Chapter 7: The Drive to the Senio
I: From the Savio to the Lamone
DURING the absence of the New Zealand Division, Eighth Army continued its advance beyond the Savio River to the Ronco, which crosses Route 9 about two miles short of the town of Forli and flows northward across the Romagna plain alongside Route 67 to join the Montone River a mile or two from the city of Ravenna, near the coast. The army crossed the Ronco on 31 October, but because of bad weather did not enter Forli until seven days later. In the week of fine weather which ensued the enemy was driven back to the line of the Montone River, north of Route 9, and to the Rio Cosina, its tributary south of the highway. This advance permitted Eighth Army at last to open Route 67 (the Florence–Forli–Ravenna highway), which gave better lateral communication with Fifth Army.
By 16 November 5 Corps (Lieutenant-General C. F. Keightley) was brought to a halt. Reconnaissance north of Route 9 showed that the high stopbanks between which the Montone flowed, the very muddy approaches and the enemy’s preparations for defence combined to form an obstacle which could be overcome only by a set-piece attack. South of Route 9 the enemy re-established himself in strong defensive positions, supported by tanks and self-propelled guns, with good fields of fire across country that was too muddy and soft to allow 46 British Division to manoeuvre its tanks.
An appraisal of the Allied armies’ situation at this stage was not encouraging. Headquarters Allied Armies appreciated on 10 October ‘that active operations with all available forces should continue as
long as the state of our own troops and the weather permitted in the hope that by then we should have at least succeeded in driving the enemy back to the general line of the Adige [a river north of the Po] and the Alps and in clearing up north-western Italy. Secondly, when full-scale operations ceased, there should be a period of active defence during which the minimum forces would be committed against the enemy and the maximum attention paid to rest, reorganisation and training of all formations in preparation for a renewal of the offensive as soon as the weather should permit.’1
During the next fortnight Fifth Army failed to capture Bologna, and the exhaustion of the troops and the shortage of replacements, both British and American, began to be felt. No longer could it be assumed that there was any likelihood of pushing the enemy back to the Adige before it became necessary to halt the offensive. The immediate objectives, therefore, were limited to Bologna and Ravenna. It had been proposed that Eighth Army should continue its offensive at least until 15 November to take Ravenna and draw off the enemy from Fifth Army, which went over to the defensive on 27 October to rest and prepare for a final attack on Bologna. ‘If this plan was unsuccessful,’ wrote General Alexander, ‘then we should have to accept the best winter position that could be managed. ...’2
General McCreery, commander of Eighth Army, did not think three weeks would be long enough to rest the American divisions or to lull the enemy sufficiently into a sense of security on the Bologna front; he therefore suggested that the date be postponed a week or two, which also would allow his army to complete its programme of rest and regrouping. Shortly after the New Zealand Division was taken into reserve, the problem of resting the whole of 1 Canadian Corps was solved by making 5 Corps responsible for its immediate right flank protection, putting 12 Lancers in the place of 1 Canadian Infantry Division, and assigning the rest of the Canadian Corps front as far as the coast to Porterforce (consisting mainly of dismounted armoured regiments). Consequently Eighth Army, which now disposed only 5 Corps and 2 Polish Corps, would be in a better position to undertake the task assigned to it towards the end of November, when three fresh divisions – the two Canadian and the New Zealand – would again be available. It was anticipated that these divisions would be capable of fighting until mid-December.
After consulting both McCreery and Clark, therefore, Alexander decided that the date for terminating the offensive should be postponed to 15 December, that Fifth Army’s final attempt to capture
Bologna should be delayed until about 30 November, and that Eighth Army should be ready to launch an attack on Ravenna by the 30th. These offensives, however, were to be launched only if the weather was favourable and there appeared to be a good chance of success.
McCreery’s immediate intentions at the end of October had been that 5 Corps and the Polish Corps should continue the attack in the better going on the left of the Eighth Army front, with the object of attracting German formations from the Bologna front and, if possible, of capturing Ravenna as well as Forli; at the end of November the three fresh divisions were to be thrown into the fortnight’s all-out effort to take Ravenna, if the city had not fallen already.
The feasibility of this plan was questioned, however, when the allotment of artillery ammunition for November was known. Eighth Army had been obliged from the middle of October to scale down its expenditure to a basic rate of 40 rounds a day for each field gun, 30 for each medium, and 20 for each heavy. Now that the forecast for November and December threatened a further reduction to 25 rounds for field guns and 15 for mediums and heavies, there was doubt whether the reserves would be sufficient. McCreery reported to Alexander that if the operations planned for November were carried out, there would not be enough ammunition for the more important programme planned for December. Nevertheless he was told that the offensive was to go ahead as planned. A world survey of artillery ammunition had revealed that the supply was greater than had been expected. The allotment for December might be increased, but in any case every economy was to be practised, and Eighth Army’s apportioning to its corps was to be cut drastically to build up the essential reserves.
Eighth Army gave instructions on 18 November for the final phase of the battle in which it was engaged. Faenza, the next town beyond Forli on Route 9, and the high ground to the south-west and on the west bank of the Lamone River were to be secured as a starting point. The objective was not more than eight miles distant, but the terrain was no easier than that already traversed.
Fifth Corps planned to advance in three phases: in the first 4 and 46 Divisions were to seize crossings over the Cosina stream (about midway between Forli and Faenza); in the second they were to continue the advance to the Lamone (which crossed Route 9 immediately in front of Faenza), and 10 Indian Division was to be committed on the right or left of 4 Division according to the demands
of the situation; and in the third phase, for which detailed orders had not yet been issued, the corps was to cross the Lamone and capture Faenza. The corps was to be given the greatest possible support by medium bombers of the Tactical Air Force and light and fighter-bombers of the Desert Air Force, whose programme would allow for the vagaries of the weather.
Fifth Corps also was to have additional artillery support, which included the three New Zealand field regiments. The New Zealand artillery group, totalling 430 vehicles, left the Division’s rest area in the Apennines on 17 November, followed the familiar Route 16 to Rimini and continued north-westward along Route 9 to a staging area near Cesena. The guns, now under 5 Corps’ command, were disposed within a mile or two to the north and west of Forli. They were to fire a barrage to assist in an attack on a mile-long stretch of the Cosina between Route 9 and its confluence with the Montone north of the highway.
A strong German raid shortly before the attack was about to start (at 2 a.m. on 21 November) prevented the left-hand battalion (2 Cornwalls) of 10 Brigade, 4 Division, from approaching the stream on the route chosen for it, and by dawn only one company had reached the objective on the far bank north of the railway. With the help of the artillery this company beat off several counter-attacks by infantry and tanks and captured some prisoners. The assault by the other assaulting battalion (1/6 Surreys) of 10 Brigade was broken up by minefields and machine-gun and mortar fire, which caused many casualties. Keightley therefore called off the attack. The company of Cornwalls was withdrawn from its isolated position across the stream under cover of artillery smoke.
Fifth Corps made a fresh plan: 4 and 46 Divisions were to clear the German outposts east of the Cosina on the night of 21–22 November, and if the resistance weakened, 46 Division was to cross the stream, with 4 Division protecting its right flank; otherwise (if resistance had not weakened) both divisions were to attack the following night. On the right of 4 Division, 10 Indian Division was to relieve 12 Lancers and prepare to cross the Lamone north of Villafranca di Forli.
The clearing of the ground inside a loop of the Cosina south of Route 9 was completed during the night of the 21st–22nd, and the attack across the stream succeeded next night. A bridge was captured on 46 Division’s front before the enemy could demolish it, an Ark gave an additional crossing, and the tanks joined the infantry on the far side. Mud and the enemy’s artillery and machine-gun
fire did not prevent 4 Division from also getting both infantry and tanks across. The New Zealand Artillery supported the attack during the night and next day.
By nightfall on the 23rd the left wing of 5 Corps thus was firmly established across the Cosina on a front of three miles south of Route 9, and the Polish Corps had made some progress on the higher ground in the foothills of the Apennines. These successes, and an improvement in the weather which gave better going for the tanks, left the German 26 Panzer Division with no choice but to pull back to the shelter of the Lamone River, which meant that 278 Division, on the banks of the Montone, had to protect its exposed right flank, three miles in length, between the two rivers.
The 4th Division turned north on 24 November to begin the destruction of the German forces between the Montone and the Lamone. General Keightley ordered 10 Indian Division to cross the Cosina on Route 9 and also advance northward, on 4 Division’s right. This advance was expected to secure the early capture of the Casa Bettini bridge over the Montone about five miles north of Forli. Porterforce was to screen the Canadian Corps’ approach to the Montone north of this bridge.
The New Zealand Division was to relieve 4 Division, which was to hand over its specialised equipment, including ‘Wasps’, ‘Weasels’ and ‘Littlejohns’,3 to the New Zealanders and Indians.
The 46th Division advanced almost unopposed to the west bank of the Marzeno River, which joins the Lamone just south of Faenza. The Route 9 bridge over the Lamone at the entrance to the town and a bridge spanning the Marzeno above its confluence with the Lamone had been demolished, but an Ark was placed in the Marzeno, and by the evening of the 24th two battalions of 128 Brigade were across this river. While the brigade was preparing to cross the Lamone on the 26th, however, steady rain began to fall. The single Ark over the Marzeno was incapable of carrying heavy traffic, and the route beyond it soon became muddy and treacherous. Meanwhile 4 Division advanced on the north side of Route 9 to the Lamone; 10 Indian Division began to clear the west bank of the Montone towards Casa Bettini, but was thwarted by German strongpoints in houses short of the bridge.
Fifth Corps intended to capture Faenza and continue the advance along Route 9. In the first phase, which was expected to last until about 1 December, 46 Division (on the left) was to cross the Lamone south of Faenza, the New Zealand Division (in the centre) was to cross this river north of the railway line, which ran through the northern edge of the town, and 10 Indian Division (on the right) was to secure the bridge over the Montone at Casa Bettini and also cross the Lamone. At the conclusion of this phase 1 Canadian Corps would take over the whole of 10 Indian Division’s sector. In the second phase, which was to last five or six days, 10 Indian Division was to relieve the 46th (which was to pass to the command of 10 Corps) and complete the capture of the Pergola- Pideura ridge, south-west of Faenza; the New Zealand Division was to extend its left on to Route 9 and continue the advance. From 5–6 December 5 Corps proposed to keep going on both sides of Route 9, with the New Zealand Division on the right, 56 British Division in the centre, and 10 Indian Division on the left.
