Chapter 6: Into the Plain
I: The Romagna
THE Romagna, the south-east portion of the great plain of the Po valley, spread its snares before Eighth Army. Half-seen through the fine drizzle of 21 September, it offered a dreary prospect of flat, watery and charmless land, receding monotonously towards a grey horizon. It owed its existence to the fact that for thousands of years the rivers had spilled their sediment there, and for 800 years men had laboured to reclaim it from the sea. Its alluvial origins made it a heart-breaking winter battleground for troops entitled to a better reward for their long advance over hill and valley.
A double disillusionment awaited Eighth Army as it broke into the edge of the great plain and prepared to move forward to a line from Ferrara to Bologna. The battle to get there had tired most of its formations, except the New Zealand Division: nearly 500 tanks had been put out of action, half of them irrecoverably, and so heavy had been the drain on infantry that the battalions from the United Kingdom had to be reduced temporarily from four to three rifle companies. But it was not only fatigue and wastage that threatened to cheat the army of its due. The heavy rain that began on 20 September – a fortnight late, the anxious Germans observed – fell upon a terrain that was soon to dispel the dream of mobility regained.
The popular belief – or delusion – was that the Po valley was an armoured playground where tanks could sport at will. In fact it was essentially still a swamp whose major watercourses had been canalised between floodbanks rising in places 40 feet above the
plain. Thirteen such rivers and many more smaller watercourses1 ran into the Adriatic across the path of an Army advancing to Ravenna, and the low-lying land between the embankments was intricately patterned with ditches and canals, many of which could be drained only by pumping. As fords were few, the larger streams were tank obstacles and might even baffle infantry; nor could tanks always cross the smaller watercourses. The roads offered little compensation. Half a mile west of Rimini, at the village of Celle, the two highways, raised safely above the flood level, went their separate ways, Route 9 (the Via Emilia) beside the Apennine foothills direct to Bologna, and Route 16 (the Via Adriatica) beside the coast to Ravenna. Between these diverging highways the axial roads were of limited use: they were ill-formed and narrow and usually cut short by the main rivers. The lateral roads were superior in number and condition, many of them running along the tops of floodbanks, but they were subject to cratering. The roads were as important as they were inadequate, for off them the soil and sub-soil were of clay, which rose in dust in dry weather and in wet weather became first greasy and slippery and then so soft and clinging that men could move only with difficulty, and vehicles, including tanks, hardly at all. The bad going obviously cramped the inventiveness of the Eighth Army planners. In the whole Romagnuol delta, with Rimini for its apex and the Adriatic coast and the Apennines for its sides, only the comparatively firm and high belt of ground on eithe side of Route 9 could sustain a major thrust in weather even moderately wet.
The numerous farm buildings and hamlets gave the enemy a gratuitous defence in depth, blockhouse upon blockhouse. The infantry sections or snipers who occupied them had to be driven out in detail; they could not easily be shelled out en masse, for the collapse of stonework only made strongpoints still stronger. Around these buildings the vineyards made it hard to see and move. The vines were trained on wire between pollarded mulberries or other fruit trees, planted about every 10 feet in rows about 30 yards apart and growing to a height of perhaps 15 feet. In autumn, when vine and tree were in full leaf, the tank commander peering from his turret could see no farther than the next row ahead; and after breaking through two or three trellises a tank might be brought to a stop with track locked or its driver unsighted by trailing festoons of vines and wire. Since the trees were planted parallel with the streams and therefore across the general line of advance, the enemy could enfilade successive rows with machine guns and anti-tank guns.
In this inauspicious terrain at this late season, therefore, all the odds were against swift advance: water obstacle and easy demolition, high banks, mud and dust, stone barn and leafy vineyard. Only larger numbers of men and heavier weight of metal could help to redress the balance of tactical advantage. As troops tired and the skies became closed to aircraft, nothing but shellfire could be expected to keep the campaign in motion. Ahead of Eighth Army lay dour, leaden fighting in what came to be called ‘the battles of the rivers’. Only in January, after nearly four months, would the army resign the offensive until the return of spring. Meanwhile for the New Zealanders, as for their allies, there would be a grim routine of water crossings, sharp actions fought around farmhouses, dangerous scuffling amid vineyards, quixotic charges against stopbanks, a steady drain of casualties, and nearly always an oppressive sense of slow progress. But on 21 September 1944 all this was locked in the future.
Once the Rimini line had been forced, the time had come to execute Eighth Army’s plans for the pursuit into the plain. On the right 1 Canadian Corps was to thrust out two armoured spearheads: one of them, 2 NZ Division, after passing through the bridgehead formed by 1 Canadian Division, was to drive along the coastal route towards Ravenna, 32 miles distant from Rimini; farther inland 5 Canadian Armoured Division was to advance through 4 British Division’s bridgehead towards Castel Maggiore, a few miles north of Bologna. Meanwhile, on the left, 5 Corps, wheeling to the north-west, was to make for Bologna astride Route 9.
The enemy’s intention was to delay these plans as long as possible. His great strategic need was to maintain in the east a pivot upon which he could, if necessary, withdraw his Army Group C to a line guarding the exits from Italy. This pivot would not be endangered in the coastal sector until he fell back as far as the lagoons of the Valli di Comacchio, north of Ravenna. He therefore had ground to sell, but having forced the Allies to consume the late summer and part of the autumn in reaching the edge of the plain he could now expect to ask a high price, for he could count on the attrition of numerous river crossings in weather that would quickly deteriorate. General Herr, whose 76 Panzer Corps held the line opposite 1 Canadian Corps, assured his immediate superior, General Vietinghoff, on 21 September that his corps was ‘trying to hold firm as far forward as possible for as long as possible’. Vietinghoff ordered
the corps to ‘strain every muscle to get depth in its dispositions and avoid everything being smashed up in the front line.’2
Herr had only motley resources at his disposal. His Adriatic flank, facing the New Zealanders and astride Route 16, was held by the renowned 1 Parachute Division (Lieutenant-General R. Heidrich), but the coastal front itself, although under paratroop command, was in the nervy hands of 236 Reconnaissance Battalion and 303 Grenadier Regiment, both remnants of 162 (Turcoman) Infantry Division. Although well-armed with automatic weapons, this division was known by the Germans to be untrustworthy; it had a name for desertions, and the Turcomen who did not desert seem to have been stirred into half-hearted activity only by their German officers and NCOs. In order on the paratroops’ right were 29 Panzer Grenadier Division (Major-General Dr F. Polack) and 26 Panzer Division (Major-General E. P. Crasemann), the latter strengthened by three battalions of 20 GAF Field Division. Both were seasoned formations of good repute, but the panzer grenadier division, much below establishment, was hardly more than a battle group, and the panzer division was without either of its infantry regiments. Herr’s main problem – a shortage of infantry and anti-tank weapons – was in part eased by the existence of field works covering water crossings and built-in defences such as Panther turrets at other strategic points.
When the Greeks and New Zealanders entered Rimini on the morning of 21 September, 4 Brigade group was lying up behind San Fortunato ridge waiting to move into the Marecchia bridgehead and thence to launch Operation CAVALCADE, the advance to Ravenna. Bridging troubles at the Canadians’ crossing, however, delayed 5 Brigade’s start until well after the planned time of dawn. General Weir was anxious, too, about the muddy tracks over San Fortunato and was thinking of diverting the brigade group through the outskirts of Rimini. When Brigadier Pleasants sought permission for 4 Armoured Brigade to exploit the capture of Rimini by pushing on over the Marecchia, Weir therefore agreed readily. By opportunism and flexibility the Division would make its entry into the plain not through the Canadians’ bridgehead but through its own. Reinforced by a machine-gun company and a platoon of sappers, 4 Armoured Brigade during the 21st assembled 19 Armoured Regiment and 22 (Motor) Battalion in the Rimini area ready for the chase; and at 6.15 p.m. it superseded 3 Greek Mountain Brigade in command of the sector from the coast to Route 16, with orders to establish and develop a bridgehead across the westerly branch of the Marecchia.
As early as 7 p.m. the motor battalion opened a silent attack between the sea and Route 16, sending 2 Company up the coastal flank and 1 Company up the left. Many of the seaside villas on 2 Company’s route were fortified and protected by minefields against a landing from the sea, and the men of the Turcoman regiment, if lukewarm, were more numerous than the New Zealanders. The area of Celle and Route 16 bristled with dug-in Panther turrets mounting 75-millimetre guns, machine-gun posts and infantry strongpoints, all formidably manned by paratroops. The New Zealand companies’ objective was the Fossa Turchetta, a watercourse about 1500 yards beyond the Marecchia. Once the engineers had cleared a ford across the river, the tanks of C Squadron of 19 Regiment would go forward in close support.
In the pitch darkness of a cloudy evening both companies crossed the river in safety, 1 Company, choosing a point where the water was nowhere deeper than two feet, in comparative comfort. Men could walk across without wading, and by jumping from boulder to boulder could even keep their feet dry. On the right, between two railway bridges, the men of 2 Company made for a point where the concrete retaining wall was breached and made negotiable by bombing, only to find that the same bomb had torn a hole in the riverbed, where they suddenly floundered in water up to their armpits. Having rounded up two spandau teams on the northern bank, 2 Company pressed on quickly towards its objective, overrunning enemy posts in fortified houses or leaving them to be mopped up in daylight. As 10 Platoon lost two men killed and seven wounded in a minefield, Major K. R. Hutcheson halted his company 200 or 300 yards short of the Fossa Turchetta, whence they could dominate the objective without risking further casualties on mines.
On the left 1 Company also was challenged at the stopbank, but cleared the way with a brisk charge. After a skirmish with Germans about 200 yards short of Celle, the company understandably opened fire on a tracked vehicle stealthily approaching the crossroads along Route 9. Happily the crew made a smart escape, for the vehicle was found to be a Canadian carrier. A more troublesome hindrance was a concrete gun emplacement, surmounted by a Panther-type turret, which began to pour fire into the left flank of the advance. Posting his section to give covering fire, Corporal Reeve3 of 7 Platoon charged over open ground towards the German defenders and got so much the better of an exchange of grenades that they fled into the night, offering Reeve and his section vacant possession of their bunker. This he could not accept because the advance had to go
on. Germans later drifted back, reoccupied the emplacement and began to make more trouble. By this time Reeve’s platoon had reached its objective, but his section was at once despatched as a fighting patrol to put an end to the nuisance. Again Reeve led his men to the assault, and once more – this time for good – the paratroopers turned tail, except six who surrendered. By early morning 1 Company was in position along or near its stretch of the Fossa Turchetta. Its tally was 30 prisoners and the same number of spandaus; its own casualties were two men killed and eight wounded.
Two more tasks completed a satisfactory night’s work: three troops of C Squadron, 19 Regiment, crossed the Marecchia ford and came up in support of the infantry; and the 48th Highlanders of 1 Canadian Brigade, on the motor battalion’s left, took possession of Celle. But the Marecchia exacted one more exertion: the Route 16 bridge had been so wrecked by the demolition that the stretcher-bearers had to form a kind of human rope to cross dry-shod, hauling themselves up like gymnasts from the near bank and easing themselves down to the farther.
While 22 Battalion was exposing its flank in a shallow salient, 5 Brigade’s group4 was moving into 1 Canadian Division’s bridgehead. Its orders were to take two successive water lines – the Scolo Brancona, about two miles beyond the Rimini-Cesena railway, and the Rio Fontanaccia, half a mile or more farther on. Capture of the first objective would be the signal for 6 Brigade group to begin moving forward to pass through the 5th. Brigadier Burrows’s brigade was first to enlarge the bridgehead with 21 Battalion group (Lieutenant-Colonel Thodey) on the right and 28 (Maori) Battalion group (Lieutenant-Colonel Young) on the left, and then to launch them by two bounds to the Scolo Brancona and finally to the Fontanaccia, where 6 Brigade would take up the running.
Occupation of the bridgehead was a slow and untidy operation because of delays in starting, miserable weather, enemy shelling (which caused tanks and infantry to separate and communications to waver) and uncertainty about the state of affairs beyond the river. After more than one postponement, the move from the laager area east of the Ausa began in the late afternoon on the 21st. The two leading companies of each battalion travelled on 18 Regiment’s tanks – 21 Battalion with B Squadron, the 28th with A – until shelling and mortaring forced them to dismount. The tracks across San Fortunato surprisingly gave the tanks little trouble and the Marecchia, still spanned by a stout wooden bridge, was no obstacle. Because of the confusion of friend with foe, movement within the
bridgehead had to be less carefree, but before the night ended 5 Brigade, and indeed the whole Division, was in position to open the main advance.
Fourth Brigade had expanded its bridgehead on the coastal front as far forward as the Fossa Turchetta, and 19 Regiment’s tanks were moving to its support. West of Route 16, 5 Brigade had four companies of infantry across the Marecchia – C and A Companies of 21 Battalion on the right between the river and Route 9, and A and D Companies of 28 Battalion on and around Route 9 – as well as two squadrons of 18 Regiment. South of the river the two reserve companies of each battalion and the third squadron of the 18th waited to support the advance. Fifth Brigade’s reserve battalion, the 23rd, had been instructed to pass into the bridgehead near the coast. Sixth Brigade and Divisional Cavalry were to concentrate south of Rimini. Having completed its work of breaching the Marecchia, 1 Canadian Division, with 3 Greek Mountain Brigade under command, relinquished its sector to the New Zealand Division at 8 a.m. on 22 September and reverted to corps command. The concern which the New Zealand command had felt for the security of its left flank lessened as the situation became known. By the night of the 21st 4 British Division had cleared its front up to the Marecchia, although it still had to cross the river and release 5 Canadian Armoured Division for its drive across the plain.
The opening of Operation CAVALCADE on 22 September was an exercise in disillusionment. At the end of a day of hard fighting the codename was seen to be a deceiver: there could be no light-hearted scamper across the Romagna. Handicapped by the ground and cover, the Division did well to carry its front forward a mile or more to the Canale dei Molini, though this was only the nearer of two report lines on the way to 5 Brigade’s first main objective, the Scolo Brancona. The main burden of the day was borne by 21 and 28 Battalions, but the 22nd, setting out from its overnight position on the Fossa Turchetta, kept the line moving on the seaward flank. Originally given no role in the advance, the motor battalion was not provided for when boundaries were allotted, and it now had to make room for 5 Brigade by contracting its front so as to extend only about 600 yards from the coast. On this narrow sector, what was to have been an armoured dash slowed down to a systematic infantry advance. In the heavily built-up area of Viserba, 2 Company on the right and 3 Company on the left soon found that they had to precede their supporting tanks, C Squadron and A Squadron respectively of 19 Regiment.
