way along the south-western perimeter of the airfield. When the smoke cleared his tank opened rapid fire. His gunner’s second shot hit the turret and the gun barrel dropped. He waited long enough to score six more direct hits, to spray the turret with his machine guns and to witness the flight of the German gun crew, who now had nothing worth manning; and then he withdrew under his own smokescreen.
Next day (18 September), during the fight for the Ausa crossing, the Greeks completed their encirclement of the airfield and extended their right wing to the sea to relieve the Canadian armoured car regiment which had fought its way through the ribbon of seaside villas and hotels along the coastal road. The 19th, a day of decisive battle on the San Fortunato ridge, was for the Greeks, assisted by C Squadron of 19 Regiment, a day of easy progress towards the outskirts of Rimini.
The Allies used searchlights to aid the movement of their troops at night. This ‘artificial moonlight’ had an unsuspected effect on the enemy. The Tenth Army chief of staff (Major-General Fritz Wentzell) told the Army Group chief of staff (Lieutenant-General Hans Röttiger) on the 19th: ‘Last night he did the weirdest thing I ever saw. He lit up the battlefield with searchlights. ... He turned on a display like Party Day in Nürnberg. ... It is a great worry to the boys to be lighted up and blinded and not to be able to do anything about it. ...’45 The searchlights, sited out of the range of the German guns, hampered the movement of their troops, reliefs and the bringing up of supplies, ‘which were almost impossible except at night. Our men, already depressed by the enemy’s superiority in equipment, became even more so by their feeling of helplessness against this new technical weapon.’46
V: The Capture of Rimini
The Greeks had more fighting on 20 September against elements of both 1 Parachute Division and the much less warlike 162
(Turcoman) Division, but at the end of the day the battered old town lay only a mile ahead.
By this time the Germans had reluctantly decided that they could no longer hold the San Fortunato feature and with it the Rimini corridor. That morning General Traugott Herr, commanding 76 Panzer Corps, asked Vietinghoff’s permission to withdraw his artillery across the Marecchia River as a preliminary to a general withdrawal. Kesselring, anxious to buy time for an orderly retirement all along the line and fearful that ‘the open country’ beyond Rimini would cripple the defenders, at first withheld his assent but acquiesced in the early afternoon. He was disappointed to hear that evening that instead of defending Rimini house by house, in order to enfilade the Allied advance, the paratroops would leave only rearguards behind in the town. He insisted, as a condition of holding the Viserba canal, two miles north-west of Rimini, that tanks should be put into the line. Tenth Army was given permission to withdraw on the left wing during the night of 20–21 September, ‘thereby breaking off the Battle of Rimini before their own formations south of the Marecchia have become exhausted and incapable of preventing a breakthrough to the plains.’47
Meanwhile the New Zealand Division had been making ready to take advantage of just such a collapse. An order of 18 September instructed the Division to break through the enemy defences immediately south-west of Rimini and to pursue and destroy all enemy forces between Rimini and Ravenna. The planning for the first phase proved to be too pessimistic. In a series of four alternative plans, it was contemplated that at best 5 Brigade group would be needed to establish a bridgehead across the Marecchia for 6 Brigade to exploit, and that at worst 5 Brigade would have to capture San Fortunato, 6 Brigade establish the bridgehead and 4 Armoured Brigade pass through in pursuit. As it happened, the Canadian Corps’ battle for San Fortunato went so well that it became possible on 20 September to assume that the New Zealanders would have the entry into the plain forced open for them.
The revised plan was for 1 Canadian Division to cross the Marecchia west of Rimini and expand its bridgehead to the line of the Rimini-Bologna railway. Passage through this bridgehead as soon as possible after first light on the 21st would be made by 5 Brigade, which had been advanced to the head of the waiting Division with a view to other work but which would now be directed to the first objective along the Black Diamond route to Ravenna. To a Division so long pent among the hills, the plains
now beckoned. Catching the spirit of the occasion, a staff officer had chosen for the pursuit a codename with a jingle of movement: the striking troops of the Division, queued up in their three brigade groups back along Route 16, awaited the opening of Operation cavalcade.
It remained only to occupy the ground vacated by a beaten enemy as he drew back across the Marecchia. While on the left the Canadians breasted up to the river, the Greek brigade moved on Rimini itself, whose capture, though tactically a mere aftermath, would be a symbol of Eighth Army’s victory. Rimini fell because the loss of San Fortunato made it untenable. Except for sniping, sporadic bursts of spandau fire and occasional shelling from the western environs, the entry of the Greeks and their attached troops was uncontested. The Germans had thought better of their overnight plan to leave a strong rearguard.