General Freyberg held a conference of senior New Zealand officers on 19 November, and told them that the Division was to attack northward from the Lamone to the town of Lugo (between the Senio and Santerno rivers). ‘It looks as if we are going with the
grain of the country. ... We are to push until the weather breaks – then close down for the winter. ...’,4
The Division came from the Apennine rest area in two stages, the first to the vicinity of Cesena, and completed the relief of 4 Division on the night of 26–27 November, with 5 Brigade on the right and the 6th on the left. The Division’s sector extended about 6000 yards along the Lamone River, from the vicinity of the village of Borgo Durbecco (on Route 9, separated from Faenza by the river, over which the bridge had been demolished) to Scaldino. The Lamone wound in a series of bends in a general easterly direction across 6 Brigade’s front and then took a more northerly course across 5 Brigade’s front. Sixth Brigade placed one battalion (the 26th) in the line, and kept the other three (24, 25, and Divisional Cavalry) back at Forli; 5 Brigade had 22 Battalion (on the right flank) and 21 in the line, and 23 and 28 Battalions in reserve. The infantry was given the usual support of tanks, anti-tank guns, mortars and machine guns.5 The New Zealand artillery returned from 5 Corps to the command of the Division.
The two brigades sent out many patrols at night to obtain information about the stopbanks along the Lamone – which varied from 15 to 25 feet in height – the width, depth and current of the water, and suitable crossing places. The enemy had made a stronghold in the hamlet of Ronco, just over the river on 22 Battalion’s front.
Along the river both sides brought down harassing and defensive fire, limited on the New Zealand side by the meagre supply of artillery, mortar and machine-gun ammunition. Because the 25- pounders were not allowed to exceed 10 rounds a gun each day, their shooting was augmented by tank gunlines provided by 18 and 20 Armoured Regiments.
The engineers had the most important task of keeping open a two-way road leading from Route 9 into the New Zealand sector, and roads and tracks giving access to the troops in the line. ‘What a mess,’ wrote an engineer officer. ‘The roads here are all sunken with deep drainage ditches down both sides and they act as a drain for all the surrounding country. Of course with shell fire and tanks chewing across ditches the drainage is all messed up and
the rain water just flows straight into the road.’6 The sappers were helped by tip-trucks and armoured dozers from British units, and by some 60 men of 240 (Italian) Pioneer Company who cut trees for ‘corduroy’.7 The rubble of brick houses which had been knocked about in the fighting was used as road metal. ‘Undamaged houses conveniently situated were evacuated and demolished for the same purpose’.8 On the night of 29–30 November, when the road to 5 Brigade’s sector became flooded and a wide gap eroded in it, the commander of 7 Field Company (Major Lindell9) quickly organised a bridging party, which – although two of its loaded vehicles were knocked out by the enemy – completed an 80-foot bridge in time for ammunition to be taken forward before dawn.
Fifth Corps and the Polish Corps were both holding the east bank of the Lamone on a front which extended about four miles north-east of Faenza. The crossing of the river had to be postponed because of the heavy rain which began to fall on 26 November. By the evening of the 27th the rivers and canals had risen to a dangerous level, and at the end of the month the ground was still too soft and the Lamone too swollen. This of course gave the German 278 Division and 26 Panzer Division – the latter depleted to a fighting strength of less than 1000 – time to reorganise and consolidate on the other side of the river, while 305 Division closed the gap created on the right of 26 Panzer Division by its hasty withdrawal across the Marzeno.
Plans for the resumption of the offensive by both Allied armies were agreed upon at an army commanders’ conference on 26 November. After Eighth Army had crossed the Santerno River, which it was expected would not be before the end of the first week in December, because the Lamone and Senio rivers had to be crossed before the Santerno, the two armies were to launch a combined offensive to capture Bologna, the Eighth by a westerly thrust north of Route 9, and the Fifth by a northward push along Route 65.
General McCreery planned that Eighth Army should attack with the Canadian Corps on the right, 5 Corps on Route 9, and the Polish Corps in the Apennine foothills on the left. He would be able to employ all three corps on a broad front because a suitable
axis of advance between Routes 9 and 16 was provided by a secondary road which left the Ravenna-Faenza road near Russi and ran westward through Bagnacavallo, Lugo, Massa Lombarda and Medicina to Bologna. This was allotted to the Canadian Corps, which was to take Russi, cut Route 16 north-west of Ravenna to ensure the capture of that city, and then go through Lugo to establish a bridgehead over the Santerno in the Massa Lombarda area.
At this stage the Germans faced Eighth Army from behind a water barrier which began along the Lamone River and ended at the Fiumi Uniti (passing just south of Ravenna), and which was broken only by a five-mile switch-line between Scaldino (by the Lamone) and Casa Bettini (on the Montone). An attack by 10 Indian Division on 27–28 November failed to secure the bridge site on the Montone at Casa Bettini, which was needed to enable the Canadian Corps to move up on the right of 5 Corps.
The original intention that the Canadians should relieve the whole of 10 Indian Division was modified to avoid a wide dispersal of their effort. Now they were to take over only the right portion of the Indian division’s sector, and consequently 5 Corps was to retain a front that would include a bridge (Ponte della Castellina) over the Lamone about five miles from Faenza and one built by the Germans at Gubadina, about a quarter of a mile upstream from Ponte della Castellina. When 10 Indian Division resumed the attack, the Casa Bettini bridge site was still its primary object, but it was also to try to take the Gubadina bridge intact and cross the Lamone. In addition the New Zealand Division was to send a force northward along the east bank of the Lamone and attempt to seize the same bridge (at Gubadina) and cross the river.
On 30 November the Indian division captured Albereto, the centre of the enemy’s resistance between the Montone and Lamone rivers, and loosed his hold on Casa Bettini. This opened the way for the Canadians to start crossing the Montone at dawn on 1 December, and they took command of the front from Albereto to the coast in the evening. The Indian division made strenuous efforts to reach the Lamone bridges at Gubadina and Ponte della Castellina, north-west of Albereto, but when men from 20 Indian Infantry Brigade closed up to them on the afternoon of the 2nd they found both bridges demolished.10
A small force from 5 NZ Infantry Brigade, advancing northward along the eastern bank of the Lamone, had reached Gubadina ahead of the Gurkhas from 20 Brigade.
During a telephone conversation in the evening of 29 November General Keightley told General Freyberg that 10 Indian Division’s attack did not depend on 5 Brigade’s action ‘but would be very much helped if it went well.’ The corps commander added that the New Zealand Division ‘has the effect of attracting all Bosche troops round them like a magnet. He has every reason to know that when the NZ Division comes in something usually happens.11
D Company (Major G. S. Sainsbury) of 22 Battalion and C Squadron (Major Laurie12) of 18 Armoured Regiment, supported by artillery, mortar and machine-gun fire, were given the task of capturing a line from Casa di mezzo to Casa di sopra (about midway between Scaldino and Castellina) and exploiting to Ponte della Castellina. At a conference presided over by Lieutenant-Colonel O’Reilly it was decided that the force should capture Scaldino di sotto (north of Scaldino) and Casa di mezzo, and then, depending on how successful it had been, push on to the Castellina bridge.
At 8.30 a.m. on the 30th the infantry and tanks began their advance from the road east of Scaldino. The 25-pounders of 5 Field Regiment fired over 2000 rounds during the attack with good effect: Germans taken prisoner said the shelling had inflicted serious casualties. Although the ground was sodden, especially on the left flank, where the enemy resisted vigorously from the stopbank, the tanks gave excellent support to the infantry, who took Scaldino di sotto and, with the three platoons working independently, continued towards the scattered farm buildings of Rombola, Casa di sopra and Casa di mezzo.
On the right Second-Lieutenant E. B. Paterson’s platoon steadily approached Casa di mezzo, which was protected by a crossfire from spandaus spaced at intervals, and by bazooka, mortar and artillery fire. The tanks raked the spandau pits with their Brownings and blasted the building with their 75-millimetre guns, and the 25- pounders brought down a stonk almost too close for the comfort of the infantry, who made a frontal assault. They took the last 30 yards at a run, and a section sprinted round to the back to cut off escape. The platoon killed 11 of the enemy in the vicinity of the house and took nine prisoners (among them a company commander from 278 Infantry Division who yielded a rich haul of documents, including the current password, some marked maps and
a minefield trace), and went on without much trouble to Casa di sotto, where it spent the rest of the day.
D Company’s centre platoon met misfortune in a minefield. Near a disabled tank one of two approaching German prisoners trod on an S-mine and escaped injury himself, but five New Zealanders fell wounded or severely shaken, and two of them died. This platoon and the one on the left cleared the ground between Casa di sotto and the river bank, completing an advance of 1200 yards, and by nightfall D Company was in possession of La Torretta and Casa di sopra as well as Casa di sotto, towards which a party of engineers opened a road. While clearing a booby-trapped road block two sappers were wounded, one of them fatally. D Company’s casualties were three killed and five wounded. One of C Squadron’s tanks had been knocked out on the minefield, and two immobilised by mechanical troubles; two casualties had occurred in a tank crew.
The tanks withdrew and M10s helped the infantry consolidate on the freshly won ground.
That night 22 Battalion patrolled from La Torretta and Scaldino to the Lamone and to Gubadina without making contact. After a three-man patrol had scouted to Gubadina, 16 Platoon occupied a large house close to the river, and at daybreak on 1 December ‘unsuspecting Germans directly across the road stretched and settled comfortably around three spandau pits and strolled round a small house.’13 The platoon trained its Bren guns on the spandaus, and when two Gurkha scouts came up the road from the direction of Albereto, opened fire on the enemy while a section charged out to seize the house and five of its occupants. Apparently the German survivors of 22 Battalion’s attack had retreated across the Lamone by a wooden bridge at Gubadina, but a party had returned to act as a battle outpost.
A Gurkha battalion relieved 16 Platoon later in the day, when 20 Indian Infantry Brigade took over Gubadina and the New Zealand and Indian divisions redistributed their troops.