All buildings and strongpoints had to be thoroughly searched on foot, and the tanks followed up in bounds of about 800 yards on being signalled that each bound was clear of anti-tank weapons. The troops continued past Viserba against the yielding front of the Turcoman regiment until by late afternoon they halted just south of the Canale dei Molini, where a squall of mortar and anti-tank fire foretold a hardening of resistance and probably announced the arrival of paratroops hurriedly switched to the coastal strip. The enemy complaint that the Turcoman regiment had been ‘more or less scattered to the four winds’5 has some statistical support: the day’s count of prisoners was 123, mostly Turcomen taken in mopping-up just beyond the Marecchia; and perhaps another 30 had been killed in the advance. Since crossing the Marecchia 22 Battalion had lost six killed and 24 wounded, and 19 Regiment one killed and one wounded.
Fifth Brigade had been battling forward farther from the coast. The stiffest task fell to 21 Battalion, which advanced along both sides of the obvious and therefore heavily defended axis of Route 16. Drains and ditches, many of them deep and interconnected like a ready-made trench system, and clustered vines, farm buildings and houses along the highway offered unlimited weapon sites; and these, easily missed by the first wave of attackers, often came to life at unexpected times and places. Both infantry companies – C on the right of Route 16 and A on the left – and the supporting tanks of B Squadron were so fiercely opposed that for most of the morning they lagged behind the flanking units. Paratroops and Turcomen had to be driven off embankments, flushed out of cellars, attic windows and trenches. To blot out an observation post a tank gun was used to decapitate a tall church tower.
The Germans, resisting mainly with mortars, machine guns and small arms, gave ground grudgingly, sometimes only in the face of acts of individual bravery. Sergeant Hunt,6 of B Squadron, venturing up Route 16 in his light reconnaissance tank without escort, startled about 40 Germans out of their slit trenches with the fire of his weapons. As they ran away, he manoeuvred his Honey tank into their midst, wounded a few and dismounted to take 20 prisoners. Hunt disarmed his captives; enemy mortar bombs and small-arms began to cause casualties among them, but he carried on undeterred and ordered them into a ditch, where he covered them with his tank until New Zealand infantrymen came to his aid.
By early evening of 22 September both companies of 21 Battalion
had consolidated beyond the canal objective. It was not a cheap success, the battalion’s casualties numbering 49, but 77 prisoners had been taken.
The Maori Battalion, using D Company on the right and A on the left, and supported by tanks of A Squadron, 18 Regiment, had a less difficult advance. On this inland flank there were fewer houses to give defence a refuge, the distance to the objective was shorter, and the enemy made an orderly withdrawal by firing his spandaus until the Maoris drew near and then pulling back to open up again at longer range. Sergeant McCowatt’s7 tank ‘stumbled into a nest of bazookas just short of Orsoleto, and had a close-range running fight which ended in the Germans departing in a hurry.’8 At this stage, however, the Maoris began to take real punishment from persistent and accurate shell and mortar fire. Two Tiger tanks entered Orsoleto, a hamlet about half a mile beyond the Canale dei Molini, and began to shoot up the houses occupied by the Maoris, whose casualties at the end of the day were five killed and 25 wounded. The 10 prisoners taken were fewer than on other fronts, but brought 5 Brigade’s tally for the day to 92 and the Division’s to 215.
Although the day had been strenuous and costly, the Division had done little more than nibble at the edge of the enemy’s Po valley defences. The imperturbable Heidrich was bringing up reserves to give depth to 1 Parachute Division’s positions and was confident of being able to seal off the penetrations in the coastal sector. Senior German officers, more anxious than the men on the spot, expected a major attack, ‘a push to the Po basin’, but were not sure when it would come. The comparative weakness of the Allies’ gunfire and the need for more time to deploy their artillery pointed to a few days’ respite; but reports of heavy traffic movement that evening inspired thoughts of greater urgency. The truth was that Eighth Army – and the New Zealand Division at the right of the line – being ignorant of where the enemy would stand, was content to press forward until compelled to fight a set-piece battle.
Major-General Weir’s immediate response to the Division’s progress on 22 September was to set the Rio Fontanaccia, 4000 yards ahead, as the next bound, which was to be attempted that night. But on the left 4 British Division was still hardly across Route 9, and presumably concern for an exposed flank caused the GOC to revise his original aim and order the attack to halt at an
intermediate drain, the Scolo Brancona. Again the main assignment was given to 5 Brigade group, but 22 Battalion was to conform beside the sea. The divisional artillery, concentrating its fire on 5 Brigade’s front, was to beat out a path for the infantry and tanks with a barrage lasting nearly four hours, as well as engaging hostile artillery and making diversion on the left. Once on the objective, the infantry was to keep the roads clear to allow 6 Brigade group to pass through at dawn on the two main axes – Route 16 on the right, and the more devious Black Diamond route which followed secondary roads on the left.
The night held fewer terrors than the preceding day, and 5 Brigade made its ground with little trouble. Advancing at midnight astride Route 16, with B and D Companies now in the lead, 21 Battalion had covered the 2700 yards to the Scolo Brancona by 2.40 a.m. without suffering a casualty or even meeting a German. The Maori Battalion was less fortunate. D and A Companies, which were still leading the advance, made a good start but later lost direction. They had no straight road such as Route 16 to guide them in the dark and they were temporarily disorganised by the loss of both company commanders, Major Te Punga9 (D Company) and Major Mitchell10 (A Company), who were together surprised and killed by spandau fire from a house apparently reported by civilians to be free of the enemy. The Maoris dealt promptly with the occupants and moved on slowly against opposition, but it was not until after Colonel Young had come up to redirect them that they reached the Brancona.
With the British division far outrun and a tank alarm on the left, Young appealed for precautions on his open flank. An anti-tank strongpoint was established in the Maoris’ rear near San Martino, 32 Anti-Tank Battery contributing two 17-pounders, 23 Battalion four six-pounders and D Company, and the sappers a supply of anti-tank mines. Brigadier Burrows also sent A Squadron of Divisional Cavalry to guard the Maoris’ left wing. By this time, however, the neighbouring formation was beginning to conform. The 5th Canadian Armoured Division (Major-General B. M. Hoffmeister) replaced 4 British Division in command of the sector and began to push troops forward of Route 9. Fifth Brigade was ordered to stand firm on the line of the Brancona, where 6 Brigade was to take the lead at dawn.
Fifth Brigade’s right flank already had been secured by the progress of 4 Brigade. Four platoons of 22 Battalion and two troops
of A Squadron, 19 Regiment, met such light opposition on the way to the Brancona line that Colonel Donald had to be restrained from continuing on to the Rio Fontanaccia. When General Weir gave the word at 5 a.m. on the 23rd to move on again, the advance went cheerfully for an hour and then recoiled. Beside the coast the way was barred by vigorous spandau and mortar and bazooka fire, which set one tank ablaze and drove the other tanks and the infantry of 2 Company back to shelter in houses about 700 yards short of the objective. In a similar setback on the left, beside the railway line, A Squadron lost two tanks and their crews and 3 Company several casualties to the Turcoman defenders of a house mistakenly thought to be empty. Sergeant Windsor,11 trapped in the house with other infantrymen and tank crews, who were taken prisoner, escaped, capture only by feigning serious injury. Thus halted, 4 Brigade used the enforced respite to turn the fire power of its tanks and machine guns on to the ground ahead of 5 Brigade where spandaus were causing annoyance.
This was the area into which the fresh troops of 6 Brigade group now advanced. Organised originally to exploit the breakthrough into the plain, the group had been held back during the probing advances of 4 and 5 Brigades. Now it was launched on 5 Brigade’s front in two highly mobile forces: 24 Battalion group or Red Force (Lieutenant-Colonel R. L. Hutchens) on the right and 25 Battalion group or Green Force (Lieutenant-Colonel E. K. Norman) on the left.12 The Rio Fontanaccia was the immediate goal. Operating on the Route 16 axis, 24 Battalion group by dark had established itself within easy reach of the Fontanaccia east of the main road, but not so far forward on the west. Following the roundabout Black Diamond route, 25 Battalion group had passed its forward company through the Maoris and occupied the ground a few hundred yards north of the Brancona.
The gains of the day were modest. The need to bridge the Brancona delayed the arrival of the supporting tanks; the slow advance of the Canadians unmasked the left flank, and from there and from the front the enemy made persistent and punishing use of his artillery, mortars and machine guns. More than once the attackers were sent reeling back by paratroops and Turcomen, who exploited the defensive possibilities of house, ditch and plantation. Early in the day, for example, 25 Battalion’s vanguard, veering
inadvertently towards Route 16, nosed into a nest of Germans, losing two tanks and closing to such a short range that the carriers had to be run up on to logs so that the mortars could be fired at the required elevation. In the same locality later in the day a tank supporting 24 Battalion was destroyed and three of its crew were killed and the other two wounded. One of the 11 Tigers in this sector, poking its ‘ugly snout’ round the corner of a house, had to fire only a single shot to set the Sherman aflame.
The 1st Parachute Division could count the day well spent. It still held a continuous line, despite strong pressure by tanks and infantry and shellfire which it rated as of ‘barrage intensity’13 – a comprehensible description of the 20,406 rounds fired by the New Zealand field regiments in the 24 hours. Even the Turcomen of 236 Reconnaissance Battalion, sustained between two paratroop battalions, won Vietinghoff’s praise for a sturdy showing against 4 Brigade on the coast. The enemy had resolved to hold on doggedly to the line of the Fontanaccia. The limited withdrawals already made persuaded Vietinghoff to tell Kesselring on the morning of 24 September that 76 Panzer Corps needed reinforcements ‘because the situation in its centre is not very flash.’ Kesselring said he had been told that 1 Parachute Division had withdrawn, but Vietinghoff replied, ‘That was a trifle. ... There was a penetration of 700 metres in the centre, but the wings are still holding firm. ...’14
The enemy had shown his determination during the night, when 25 Battalion and its supporting tanks, ordered to square up to the Fontanaccia south-west of Route 16, had had only partial success. On the right A Company reached a lateral road 200 yards or so from the objective, and two patrols were successively driven back from the stream; on the left C Company, having consolidated in houses short of the stream, was harassed by snipers who seemed to be everywhere.
Early intelligence on the morning of the 24th confirmed the enemy’s intention. A patrol from 22 Battalion beside the coast observed movement on the northern bank of the Fontanaccia. Inland B Company of 24 Battalion got two of its platoons across the Fontanaccia, which proved to be an irrigation canal 12 to 15 feet deep, but once among the vineyards on the far side they had to shelter from spandau fire in a house and in the ditch itself. Withdrawal was slow and costly. One section, running into an enemy post in the ditch, killed at least two Germans but itself lost three killed and one wounded. The survivors were hemmed in by German posts and had to wait to make their escape. Despite smoke and covering fire, it was not until early afternoon that most members of
the two platoons could withdraw by wading and crawling through the water in the ditch, while a barking dog advertised all their movements; and it was not until dusk that two sections isolated beyond the Fontanaccia rejoined the company.
The Division’s loss of five tanks and of more than 50 casualties on 24 September was sufficient testimony of the enemy’s liveliness and alertness along the front. In the evening 1 Parachute Division claimed to have beaten off 27 attacks in strength in the last 36 hours. Even if this was an exaggeration, it confirmed what was now evident, that the jabbing, unconcerted attacks of the last two or three days had exhausted their usefulness, and that the time had come for an assault by the collected strength of a brigade.
Weir’s plan for that night was to launch the two forward battalions of 6 Brigade with tank support behind an artillery barrage in an attack across the Fontanaccia that would take them 2000 yards forward and about half-way to the River Uso (probably the Rubicon of classical history15), which meandered north across the plain in many loops before flowing into the sea at Bellaria. The objective was a 25,000-yard stretch of the lateral road running north-east to the coast through the village of Bordonchio. While 22 Battalion conformed in the narrow strip beside the sea, 24 Battalion was to advance along and east of Route 16, and 25 Battalion on the left flank between lanes to be indicated by tracer from the Bofors guns of 14 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment.
Twenty minutes before zero hour at 8 p.m., the three New Zealand field regiments and 17 Canadian Field Regiment were to lay the opening line of their barrage along the Fontanaccia and then lift their fire ahead of the infantry, who were set the fairly brisk pace of 100 yards in five minutes. Concentrations would be fired by 4 Medium Regiment in support of 6 Brigade and by 24 Field Regiment, RA, in support of 22 Battalion. The silencing of the enemy batteries was to be the work of the Canadian Army Group, Royal Artillery. The assaulting battalions were to construct tracks forward for their tanks and the engineers were to clear Route 16 for wheels as soon as possible.
One problem remained. Although they had captured Casale, crossed the Fontanaccia and approached San Vito di Rimini from the east, the battalions of 12 Canadian Infantry Brigade had not yet drawn level with the New Zealanders, and a further advance therefore would dangerously uncover the Division’s left flank. The task
of protecting it was assigned to B Squadron of 20 Regiment and D Company, 26 Battalion.
Sixth Brigade was set an advance of about 3000 yards in two and a half hours. If not entirely vindicating the plan, the brigade showed that it was far from illusory. The enemy seems to have been taken unawares: on one part of the front the attack disturbed a relief of troops, and a ration truck, a doctor and his orderly, and an ‘elderly soldier’ delivering mail in a horse and buggy in turn drove blithely into captivity. The darkness – only imperfectly dispersed by artificial moonlight – grape vines, undergrowth and ditches, and the occasional failure of a wireless set made it difficult for the assaulting companies to keep in touch; in some places the enemy was well dug in along the Fontanaccia, and machine-gun posts, disposed in depth, fought back from time to time throughout the advance; but they could often be bypassed by the first wave, and the Tiger and Panther tanks prowling among the defences showed on the whole more anxiety to retire to safety than to risk a short-range surprise coming out of the night.