Soon after dawn on the cold, blustery morning of 21 September two New Zealand subalterns, Second-Lieutenant Cross,48 of 19 Regiment, and Second-Lieutenant Maurice,49 this regiment’s liaison officer with the Greeks, walked towards the apparently deserted ruins of Rimini along Via Venti Settembre, a street named for the anniversary of the previous day.50 They were looking for mines and demolitions. At the Ausa River, which bounds the city to the east, they found the bridge only partly demolished and still offering men and light vehicles access to the old quarter. After reconnoitring a route for tanks into the main square, Piazza Cavour, they called up 11 Troop and its infantry escort, 8 Platoon of 22 Battalion. By 6.30 a.m. the men on foot had entered Piazza Cavour. The tanks, by mutual aid, managed to ford the river, but since rubble blocked the direct route to the centre of the city, they made a circuit of its southern ramparts. About seven o’clock they clattered into the main square from the west, drove up the steps of the Palazzo dell’Arengo and parked under the portico. A few minutes later Greek infantrymen began to appear in the square. With a proper respect for protocol, a civilian who announced himself as the Mayor of Rimini produced a document drawn up in English, Greek and Italian and prepared to hand over his city to the latest of its many conquerors.
The modern quarter of Rimini between the railway and the
sea already had been occupied by the Greeks. Less thorough than usual, the German engineers had left the Ausa bridge leading into Rimini Marina still negotiable, and the tanks of 9 and 10 Troops crossed it to follow the Greeks into the seaside suburb. The Greek flags that were soon flying from the Town Hall and other prominent mastheads signalled a success won by 13 days of rugged fighting and at a cost of 314 casualties. Although inexperience and the language barrier had prevented it from making full use of the supporting New Zealand tanks, the Greek brigade had secured the coastal flank and conformed to the main advance inland, and its first battle honour was well deserved.
First as a port and railway junction and then as the eastern anchor of the German Apennine defences, Rimini (with a normal population of 30,000) had been attacked by Allied bombers since the end of 1943. As the battle approached, it had come under fire from Allied naval and field guns. The Germans had levelled large areas and more recently had blown bridges and collapsed buildings to block Eighth Army’s progress.
One venerable bridge, however, was spared, the Ponte d’Augusto, a stone arch that since the time of Tiberius has spanned one of the channels by which the sprawling Marecchia flows to the sea past the western edge of the old city. Whether saved by German policy or oversight,51 it gave the New Zealand tanks and infantry a quick route westwards to a second branch of the Marecchia, where the Route 16 bridge had been completely destroyed. Here German machine-gunners lay in wait for rash pursuers.
While the Marecchia, the last obstacle before the plain, thus stalled the New Zealand advanced guard, farther upstream infantry of 2 Canadian Brigade made good their crossing. Drenched by an overnight rainstorm, a company of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry pressed on over the swollen river and by 9.50 a.m. was established across Route 9. It was a simple, prosaic piece of infantry routine: a few men walked cautiously across a road and began to dig in. Yet it marked the end of an era far more aptly than the flaunting of flags above the rubble of nearby Rimini. Behind lay the memorials of Eighth Army’s past – San Fortunato and the Gothic Line, Florence and the Paula Line, Cassino and the Gustav and Hitler lines, Orsogna and Ortona, and farther back still, beyond the many rivers and hills, the toe of Calabria, where the army had first touched Italy one year and 18 days ago. Ahead lay the vast continuity of the Lombard plain.
Field Marshal Kesselring recommended to the German High Command that he should withdraw his forces behind the major obstacle of the Po, where he could regroup while employing every possible delaying device south of the river. A timed programme for this movement – given the codename AUTUMN FOG (Herbstnebel) – had been worked out at a conference at HQ Tenth Army on 30 August. The scheme was submitted to Hitler by the Army Group C chief of staff (Lieutenant-General Röttiger) on 23 September, but as might be expected was flatly rejected; Kesselring received orders the same day to adhere to the basic intentions of defending the northern Apennines and western Alps.
On 27 September he again asked Hitler for authority to initiate AUTUMN FOG. He based his plea on the continued Allied pressure on his southern front, the possibility of amphibious landings on the Riviera and along the Adriatic coast, and the growing threat of an Allied breakthrough in the Bologna area. But he was told on 5 October that ‘the Fuehrer, for political, military and administrative reasons, had decided to defend the Apennine front and to hold upper Italy not only until late autumn, but indefinitely.’52
Röttiger, after his return from Germany, quoted Hitler as having said that ‘a withdrawal of the front behind the Po might be too much of a shock for the German people.’ The wartime production of industrial northern Italy, still working at high pressure, could not be sacrificed, and ‘the loss of the Po plains would have a most deleterious effect on the food situation, as it would mean that the food supplies for the forces committed in Italy would have to come from Germany.’53
Before Kesselring made his second appeal to Hitler, Vietinghoff had ordered the corps and divisional commanders of Tenth Army ‘not to relinquish one foot of soil to the enemy without inflicting heavy casualties. ... The enemy’s reserves are not inexhaustible. Heavy casualties in particular would press very heavily on him. The battles of Ortona and Cassino have demonstrated this. ...’54