A Squadron of 18 Armoured Regiment shelled the towers and belfries of Faenza which, it was suspected, sheltered German observation posts. A large tower collapsed ‘like an avalanche’14 in the afternoon of 1 December; another was destroyed the following afternoon, and others were damaged. During the shooting an elderly woman stood in the command post weeping and crying repeatedly, ‘la mia bella Faenza’. Faenza, a town with a history of sieges and sackings dating from 390 BC, was to be the centre of much of the New Zealand Division’s activities in the winter of 1944–45.
From the jumping-off place secured by 10 Indian Division at Casa Bettini the Canadian Corps continued the northward clearing of the German switch-line positions between the Montone and Lamone rivers. On the left 1 Canadian Infantry Division captured Russi and turned westward towards the road and railway crossings of the Lamone on the way to Bagnacavallo. The Germans had withdrawn across the river, but 1 Canadian Infantry Brigade’s attempt to seize a bridgehead was harshly repulsed by the German 114 Jaeger Division.
The 5th Canadian Armoured Division made more satisfying progress on the right flank, where it cleared the west bank of the
Montone and cut the Russi-Ravenna railway and road. Meanwhile patrols of the 27th Lancers and Popski’s Private Army15 cross the Fiumi Uniti south of Ravenna. ‘Spurred on by this competition’,16 two squadrons of the Princess Louise Dragoon Guards, accompanied by a squadron of 9 Canadian Armoured Regiment, drove rapidly eastward along the Russi-Ravenna road. The tanks were stopped by a demolished bridge a mile from the city, which the infantry entered on 4 December to join hands with the Lancers.
II: The Capture of Faenza
Because the Lamone River downstream from Faenza flows between stopbanks rising 15 feet above the level of the surrounding country, where the approaches deteriorate rapidly in bad weather, it was decided to launch 5 Corps’ attack over the upper reaches of the river, where the stopbanks are smaller and the water channel is comparatively narrow. Quartolo, about four miles from Faenza, is about the most southerly point from which the Pideura ridge, descending from the Apennines west of the Lamone, could be climbed fairly easily; farther south the high ground is broken by steep escarpments. The very narrow sector of reasonably favourable ground over which the attack could be made, therefore, was limited on the right by the difficulty of crossing the river near the enemy-occupied town and on the left by the rough country farther upstream. There was no permanent road bridge in this sector; in fact the only bridge for several miles south of Faenza was within a few hundred yards of the town and completely dominated by it.
The enemy was expected to appreciate that Quartolo was the only place near Faenza where a crossing of the Lamone could be made without difficulty, but 5 Corps hoped to deceive him into thinking that crossings might be attempted elsewhere. In the first phase of the corps plan 46 British Division (commanded by the New Zealander, Major-General C. E. Weir) was to capture a bridgehead at (or near) Quartolo and the high ground at Pideura, drive north to cut Route 9 north-west of Faenza, free the town of the enemy, and clear a site for a Route 9 bridge across the Lamone; at the same time the New Zealand Division was to be ready to capture a bridgehead in its own sector, just north of the town, either to contain the enemy’s reserves or to take advantage
of any thinning out of his forces there; 10 Indian Division was to patrol across the river to simulate an attack, cross it if the enemy thinned out, or stage a dummy attack, co-ordinated with the New Zealand Division, if he remained firm.
In the second phase of the corps plan the New Zealand Division was to pass through 46 Division and cross the Senio River on Route 9 to Castel Bolognese, a small town about four miles beyond Faenza, and then swing north; 10 Indian Division and 56 British Division were to relieve the 46th. In the third phase it was intended that the corps should advance with the New Zealand Division north of Route 9, 56 Division astride the highway, and 10 Indian Division south of it; all three divisions were to be prepared to swing to the north once Castel Bolognese had been captured.
Low cloud and fog obscured the battlefield on 3 December, and the visibility was so poor in the afternoon that the tanks of A Squadron, 18 Regiment, had to stop shooting at the towers of Faenza. At 7 p.m., when 128 Brigade of 46 Division began to cross the Lamone
at Quartolo, 169 Brigade (from 56 Division but temporarily under the command of the 46th) began a feint towards Faenza from the south, and simultaneously the New Zealand Division and 43 Indian (Gurkha) Lorried Infantry Brigade simulated attacks across the river north of the town. The New Zealanders were to deceive the enemy with tank and infantry movements, artillery, mortar and machine-gun fire, bogus wireless traffic, and by assembling bridging material and smoking bridge sites if necessary.
These feints provoked an immediate and satisfying response, and for some time 128 Brigade advanced almost without opposition. In answer to the barrage the enemy brought down concentrated defensive fire, not only on the New Zealanders’ side of the river, but also on his own bank where assaulting troops might be expected, and most violently in the vicinity of the Ronco bridge site on 5 Brigade’s sector. One of 22 Battalion’s outposts complained ‘most bitterly’ of smoke shells (fired by a New Zealand battery) landing among its positions. Divisional Cavalry, which had relieved 26 Battalion in 6 Brigade’s sector on the 2nd, threw large stones into the river to give the impression that assault boats were being launched.
The German Commander-in-Chief reported to Berlin that ‘the enemy tried to cross the Lamone, both north and south of Faenza,’17 and the Berlin radio proudly announced that ‘strong attacks opposite and just North of Faenza were beaten off with heavy losses to the enemy, including losses of AFVs and trucks.’18
As the night wore on the enemy’s reaction to the feint abated and he turned his attention more to 46 Division’s front. The New Zealand Division, therefore, repeated its diversionary programme early in the morning of the 4th, and again the enemy took the bait: he threw a very heavy bombardment into the area screened by smoke on the approaches to Faenza and the Ronco bridge site. Obviously Ronco would have been an unhealthy place to have attempted a crossing of the Lamone.
Better visibility on 4 December allowed the Allied aircraft to support 5 Corps’ offensive: fighter-bombers attacked German gun and mortar positions, strongpoints on 46 Division’s front, and targets north of Route 9 – where 22 Battalion admired excellent strafing by rocket-firing aircraft on the opposite bank of the Lamone – and medium and light bombers also concentrated on gun and mortar positions. The German artillery fire dwindled under this onslaught.
After crossing the Lamone in the vicinity of Quartolo, where only scattered German outposts were met, 128 Brigade came up against the main line of resistance on the bare ridges south-west of Faenza, and could get no farther during the day. The New Zealand Division made another feint in the afternoon, and again the enemy reacted vigorously on 22 Battalion’s front, especially in the Ronco area, but only for five or 10 minutes.
By this time, however, the feints had served their purpose. The enemy, having sited his main positions back on the ridges above the river instead of along its winding bank, with the intention of counter-attacking as soon as he located the main Allied bridgehead, had hesitated in concentrating his reserves, with the result that 46 Division had driven a salient on to the high ground beyond the river before he was ready to counter-attack. On 7 December the British captured Pideura, the dominating village on the ridge.
Although 46 Division’s crossing of the Lamone threatened Faenza and the German positions along the lower reaches of the river, the capture of the town and the breakthrough to the Senio River had not yet been achieved. Communications within 5 Corps’ bridgehead were tenuous and in danger of being severed by a rise in the Lamone, and the roads south-east of the river were not capable of carrying more than a few tanks and self-propelled guns. After four days’ fighting 46 Division was tired. The corps plan, therefore, would have to be modified, but without departing from the original intention.
The capture of Faenza was still to be 46 Division’s task before the New Zealand Division (on the right) and 10 Indian Division passed through, but 25 Indian Infantry Brigade was to relieve a brigade of 46 Division immediately, and 5 NZ Infantry Brigade was to be ready to move two battalions into the bridgehead at six hours’ notice if the capture of Faenza proved difficult. If General Weir considered he had sufficient troops, he was to attack Faenza with 25 Indian Brigade and 169 British Brigade, but if he needed additional troops, he was to use the two battalions from 5 Brigade. The New Zealand Division was to bridge the Lamone into Faenza as soon as the situation allowed. The 43rd Gurkha Brigade, which had been made responsible for the right of 5 Corps’ sector on 4 December, was to extend its front progressively southward to relieve the New Zealand units as they were required.
On the night of 7–8 December 25 Indian Brigade relieved 128 Brigade, and 169 Brigade moved completely into the bridgehead. A battalion (2/10 Gurkha Rifles) of 43 Brigade took over from
22 NZ Battalion next day, and the latter, now in reserve, went back to billets in Forli. Preparations were begun for assembling 23 and 28 NZ Battalions in 46 Division’s sector over the Lamone.
At this stage, however, the enemy counter-attacked. Having decided where the greatest danger to his defence lay, he prepared to break into 5 Corps’ bridgehead south of Faenza, where he had brought the British to a halt. On 46 Division’s right 169 Brigade was unable to close in on the town; in the centre, south of the hamlet of Celle (about two miles west of Faenza), 138 Brigade was confronted by strong concentrations of German tanks and infantry; on the left 25 Indian Brigade could gain no ground beyond Pideura.
On 9 December the enemy began ‘one of the heaviest bombardments of the winter’19 and attacked along the whole of 46 Division’s front, with his main weight against 138 Brigade south of Celle, where 200 Regiment of 90 Panzer Grenadier Division ‘attacked with tanks and infantry and high hopes and pressed forward regardless of loss’.20 Fifth Corps’ artillery, including New Zealand guns, ‘put down an unceasing curtain’ of defensive fire, and Allied aircraft bombed and strafed the German concentrations. The British inflicted ‘extremely heavy losses’21 on 200 Panzer Grenadier Regiment.
The enemy reported to Berlin that ‘after hand-to-hand fighting fiercer than any yet seen we succeeded in reoccupying a considerable tract of ground. ... Our losses were considerable. The enemy ... had enormous casualties.’22 The counter-attack, however, had failed: the enemy reverted to the defensive, with the regiments of 90 Panzer Grenadier Division deployed on the northern and western sides of 5 Corps’ bridgehead and 305 Infantry Division around Pideura.
It was now apparent that 46 Division alone could not accomplish the first phase of 5 Corps’ plan, the capture of the whole of the ridge at Pideura and the cutting of Route 9 west of Faenza, with the object of taking the town and reopening communications along the highway; also, the relief of 46 Division could be postponed no longer. The offensive was halted, therefore, while the remainder of 10 Indian Division and part of the New Zealand Division were brought into the bridgehead.