The 24th Battalion, attacking along and east of Route 16, found the going harder and slower than did 25 Battalion on the inland flank. A Company led off on the right and C Company on the left, with D and B Companies respectively mopping up behind them. After advancing unopposed for 600 yards, A Company lost the shelter of the barrage through having to delay to clear out strongpoints. Besides harrying the company with small arms and gunfire, the enemy was leaving a few troops behind to send up signals calling for mortar fire as soon as the New Zealanders approached. The company had to patrol to right and left for reassurance about its flanks, but just before daylight it was within 200 yards of the objective, where it dug in, in the face of stiff resistance on the right, to await the assistance of the supporting tanks.
By this time C Company was established in neighbouring posts on the left, also about 200 yards from the lateral road through Bordonchio, having had bloodless encounters with three Tigers on the way there. The two mopping-up companies had to crush spandau posts bypassed by the leading companies before consolidating about half-way to the objective. The tanks of C Squadron, 20 Regiment, followed up, successfully negotiating the waterway, and soon after dawn one troop made a welcome junction with A Company, which it helped to evict a German platoon from a high-walled graveyard in Bordonchio.
Three companies were used by 25 Battalion on its front west of Route 16. There, in spite of an early flare-up on the Fontanaccia, where both sides lost men, the pace was swifter. D Company (on
the right), moving beside the highway, was on its objective by 10.20 p.m., still close up behind the barrage. It was joined 40 minutes later by A Company (in the centre), and with the arrival of a weakened B (on the left) about 3.50 a.m. the battalion was in firm possession of its goal, the road running south-west from Bordonchio, and had thrown out some posts beyond it. The presence of tanks of A Squadron, 20 Regiment, strengthened its hold.
Meanwhile 6 Brigade’s open left flank was being screened, and by dawn the combined force of infantry and armour, disposed in groups composed of a platoon and a troop, was filling part of the gap between 25 Battalion and the Canadians to the south-west. The advance had cost 6 Brigade 57 casualties, all wounded infantrymen.
In its conforming attack on the coastal strip, 22 Battalion, with tanks from B Squadron of 19 Regiment, met stiff resistance and was brought to an abrupt halt a few hundred yards beyond the Fontanaccia and about 2500 yards short of the objective, the southern half of the seaside village of Igiea Marina. Spandaus and mortars concealed in the low sandy ground north of the Fontanaccia troubled 1 Company on the right and 3 Company on the left from the outset. Without the benefit of an artillery barrage they made slow progress to the stream, and not far beyond it were pinned down by steady fire. Nor could the tanks give much help, for enemy infantry posts were hard to locate and the mines laid on the coastal road were covered by fire, which frustrated the efforts of engineers to lift them. Two plans for speeding up the advance were suggested during the night. One was reinforcement by 26 Battalion, and the other the diversion of 1 and 3 Companies through 6 Brigade so that they might attack farther north from the left flank rather than continue their frontal pressure. More cheerful reports, however, caused both plans to be abandoned and by the time the hard truth was known it was too late.
The total result of the Division’s attack on this night of confused fighting on 24–25 September was to thrust 6 Brigade forward in a salient 2000 yards deep. At the tip of this salient the brigade was on its objective (the lateral road through Bordonchio) on the left and very near it on the right. The long right flank which the brigade showed towards the sea was due to the check which had arrested 22 Battalion a short distance beyond the Fontanaccia. The left flank was being watched by a small force of tanks and infantry, while farther to the south the Canadians were still probing towards San Vito and the Uso.
The obvious next move was for 4 Brigade to square up so that the Division’s right flank should rest entirely on the sea. The sound
of explosions in Igiea Marina and reports by civilian refugees drifting southwards suggested that the enemy, having held his ground stubbornly overnight, was now on the morning of the 25th retiring upon a new line along the Uso. When 1 and 3 Companies of 22 Battalion and their supporting tanks resumed their advance up the coast about 8.30 a.m. this seemed to be the case, for they advanced unchallenged. Ahead of them fighter-bombers, favoured for once by the weather, bombed and strafed; the artillery bombarded key points; and by early afternoon, after some delay in crossing the Rio del Moro, the infantry were on the southern edge of Igiea Marina and had drawn level with 6 Brigade’s front.
The time had come to relieve 22 Battalion. Temporary relief was given by A and B Companies of 26 Battalion, which had been launched that morning in an attack across the line of advance to seize a length of the embankment on the inter-brigade boundary between the Fontanaccia and the Moro. From there they went forward to the railway line, before wheeling left to come up behind 22 Battalion. The relief was completed by late afternoon, but the two 26 Battalion companies were themselves replaced two or three hours later by D Company, 24 Battalion, released from its mopping-up task on the left. The whole of the Division’s front, stretching 2000 yards inland from the southern limits of Igiea Marina, was now in the hands of 24 and 25 Battalions, with support from 20 Armoured Regiment. The only other New Zealand troops in even spasmodic contact with the enemy were the left-flank protection force, which had had brushes with German tanks and infantry during the day, and patrols of the Divisional Cavalry still farther south.
The penetrations by 6 Brigade were causing concern, but not panic, in the German command. Early in the evening of 25 September Vietinghoff admitted to Kesselring that ‘the situation on 1 Parachute Division’s front is critical and is worrying us.’16 Heidrich was complaining that his new reinforcements were ‘not like his old people’. His casualties during the last two days – 35 killed, 83 wounded and 156 missing – were at least twice as heavy as the New Zealanders’. Both the paratroops and their right-hand neighbours, 29 Panzer Grenadier Division, were committed to the last man. The final portent of gloom was the expectation of a new major offensive, which was deduced from the arrival of fresh formations,17 the reconnaissance thrusts, the methodical ranging by the artillery and the systematic destruction of lines of communication by enemy aircraft. The policy of 76 Panzer Corps, as defined by Herr, was ‘to
give up as little ground as possible, but to get back without unnecessary casualties. ...’18 To this end the foremost positions were to be held strongly enough to seal off reconnaissance patrols but not so strongly as to have too many troops ‘pounded to pieces’ by the artillery prelude to a main attack. To give the defence the depth which all agreed was essential, most troops would be reserved for the second line, where the Tiger tanks and heavy anti-tank weapons would be concentrated.
As the New Zealand intelligence had predicted, defence of the Uso was no part of the German plan, and of all the many watercourses that confronted the Division, few were less obstructive than this circuitous stream. Barely opposed advances during the day and night of 26 September took the New Zealanders across the Uso in two places with bridges behind them, so that, in conformity with the Canadians on their left, they were ready on the 27th to strike towards the next main obstacle, the Fiumicino River.
A swift breakthrough to the Uso on 25 Battalion’s front early on the 26th strengthened the evidence of an enemy withdrawal, and Weir instructed Parkinson to push his brigade up to the river with all speed. The 26th Battalion was brought in on the left of the brigade, between 25 Battalion and the Canadians, and was to press on to the Fiumicino. At the same time, so as to keep one battalion in reserve, 3 Greek Mountain Brigade would come into the line on the coastal sector, relieving 24 Battalion.
On the seaward flank three companies of 24 Battalion had closed up to the river by early afternoon, with hardly more hindrance than a minefield in the centre. C Squadron’s tanks were soon in attendance and the battalion’s left wing rested comfortably on 25 Battalion’s right. Stray enemy soldiers were coaxed into the prisoner-of-war cage, 20 from the Turcoman division by D Company and 14 by Italian partisans. Civilian and partisan reports of German departures, a show of white flags in houses across the river and the discovery of a steel bridge still intact at the southern entrance to Bellaria all called for rapid pursuit. A patrol from C Squadron of Divisional Cavalry drove its Staghounds across the bridge into the town, but demolitions blocking the main street prevented it from engaging the small enemy rearguard and, as night was falling, it withdrew south of the river. The relief of 24 Battalion was completed soon after midnight. The Greek brigade group, again under New Zealand command, deployed one battalion along the Uso in the forward
positions vacated by 24 Battalion, with its boundary a short distance west of Route 16.
Meanwhile 25 Battalion was on the move. Preceded by patrols which reported that the way was clear, D Company made a dash to the Uso and reached it before 8 a.m. A patrol which explored 300 yards beyond the river found no enemy. A thousand yards farther south, A Company was slower and was not in position on the river before early afternoon. The infantrymen were escorted by two troops of A Squadron, Divisional Cavalry, and by tanks from A Squadron, 20 Regiment. Just as the commander of one of the troops of armoured cars joined a group of a dozen infantry and tank men conferring beside the river bank, a shell fell among them, killing an officer and seven men – a costly lesson in the need for dispersion.
In compliance with brigade orders to establish a bridgehead across the Uso overnight, 25 Battalion made its crossing under the protecting fire of field and medium guns and of heavy mortars. The guns also fired to drown the noise of 8 Field Company’s bulldozer, which was assisting in the erection of an Ark19 bridge to enable the tanks to cross to the western bank. The night brought no setbacks, and by dawn on the 27th D, C and B Companies were about 1000 yards beyond the river along the next ditch, the Fossa Vena, guarded by the tanks.
On the southern side of a line of electric power pylons which ran in a north-westerly direction and served as an inter-battalion boundary, 26 Battalion also made satisfactory use of the day and night. In the wake of B Squadron, 20 Regiment’s tanks ‘beating up anything that looked suspicious’,20 first C and then B Company closed up to the Uso, and each pushed two platoons across the river. Mortars and snipers then imposed a halt, but the advance was resumed by moonlight and the battalion was soon on its objective along the line of the Fossa Vena. The sappers bulldozed a ford under fire and the tanks crossed the Uso before daybreak.
Thus, by 27 September, the Division had reached the low-lying, ditched, vine-clad land between the Uso and the Fiumicino, about eight miles north-west of Rimini. General Burns expected his corps to exert steady pressure so as to prevent the enemy from stabilising his front. The advance was to go on by day and night, and in order to keep contact his two divisions (the New Zealand and the 5th
Canadian) were to cross river lines in sufficient strength to penetrate deeply. If supporting arms could not make an immediate crossing, the assaulting infantry was to push ahead without them, especially at night, when the defence would be handicapped in using its close-support weapons.
Burns’s assumption that the Germans were making a general withdrawal covered by rearguards was a little too sanguine. The enemy had every intention of holding his ground, or at the worst of exchanging it only for satisfactory payments in time, men and material. Vietinghoff told Kesselring on the morning of the 27th that ‘the rear units in the main defence zone will hold.’21 Boundaries had been moved north to reduce divisional sectors; 100 tons of high explosives were on the way for demolition work; and in the meantime bridges, culverts and roadways could be wrecked by the improvised use of aerial bombs and shells as demolition charges. The declared intention of 76 Panzer Corps to hold the present line and Kesselring’s anxiety about the adequacy of its reserves showed a determination to stand firm.
General Weir, fully in accord with General Burns, was impatient to press on, and that day ordered an advance to the Fiumicino on the whole divisional front. At dawn on 28 September 5 Brigade group would pass through 6 Brigade and, with the Greek brigade conforming on the right, would make for the next objective, the road linking the coastal town of Cesenatico with the Route 9 town of Cesena. Fourth Armoured Brigade would follow up along the Black Diamond route, prepared to refuse 5 Brigade’s left flank against any threat from the inland sector.
First, however, the ground had to be cleared up to the Fiumicino, through the buildings of Bellaria and the vineyards west to Route 16. Two companies of Greeks on the coastal strip worked methodically. Like the two troops of Staghounds which went ahead, they were harassed by skilful delaying tactics. Having blown culvert, bridge or stopbank, often by obsolete or improvised explosives, the German rearguard would surprise attacking troops with mortar or small-arms fire as they came forward to inspect the demolition – a ruse which made the advance a canny, probing business. In the afternoon of the 27th the infantry and armoured cars got within 700 yards or so of the Fiumicino, but there they had to halt. From its mouth inland to the railway the river was protected by prepared obstacles – a concrete pillbox, ‘dragon’s teeth’, anti-tank rails and wire – and these in turn were screened by watchful defenders, only 100 or 200 yards ahead of the Greeks’ foremost positions. The day’s advance had cost the Greeks 23 casualties.
Farther inland 6 Brigade, with the support of 20 Regiment’s tanks, felt a similar hardening of opposition when making for its objective, a road running almost parallel with the Fiumicino and from 700 to 1000 yards short of it. On the right 24 Battalion, passing through the 25th, attacked with three companies and supporting arms, but in a dusk made lurid by burning haystacks the lateral road was still approximately 300 yards ahead of them. The way forward had been hotly contested by Germans manning spandaus in houses used as strongpoints and by persistent shellfire.
An Italian and his wife wormed their way under shellfire along a ditch to report that the Germans had withdrawn from a house which was said to be sheltering 100 civilians. When the New Zealanders occupied the house and converted it to their own use, it came under artillery and mortar fire, which wounded soldier and civilian alike.
South of the power line 26 Battalion had to contend with spandaus and the fire of mortars or guns controlled sometimes by observation posts mounted on pylons. The enemy retired only under pressure, hindering the advance with heavy automatic fire and then falling back two or three lanes of vines to caches of ammunition, where he renewed his defiance. By dusk C Company, in the centre of the three attacking companies, was the only one in 6 Brigade to reach the lateral road before the order was given to consolidate.
The casualties in 24 and 26 Battalions were eight killed and 34 wounded. The armoured regiment also paid a price: A Squadron, for example, had lost nine killed and nine wounded; four tanks had been set on fire and another destroyed. It was an enervating kind of warfare, nagging in its demands and niggardly in its rewards. In this typical day’s work the Division had made another mile of ground. When General Weir heard at 5 p.m. that 6 Brigade had not taken its objectives, he ordered the battalions to consolidate for the coming relief. The initiative passed to 5 Brigade.
II: From the Fiumicino to the Pisciatello
Fifth Brigade was to patrol to the Fiumicino and try to secure a bridgehead, but if strongly opposed on the river, was to prepare for a set-piece attack. The 21st and 23rd Battalion groups,22 which relieved 24 and 26 Battalions, were instructed to advance to the Cesenatico–Cesena road, some three to five miles beyond the
Fiumicino. Because the gap between the New Zealand Division and 5 Canadian Armoured Division had been greatly reduced, left-flank protection was no longer considered necessary.