While Faenza was still in German hands and Route 9 closed to traffic, the maintenance of the troops on the far side of the Lamone was most difficult. A seven-mile one-way track, known as the ‘Lamone road’, between Route 9 and 46 Division’s crossing at Quartolo so far had proved adequate only because of the great exertions of the British and New Zealand (8 Field Company) engineers who had built it and daily repaired it, but obviously was incapable of coping with any additional traffic.
It was decided, therefore, that 5 Corps should operate a road circuit with an ‘up’ track from Route 9 over a bridge across the Marzeno River to the Lamone and a ‘down’ track in the opposite direction over another bridge, and that traffic on the circuit should be regulated by a series of control posts. Because of the slowness of movement on this circuit, however, the New Zealand Division decided to maintain its troops in the bridgehead by a jeep train using a small part of 5 Corps’ ‘up’ track and another route opened by the Division’s engineers over the Marzeno and Lamone rivers.
Consequently, on the night of 9–10 December, 7 Field Company built a 100-foot Bailey bridge over the Marzeno close to a brickworks about a mile south of Faenza. This task took over nine hours, of which five were spent in carrying the components the last 60 yards to the site. ‘It was a cold starlight frosty night and the clanking of the Bailey parts probably caused the stonk [by Nebelwerfers] –the enemy was rather close to us and we had ... a covering party dug in around the bridge site.’23 Poplar poles were stuck in the ground to help conceal or camouflage what became known as the ‘Brickworks bridge’ and its approaches.
Fifth Brigade entered the bridgehead on the night of 10–11 December, the night after the Brickworks bridge was completed, and on the same night 6 Field Company, with an RASC platoon under command, assembled the components for a bridge in Cardinetta village, about two miles from Faenza, preparatory to constructing access for vehicles to 5 Brigade. A platoon under Lieutenant Hunter24 built a 110-foot Bailey with two sets of timber cribbing (for eight-foot piers) in daylight under the cover of smoke supplied by the artillery.
‘I selected an approach road site and kept all traffic off it,’ Hunter wrote, ‘got the bridging to the site and we got stuck into it by mid-morning. ... Had a straight go with only the occasional shell none of which landed too close to stop the job. Used half a dozen Itie haystacks for the wheeled vehicle road ... and covered it with reinforced mesh ... and put [demolished] houses
on top of the mesh. ... we plugged along and finished it late in the evening. ... A heavy day’s work for my gang and I can’t speak too highly of my platoon.25 Hunter’s bridge earned General Freyberg’s commendation.
The sappers toiled with corduroy, debris from houses and road netting laid on straw to make the two-mile track between the Brickworks and Hunter’s bridges ‘into something resembling a road’,26 which was used by the jeep train and later by tanks. In spite of these efforts, however, the jeep drivers were not favourably impressed. ‘Some drivers who had known the Terelle “Terror Track” declared they preferred it to the one they now had to use to supply 5 Brigade. ... Whereas at Terelle they could and did move at full speed, this was quite impossible in the mud. Thus, it often took the jeep train with rations twelve hours to get from Forli to 5 Brigade Headquarters. Harassing fire was a trouble but was nothing compared with the condition of the roads. On the night of 12–13 December, for instance, out of a convoy of twenty-six jeeps with trailers, two jeeps crashed over a bank, six trailers had to be temporarily abandoned beside the track and only sixteen won through to Brigade Headquarters. ...’ The supplies were then delivered to the companies by mule train or jeep. ‘If jeeps had accidents, so, too, did mules.’27
This road also made a strong impression on the New Zealand tank crews when they moved into 5 Brigade’s sector: ‘All up and down Italy the Division had struck all types of roads, some good, some indifferent, some downright dreadful; but this road to the Lamone was the champion of the lot. It startled even the oldest hands. In a desperate, urgent effort to keep supplies up ... the engineers had hacked the road out of cattle tracks, fields and river marshes. They had blown down houses and dumped tons of brick and rubble on top of the mud; they put down hundreds of tree trunks; they had built Bailey bridges under Jerry’s nose. They had shored up the ditches beside the track, and still these caved in under the weight of passing trucks. Sappers had to toil continuously to keep the road open.’28
The regrouping of 5 Corps was planned to take place in three stages: in the first 5 NZ Brigade was to enter the bridgehead, relieve 138 Brigade and part of 169 Brigade, and pass temporarily
to the command of 46 Division; 43 Gurkha Brigade and the New Zealand Division were to sidestep to the left. In the second stage the New Zealand Division was to take over 46 Division’s right sector (by resuming command of 5 Brigade) and 10 Indian Division its left sector; in the third stage 169 Brigade was to relieve the Gurkha Brigade.
On the night of 10–11 December, therefore, 28 (Maori) Battalion relieved a battalion of 169 Brigade, 56 Division, on the right, and 23 Battalion relieved two battalions of 138 Brigade, 46 Division, in the centre; next night 22 Battalion relieved the third battalion of 138 Brigade on the left. Meanwhile 21 Battalion was replaced north of Route 9 by the Gurkhas and went back in reserve to billets in Forli.
The Maoris, ‘muffled to the ears’ on a cold winter’s day, were put down from their trucks near the Marzeno and marched two miles across muddy creeks and the Lamone to the headquarters of 2/5 Queens, in a large building, where they stayed until night. They completed the changeover ‘with some care and in extreme silence for, according to the guides, “Jerry was very trigger happy and at the slightest sound they would know all about it.” It was a matter of crawling to the most forward casas and, as the ground was very muddy, some of the Maoris soon got careless and began to walk. A stream of tracer about waist-high decided for them that perhaps crawling was the better method.’29
The battalion was disposed in the vicinity of a road junction – which became known to the Maoris as ‘Ruatoria’ – a little more than a mile from the outskirts of Faenza. Two roads and a railway led into the town and a third road north-westward to the hamlet of Celle. Houses occupied by the enemy were only 150 yards away. Sergeant Cullen30 took a patrol of 11 men of 8 Platoon to investigate one of these houses, and discovered ‘a real hornets’ nest. Three well-hidden tanks were behind the building. The patrol was detected and a battle royal ensued in the darkness while the patrol withdrew with four wounded. The medium and heavy mortars were turned on to the locality and the tanks were heard moving back towards Faenza, whereupon Cullen returned with his patrol and killed six Germans who were still in the house.’31 The Maoris were preparing to settle in when the tanks returned and shelled the house. Again the patrol withdrew, this time with four more wounded.
The 23rd Battalion debussed less than two miles from Faenza and marched 10 miles in five hours on muddy road verges to take
over from 6 Lincolns and 6 York and Lancasters in positions on the left of the Maori Battalion. As the New Zealand armour was not expected to arrive for several days, 15 tanks of the Queen’s Bays stayed in the bridgehead.
Harassing fire and patrols caused a few casualties. Two stretcher-bearers and another man, sent to collect four wounded from B Company of 23 Battalion, went in error to the wrong house and were taken prisoner. This might have been the enemy’s first evidence of the New Zealanders’ presence. Later 90 Panzer Grenadier Division fired into 5 Brigade’s lines shells containing leaflets which proclaimed how the ‘boys of the 2nd NZ Division’ invariably were needed ‘when the going becomes rough. ... Now, on the eighth day of the Battle for Faenza, after the British 56th Division failed with tragic losses, you are called to save the situation. You may reach Faenza, but every yard towards that town must be paid for with the life blood of hundreds of New Zealanders. ...’32
The enemy in slit trenches and dugouts at Casa Colombarina could be seen clearly by C Company of 23 Battalion from the Ragazzina ridge, and was harassed by artillery, mortars and snipers. ‘It was rather unique for us to hold the high ground from the outset, and from an excellent O.P. a murderous fire was directed on this strongpoint,’ Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas wrote. ‘The Hun sustained casualties, stretcher bearers and ambulance being seen from our O.P.’33
The relief of 2/4 King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry by 22 Battalion, on the left of the 23rd, was completed on the evening of 11 December. In this position most of 22 Battalion could look across a steep, bush-covered descent to a sharp rise, near the top of which ‘stood the pocket-fortress of Casa Elta.’34
While 5 Brigade replaced 46 Division in the bridgehead west of Faenza, 6 Brigade side-stepped to the left on the other (south-eastern) side of the Lamone. On 10 December its boundary with 43 Gurkha Brigade was brought southwards to the railway, which placed two squadrons of Divisional Cavalry immediately opposite Faenza, D between the railway and Route 9 and C near the confluence of the Marzeno and Lamone just south of the town and the highway. The other two squadrons were farther back. On the left of Divisional Cavalry, 24 Battalion replaced 44 Reconnaissance Regiment (under the command of 46 Division but from 56 Division) between the Marzeno and Lamone.
The tanks of 18 Armoured Regiment and A Squadron of 20 Regiment entered the bridgehead and came under 5 Brigade’s command on 13 December. They were weighed down with extra ammunition and fuel, and 18 3-ton lorries also carried fuel. The move took all day. ‘The convoy crept along at walking pace, past dozens of trucks lying forlornly with wheels in the air, past gang after gang of workers ... for at the soft places every tank left its quota of damage. By the Lamone, where the road came into Jerry’s view, the unit went through a smoke screen specially laid for it, a thick grey fog that blotted everything out except the few yards immediately round you. Not a shell came near throughout the move, and everyone breathed freely again, for that road had an evil reputation.’35
The anti-tank batteries brought forward M10s, 17-pounders and heavy mortars. The artillery was able to support both brigades. Three companies (36 Vickers guns) of 27 (MG) Battalion were placed where they could harass the enemy at night.
The relief of 46 Division was completed on the morning of 12 December, when the New Zealand Division took command of the right sector of the bridgehead, occupied by 5 Brigade; 10 Indian Division had resumed command of 25 Brigade on the left sector
the previous day. The final stage of 5 Corps’ regrouping was the relief of 43 Gurkha Brigade by 169 Brigade of 56 Division on the 13th, when the Gurkhas withdrew into reserve. That day, therefore, 56 Division held the line of the Lamone from the corps’ right boundary to the railway, 2 NZ Division extended across Route 9 and straddled the Lamone south-west of Faenza, and 10 Indian Division held the remainder of the bridgehead across the river on the left.
Fifth Corps was now ready to begin the second phase of its offensive, which had for its object the capture of crossings over the Senio River south of the Rimini-Bologna railway and about three and a half miles beyond the Lamone River. Faenza, the objective of the first phase, was to be cut off and secured as the advance progressed.
The corps’ plan was to attack with the New Zealand Division on the right and 10 Indian Division on the left. The first objectives, which were to be captured by dawn on 15 December, were for the New Zealand Division Point 54, 1000 yards north-west of Celle, and for the Indian Division the ridge and road 1000 yards north of Pergola and the high ground nearly a mile north and north-west of Pideura. Both divisions, after taking these objectives, were to cross the Senio. At the same time 56 Division, on the right flank was to simulate an assault across the Lamone in the vicinity-of the Ronco bridge site. On the other flank the Polish Corps, co-ordinating its attack with 5 Corps, was to strike for the rising ground beyond the Senio west of Riolo del Bagni, about six miles north-west of Castel Bolognese.
The plan for the capture of Faenza depended on whether or not the enemy still firmly held the town after the New Zealanders had reached their objective beyond Celle. If necessary, a Faenza Task Force (43 Gurkha Brigade with tank, artillery and engineer support) was to cross the Lamone and clear the town while the New Zealanders continued their thrust towards the Senio.
General Freyberg discussed the Division’s part in the operation with the brigadiers and heads of individual services on the morning of 13 December. The GSO III (Intelligence), Major Cox,36 estimated that the maximum enemy strength on the Division’s sector was 1085 men, 112 guns and up to 60 tanks (of which a third might be Tigers). If 700 Germans were holding the front, the Division would
have an advantage of two to one. The GOC told the conference that ‘the basis of our plan is surprise.’ It was hoped to show no more than normal activity until zero hour, 11 p.m. on 14 December, when ‘we will open with everything we have, hit him a crack and go as hard as we can and try to take advantage of any surprise we can gain by the rapidity of our blow. ... We want to hit him when as many of his troops as possible have their boots off and have gone to sleep. ...’37 The high ground that the Indian division was attacking was very important because it overlooked the whole area, which included the German gun positions. Celle would be the key to the New Zealand sector.
A divisional operation order issued in the evening of the 13th said 5 Brigade was to advance at the rate of 100 yards in seven minutes to the first objective, and then continue to the bridge over the Senio on Route 9 and the high ground overlooking the river farther west at Casale. Sixth Brigade was to take over the sector held by 28 Battalion and protect the right flank during 5 Brigade’s advance. If the enemy remained firm in Faenza in spite of the attack, the Faenza Task Force was to clear the town. The engineers were to construct a bridge over the river in the vicinity of Faenza.
Fifth Brigade’s first objective was a shallow inverted V about two and a half miles in length, which began on the right at a road and rail crossing near the outskirts of Faenza, passed north of Celle to a road and track junction about half a mile beyond the hamlet, and then continued south-westward to the junction of a lateral road ascending the ridge west of Celle and a road running north from Pergola. The Maori Battalion, on the right, was to attack with half of A Squadron, 18 Armoured Regiment, in support, and would have to fan out slightly to reach its objectives; 23 Battalion, in the centre, supported by B Squadron, would be attacking where the enemy was expected to be the strongest – the hamlet of Celle, the flat ground beyond it and the edge of the ridge, 22 Battalion, on the left, with the other half of A Squadron in support, would be attacking in the most difficult country, where its objectives would be on the lateral road on the ridge west of Celle and (in co-operation with the Indians) the high ground on the left flank.
A Squadron of 20 Regiment was to assist the advance by fire on the right flank in the direction of Faenza, and was to be prepared to support 6 Brigade. C Squadron of the Queen’s Bays also was to assist with fire, and was to be prepared to support 22 Battalion on the left flank. Tasks were allotted to the mortars,
anti-tank guns, machine guns and engineers.38 From zero hour onwards artificial moonlight (searchlights) would be used over the battlefield.
On capture of the objective 5 Brigade was to consolidate, M10s were to take over from the tanks of 18 Regiment in 28 and 22 Battalions’ sectors, and 23 and 28 Battalions were each to release a company to support 18 Regiment, which was to be prepared to exploit at dawn to the bridge at the crossing of Route 9 over the Senio and establish a bridgehead over the river. For this purpose an Ark bridge, an armoured bulldozer and other mechanical equipment were placed under the regiment’s command. When a bridgehead had been established, 28 Battalion was to be prepared to cut Route 9 and protect the right flank. The 22nd Battalion was to continue its advance northward to the high ground south of Casale.
Sixth Brigade’s orders were for two companies of 25 Battalion to cross the Lamone by Hunter’s bridge and relieve two companies of 28 Battalion on the evening of the 14th. Other troops were to simulate a crossing south of Faenza. After 5 Brigade’s attack, the 6th was to adopt one of three courses. The first of these was for 25 Battalion to complete the crossing of the Lamone and prepare to take over 28 Battalion’s bridgehead, and for 24 Battalion to cross and, together with the 25th, to attempt to outflank Faenza; the second plan was for 6 Brigade to clear Faenza with Divisional Cavalry, 24 and 25 Battalions, if the enemy vacated the town; the third plan was for 6 Brigade to advance north-westwards from 5 Brigade’s bridgehead, if the enemy defended Faenza, while the Faenza Task Force took over on the right flank and assaulted the town.
A total of 256 guns39 on the New Zealand Division’s front and 180 on 10 Indian Division’s front were to be available for the attack. The barrage in support of 23 and 22 Battalions’ advance was to be fired by the three New Zealand field regiments and a regiment from 46 Division, and in support of 28 Battalion by two regiments from 46 Division. Other tasks for the field, medium and heavy guns were concentrations, counter-mortar fire, and pre-arranged defensive fire. In addition 290,000 rounds of Mark VIIIZ40
ammunition were released for the Vickers guns of 27 (MG) Battalion, two companies of which were to harass roads into Faenza and the known enemy positions, while a third company was to shoot with the artillery barrage and harass the ground over which the infantry was to advance.
The planning also provided for aircraft to attack defined targets and to co-operate with the ground forces. If the weather permitted, in fact, 5 Corps was going to do everything in its power to capture Faenza and cross the Senio River.
At zero hour (11 p.m.) ‘to a second, the horizon behind us blazed with the flashes of the artillery. ... Looking back towards the gunlines you see the skyline dancing with flashes – fan shaped radiances from the decrested guns and the intense white spots of those whose actual muzzle flash is visible. They flicker back and forth so swiftly they leave you bewildered. ... The shells whizz overhead, not whining or whistling at this stage, but cracking in the air like whiplashes as they hurtle upwards towards the top of their trajectories. The air literally vibrates with the passing of each projectile and ... every loose shutter and window pane rattles continuously. Where the shells are bursting, if it is visible to the observer, he sees myriads of winking pin pricks of light, looking very small and insignificant, but in reality each one an expanding shower of deadly splinters. If the shells are bursting well ahead, the explosions all blend into an insistent rumbling like distant thunder or the boom of surf when heard inland from the beach. Even miles back from the barrage, the earth is continually shivering with tremors from the hundreds of explosions. ...
‘When the barrage lifts and begins to creep forward the infantry come to grips and then all the smaller signs and sounds begin. Wavering yellow flares hover briefly over the front, necklaces of tracer curve through the blackness, single red sparks of our own red recognition climb vertically, red globes of Bofors speed out and then slow down before finally winking out, haystacks here and there become lit and blaze brightly for an hour or so illuminating the smoke above them and then smoulder redly for the rest of the night. Pauses in the barrage are generally filled by the insistent chattering of the Vickers guns, and here and there at scattered intervals one hears the smooth even Burrrr of the spandau, nearly always followed swiftly by a short stutter of bren or the clicking of tommy gun. Grenades pop, tank engines are roaring, Jerry mortar and shellfire crunches down, and every now and then the giant retching
of the Nebelwerfer is heard, followed by the moaning of rockets before they explode in rapid succession.’41
That was how the attack on the night of 14–15 December appeared to a New Zealander near the Lamone River.
Lieutenant-Colonel Awatere’s plan for the Maori Battalion was to attack some houses within a triangular area between the railway (the branch line from Faenza through ‘Ruatoria’) and the road to Celle: C Company, on the right, was to capture Pogliano and another locality near the road parallel to Route 9; D Company (with a platoon of B under command), on the left, was to capture Casa Bianca and other houses north-east and north of Celle, and Villa Palermo (short of Celle); A Company, in support of C, was to seize buildings about midway to C’s objectives; B Company, in support of D, was to occupy houses near ‘Ruatoria’.
‘The great and unavoidable weakness of the Maori position ... was the lack of an axis road; on the right was the embanked railway line, but on the left the only road was in 23 Battalion’s area and that was useless until Celle was cleared.’ Awatere warned his officers that ‘the presence of enemy armour might influence the fortunes of the attack. Provided the tanks and anti-tank screen could get forward at the earliest possible moment, he considered the Maoris need have no fear of the outcome.’42
From the steeple of the church at ‘Ruatoria’ Awatere had a final look over the flat country towards Celle and Pogliano. Small, fallow paddocks were separated by single rows of mulberry and poplar trees, which in season would support the trellised grape vines. The rows of trees ran in the same direction as the advance and would have been no obstacle to the passage of tanks if the ground had been firm – but it was not firm. Awatere’s descent from the church tower was hastened by shells, the third of which brought down the whole structure.
When the attack began, two platoons of C Company had little trouble in approaching to within a few hundred yards of Pogliano; they waited in a small house near the railway for the arrival of the rest of the company before the start of the final assault. A patrol sent to investigate Della Cura, between the railway and Pogliano, crawled along a ditch until within a few yards of two Tiger tanks and some Germans. The Maoris had no suitable weapon for attacking tanks. Lieutenant Mahuika43 (who had taken charge
a few days earlier when the company commander was wounded), arrived with the other part of C Company, and called for stonks on Della Cura, but none fell on the target. The German tanks began to shell the building in which the Maoris were sheltering.