After patrols from 21 and 23 Battalions had failed to reach the Fiumicino during the night of 27–28 September, the two commanding officers (Colonels J. I. Thodey and E. A. McPhail) agreed that it would be necessary to clear the east (near) bank before the attempt was made to cross the river.
Thodey ordered B and D Companies of 21 Battalion to advance in the morning of the 28th to the lateral road which had been the objective of the earlier attacks, and then to the river. The two companies had to cross ground under observation by the enemy occupying houses on the near side of the river, and consequently came under fire as soon as their movement was noticed. By midday, however, the leading men of B Company were at Casa la Torretta o Cagnona, on the lateral road. D Company was held up by shell and mortar fire at the Fosso Matrice, a ditch about 300 yards short of the lateral road. Both companies were supported by tanks of B Squadron, 18 Regiment.
McPhail also decided that morning to push his leading companies towards the river. C Company of 23 Battalion reached the lateral road, and B Company, on the left flank, continued on towards the Scolo Cavaticca, a drain about half-way between this road and the river. The supporting tanks of C Squadron, 18 Regiment, had difficulty in making their way over ditches and past demolitions.
Meanwhile, at midday, General Weir held a conference at Headquarters 5 Brigade to plan the attack over the Fiumicino for the coming night. It was decided that the two battalions should try to clear the enemy from the near side of the river in the afternoon as a preliminary to the attack. Beyond the river 4 Brigade was to take over from 23 Battalion the part of 5 Brigade’s front south of the electric power pylons and was to provide left-flank protection for the Division. The 5th Canadian Armoured Division, on that flank, was to attack at the same time.
It was appreciated that the weather might cause the cancellation of these plans. A 40-mile-an-hour gale from the sea brought torrential rain, which soon made the ground sodden. The tanks did their best to keep up with the infantry, who struggled through the deepening mud, but their tracks became clogged, and they slithered and bogged down. Communications failed, tanks and infantry lost each other, and at one stage some tanks were out in front unprotected. Gunpits were flooded and the guns had to be pulled out of them. The rivers rose rapidly, and the engineers were impeded in their work on roads and bridges. Under such conditions
it was no mean achievement for 5 Brigade to reach the Fiumicino late in the afternoon, but the attack which was to have been made across the river that night had to be cancelled.
It was a wretched night for men without shelter. Many of the houses had been shot to pieces, and slit trenches filled with water. Vehicular movement was extremely difficult and in places impossible. Most of the tanks were bogged, and even jeeps were hopelessly stuck. The evacuation of casualties, including men suffering from exposure and exhaustion, and the delivery of food and ammunition to the forward troops demanded the most strenuous effort.
Machine-gun and mortar fire had prevented B Company, 21 Battalion, from advancing beyond Casa la Torretta o Cagnona, but A Company had gone ahead on the left of D, which had reached the river bank. A few enemy still remained on the near side of the river on 23 Battalion’s front, but most of them departed next day, when A and D Companies relieved B and C. On the coastal flank the Greek brigade, supported by tanks of C Squadron, 20 Regiment, and the Staghounds of C Squadron, Divisional Cavalry, still faced fixed defences including pillboxes. After an artillery stonk on a building on Route 16 a patrol found that two of three machine-gun posts had been knocked out; the third ‘had no fight left, and the Turcomen were only too glad to give themselves up.’23
The Canadians also cancelled their planned assault over the Fiumicino because of the rain. The previous night (27–28 September) a company of the Irish Regiment of Canada (a battalion of 11 Brigade) had waded across the river, but had been surprised not far beyond it by a superior force of German infantry and tanks, and had lost nine men dead and 50-odd taken prisoner. This disaster ‘taught a useful lesson: not again in Italy in the 11th Brigade was a company dispatched to take a battalion objective.’24 The New Zealanders were to learn a similar lesson three months later, when a platoon of 25 Battalion was lost on a stopbank of the Senio River.
It would be impossible to resume the advance until the ground dried out sufficiently to allow the tanks to move again. General Weir conferred with Brigadiers Pleasants (4 Brigade), Burrows (5 Brigade) and Queree (CRA) and Lieutenant-Colonel Anderson25 (CRE) in the afternoon of the 30th, and the outcome was a decision to abandon the plan made on the 27th to continue the attack along
the Black Diamond axis and to advance instead along the axis of Route 16 because of the engineering difficulties created by the weather on the secondary roads the Division had been using.
The fighting developed into a slogging match with guns, mortars and machine guns, in which each side tried to knock down the houses the other was occupying, destroy his weapons and vehicles, and harass him as much as possible. ‘By 30 September the Fiumicino farms were already beginning to look like a Flanders scene in 1917.’26 A brief improvement in the weather permitted Allied fighter-bombers to attack targets beyond the Fiumicino; and on a moonlit evening two German Junkers 88s dropped bombs before they were chased away by the anti-aircraft barrage. That night (30 September–1 October) 28 Battalion relieved the 21st and 22 Battalion the 23rd, and A Squadron replaced B Squadron of 18 Armoured Regiment.
Eighth Army planned to regroup and continue the advance into the broadening plain on a three-corps instead of a two-corps front, with the Polish Corps on the coastal sector (where it was to take the place of the New Zealand Division, which would go into reserve), the Canadian Corps in the centre and 5 Corps on the left. The move forward of the Poles, however, was delayed by the worsening weather.
At this stage General Sir Oliver Leese relinquished command of Eighth Army to head the Allied Land Forces in South-East Asia; he was succeeded on 1 October by Lieutenant-General Sir Richard McCreery, who had commanded 10 Corps since the landing at Salerno. McCreery modified the plan for regrouping: he decided to transfer the Poles to the mountainous left flank with the intention of passing them down one of the river valleys to outflank the enemy opposing the main body of Eighth Army in the plain. It was 17 October before the Poles were ready to begin this manoeuvre. Meanwhile, during the first 10 days of the month, the stalemate continued on the Canadian Corps’ front, where plans for an assault across the Fiumicino were made and cancelled because of further heavy rain.
The first of these plans called for a crossing during the night of 1–2 October by 5 NZ Brigade on the axis of Route 16, but because of the flooding seen from the air on the enemy’s side of the river and the obvious strength of the defences where it was proposed to attack, it was decided to strike in a more westerly direction towards Sant’ Angelo in Salute. In preparation for this the Division moved farther to the left: the Greek brigade extended to take over
the Maori Battalion’s front – which temporarily left only 22 Battalion holding 5 Brigade’s sector – and next night 21 Battalion relieved the Perth Regiment, the right-hand battalion of 11 Canadian Brigade (which 5 Canadian Armoured Division then replaced with 12 Brigade).
Apart from the persistent harassing fire and the bombardment of selected targets (the accuracy of the enemy’s fire suggesting that he knew the locations of reserve units and headquarters as well as of forward posts), the main activity on both sides was patrolling, which often led to clashes and casualties. The aim of the New Zealand, Canadian and Greek patrols was to learn as much as possible about the river and its banks (which were mined) and the enemy’s positions and habits, in the anticipation that an improvement in the weather might permit the resumption of the offensive. In expectation of their second winter in Italy, the troops were issued with battledress and winter clothing.
General McCreery prepared for a two-corps attack along an axis parallel to Route 9. His plan was for 5 Corps to capture the town of Cesena on Route 9 and cross the Savio River south of the highway, and for the Canadian Corps to cross the Fiumicino, the Rio Baldona and the Scolo Rigossa and then exploit north-westwards.
The New Zealand Division, which was to make the assault alongside 5 Canadian Armoured Division, began to relieve 5 Brigade with 6 Brigade on the Fiumicino River front. Because of the ‘untankable’27 state of the ground and the nature of the fighting, the Division had more tanks and armoured cars than it could employ but needed more infantry. An ad hoc battalion called Wilderforce,28 therefore, was brought into the line under 6 Brigade’s command and in the evening of 5 October took over from 22 Battalion on the right, while 25 Battalion relieved the 21st on the left. During the next two nights 25 Battalion was replaced by the other two battalions of 6 Brigade, which then held the river front with, from right to left, Wilderforce, 26 Battalion and 24 Battalion, and with 25 Battalion in reserve and 19 Armoured Regiment in support.29 About the same time 5 Canadian Armoured Division replaced 12 Brigade with the 11th.
Brigadier Parkinson reported that his brigade was ready to begin the assault on the night of 7–8 October – despite torrential rain the previous night. General Burns, who appreciated that there was little
hope of an immediate improvement in the weather, discussed with General McCreery the possibility of continuing either with the existing ‘dry weather’ plan or of employing a modified ‘wet weather’ plan, which would involve a more limited advance in shorter stages determined by the difficulty of bringing forward the supporting arms. The attack was then fixed for the night of 8–9 October, but more rain made conditions even worse, and Burns decided that the attack could not start that night even on the ‘wet weather’ plan.
Once again the Canadian Corps’ crossing of the Fiumicino River was postponed.
The enemy had abandoned the whole of his Gothic Line defences (except on the unimportant extreme western flank), but had prevented Fifth Army from debouching from the northern Apennines on to the Lombard plain. In the central mountainous sector, however, Fifth Army’s penetration towards Imola and Forli, two towns on Route 9 south-east of Bologna, forced apart the inner wings of Fourteenth and Tenth Armies and threatened to cut off 76 Panzer Corps (of Tenth Army) on the Adriatic flank. To meet this threat Fourteenth Army was reinforced and absorbed the reserves which might have been available to the hard-pressed Tenth.
In the Adriatic sector the enemy’s withdrawal across the Fiumicino River had been just in time; in fact the crossing had been ‘indescribable. Some guns were practically washed away. We even lost some men by drowning. ...’30 The copious rains, which prevented Eighth Army from exploiting its earlier success, gave Tenth Army a breathing space which emboldened it on 3 October to view the resumption of the offensive on the Adriatic front ‘more confidently than before, as the weather has allowed the divisions there some time to build up their strength and improve their positions in depth. ...’31 Next day, however, it was pointed out that, as all the reserves had been passed over to Fourteenth Army, ‘it would be necessary to adopt a mobile policy if the enemy renewed his attacks on the Adriatic.’32
On Route 9 the Germans were able to move troops to the part of the front where assistance was needed most urgently at any time. They succeeded in re-establishing cohesion south-east of Bologna and prevented Fifth Army from breaking through to Route 9; south of the city they stopped the very strong thrust by 2 United States Corps along the axis of Route 65, the highway from Florence through the Futa Pass. Fifth Army continued to exert unrelenting pressure, but the German tactics of blocking all the routes which descended the valleys to the plain and of holding the dominating heights between the valleys, combined with the bad weather and the exhaustion and shortage of men, compelled General Clark to suspend the offensive on 27 October.
Meanwhile, early in October, the Germans had a correct appreciation, at least in part, of Eighth Army’s intentions: ‘The rain had
soaked the ground in the Adriatic sector and raised all streams to a very high level, so that the enemy had no chance of resuming his large-scale offensive there. It was thought likely, however... that the enemy might launch a full-scale attack east of the upper Savio valley and make a landing in the Ravenna area.’33 Tenth Army therefore gave orders on 6 October for the assembling of ‘sufficient reserves’ in these places.
Although 1 Canadian Corps had been obliged to postpone its attack across the Fiumicino River because of the weather and the state of the ground, 5 Corps had begun to advance in the foothills south of Route 9, where the rains had been less damaging. During the night of 6–7 October troops of 10 Indian Division on the corps’ left wing crossed the Fiumicino and in darkness and pelting rain next evening took the 1600-foot Monte Farneto, overlooking the valley of the Savio River south of the town of Cesena. The rest of the Indian division and 46 British Division (on its right) crossed the Fiumicino and joined in the process of outflanking the enemy on the line of the river. On the 10th 46 Division captured Longiano, a town about two miles south of Route 9 overlooking the Scolo Rigossa. The 90th Panzer Grenadier Division therefore withdrew along the highway from the Fiumicino to the Rigossa. The same day 56 British Division crossed the Fiumicino at Savignano (on Route 9) and its engineers bridged the river.
Fifth Corps’ progress thus confirmed General McCreery’s appreciation that during the rainy season the foothills and the going astride Route 9, from the Rimini-Cesena railway southward, offered better opportunities than the sodden plain, and that as crossings were secured over the upper reaches of the rivers the enemy would be forced to retire in the plain. McCreery therefore directed the Canadian Corps to take over Route 9 from 5 Corps and thrust along the highway while 5 Corps, with two divisions, continued the attack through the foothills. On 9 October General Burns assigned to his divisions their roles in the new plan: 1 Canadian Infantry Division was to relieve 56 Division (which had suffered many casualties in the recent fighting) and continue the advances along Route 9, while north of the Rimini-Cesena railway 2 NZ Division was to relieve 5 Canadian Armoured Division and form a strong guard for the Canadian infantry division’s right flank. Burns wrote in his diary that the divisional commanders ‘pointed out the very bad going and expressed the opinion that we might be drifting into the carrying on of an offensive in similar conditions to those of last autumn and winter, where the hard fighting and numerous casualties resulted in no great gain.’
The regrouping gave the Canadian Corps a front extending eight miles from the sea to 1000 yards south of Route 9. To permit the concentration of the corps’ effort on the left wing, an aggregation called Cumberland Force was organised to hold the line of the Fiumicino from the coast for three and a half miles inland; commanded by Brigadier I. H. Cumberland, it was composed initially of Headquarters 5 Canadian Armoured Brigade, 3 Greek Mountain Brigade, the New Zealand Wilderforce, the dismounted Royal Canadian Dragoons (armoured car regiment)34 and supporting Greek, New Zealand and Canadian arms. The New Zealand Division was in the central sector, with 5 Infantry Brigade forward on the northern side of the railway. It was intended that 1 Canadian Infantry Brigade should take over from a brigade of 56 Division on Route 9, but when it was learned that the enemy on that part of the front was withdrawing, it was decided that the Canadian brigade should push through–instead of relieving–the British brigade and advance in bounds along Route 9 until it re-established contact.
The first encounter was just short of the Scolo Rigossa late in the afternoon of 11 October. A battalion of 1 Canadian Brigade drove the enemy back across the canal and next day secured a bridgehead 500 yards deep. As 5 NZ Infantry Brigade at this stage was about two and a half miles behind their foremost positions, the Canadians sent another battalion forward between the road and the railway to protect their lengthening right flank.
By the evening of 10 October 5 NZ Brigade had completed the changeover with units of 5 Canadian Armoured Division on the Fiumicino River front, with 28 (Maori) Battalion on the right and 23 Battalion on the left. Patrols from these two battalions and from the Princess Louise Dragoon Guards (of 12 Canadian Infantry Brigade), which was protecting the Division’s right flank, found that the enemy had fallen back from the river, which 5 Brigade proceeded to cross on the morning of the 11th. Sappers of 6 Field Company finished erecting a 100-foot Bailey bridge on the San Mauro – Gatteo road shortly after midday, and farther north 7 Field Company began to work on the approaches to a bridge site at Fiumicino village.
Brigadier Burrows issued orders for an advance in four bounds to the Pisciatello River, which was also the Canadians’ first objective. The infantry had no difficulty in reaching the area of the start line, the lateral road between Gatteo and Sant’ Angelo in Salute, about
three-quarters of a mile beyond the Fiumicino, but the tanks of 19 Armoured Regiment, of which B Squadron was to support 28 Battalion and C Squadron the 23rd, were delayed by mines and demolitions after crossing 6 Field Company’s bridge. The Brigadier therefore ordered both battalions to halt on the start line for the night and to bring up their supporting arms.35 Shelling and mortaring caused casualties among the waiting troops and hindered the sappers working on the bridge at the Fiumicino village, which they did not complete until late next morning (12 October).
By that time 5 Brigade had advanced against negligible opposition to the Rio Baldona, a small stream which ran diagonally across the front about a mile and a half from Gatteo on the left and through Sant’ Angelo on the right. The enemy blew up the bridge over the Baldona at Sant’ Angelo – but later replaced it with a footbridge. The Maoris, taking 11 prisoners on the way, reached the stream in little over an hour without loss to themselves; and a little later 23 Battalion, which had farther to go, also had men at the stream and in contact with the Royal Canadian Regiment on the left flank. The supporting tanks, coming up in rear, found that the ground still was not hard enough for movement off the roads.
At the Rio Baldona C Company of 28 Battalion, on the right flank, suffered casualties from shell and mortar fire. Lance-Corporal King36 courageously led his section in charges which destroyed two German strongpoints. Although part of D Company crossed the stream, the Maoris made no immediate attempt to go farther. On their left A and D Companies of 23 Battalion also crossed but were at once brought to a halt by shell and mortar fire.
The brigade nevertheless resumed the advance in the afternoon towards the Scolo Rigossa, a large drain which flowed between stopbanks eastwards past the small town of Gambettola before curving to the north-east. The enemy held the ground in front of this obstacle only with small isolated groups. The Maoris, who did not have far to go, took 16 prisoners at a cost of a dozen casualties and occupied several houses near the drain. D Company of 23 Battalion, which had much farther to go, worked its way along the road from Gatteo until less than half a mile from the bridge over the Rigossa at Gambettola. The tanks which followed on the road used a bridge the enemy had left intact over the Rio Baldona. A Company went across country north of the road until within
350–400 yards of the drain. During this advance 23 Battalion had half a dozen casualties and took 10 prisoners.
Fifth Brigade’s progress created a salient south-west of Sant’ Angelo, which the enemy still retained as a strong outpost for his front along the Scolo Rigossa. This hamlet commanded a network of roads to the north, south, east and west, and the positions of the Princess Louise Dragoon Guards which were protecting 5 Brigade’s right flank; it was also directly in front of the Royal Canadian Dragoons of Cumberland Force, on the other side of the Fiumicino River. The enemy had allotted this part of his line to two battalions of 20 German Air Force Division under the command of 26 Panzer Division; on their left were troops of 1 Parachute Division (whose front ran to the sea), and on their right a battalion of 26 Panzer.37 It was presumed that the enemy was holding Sant’ Angelo to protect 1 Parachute Division’s right flank for a further night, if possible, while the paratroops withdrew behind the Scolo Rigossa or the Pisciatello River.38 Brigadier Burrows ordered 28 Battalion to attack Sant’ Angelo.
A Company was given the task, with the support of a troop of tanks and with a platoon from B Company in reserve. The artillery began a half-hour programme of concentrations on the Sant’ Angelo area at 2.30 a.m. (13 October). As soon as the Maoris began their 500-yard advance, their commander (Captain Christy39) was wounded by shellfire, and as there was no other officer with the company at the time, Second-Lieutenant Ransfield,40 of the attached platoon from B Company, assumed command. The guns laid on another stonk to prevent the expected reinforcement of the Germans holding the hamlet.
The Maoris made a fresh start at 5 a.m. They came under machine-gun and mortar fire after going about 300 yards, but continued to a house by the road from Sant’ Angelo to the Fiumicino. The enemy concentrated mortar, bazooka and machine-gun fire on this house and around it. Realising that the position could not be held without strong support, Ransfield withdrew his men to the troop of tanks, which had been halted by a demolition on the Gatteo–Sant’ Angelo road.
Colonel Young informed Brigade Headquarters at 8 a.m. that
more than one company would be needed to capture Sant’ Angelo. The casualties, however, had not been heavy – one killed, seven wounded and two missing. Of the five German prisoners taken, two were from 20 GAF Division and three from 1 Parachute Division, which apparently had moved troops to Sant’ Angelo. The presence of paratroopers ‘provided an excellent reason for the savage resistance encountered there.’41
Meanwhile patrols from 23 Battalion made several unsuccessful attempts during the night to reach the bridge over the Scolo Rigossa at Gambettola with the object of holding it if it was still intact. Eventually the enemy blew the bridge when a patrol was about 200 yards from it. He held Gambettola with a battalion of 9 Panzer Grenadier Regiment, 26 Panzer Division, and had an outpost at Point 120, a road junction and railway crossing about 400 yards south of the town.
Early on the morning of 13 October Major-General Weir ordered 5 Brigade to ‘tidy up’ its front, which was two miles wide, and to bypass Sant’ Angelo when it resumed its advance, but to hold one company back to face up to the hamlet. Brigadier Burrows told his battalion commanders that the brigade might be required to attack across the Scolo Rigossa that night, and gave instructions for 28 Battalion to secure a line covering both Sant’ Angelo and the German positions beyond the Scolo Rigossa, the Princess Louise Dragoon Guards to protect the brigade’s right rear, 23 Battalion to get up to the Scolo Rigossa and reconnoitre for bridge sites, and 21 Battalion to be prepared to relieve both forward battalions if necessary.
B and C Companies of 23 Battalion relieved A and D, and C Company despatched 13 Platoon (Lieutenant Cox42) to the Rigossa. Before they reached Point 120, the leading men of this platoon were pinned down on open ground by machine-gun fire. All available weapons harassed Gambettola before 13 Platoon, now supported by two tanks, resumed the advance. One tank was knocked out on the road, the other bogged in soft ground, and the infantry retired under machine-gun fire to a large house about 150 yards from Point 120. The Germans shelled, mortared and machine-gunned the house, and came close to capturing it. When 13 Platoon withdrew at dusk, the action had cost two men killed and five wounded, as well as the temporary loss of the two tanks. A patrol from 14 Platoon was sent without support towards the Gambettola bridge site but was caught by machine-gun fire, with the result that the leader was killed and three of his men wounded and captured.
Two tanks, in hull-down positions with B Company, near the bank of the Scolo Rigossa farther downstream, used their Browning machine guns against Germans who could be seen in trenches and dugouts only 80–100 yards away. A tank gunner saw tracer bullets ricocheting from a haystack so fired incendiaries which set it alight, together with the vehicle concealed in it.
Appreciating that the situation was not favourable for pushing on to the Gambettola bridge site that night, Burrows told 23 Battalion not to go any further, and strengthened the front by bringing B Company of 21 Battalion into the line between 28 and 23 Battalions.
An improvement in the weather permitted fighter-bombers of the Desert Air Force to attack German tanks, guns and other targets. The ‘cab-rank’ aircraft, on call from ‘Rover Paddy’,43 were very effective. Apart from this air activity and exchange of fire by the artillery (despite stringent restrictions on the expenditure of ammunition), tanks, mortars and machine guns, however, there was little activity on 14 October, except south of the railway, where 1 Canadian Infantry Brigade captured the village of Bulgaria, about three-quarters of a mile west of Gambettola. This gave the Canadians a substantial bridgehead across the Scolo Rigossa, but the enemy was still up to the line of the Rigossa on 5 NZ Brigade’s front and the Fiumicino River on Cumberland Force’s front.
General Freyberg, who resumed command of the New Zealand Division from General Weir on 14 October,44 gave first consideration to the situation at Sant’ Angelo, which the enemy held as an outpost on 5 Brigade’s right flank. He told General Burns that the Division was prepared to take Sant’ Angelo with a battalion attack that night. Another battalion could then be brought up to get a crossing over the Rigossa west of the hamlet; the Rigossa could be bridged and the GOC could then decide whether to relieve the battalion in the bridgehead or to send 6 Brigade through.
Again the task of capturing Sant’ Angelo was given to the Maori Battalion, which was to employ two companies and was to have
more supporting fire. The Canadians assisted in the artillery programme, in which four field regiments and one medium regiment participated. The guns opened fire at 8 p.m. and a quarter of an hour later B and C Companies left their start line, south-west of Sant’ Angelo. They met no resistance except light shell, mortar and small-arms fire and took their objectives at a cost of one man killed and eight wounded.
The sappers began work as soon as they could on the opening of a route from Gatteo to Sant’ Angelo, where a party from 8 Field Company started to build a 60-foot bridge over the Rio Baldona. The bridge-building was interrupted by shelling, which wounded three men, but after daybreak six Spitfires silenced a self-propelled gun which probably had been the cause of the trouble. The bridge was completed shortly before midday.
The Maoris’ attack on Sant’ Angelo had coincided with a withdrawal forced upon the enemy by 5 Corps’ continued outflanking successes in the Apennine foothills south of Route 9. The enemy’s ability to hold the line of the Scolo Rigossa in the plain had depended on his retention of a ridge south of Cesena and east of the Savio River valley. By 14 October 5 Corps had captured the commanding heights on this ridge. The previous day Tenth Army had ordered 76 Panzer Corps to withdraw into reserve west of Cesena a regimental group of 90 Panzer Division, which was defending the sector astride the railway and Route 9 south of Gambettola, but the corps commander (General Herr) told General Vietinghoff on the 14th that the attacks on Route 9 (by 1 Canadian Infantry Brigade) had made this impossible without withdrawing the whole line. Vietinghoff then authorised a fighting withdrawal to the Pisciatello River. Although the units of 90 Panzer Grenadier Division and 26 Panzer Division began to retire from the Scolo Rigossa between Gambettola and Sant’ Angelo, no immediate withdrawal was made by the regiments of I Parachute Division whose front extended forward of the Rigossa to the Fiumicino River on the corps’ left flank.
An ‘intercept’ of a German radio message revealed that the enemy was pulling back to the line of the Pisciatello. Brigadier Burrows suggested to Colonel Thomas (23 Battalion) that he should test his part of the front with small patrols just before dawn on the 15th to ascertain whether or not the enemy was still there. The patrols found that he had gone. B Company established a platoon at a road junction on the northern edge of Gambettola, while a platoon from C Company entered the town from the south and took 15 prisoners.
The first opposition was met by B Company when its leading platoon was pinned down by machine-gun fire only a short way along the road to the north; but C Company men reached the railway west of the town without hindrance.
Burrows decided that it was time to replace 28 Battalion with the 21st and continue the advance to the Pisciatello with 21 and 23 Battalions. But first it was necessary to bridge the Rigossa and bring up the supporting arms. Because there was so much to do, sappers from 6, 7 and 8 Field Companies and 5 Field Park Company were employed on opening routes: they lifted mines, cleared demolitions and bridged the Scolo Rigossa; they installed a ‘scissors’ bridge45 at Gambettola in time for the tanks of C Squadron, 19 Regiment, to cross and join 23 Battalion before midday; they had to postpone the erection of a 70-foot Bailey bridge because of persistent shellfire, but built a drum culvert which vehicles could use alongside the scissors bridge and placed an Ark bridge about a mile downstream from Gambettola. West of Sant’ Angelo the tanks of A Squadron, 19 Regiment, forded the Rigossa.
B Company of 21 Battalion,46 which had gone into the line the previous day, was restored to its parent unit and, together with C Company, crossed the Rigossa in the afternoon of the 15th. The two companies formed up on the Via Staggi, a road running north-eastward from Gambettola, where they were joined by A Squadron’s tanks. They began to advance about 4.30 p.m. but had gained only a few hundred yards when they came under mortar and machine-gun fire from houses to their north. One tank was set on fire by a bazooka. It was decided that both 21 and 23 Battalions should go no farther that night.
From prisoners – 24 of whom were taken by the Division on the 15th – and other sources of information a picture was built up of the enemy’s defence on 5 Brigade’s front. His rearguards had fallen back to positions about half-way between the Rigossa and the Pisciatello, and as usual he had blown demolitions on the roads and tracks which passed over numerous streams and ditches. His tanks and self-propelled guns still south of the Pisciatello were shelled by the artillery and bombed by the Desert Air Force. With fine weather the fighter-bombers had a good day against these targets and houses occupied by the enemy.
Now that both 1 Canadian Infantry Division and 2 NZ Division had troops across the Scolo Rigossa, the Canadian Corps applied itself to the next stage of the advance, to the Pisciatello River. While 1 Canadian Brigade was to make all speed along Route 9, 5 NZ Brigade was directed to a stretch of the river between Macerone and Ponte della Pietra, north-west of Gambettola. Fifth Brigade was to advance with 21 Battalion on the right and 23 on the left, and with 22 (Motor) Battalion (from 4 Brigade) protecting the flank between the Rigossa and the Pisciatello. The Royal Canadian Dragoons (of Cumberland Force) relieved the Maoris at Sant’ Angelo.