Meanwhile D Company sent two platoons (including the one attached from B) to Casa Bianca, and the other two to Villa Palermo, and by 2.30 a.m. held both places. At least 20 or 30 Germans were killed at Casa Bianca. German tanks could be heard moving along Route 9, and later a number of them appeared to be about to counter-attack from a road junction about half a mile north-east of Casa Bianca. Although the medium and heavy guns fired ‘murders’ and the field guns brought down several defensive stonks on this target, the Maoris, who were isolated and had no tanks or anti-tank guns at Casa Bianca, were compelled to withdraw to Villa Palermo when the enemy counter-attacked.
A Company discovered that La Morte, which had not responded to fire from C Company’s men when they passed it half-way to their objective, was occupied by the enemy, but captured it after negotiating a minefield. B Company took possession of the empty Case Ospitalacci, a short way along the road to Celle.
The Maori Battalion’s left flank was now on the ‘Ruatoria’–Celle road, but its right flank was most insecure. Mahuika decided to withdraw C Company. The men of 13 Platoon (Lieutenant Hogan44), told to go first, crawled along a ditch by the railway until they thought they could safely leave its shelter, but walked into a minefield. Some mines were exploded, and the enemy opened fire from the railway embankment; he was aided by the light of two haystacks which began to burn. Very soon there were not enough men to carry away the wounded. The survivors made for La Morte, though not sure whom they would find there; Hogan went forward alone and when within hailing distance identified himself in Maori. As La Morte was overcrowded, he took his men to Casa ‘Clueless’, near Case Ospitalacci. A party went back to bring in the wounded men who had been left behind.
Before 14 Platoon of C Company withdrew from the house near Della Cura, Mahuika was wounded, and Second-Lieutenant Paniora45 succeeded to the command. In the vain hope that the supporting tanks might arrive or that the enemy might depart, Paniora decided to stay. Two more German tanks joined the two at Della Cura, and after daybreak all four turned their guns on the house and blasted a corner off it. ‘An infantry attack ... then came in but
the range was suicidal and the survivors retired.’46 Paniora was killed and Sergeant-Major Wanoa,47 who next took command, decided that there was nothing to be gained by staying any longer with only a handful of men, so called for a smoke screen and defensive stonks, under which the survivors, carrying their wounded, safely reached Casa ‘Clueless’.
Villa Palermo and La Morte were now 28 Battalion’s foremost positions. The Maoris’ casualties during 14–16 December were 24 killed, 57 wounded, and two captured.
The attack on Celle ‘brought to an angry head the feud between the senior officers of 18 Regiment and 23 Battalion that had been simmering since Florence.’48 This time the squadrons of the regiment were not under command of the battalions of 5 Brigade, but in support, ‘a change welcomed by squadron and troop commanders after their experiences at Florence and the Rubicon [Fiumicino]. Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas of 23 Battalion, in particular, was said to demand impossible feats from his tanks, forgetting that their crews were not superhuman or the tanks lightweights like jeeps.’49 Thomas and his company commanders, on the other hand, ‘felt strongly that the operation would have been more successful if the armour had been placed under command, as requested.’50
The battalion was required to advance about 2000 yards on a two-company front over broken, undulating ground on which the defences centred on houses. The plan was for B Company to attack on the right and C on the left; A Company was to follow 200–300 yards behind B and mop up posts bypassed by the leaders, collect prisoners, evacuate wounded, and if necessary assist in the final assault on the objective; D Company was to be in reserve and available to assist the tanks in the exploitation next day.
Before the attack began, 12 Platoon, which had entered the line 22 strong, came under severe tank and mortar fire, which reduced it to seven fit men; it therefore was replaced in B Company’s attacking force by 7 Platoon of A Company. The first shells of the barrage fell on 23 Battalion’s tactical headquarters – sited right on the start line – in a hilltop house which shook as it received several direct hits, but no casualties occurred among its occupants, most of whom sheltered in an underground cellar.
The battalion captured the houses more or less according to plan. On the right of B Company, 7 Platoon, after a brisk encounter, took 20 prisoners at its first house, half-way between the Celle road and Casa Colombaia, but was left with only enough men to guard the captives, so was replaced by 9 Platoon of A Company. The rest of B Company (10 and 11 Platoons) saw a surprising number of Germans on the Celle road. Some were already dead, killed by the barrage; the others were either shot or forced to surrender. Near Celle ‘the artillery and heavy mortars had wrought frightful havoc, but some determined enemy survived to give fight. B Company was now hard on the heels of the barrage. ... The softening-up process had its effect. ... Celle was occupied soon after 3 a.m.’51
The company commander (Major McArthur52) left 9 Platoon in Celle (which was a church with a few houses clustered around it) to hold the road junction, and pushed on with the rest of his force – about 28 men – to a cemetery, which they reached safely. Two Germans unsuspectingly sauntered down the road and were captured, but three enemy tanks and some infantry soon opened fire. McArthur left eight men (from 11 Platoon) to dig in at the cemetery and established a strongpoint with the remainder of his party at the northernmost house in Celle.
C Company, on the left, also made good progress. The officer commanding 14 Platoon was wounded at the start, but Sergeant Batchelor53 led the assault on the first house, Casa Colombarina, which was recognised as a strongpoint. The 10 Germans who survived were sent back with the walking wounded. Batchelor’s men took two more houses and were approaching the final objective when they heard two tanks close at hand and, as they were separated from the rest of the company, decided it would be wise to withdraw. They were surprised to find Germans in Casa Bersana, west of Celle, but promptly attacked and occupied it.
The shells of the barrage were still hitting the top storey of Casa Canovetta, south of Celle, when 15 Platoon attacked it. The first of two Piat bombs fired through the front door failed to explode but wounded the commander of 1 Battalion, 200 Panzer Grenadier Regiment; the second bomb exploded and shook part of the building. Some of the platoon dashed inside while others shot or captured the Germans who emerged. Thirty-nine prisoners were marched away; about a dozen dead or wounded Germans remained.
‘Thus, from house to house, the troops moved, losing a few
good men but rejoicing in the number of prisoners taken and in such a sight of dead Germans as few of them had ever seen before.’54 After taking 16 prisoners at one house 13 Platoon crossed open ground, where some of its men were pinned down by spandau fire from a slit trench. In the light of a burning haystack Private Litchfield55 stalked the gun, shot a German and took two prisoners.
A Company, reduced at this stage to 8 Platoon and Company Headquarters, passed a row of burning haystacks short of which some tanks of B Squadron of 18 Regiment were halted, and came under mortar, tank-gun and machine-gun fire, but managed to get into Celle and link up with B Company. A Company’s commander (Major Brittenden56) and Major McArthur decided to form a firm base in the church, where they found 9 Platoon.
By 4 a.m. on the 15th 23 Battalion had gained Celle but was still nearly half a mile from the final objective. At the cemetery just beyond the hamlet the eight men of 11 Platoon came under tank and machine-gun fire and, realising that they would be unable to fend off the tanks, withdrew to rejoin the rest of B Company in Celle. About this time Major Low57 was establishing C Company’s headquarters in Casa Camerini, on the road west of Celle, and his men also could hear tanks moving out in front. Tank-gun fire came from Casa Gessa, north of Celle, and the enemy appeared to be ready to launch a counter-attack. Both B and C Companies, therefore, called for tank support.
Batchelor (14 Platoon) set out from Casa Bersana with three men to find C Company headquarters, which he thought Low might have established at Casa Salde, farther north, but this house was still held by the enemy. Undeterred by or unaware of the occupants’ superior numbers, Batchelor and his companions attacked, killing five and capturing 19 Germans. Batchelor located the company headquarters at Casa Camerini. Shortly afterwards 15 Platoon was counter-attacked by German infantry supported by tank fire, but beat off the assault. Low ‘adopted the somewhat desperate expedient of calling down artillery fire on the house occupied by his own men in order to break up the worst counter-attack.’58
When word reached Battalion Headquarters that C Company had been counter-attacked and 11 Platoon forced back to Celle, Colonel Thomas ordered D Company forward to consolidate the
position between the hamlet and C Company, and went forward himself to investigate. D Company arrived about 7.30 a.m. to link up with the forward companies, and half an hour later four tanks from B Squadron of 18 Regiment also arrived. Two of the tanks took up a position behind B Company’s headquarters (in the church) and two behind a house occupied by a D Company platoon.
Second-Lieutenant Paterson59 took a section of D Company to the northern end of Celle, from which McArthur had withdrawn his B Company men. After 8 a.m. two German Mark IVs, accompanied by infantry, came down the road. Paterson’s men had no Piats or other anti-tank weapons with which to offer a fight. Some ran back into the hamlet, but five men remained flat on the floor of a house while armour-piercing shells penetrated the walls. One man, caught in the open, was captured. The enemy approached the centre of Celle, but was forced to ground by artillery concentrations and then withdrew.
As long as German tanks remained outside Celle, 23 Battalion could not feel secure. Colonel Thomas, who asked the B Squadron commander (Major E. C. Laurie) ‘to get his tanks forward, and later personally appealed to the tanks crews,’60 reported that ‘it was extremely disappointing that our tanks were not able to give battle.’61 Major Low also referred to their ‘most ineffectual and disappointing support. ... At no time did our armour move out to engage the enemy who was dive bombed both morning and afternoon and repeatedly stonked by Mediums and Field whenever we saw him move. ... Our troops, who had been halted by the tanks alone, were greatly disheartened at seeing German tanks advance, force back our right flank troops, withdraw and then manoeuvre throughout the day only 300 yds to 500 yds from our positions whilst our armour sat back evidently unable to compete.’62
It is debatable whether B Squadron could have contributed more to the battle by making greater sacrifices. Although 23 Battalion ‘felt somewhat aggrieved at not receiving more effective support from the tanks’,63 it was satisfied with its own performance in taking well over 100 prisoners, mostly from 200 Panzer Grenadier Regiment. One of the documents captured from the headquarters of a German battalion revealed that a relief had not been completed when the artillery barrage opened, which might account for the many dead found on some of the roads and tracks as well as in the
houses. Over 80 enemy were killed in 23 Battalion’s area. The battalion’s own casualties on 14–16 December were 12 killed and 48 wounded.