Although the sappers were unable to construct a Bailey bridge at Gambettola until next day, the supporting arms were able to cross the Rigossa by way of the drum culvert and the Ark bridge. Fifth Brigade resumed the advance on the morning of the 16th. C Company of 21 Battalion entered the village of Bulgarno, three-quarters of a mile north of Gambettola, and the battalion then waited for further orders, as it had been instructed to do. A Company, 23 Battalion, headed along a road north-west of Gambettola until halted by mortar fire about a mile from the Pisciatello.
German troops in the vicinity of Ruffio and in the village itself, between A Company and the river, were bombarded by the artillery. One of the supporting tanks was immobilised by an anti-tank gun, but scored a direct hit on its assailant, and later the infantry captured the gun, its crew and tractor. Elsewhere B Company came upon 15 Germans who were ‘apparently just waiting to be collected’.47
On 5 Brigade’s right the Royal Canadian Dragoons and Wilderforce discovered on the morning of the 16th that the enemy had fallen back beyond the Rigossa on most of the front, but 1 Parachute Division still held firmly on the Fiumicino line opposite 3 Greek Mountain Brigade, nearer the coast. A 12-man patrol from A Squadron, Divisional Cavalry, was unexpectedly counter-attacked at the Rigossa by about 40 paratroopers, who drove them out of a house by knocking it down with bazookas. The patrol leader (Second-Lieutenant Purchase48) and his men held out in another house until the counter-attack was broken up by artillery and machine-gun fire. Six of the patrol were wounded, and two of the wounded captured. The Germans returned with a horse and cart, under a Red Cross flag, to collect their own casualties, who were thought to be more numerous.
The enemy was expected to hold the Pisciatello as a main line of resistance, with outposts in front of it. General Freyberg’s plan was to direct 5 Brigade on Macerone (a village on the far bank of the river north of Bulgarno) and on the crossing by Casone (farther upstream, north of Ruffio). If the enemy was not holding this line strongly, 5 Brigade was to secure a bridgehead over the river that night (16–17 October). Fourth Brigade was to bring 18 Armoured Regiment from the coast and, rejoined by 22 Battalion, was to give 5 Brigade right-flank protection east of Bulgarno – or was to exploit north if required. Sixth Brigade’s task would be to pass through 5 Brigade’s bridgehead over the Pisciatello.
The boundary with the Canadian division was to be adjusted to run approximately north from Bulgaria through Ruffio to the Pisciatello. The Canadians intended to push along Route 9 with 1 Infantry Brigade and to bring in 2 Infantry Brigade on the right to seize a frontage on the Pisciatello which included the crossing by Ponte della Pietra, formerly in the New Zealand sector.
Early in the afternoon of the 16th 21 Battalion set off northwards with the object of reaching the Scolo Fossalta, about half-way between Bulgarno and the Pisciatello. B and C Companies made fairly slow progress under shell and mortar fire, and when within range of the German outposts, about three-quarters of a mile from the Pisciatello, were held up for some time by small-arms and machine-gun fire. Towards evening C Company closed up to a lateral road just beyond the Fossalta, but B Company did not get quite so far. Infantry of 22 Battalion and tanks of A Squadron, 18 Regiment, were established at various points north of the Rigossa to protect 21 Battalion’s right flank.
The enemy seemed to be preparing to counter-attack down the road from Ruffio, but a ‘murder’ shoot by the artillery and fire from the tanks put an end to the aggressive intentions he may have had against A Company, 23 Battalion, which was on the Ruffio crossroads by nightfall. Meanwhile Colonel Thomas had decided to send D Company on an outflanking movement along roads west of the Bulgaria-Ruffio route. This took the company unintentionally into the Canadians’ sector – which was realised when the roads ahead were shelled by Canadian guns. The company removed itself to the Bulgaria-Ruffio road. During the day 21 and 23 Battalions took over 70 prisoners; their own casualties were two killed and 10 wounded.
General Freyberg told General Burns that 5 Brigade expected to be on the line of the Pisciatello River that night (16–17 October) and that 6 Brigade would cross the river next day. It was his
aim to establish a bridgehead with the infantry so that the armour could go through.
The New Zealanders, however, did not reach the Pisciatello that night, although 21 Battalion made some progress towards it. D Company, on the road leading north from Bulgarno, was brought to a halt by mortar and machine-gun fire from German outposts south of the river, but pushed on again when this fire diminished, and not long before dawn approached the Scolo Olca, a drain within half a mile of the river, where it again came under fire. Seven men sent to examine a house were surrounded by a more numerous enemy, who killed an NCO, mortally wounded another man and took the rest prisoners. A Company, on a secondary road farther west, reached the Scolo Olca and captured two Germans who were unaware of the New Zealanders’ approach. About 6.30 a.m. Brigadier Burrows told Colonel Thodey that 21 Battalion was not to attempt to go any farther at this stage. The two companies therefore consolidated, with the enemy still between them and the river. They had taken a dozen prisoners.
On 23 Battalion’s front patrols from A Company found that the enemy was very alert in the Ruffio area and despite an artillery ‘murder’ was still there in the early hours of the 17th. A patrol from D Company bypassed Ruffio without being detected and reached the Pisciatello about 50 yards from the crossing north of the village. The river appeared to be a major obstacle. This was confirmed by patrols from 2 Canadian Infantry Brigade, whose leading troops by morning were up to the Pisciatello between its junction with the Rio Matalardo (a tributary) and Ponte della Pietra, west of 5 Brigade’s sector.
General Burns told General Freyberg on the morning of 17 October that he and General McCreery were anxious to get a bridgehead over the Pisciatello as soon as possible because the fine weather was expected to break within 24 hours. Freyberg asked Burrows (5 Brigade) and Parkinson (6 Brigade) whether they could establish a bridgehead. They were both doubtful because the enemy was ‘still fighting back’,49 but the GOC urged Burrows to try to get across and to hand over to 6 Brigade on the other side. It was intended that 6 Brigade should establish a bridgehead for 4 Brigade to pass through and then consolidate the ground behind 4 Brigade’s advance.
Fourth Brigade’s objective was to be the line of the Rio Granarolo, a stream lying north of the Cesena-Cervia road and about half-way
between the Pisciatello and the Savio. The advance was to be made by 18 Armoured Regiment on the right and the 20th on the left; 22 (Motor) Battalion was to support the two regiments.
A Company of 23 Battalion occupied Ruffio on the morning of 17 October, after three tanks had raked the village with their Browning machine guns for some time. The bridge over the Scolo Olca, between Ruffio and the Pisciatello, although prepared for demolition was still intact, but the enemy reacted to an advance beyond Ruffio with shell, mortar and small-arms fire. Fifth Brigade reported to Divisional Headquarters that there was ‘a shooting war’ on its front. The tanks of 19 Regiment and the artillery engaged many targets – guns, mortars, machine guns and occupied houses – and the Desert Air Force also was very busy. Reconnaissance aircraft reported that all the bridges over the Pisciatello between Route 9 and the sea had been blown.
In the afternoon 1 Company of 22 Battalion approached to within a few hundred yards of the river on 5 Brigade’s right flank. Sergeant Palmer50 led a platoon assault on Casa Casalini, between the Scolo Fossalta and the Scolo Olca, with such dash that two machine guns were overrun and the rest of the enemy put to flight; five Germans were killed and four captured. Another platoon took possession of Casa Fossalta, farther to the east.
When rain began to fall at 2.30 p.m. prospects did not look too bright for continuing the advance with tanks. The road in 22 Battalion’s sector became almost impassable for tracked vehicles, and 4 Brigade began to fear a repetition of the bogging it had experienced during the stalemate on the Fiumicino River. Nevertheless, General Freyberg ordered the brigade to proceed with the planned advance, providing that 6 Brigade was able to establish a crossing over the Pisciatello. Already 18 Armoured Regiment had come forward to the Gambettola area; and the 20th moved in heavy rain from the coast to the vicinity of the Uso River.
Fifth Brigade ended its seven-day spell in the line in the late afternoon and evening of 17 October, when 24 and 25 Battalions took over from the 21st and 23rd; 26 Battalion was in reserve in the Bulgarno area; A Squadron of 19 Regiment supported 24 Battalion and B Squadron the 25th. It was decided that 6 Brigade should not attempt to establish the bridgehead over the Pisciatello that night, but should send out patrols to reconnoitre for crossing places.
After a patrol from A Company, 25 Battalion, had gone unopposed along the road from Ruffio to the demolished bridge near Casone, the whole of the company moved to the vicinity of the
river; and on the right D Company took up positions between the river and a lateral road east of Ruffio. A Company, 24 Battalion, waded the river at a crossing between Casone and Macerone without meeting the enemy, and established a platoon on the bank.
Farther west the enemy was more lively. B Company of the 24th twice attempted to patrol to a crossing place between Macerone and Bagnarola and was driven back each time by machine-gun and small-arms fire. The foremost troops of 22 Battalion (1 Company), on the Division’s right flank, were exposed to fire from Sala and Castellaccio, villages to the east and south-east where Cumberland Force had not drawn level. The battalion was warned that attacks could be expected on 1 Company’s positions, which were strengthened by a platoon from 3 Company.
The first attack came against the Royal Canadian Dragoons, farther south, who were forced back some distance, but were reinforced and regained their position. After a heavy bombardment about 50 paratroops attacked 1 Company’s position at Casa Fossalta, held by two infantry sections under Second-Lieutenant Bassett.51 Using bazookas, grenades and automatic weapons, the Germans tried for four hours to break the defence. They retired at dawn but returned soon afterwards and were surprised and dispersed by tanks (from A Squadron, 18 Regiment) coming from the west and by infantry from the south. At least eight Germans were killed, many wounded, and six captured from 1 Parachute Division. The New Zealand casualties were seven wounded.
Wilderforce, the New Zealand component of Cumberland Force, sent out patrols between the Scolo Rigossa and Pisciatello River at dawn on the 18th. A patrol from 33 Anti-Tank Battery entered Castellaccio and killed four Germans, but withdrew (with one man wounded) because the village was strongly held and ammunition was running low.
The enemy still held the coastal strip at the Fiumicino River, where the belt of wire, mines, concrete ‘dragon’s teeth’ and pillboxes, originally designed to repel a seaborne attack, gave him strong defence against 3 Greek Mountain Brigade. The Greeks ended their campaigning in Italy on 18 October, when their relief in this sector was completed. Accompanied by the New Zealander (Aked) who had served them well as liaison officer, they returned to their homeland, from which the Germans already had begun to withdraw. At the same time as the Greeks departed, Wilderforce returned to the New Zealand Division from Cumberland Force, which was left with three dismounted armoured units in an infantry
role – the Governor General’s Horse Guards (Canadian) on the right, 27 Lancers (British) in the centre and the Royal Canadian Dragoons on the left – supported by the road-bound tanks of the British Columbia Dragoons.
III: From the Pisciatello to the Savio
Field Marshal Kesselring and General Vietinghoff agreed on 16 October that the loss of the areas east of the Savio River (which flows northwards through Cesena) would be ‘unpleasant but not tragic’.52 Next day, for reasons which included the possibility of an Allied breakthrough to Bologna or to Route 9 south-east of the city, the necessity of thinning out on the coastal flank to strengthen the central front, and the Canadian advance along the axis of Route 9 towards Cesena, 76 Panzer Corps proposed a withdrawal in a north-westerly direction to avoid possible encirclement, but Army Group Headquarters – under strict orders from the German High Command not to yield ground in any sector – refused consent and demanded that Cesena be held. This meant that in order to hold ground in an unimportant sector the whole Army Group was being placed in jeopardy. Commanders and chiefs of staff harped on this point in telephone conversations53 on 18 October. Vietinghoff insisted that the sector east of the Savio should be given up and finally Kesselring, being of the same opinion, on his own responsibility authorised a fighting withdrawal.
This coincided with the Canadian Corps’ planned advance to the Savio. General Burns’s immediate intentions were to establish crossings over the Pisciatello on the New Zealand and Canadian divisions’ fronts and to push on with both divisions and capture crossings over the Savio. The Canadian Division was to extend its bridgehead over the Savio to link up on the left with 5 Corps and co-operate with it in clearing Cesena. Cumberland Force was to protect the right flank of the New Zealand Division.
While 6 NZ Infantry Brigade patrolled to the Pisciatello on the night of 17–18 October, 2 Canadian Infantry Brigade, on the left, succeeded in gaining a small bridgehead over the river by the railway crossing, and 1 Canadian Infantry Brigade gained another over the Donegaglia, a tributary south of Route 9. In the afternoon of the 18th the Canadians enlarged their lodgement north of the railway and cleared Ponte della Pietra.
The bombardment for the New Zealand attack, which began at eleven o’clock that night, was ‘quite impressive’.54 A creeping barrage by the three New Zealand and two Canadian field regiments lifted 100 yards every five minutes for nearly two hours; anti-aircraft guns fired tracer along both flanks and on a centre line to guide the
infantry; British and Canadian medium guns and New Zealand heavy mortars performed counter-battery and counter-mortar tasks, and the machine guns gave harassing fire. Although the enemy had begun to retire, this was not entirely a waste of ammunition: the bombardment caught 26 Panzer Regiment while withdrawing ‘and casualties were very heavy.’55
The New Zealanders, 24 Battalion on the right and 25 on the left, met practically no opposition – thanks to the artillery having ‘done the usual good job.’56 B and A Companies of 24 Battalion crossed the Pisciatello with little difficulty and worked their way forward to a lateral road half a mile or so beyond it. D Company, following B on the right flank, cleared Macerone, from which most of the enemy had gone. D and A Companies of 25 Battalion, and B following A to protect the left flank, crossed the river near Casone. Soon after 2 a.m. both battalions were on the objective; they had taken about 50 prisoners, and their own casualties, mostly caused by mines or shellfire, totalled 44. The engineers went to work as quickly as they could bridging the Pisciatello so that the tanks and other support weapons could go into the bridgehead. A Valentine tank installed a scissors bridge at 24 Battalion’s crossing, which A Squadron of 19 Regiment (which was to support 24 Battalion) and 18 Regiment intended to use, but the first tank to cross damaged the bridge so that no other could follow. Another bridge-layer was called up, but the sappers considered that the banks were too soft for it, and therefore began to build a 40-foot Bailey. Until this could be used, all traffic was diverted to an Ark bridge which had been placed at 25 Battalion’s crossing near Casone. B Squadron of 19 Regiment crossed the Ark to join 25 Battalion before daybreak and A Squadron’s tanks followed to get to 24 Battalion. By 7.20 a.m. 20 Regiment also was across, ready for 4 Brigade’s advance. Rain, which had begun at 4 a.m., softened the roads, which were churned up by the heavy vehicles. Although delayed by the traffic ahead, 18 Regiment completed the crossing by 9.40 a.m. The enemy had not interfered with the passage of troops and vehicles into the bridgehead; he did not shell the bridges.
Because a crossing place a little farther downstream, between Macerone and Bagnarola, had a much better approach road than those already in use, Brigadier Parkinson ordered 26 Battalion to capture Bagnarola so that a bridge could be put there. The village was found to be completely free of the enemy. Before midday 7 Field Company had a 70-foot Bailey bridge ready for traffic
next to the Ark at Casone, and late in the afternoon 6 Field Company completed a 110-foot Bailey at the Bagnarola crossing.
When both 18 and 20 Regiments had formed up in 6 Brigade’s bridgehead over the Pisciatello on the morning of 19 October, 4 Brigade was ready to launch its armoured drive to the Savio River. This was to be ‘a swift advance at tank speed’ over a course of about four and a half miles, a more ambitious undertaking than any previously attempted. In the past the Division had advanced with infantry supported by artillery and armour, but this time the tanks were to be in front and the infantry’s function was to protect them against the assaults of enemy infantry. ‘Indeed, for the first time the 4th Armoured Brigade was operating as a brigade, instead of having its regiments placed under infantry brigades in support of infantry advances. Now each regiment was itself supported by a company of the 22nd Battalion. ...’57
At 9.50 a.m. Brigadier Pleasants ‘gave the order that the whole Brigade had been waiting for throughout the Italian Campaign: the order for the two Regiments and the Motorised Battalion to attack.’58
The first objective was a section of the Cesena–Cervia road in the Osteriaccia–Calabrina area and part of the secondary road running east from the Calabrina crossroads. This was actually part of the enemy’s ‘Doris’ defence line, to which 26 Panzer Division and 1 Parachute Division had retired during the night. In flat farmland criss-crossed with narrow lanes, the more substantial Cesena-Cervia road could be seen from some distance, lined with tall trees and with small clusters of houses at its many crossroads.
The two armoured regiments, the 18th on the right and the 20th on the left,59 set off in a northerly direction and made satisfactory progress until they came within range of well-sited guns, mortars and machine guns in the Doris Line and were impeded by the drains and deep ditches which bordered the lanes running across their line of advance. A gun firing armour-piercing shell from near the crossroads east of Osteriaccia hit and set on fire a Sherman and a Honey reconnaissance tank in 20 Regiment. Other tanks which were stranded in ditches or bogged were hauled out by Sherman bulldozers, or assisted by the engineers or the regiment’s recovery
team. The tanks tried to subdue the strongpoints at Calabrina, where they got close enough to shoot up machine-gun and sniper posts in some of the houses, and at Osteriaccia, from which they were forced back by gun and mortar fire. Two more Shermans were knocked out by gunfire.
While advancing towards the Cesena–Cervia road, 18 Regiment shot up machine-gun and bazooka posts in ditches and farmyards, but in the increasingly soft fields the tanks ‘bellied in the mud. ... some of them were running out of ammunition at awkward moments. ... Some troop commanders were asking for infantry to come up and help dislodge the paratroopers, but this could not be arranged at a moment’s notice.’60 A self-propelled gun – or perhaps more than one – firing from buildings at a crossroads caught all three tanks of a B Squadron troop in the open and set them on fire, and paratroopers with bazookas set alight a tank stuck in the mud. Two of three self-propelled guns – probably those which had ambushed the three tanks – were knocked out while hastily trying to get away.
While 4 Brigade was still making promising progress in the morning, orders were given to reconnoitre crossings over the Rio Granarolo with the intention of continuing the advance to San Giorgio.61 Sixth Brigade, which had been assigned the task of taking over the ground and mopping up in rear of the armour, was to establish all-round defensive positions at Osteriaccia and Calabrina, and 5 Brigade was to move into the area vacated by the 6th. The enemy’s retention of the Osteriaccia–Calabrina area, however, prevented the Division from piercing the Doris Line that day.
B and C Companies of 25 Battalion, each supported by a troop of B Squadron, 19 Regiment, and anti-tank guns, were directed to Osteriaccia, and the battalion’s other two companies and supporting arms went to the south-east of the village. B Company, leading off early in the afternoon, met solid resistance from 26 Panzer Division’s troops in and near Osteriaccia, and although the tanks drove the German outposts back into the village, the infantry, whose casualties included all the NCOs in one platoon, could go no farther because of the accurate shellfire. C Company was also brought to a halt. Brigade Headquarters ordered the battalion to stay where it was – still east of the Cesena-Cervia road – and to dig in.
The 24th Battalion’s advance towards Calabrina stopped because the accompanying tanks of A Squadron, 19 Regiment, were attracting
heavy concentrations of shellfire. Sixth Brigade formed a firm base on the line of an east-west road, with 26 Battalion on the right, 24 in the centre and 25 on the left; north of this line the tanks of 18 and 20 Regiments, withdrawing slightly, harboured for the night with their protecting infantry of 22 Battalion. In the rear 21 and 23 Battalions had crossed the Pisciatello; the Maori Battalion was still on the other side of the river.
The Division’s neighbours on the left had met negligible opposition. The Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (of 2 Canadian Infantry Brigade), after crossing a newly completed bridge over the Pisciatello at Ponte della Pietra, headed towards the Cesena–Cervia road, while battalions of 3 Brigade made their way along the railway and Route 9 towards Cesena. By evening the Germans had withdrawn from the town, which Canadian patrols entered unopposed from the east and troops of 46 British Division (of 5 Corps) from the south. On the New Zealand Division’s other flank Cumberland Force took advantage of the enemy’s retirement from the Rigossa-Fiumicino region by pushing through the mud to the Pisciatello. On the coast, however, the enemy was still holding out close to the Fiumicino River, but his retreat inland would compel him to evacuate this narrow, strongly fortified strip of land.
During the night of 19–20 October, when 76 Panzer Corps withdrew to the Savio River, the enemy covered his departure from his Osteriaccia-Calabrina positions with heavy shell and mortar fire and with demolitions – 13 of which were heard exploding. At dawn patrols from 22 Battalion, sent out to test the ground ahead of 18 and 20 Armoured Regiments, reported no sign of the enemy. The two regiments thereupon resumed their advance.
At this time General Freyberg felt that the Division’s front was becoming ‘rather a salient with its attendant disadvantages.’62 He therefore ordered Brigadier Parkinson to try to link 6 Brigade with the Canadians on the left, and instructed Divisional Cavalry to go through on the right. Fourth Brigade was to direct its thrust towards the river through San Giorgio.
The two armoured regiments made very slow progress because of the demolitions – ‘Jerry had made a horrible mess of the roads, with mines and huge craters’63 – and the swampy ground from which many tanks had to be extricated. Again the Sherman-dozers and the engineers were kept very busy. It took most of the morning to go only a mile to the Rio Granarolo. This narrow stream, with steep,
slippery floodbanks, and with every bridge blown, was impassable until Valentine bridge-layers provided crossings for both regiments.
Much was happening elsewhere on the front. In Cumberland Force’s sector the Governor General’s Horse Guards crossed the Fiumicino River on the coast and found the seaside town of Cesenatico clear of the enemy; farther inland 27 Lancers and the Royal Canadian Dragoons, having crossed the Pisciatello, were making their way towards the Cesena-Cervia road, which the Dragoons passed later in the day. On the New Zealanders’ other flank the Canadians were just short of the Savio River, the far bank of which was held by the enemy in strength. South of the Canadian Corps the two divisions of 5 Corps, 4 British Infantry Division (which had replaced the 46th) and 10 Indian Division, had troops across the Savio.
After crossing the Rio Granarolo the New Zealand armour swung west towards the Savio, A Squadron of 18 Regiment going along a road west of San Giorgio, and A Squadron of the 20th along a track between these two roads, each squadron followed by infantry of 22 Battalion. As they approached a north-south road parallel with the river, they came under fire from German rearguards. They enjoyed ‘some good shooting’ and took 20 prisoners, but most of the enemy ‘just melted away’.64 This ended the day’s advance, achieved without the loss of a single tank.
When they harboured for the night the tanks were disposed over a wide area, in which 22 Battalion could provide only light protection for each group. In compliance with the GOC’s orders, Divisional Cavalry had set out on the right flank to get contact with the enemy between 4 Brigade and Cumberland Force. This had brought into use the regiment’s Staghound armoured cars, without which it had served as infantry with Cumberland Force. The Divisional Cavalry men had shared the delusion that the country in which the Division was fighting would be ideal for the use of their vehicles. ‘How different proved the reality. We hacked down trees to fill ditches. Axle deep we just got up the very slight inclines beyond, and ahead was another ditch to cross. ... The lanes were very muddy, and with a wheel touching a ditch on either side it was a strenuous day.’65 Near where the tanks had swung west towards the Savio, C Squadron had cars at two crossroads, at both of which were large demolitions, and at the more northerly of these they had a brush with the enemy. The armoured cars could go no farther on this flank, but Brigadier Pleasants told the GOC that 4 Brigade would be able to look after itself.
On the other flank, where there was a gap of about one and a half miles between 20 Regiment and the nearest Canadian troops (the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry), 26 Battalion, with C Squadron of 19 Regiment in support, advanced without opposition other than light shell and mortar fire until its leading companies (C and A) were close to the river.
Towards evening two companies of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry attacked across the river about a mile north of Cesena, in an attempt to gain a footing from which other Canadians were to advance and cut the road running north from Cesena to Ravenna. The enemy, in unexpected strength, ‘greeted the Patricias with a hail of mortar bombs and machine-gun bullets.’66 Only one and a half platoons of one company reached the opposite bank, and these withdrew after dark. Seventeen men of the other company got across and, joined by a dozen stragglers during the night, clung to a narrow strip on the far bank all next day.
By this time General McCreery had decided to take the New Zealand Division into Eighth Army reserve and to put 5 Canadian Armoured Division in its place. The Canadian Corps had intended that both 1 Canadian Infantry Division and 2 NZ Division should establish crossings over the Savio. The Canadians had gained a small lodgement on the far side, but so far the New Zealanders had not been instructed to secure a bridgehead in their sector; on the night of 20–21 October they were committed only to patrolling to the river.
The Division’s right flank was vulnerable. Brigadier Pleasants told General Freyberg that there definitely were enemy troops to the north of 18 Regiment that night, and the GOC instructed him to square up to them in the morning and drive them back. Freyberg advised General Burns that he was going to advance to the area opposite Mensa (about six miles north of Cesena) and added that the going was very bad: the dotted red roads on the map were ‘just mud tracks. Rain for two hours would stop further progress.’67 Burns said 1 Canadian Infantry Division was going to make a further bridgehead attack over the Savio that night (21–22 October) and asked the New Zealand Division to create the impression that it was also attacking.
The GOC conferred with his brigade commanders and gave orders for the actions they were to take. Fourth Brigade, using 18 Regiment,
was to turn north and clear the ground east of the Savio to a road opposite Mensa; 6 Brigade was to broaden its front from one to three battalions and take over most of 4 Brigade’s sector; the Division was to support the Canadian attack with all its guns and create a diversion by shooting on its own front – four and a half miles long – with all available tanks, mortars and machine guns. The Division’s relief by 5 Canadian Armoured Division and departure for the Fabriano–Camerino area, in the Apennines south-west of the port of Ancona, was to begin next day (the 22nd).
Fourth Brigade’s northward advance was begun about mid-morning on 21 October by C Squadron, 18 Regiment, supported by a platoon from 22 Battalion, and with Staghounds from B and C Squadrons of Divisional Cavalry on the right flank. Although the engineers accompanied both tanks and armoured cars, the heavily cratered tracks and soft ground still made progress slow. When about half the distance had been covered, the tanks joined battle with German rearguards equipped with bazookas, spandaus and small arms. The opposition was stronger and more numerous than had been expected, and although Lieutenant-Colonel Ferguson68 sent his other two squadrons to assist, the tanks could not go much farther. The armoured cars came under fire from the village of Pisignano (east of Mensa), which 27 Lancers of Cumberland Force reported was still held in strength by the enemy.
In its advance that day 18 Regiment was substantially helped by the air observation post, which gave early warning of German dispositions and demolitions, and by the fighter-bombers, which scored hits on gun positions and movement – including that of horse-drawn guns. On one occasion ‘the Kitty Bombers laid their eggs only 300 yds from A Sqn. Close support?’69
Sixth Brigade took over ground cleared by 18 Regiment as well as that already occupied by the 20th, and assumed command of a sector facing the Savio with 25 Battalion on the right (next to the 22nd), the 24th in the centre and the 26th on the left. The three New Zealand field regiments went into positions where they could shoot on call and were issued with ammunition in anticipation of the assistance they were to give the Canadian attack across the river.
Late in the afternoon it began to rain and the Savio rose rapidly; at one place the water gap expanded from 45 to 300 feet. Across
the river the little group of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry still clung to its precarious foothold at the edge of the water, although low in ammunition and food and under accurate mortar and artillery fire. Farther upstream 4 British Division strengthened its bridgehead on the southern edge of Cesena. On the other flank Cumberland Force made further progress towards the Savio and the coastal town of Cervia, which was found free of the enemy next day.
An impressive bombardment, in which the New Zealand artillery and tanks fired in simulated support of an assault in their own sector, began at 8 p.m. on 21 October. At first there was an increase in hostile fire on the New Zealand front, but this died away as the Canadians developed their attack. Seventy-one tanks of 18 and 20 Regiments fired about 9000 rounds in a barrage which lasted 75 minutes; 4, 5 and 6 Field Regiments were engaged on their tasks until the early hours of the 22nd and altogether fired more than 13,000 rounds of high explosive. The leading troops of 2 Canadian Infantry Brigade were on the far bank of the Savio within an hour of the start of the attack, and despite the strength of the German resistance the reserves of the two assaulting battalions crossed shortly after midnight. When repelling a counter-attack a company of the Seaforth Highlanders, without supporting tanks and anti-tank guns, knocked out two Panther tanks, a half-tracked vehicle, a scout car and two self-propelled guns, and captured intact a Panther which had bogged down in a ditch – an action which won one Canadian the VC and another the DCM.