Of 5 Brigade’s three assaulting battalions, the 22nd (Lieutenant-Colonel O’Reilly), on the left, had the most difficult country to cross: to reach its objective west of Ferneto, in the vicinity of the road running westward from Celle, it had to descend into the valley of the Ianna stream, climb the steep ridges on which stood Casa Ianna and Casa Elta, and descend again to the Camerini stream, beyond which the ground rose once more. Casa Elta was a two-storied farmhouse on a spur flanked by steep gullies and protected by many well-placed machine-gun posts and thickly-sown minefields; Casa Ianna was in a similar position about a quarter of a mile to the east.
The advance began with A Company on the right and C on the left, supported by D and B respectively. The enemy reacted almost immediately to the barrage with artillery, mortar and machine-gun fire. The right-hand platoon of A Company (No. 7) suffered so many casualties, first from shellfire and then in a minefield, that its place had to be taken by the reserve platoon (No. 8). The left-hand leading platoon of A Company (No. 6) passed safely through an undetected minefield in front of Casa Ianna and was in possession of the house by 3 a.m. Corporal Clark64 silenced a spandau post with hand grenades and tommy-gun fire. The platoon set alight the nearby haystacks, which drove out the enemy who were occupying pits underneath, and altogether captured 17 Germans.
As radio contact had been lost with A Company early in the attack, 16 Platoon was sent from D to follow A and keep in contact with C on the left by radio. This platoon found A Company in possession of Casa Ianna, and the rest of D was then guided to the house. The two companies investigated other houses in the vicinity and, while D was left in occupation, A went on to Sebola, near the Camerini stream, which brought it into line with 23 Battalion on its right.
Casa Elta did not fall to C Company until 4 a.m. The left-hand platoon (No. 15) lost its officer, who was wounded on the start line, and two sergeants, killed in minefields. The platoon split into small groups, one of which, led by Private Dixon,65 captured two defended localities, took a few prisoners, and joined in the assault
on Casa Elta. The other two platoons of C Company (13 and 14), which had fewer casualties but also lost touch and became scattered, converged independently on the house. One group was held up by machine-gun fire until Private McIvor66 stalked a spandau post and silenced it with his tommy gun, and then wiped out a second spandau post with a grenade when his weapon jammed. Lance- Sergeant Seaman67 led a party uphill on the left flank and around to the rear of the house, where he rallied his men before leading a charge into the strongpoint. Although severely wounded, he refused aid until he had disposed his men against counter-attack. About 20 Germans were captured and 15 killed, and seven machine guns were among the equipment seized.
B Company, having passed through C Company’s area before the capture of Casa Elta, climbed a steep ridge slightly behind and to the west of it, and had casualties while the men were silhouetted on the skyline by the artificial moonlight. After a sharp engagement the company captured Casa Mercante, which yielded 40 prisoners, soon after dawn. Five tanks from A Squadron of 18 Regiment helped to consolidate.
There was no threat of a counter-attack on 22 Battalion’s front, where a quiet day ensued, marred only by the bombing and strafing of Battalion Headquarters by ‘friendly’ aircraft in the afternoon. As well as killing many of the enemy, 22 Battalion had taken over 100 prisoners, most of whom were from 361 Regiment of 90 Panzer Grenadier Division. The battalion’s own casualties were seven killed and 30 wounded.
The members of 23 Battalion who were so critical of the support given by 18 Armoured Regiment (Lieutenant-Colonel J. B. Ferguson) probably had little idea of the appalling difficulties the tank crews had to contend with that night.
Half of A Squadron had been placed in support of 28 Battalion and half in support of the 22nd; the whole of B Squadron was in support of 23 Battalion because Celle was expected to be strongly defended and German Mark IV and Mark VI (Tiger) tanks had been seen there. The New Zealand tanks were expected to be on the objectives with the infantry at daybreak, about 7 a.m.; then C Squadron, with infantry following the tanks, was to go through and charge the Senio River crossing. ‘This idea had a suicidal sound about it. ... However, C Squadron could drag some
comfort from the news that, as soon as it was light enough, the Air Force was to lay on a massive assault with all the planes it could produce. ...
‘Celle ... looked a potential bottleneck, for 28 and 23 Battalions’ tanks would all have to go that way before fanning out to join the infantry. It was on C Squadron’s road forward too. More than that, the whole regiment had only one road to move up, and a mere lane at that, winding up and over a [Ragazzina] ridge and diagonally down to the flat below, then coming out on to another road that ran dead straight for Celle church. Those who had been up to the top of the ridge for a cautious look reported that this lane (what they could see of it) looked churned up and exposed and generally undesirable.’68
Both B Squadron, which went first, and A Squadron began badly. The troop of tanks leading up the Ragazzina ridge, west of ‘Charing Cross’ (known to the Maoris as ‘Ruatoria’), ‘was at once caught in a torrent of shells, apparently ours.’69 An officer was killed, a tank was damaged, and it was some time before any could move. Another B Squadron troop took a wrong turning and had to back along a narrow road. A Squadron’s commander (Captain Passmore70) was wounded, and when a 17-pounder tank was hit and went over a bank, three of its crew died. The tanks edged around a large crater in the road half-way up the ridge, and slowly groped ahead in single file, while their commanders, despite the shellfire, walked ahead to show the way. They kept strictly to the lane because the fields were boggy and mined.
From the crest of the ridge the route descended to join the road from ‘Ruatoria’ (or ‘Charing Cross’) at Gavallana, less than half a mile from Celle. The head of B Squadron was on the final straight leading to the hamlet about 3 a.m. Second-Lieutenant McMaster’s71 6 Troop (only one tank, two having been put out of action by shellfire) was followed by Second-Lieutenant Kendall’s72 8 Troop. ‘But now came the worst check yet. Not 200 yards from the church the road was lit up by blazing haystacks on both sides, right under the muzzles of a nest of German tanks or anti-tank guns that were pumping shells straight down the road, just clearing the Shermans.’73 The 23rd Battalion in Celle was calling by wireless for help, and Headquarters 5 Brigade and Divisional Headquarters were urging the tanks to go. McMaster reconnoitred on
foot and was convinced that once the leading tank got between the haystacks it would ‘be potted like a sitting duck’ and would block the road; after he and an NCO had explored the ground on both sides of the road, he decided ‘it was not possible for tanks to negotiate it.’74
When the fires in the haystacks died down about dawn, the tanks continued on to Celle, where McMaster’s pulled in behind the church. Kendall’s went past it, but suddenly came face-to-face with a German Mark IV, which fired a round or two into the air and then hastily retired along a side road and behind some trees. Kendall’s troop pulled in behind a ruined house.
Two Mark IV tanks, accompanied by German infantry, came towards Celle and fired into the houses. ‘The Sherman crews knew nothing of this until it was all over. ... Our guns were still thundering, wireless reception was bad, there were buildings in the way, German shells were dropping, battle smoke hung over Celle.’75 When McMaster finally learnt of the presence of the German infantry, he moved his tank round the church and ‘knocked big chunks off a house at the far end of the village, striking some panic into the enemy, who left smartly. About the same time the Mark IV tanks went too, urged on by a huge artillery “stonk” that fell just in the right place.’76
The enemy did not counter-attack again, but continued to shell Celle. A direct hit immobilised McMaster’s tank. Towards midday three tanks of 5 Troop went through the hamlet to the cemetery and in the afternoon B Squadron’s 17-pounder tank also came through and joined 23 Battalion’s leading platoons. By this time, however, there was not much for the tanks to do, ‘except just to be there. The Air Force was all over the sky, swooping on any movement in the enemy lines. A house 500 yards past the cemetery [probably Casa Gessa], which had been the headquarters for Jerry’s counter-attacks, was “done over” by the 17-pounder tank, and the Kittybombers came down and bombed it almost to the ground. This support was a bit close for the boys’ liking, but they appreciated it later, when a self-propelled gun, burnt out and still smoking, was found in the ruins.’77
While B Squadron of 18 Regiment was held up at Celle early on the morning of 15 December, A Squadron was extended in single file back along the lane leading down from the Ragazzina ridge. Maori guides tried to direct their half-squadron (2 and 4 Troops) to their company positions, but the tanks could not get across
the paddocks and ‘might as well have saved their fuel. Once off the lane they could not move five yards. One got bogged down hopelessly, the rest gave up trying. They could only wait until the way through Celle was open.’78 It was mid-morning before they could go through the hamlet and double back towards 28 Battalion, and by that time of course the Maoris had been counter-attacked and had lost much of the ground they had gained during the night. The Shermans went into position wherever they could find cover. No Tiger tank was seen, but a Mark IV scored a hit on a Sherman. An A Squadron 17-pounder tank then knocked out the Mark IV.
The other half of A Squadron did not have to go through Celle because the route to 22 Battalion turned off near Gavallana and climbed another ridge rising westwards. ‘This was a road only by courtesy, narrow and nasty like all the others, sown with mines along the edges, but farther from the storm centre, and not such a favoured target for Jerry’s shells.’79 By dawn 1 and 3 Troops were well along this ridge and ‘married up’ with 22 Battalion. They were followed by 10 Troop of C Squadron, to add extra fire power from a position which gave a commanding view into enemy territory beyond Celle as far as the Senio River. Enemy activity intensified in that region as the day progressed; he tried to get his tanks and other vehicles away to the north but was hampered by the ever-watchful Air Force. A Mark IV tank which appeared on a low rise ahead was promptly knocked out by some of A Squadron’s Shermans, and from time to time they engaged vehicles beyond Celle which B Squadron, although much closer, apparently could not see. One of their more successful shoots finished off a self-propelled gun.
Fifth Brigade’s attack had dented but had not breached a strongly defended line. It was clear before daybreak on the 15th, therefore, that C Squadron of 18 Regiment would not be able to burst through, as intended, to the Senio River.
Early in the afternoon, however, General Freyberg advised 5 Brigade that there were indications that the enemy was withdrawing from Faenza. Brigadier Pleasants told 23 Battalion that the enemy was expected to retreat across the Senio that night, and warned the battalion to be ready to advance along the road, which crosses the Celle stream beyond the hamlet, to the junction with Route 9 near Pieve del Ponte, where the highway crosses the Senio.