By mid-morning the Canadians had a bridgehead a mile wide and nearly a mile deep at one point, but the river in spate made bridging impossible, and there was no hope of getting tanks and supporting arms across that day. It was a temporary stalemate, but many enemy had been killed or wounded by the artillery fire, and the Canadians’ success was causing the German commanders much uneasiness.
During the night of the attack the main New Zealand activity was providing diversionary fire, but in addition 22 Battalion sent out patrols in the northern part of the Division’s sector. One of these patrols, a platoon from 1 Company under Sergeant G. H. Palmer, occupied a house in the vicinity of the hamlet of La Rosetta, arriving there just ahead of about 20 men of 4 Parachute Regiment, who made several determined but unsuccessful and costly attempts to drive out the New Zealanders. On the morning of 22 October La Rosetta, Pisignano and other villages in the neighbourhood were clear of the enemy, who appeared to have gone from both sides of the Savio near Mensa.
Thus the New Zealand Division completed the tasks it had been set in this stage of the campaign. The withdrawal of the Division – except the field regiments of the artillery – began the same day, when 11 Infantry Brigade of 5 Canadian Armoured Division began the relief of the New Zealand units on the Savio River line. Next day (the 23rd) the Division relinquished command of the sector. Its departure – into army reserve, which initiated a programme of resting and regrouping the formations of Eighth Army – ended an association of seven weeks with 1 Canadian Corps.
During this, its second spell on the Adriatic front, the Division suffered 1108 casualties, nearly as many as the number incurred during the Arezzo and Florence battles in July and August. These casualties included 228 killed, 857 wounded and 23 captured. Moreover, in September and October 1944 there were 1079 cases of infective hepatitis or jaundice, a total nearly as high as that for September and October 1942 – before and during the battle of Alamein – when there were 1137 cases of this disease among the New Zealanders in the Western Desert.
In the month of disillusionment, wastage and fatigue which had followed the crossing of the Marecchia River, the Division had penetrated less than 20 miles in the south-east corner of the great plains of the Po valley.
IV: The Division in Reserve
The BBC broadcast on 22 October that the ‘New Zealanders on the coastal sector made rapid advances over the salt pans and flooded country, using all kinds of transport; the commander of one detachment even urging his men on from a punt.’70 Shortly after hearing this astonishing announcement Divisional Headquarters asked 4 Brigade for a report ‘on the quantity of salt to be obtained from the pans we had been in and also a return of all punts, pumps and waterwings held on WE [war establishment].’71
The New Zealand Division’s departure from the Savio River front began the same day. The troops of 4 and 6 Brigades in the line were relieved by 11 Infantry Brigade of 5 Canadian Armoured Division, and the command of the sector passed to the Canadians on the morning of the 23rd. The New Zealanders went back to billets in the Fabriano–Matelica–Camerino region, in the Apennines south-west of the coastal town of Ancona. On the way they passed notices
erected by the Canadians to bid them a generous farewell: ‘Cheerio, Kiwis all – Nice having worked with you.’
The Division’s withdrawal into Eighth Army reserve was completed on 26 October with the arrival of the three field regiments, which fired a programme in support of an attack by 4 British Division before they came out of action.
General Freyberg had advised the Prime Minister in June 1944 that if necessary the Division ‘could carry on and add fresh honours to its record. ... [but] the inevitable effect of fierce fighting over a long period, on even the best troops in the world, is becoming apparent. There is no doubt in my mind that the high-water mark of our battle-worthiness was reached at Sidi Rezegh and Belhamed in November 1941. In that campaign, and in the other costly Western Desert battles which followed, many of our best men became casualties, and gradually the keen fighting edge of the Force was blunted. For a period the gradual reduction in offensive spirit was offset by the increased efficiency of the divisional machine and the ever-increasing battle experience of our commanders. Time has gone on. Another long campaign in Italy has followed. I know the great stress of battle which large numbers of men have been through, and we cannot disregard its effects, especially on battle-weary leaders. Signs are not lacking now that many of the old hands require a prolonged rest. I feel, therefore, that if there is to be heavy fighting throughout 1945 a replacement scheme would be required for all long-service personnel. Such a change-over would not be easy, but I feel it would be essential in the interests of the efficiency of the Force. That being so, and taking into consideration your manpower difficulties and probable future commitments in the war against Japan, I have come to the conclusion that the time may well be opportune for the complete withdrawal of the 2nd NZEF.’72
By September, however, the Government had decided ‘that New Zealand land forces... can be of the greatest use in Italy, and that the 2nd Division should remain overseas until the conclusion of the Italian campaign, after which its future role will again be examined.’73 Men from 3 NZ Division who had served in the Pacific were to be available for posting to the Division in Italy, where a scheme was to be introduced for the replacement of those who had been overseas three years or longer by those who had not yet had an opportunity to serve or who had had only a short period
of service overseas. This decision meant that 2 NZ Division was to be the only original division of the British Eighth Army still with it at the end of the war in Europe.
The Division’s immediate task upon arrival in the rest area in October was reorganisation to reduce some of its defensive equipment and administrative units, and at the same time to increase its infantry strength. The changes proposed would enable the long-service men to be replaced earlier than would have been possible otherwise, and would result in fewer reinforcements being required from New Zealand. In a cablegram to the Minister of Defence (Mr F. Jones) on the 22nd the GOC said ‘our organisation was designed for desert conditions, for which it was ideally suited. It was hoped that the Division would be used in a mobile role in Italy, but as you know this has never been possible. Instead we have been used as an infantry division, and as such all the fighting has been done by two instead of three infantry brigades. At present there is a shortage of infantry ... while at the same time there seems to be more armour than can be employed...’74
A short-term policy of reorganisation was adopted in anticipation of operations with Eighth Army in the winter: this included increasing the strength of the two infantry brigades from three to four battalions each by adding Divisional Cavalry (converted to infantry) to 6 Brigade and 22 (Motor) Battalion (reverting to a normal infantry battalion) to 5 Brigade, the disbandment of 14 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment and a few Army Service Corps units, and changes in the composition of 7 Anti-Tank Regiment, 36 Survey Battery and several other units. If the war were to continue into 1945, further reorganisation was to be considered.
To mark the close of the anti-aircraft regiment’s career a passing-out ceremony was held on 26 October for the GOC, who noted in his diary that he had never seen a finer parade. The unit’s war diary ended with the claim that in the two and a half years since its formation the regiment had destroyed 671/2 enemy aircraft, one tank, one naval craft, and an unknown number of vehicles. Now that the Allies had full protection from the air, the Division no longer needed its own anti-aircraft guns. More than 150 bombardiers and gunners from the regiment were selected by ballot to join the new Divisional Cavalry Battalion.
When the men of the Divisional Cavalry were told of their fate, they ‘were bitterly disappointed and for a few days their behaviour
reflected this. ... They sold personal gear, looted gear, army gear, anything – before the Staghounds were taken away for good to the Ordnance depot at Senigallia. ... and most of them got very, very drunk. ... But good food, clean clothes, dry billets and rest soon prevailed over these few days’ depression and in next to no time everybody had settled down again, determined to become riflemen as good as any. ...’75 The Staghound armoured cars, issued to the regiment when the fighting in North Africa had ended, would have been excellent in the Desert, but were unsuitable for Italian conditions; they were a hindrance on the narrow and poor roads.
The new battalion retained the old cavalry regimental designations (such as squadron instead of company) and the men their title of ‘trooper’ and their distinguishing head-dress and shoulder flash. They and the former anti-aircraft gunners trained under the supervision of instructors from 6 Brigade – ‘dour old warriors’ – in the usual infantry drill, route marches and patrolling, in the use of the No. 38 wireless set, 2-inch and 3-inch mortars, Bren, Piat and tommy guns; they held exercises in the forming of a bridgehead, in attacking houses and in other manoeuvres.
The decision to reorganise 22 (Motor) Battalion as a normal infantry unit was received ‘with great regret, but there was no alternative.’76 The difficult terrain of Italy had hampered the use of the motorised battalion in its proper role of working with the armour, and only one real breakthrough – beyond the Pisciatello River – had been achieved in this role. The 22nd had left New Zealand with the Second Echelon in May 1940 as a battalion of 5 Infantry Brigade; it had joined 4 Armoured Brigade in November 1942 and had been redesignated 22 (Motor) Battalion; after reverting to a normal infantry battalion it returned from 4 Brigade to the 5th in November 1944.
At the time of the reorganisation 7 Anti-Tank Regiment consisted of one battery of two troops of M10s and two troops of six-pounder guns, three batteries each of one 17-pounder troop and two six-pounder troops, and one battery of four troops each with four 4.2-inch mortars. Now 34 Anti-Tank Battery, which had been formed by New Zealanders in England at the outbreak of the war, was disbanded (one of its troops went to Divisional Cavalry Battalion as its anti-tank platoon), but its designation was preserved by changing the heavy mortar battery’s title from the 39th to the 34th. All six-pounders were withdrawn and the regiment then comprised three batteries, each of a troop of four M10s and a troop of four 17-pounders, a battery of four troops each of four 4.2-inch mortars,
and a survey troop (to which 36 Survey Battery had been reduced).
Drastic changes were made in the NZASC organisation: 6 Reserve Mechanical Transport Company, 18 Tank Transporter Company and 1 Water Issue Section were disbanded; 1 Petrol Company and 1 Ammunition Company were both reduced from four to three platoons. In the medical corps the second company was eliminated from each of the three field ambulance units; an enlarged headquarters was to be available as a main dressing station when required, and one company was to be attached permanently to a brigade as an advanced dressing station. In addition the Divisional Protective Troop was disbanded.
The news that the furlough scheme was to give way to the replacement scheme was very well received, as might be expected. Among those who were to be replaced were other ranks of the first three echelons who had rejoined 2 NZEF after furlough in New Zealand, other ranks of the 5th Reinforcements, other ranks who had come to the Middle East after service in Fiji, and a proportion of the officers and NCOs of these categories who could be spared. As further replacements arrived from New Zealand, the scheme was to be continued in stages which would include men who had joined 2 NZEF after the 5th Reinforcements. Selected officers and NCOs were to retain the ranks they had held in 3 NZ Division, but this was not to prejudice the rights of officers and NCOs of 2 NZ Division or promotion from the ranks.
The intention was to relieve 600 officers and 9300 other ranks in three drafts. General Freyberg was perplexed about the number and class of officers to be replaced: the entire top and middle strata of officers of 2 NZEF were within the categories entitled to go. His definition of the principle governing the changeover of officers was that ‘at all times we must have serving with fighting units and sub-units, i.e., battalions, regiments, companies, batteries, & c., commanders and seconds-in-command capable of laying on any class of battle, and no officers will go until their reliefs are considered fully competent to take over.’77
The region to which the Division had withdrawn was ‘among quiet, unscarred villages in the heart of the Apennines. ... There had been no pitched battles there, for the main highways through
which the fighting had flowed months before gave them a wide berth. They were typical backwater “sleepy hollows”. ... Yet these places will be remembered with undiluted affection. ...’78 The Italian peasants and townsmen were hospitable and friendly as soon as their initial doubts about the New Zealanders’ intentions were dispelled. ‘We all had good billets and there were few who did not know of a fireplace where they were welcome to foregather, drink the various wines of the district, and have even an incentive to learn the language. ...’79 The New Zealanders appreciated this kindness and shared with the Italians their cigarettes, chocolate and foodstuffs.
The three battalions of 6 Brigade were allotted quarters in large unfinished barracks erected by the Italians about a mile from Castelraimondo to house Allied prisoners of war, and which at first made a most unfavourable impression, but the men quickly set to work to make the hutments weatherproof and habitable and in about a week ‘wrought great changes in the appearance of the camp.’80
The New Zealanders spent about a month in the Apennines. The usual daily routine was training in the morning (except on Sundays) and organised sport in the afternoon. The training, sensibly based on the possibility of holding a long front in winter, included exercises at night, route marches – according to one infantry company, ‘a pleasure amidst the picturesque countryside’81 – precision drill, lectures, instruction in the use of flame-throwing equipment, the lifting and laying of mines and booby traps, and practice in house and village fighting.
Fourth Brigade received instruction from members of the Royal Armoured Corps on some recently acquired Sherman tanks equipped with 17-pounder guns, and did shoots with this weapon as well as with the normal 75-millimetre gun; its programme also included courses in wireless, driving and maintenance, route marches and lectures. The engineers did much road maintenance work, demonstrated and trained with Bailey bridging, and instructed the infantry in the building of strongpoints.
The first snowfall of the winter carpeted the countryside on the night of 9–10 November. Despite rain, frost and snow, however, Rugby football was organised ‘on a grand scale that had not previously been possible since the desert days. ... and from playing areas of varying sizes and muddiness ... have emerged winning teams in battalion and regimental competitions to play off for the
Freyberg Cup. ...’82 But it was not possible to complete the competition for the cup before the Division returned to the front. Divisional amateur boxing championships were held and softball, basketball and Association football played. The Kiwi Concert Party and Canadian, British and Italian parties entertained, and the troops also organised their own dances and concerts.
Leave parties went to Rome, but other ranks still were not permitted to stay overnight – they could visit the city by day from the Eighth Army rest camp seven miles distant and from the Division’s own rest camp at Civita Castellana, which accommodated 400 men. Both officers and other ranks were able to spend six days in Florence, where they stayed at the New Zealand Forces Club in one of the hotels. The New Zealand YMCA operated a leave centre at Riccione, on the Adriatic coast, and 6 Brigade had its own rest camp in a disused wing of the university at Perugia.
The return to the line came all too soon; it was with real regret that the New Zealanders left the towns and villages where they had been billeted, and the Italians were sorry to see them go. Women and children were weeping when the truckloads of men departed.