The New Zealand Division was to advance north-westward with 6 Brigade on the right and the 5th on the left. Already 43 Gurkha Brigade (Brigadier A. R. Barker) and 48 Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment, had been placed under the Division’s command, and 20 Armoured Regiment and a troop of Crocodiles (flame-throwers) of 51 Battalion, RTR, under 6 Brigade’s command. Sixth Brigade was to extend its left flank north of the Lamone River that night. Fifth Brigade was directed to the Route 9 crossing of the Senio, and also was to be responsible for opening the road from ‘Ruatoria’ through Celle to Route 9 for the passage of 20 Regiment. A battalion (2/10 Gurkhas) of 43 Brigade was to come under 6 Brigade’s command for the clearing of Faenza, and the remainder of the Faenza Task Force was to be at three hours’ notice to leave its base at Forlimpopoli.
That evening A and B Companies of 23 Battalion were replaced at Celle by D Company; B Company of 28 Battalion left Case Ospitalacci and dug in near the Celle church to reinforce D Company of the 28th at Villa Palermo; B and D Companies of 25 Battalion were to be prepared to move up to Route 9, and 24 Battalion was to be ready to cross the Lamone River and close up on the right flank of the 25th. With Route 9 as the axis of advance, 6 Brigade was to face up to the Senio River with 24 Battalion on the right and the 25th on the left; both battalions were to have a squadron of tanks in support.
When the moves and reliefs were completed on the night of 15–16 December, four battalions held the New Zealand bridgehead, the 25th on the right flank from the Lamone River through La Morte to the vicinity of Casa Colombaia, the 28th at Villa Palermo and Celle, the 23rd westwards from Celle to Casa Bersana, and the 22nd on the left at Sebola, Casa Mercante and Casa Elta.
West of the New Zealand bridgehead 10 Indian Division’s role had been to clear the ridge from Pideura to Pergola and the high ground farther to the north. The attack by 10 Indian Brigade towards Pergola made little progress at great cost, but farther west 25 Brigade captured houses just short of 5 Corps’ objectives and at dawn beat off a counter-attack. The Pergola ridge, therefore, was threatened on both sides – by 5 NZ Brigade on the east and 25 Indian Brigade on the west – and the enemy’s withdrawal was inevitable. Consequently 90 Panzer Grenadier Division pulled back towards the Senio River while 26 Panzer Division prepared to evacuate Faenza and form a switch-line between the Lamone and Senio rivers north of the town.
Thus the enemy had suffered a decisive defeat. Fifth Corps had attacked in greater strength than he had expected; evidently
he had not appreciated that such a build-up of forces could be achieved in a short time on the atrocious road system south of the Lamone. The fighting had fallen mostly on five battalions of 90 Panzer Grenadier Division, three of 305 Division (west of the 90th) and on one battalion of 26 Panzer Division. By the end of 16 December the New Zealand Division had taken 300 prisoners, killed at least 200 Germans, and wounded many more, while its own casualties were about 200.80 In addition 10 Indian Division had taken nearly 100 prisoners and probably killed and wounded a greater number, but its own casualties were not light.
General Freyberg, having decided at 3 a.m. on 16 December that his men had had sufficient rest, told 5 Brigade to get moving again. Brigadier Pleasants therefore ordered 23 and 22 Battalions to continue their advance towards the Senio River and the 28th to push out towards Route 9.
Before dawn D Company of 23 Battalion sent a platoon along the road beyond Celle to the crossing of the Celle stream, where it appeared that a Bailey bridge would be required. German tanks were seen milling about near the road junction on the far side. Shortly after 7 a.m. an explosion was heard at the Route 9 crossing of the Senio. Air observation confirmed that the bridge there, as well as two over the Celle stream, had been demolished. The infantry of 23 and 22 Battalions and the tanks of 18 Regiment made some progress towards the Senio during the day, but the General directed that no attempt was to be made to cross the river, although patrols were to reconnoitre for suitable places and other information.
The engineers repaired and cleared the roads of mines, including the road from ‘Charing Cross’ (or ‘Ruatoria’) to Celle, which opened the way from Hunter’s bridge for support weapons and supply vehicles. The M10s followed the tanks through 22 Battalion’s sector and deployed not far from the loops of the Senio south of Castel Bolognese.
On the right flank B and C Companies of 28 Battalion were unopposed in their advance to Route 9 north of Celle. The Maoris saw the enemy making for shelter across the highway. Lieutenant- Colonel Awatere, no doubt eager to carry on to the Senio, reported to Brigade Headquarters shortly before 2 p.m.: ‘Give us engineers to clear mines, get tanks up and we will go after the enemy.’81 He
was told that the engineers would clear the mines and the tanks give support, but his battalion was not to go beyond a point almost a mile from where Route 9 crossed the river.
Sixth Brigade’s sector had been shelled, mortared and machine-gunned during 5 Brigade’s attack on the night of 14–15 December, with such effect that two or three houses had to be evacuated, but subsequently this sector was quiet. It appeared to 25 Battalion’s troops near Faenza that the enemy had gone before dawn on the 16th. An attempt to draw fire brought no response. Brigadier Parkinson told the battalion commander (Lieutenant-Colonel E. K. Norman) to send A and C Companies along the roads leading into the town from the west. The two companies entered isolated houses, capturing a mere handful of Germans, and continued as far as a cemetery just outside the town. Meanwhile B Company patrolled to Pogliano (one of the Maori Battalion’s objectives during 5 Brigade’s attack), and D Company to a more distant house; these two companies, B on the right and D on the left, then pushed onward to Route 9 north-west of Faenza.
Divisional Cavalry Battalion, facing Faenza across the Lamone River, heard the movement of vehicles in the town shortly after midnight on the 16th, and explosions an hour or two before dawn. Sergeant Flynn82 of C Squadron crossed the river on an improvised footbridge, went into the town on his own, and brought back a prisoner from whom useful information was obtained. Flynn then led a fighting patrol into the town to capture several snipers.
After daybreak B Squadron men on the stopbank of the Lamone saw civilians waving white flags from houses on the other side. Divisional Cavalry crossed the river on the debris of the Route 9 bridge, and entered the town without opposition, except from a house which was soon demolished by fire from M10s. There was little evidence of mining and booby-trapping, which might be explained (as it was by a prisoner) by the explosion of a large dump of mines outside a church by artillery fire. The bombing and shelling of the town before the enemy’s departure had resulted in the exodus of most of the population, some to the south but most to Castel Bolognese or Lugo and the surrounding district beyond the Senio. Only an estimated 4000 remained of the original 40,000 inhabitants, and most of these had spent the last few days in cellars, where they had taken food and clothing; they had had comparatively few casualties. The Germans, however, had looted Faenza thoroughly. No fighting occurred in the streets, but some sniping and mortar fire came from the direction of the railway station, on the northern fringe of the town.
Some time before the German withdrawal 7 Field Company had been advised that it was to bridge the Lamone at the entrance to the town. The water gap was known to be from 60 to 70 feet wide, and the shelving banks were bounded by high stopbanks between 150 and 200 feet apart. The bridge was to be 350 yards south of Route 9, at one of two sites selected from a study of aerial photographs; an estimate had been made of the equipment and materials required, and careful thought given to the loading of the 40 trucks of the bridging column so that there would be the least possible delay.
The engineers began work soon after Divisional Cavalry began to enter Faenza. Their tasks included the construction of a 30-foot and a 100-foot span, the clearing of mines and the preparation of the approaches to the site, the filling of two bomb craters, the erection of a crib pier on one bank and a crib abutment on the other, and the demolition of a three-feet-thick brick wall and a house.
The bridge was opened to a long line of traffic about midday on 17 December, by which time 27 Mechanical Equipment Company had bulldozed a route through Faenza, despite the damage done by the Allied bombing and enemy demolitions. The total time taken for the completion of the bridge was 16 hours, which included less than 11 hours for the construction of the 130-foot of Bailey bridging. This, the Lindell bridge, carried all the traffic into Faenza during the next eight days while a high-level bridge on Route 9 was being constructed.
New Zealand patrols reached the Senio south-west of Castel Bolognese on 16 December, but in some places the enemy was still on the near side of the river, especially in the vicinity of the Route 9 bridge site. He showed no intention of falling back to the Senio on the right flank, where he had reacted vigorously to 56 Division’s deception scheme and had resisted all attempts to cross the Lamone north-east of Faenza. The intention of securing a bridgehead about a mile downstream from this town had been abandoned.
Divisional Cavalry had entered Faenza with little difficulty on the 16th, but 2/10 Gurkhas, under 6 Brigade’s command, encountered strong defensive positions on the northern outskirts. The Gurkha battalion reverted to the command of 43 Brigade next morning, when that brigade became responsible for clearing the last of the enemy from Faenza and capturing road junctions and
crossroads to the north. Divisional Cavalry patrolled to the railway at dawn on the 17th and later occupied positions in the northern part of the town. The Gurkhas were stopped from advancing northward along the road to San Silvestro by a counter-attack, and at nightfall had not passed the Scolo Cerchia, a wide drain about a quarter of a mile beyond the railway.
Early on the morning of 17 December General Freyberg visited Faenza, where it had been decided to move Divisional Headquarters from Forli. The headquarters offices were set up in the centre of the town in the afternoon, probably little more than half a mile from the enemy, who was presumed to be farther away. About 4 p.m. ‘British tanks supporting Gurkhas passed through Div HQ ... and came into action from the area marked Visitors Car Park. We are at least thankful for a good solid casa. ... GOC insists upon sleeping in caravan which [is] on Route 9, the only place we could get. A considerable flap in the evening owing to reports of counter-attack on Gurkhas which appears to have driven them back from the Scola [Scolo Cerchia] to the railway. Certain amount of shellfire in the town and tracer to be seen above the buildings. Much tommy-gun and machine-gun fire to be heard. Div HQ spent what might be called a somewhat disturbed night. Alarums and excursions increased later in the evening and we passed to the 18th in a state of disquiet.’ Next morning people were ‘astir early owing to apparent proximity of machine-gun fire. ... As Div HQ really too far forward, decision was taken to move it back across the river to the outskirts of Faenza. ... New buildings not nearly so luxurious, but adequate, it is hoped.’83 Divisional Headquarters was then located in Borgo Durbecco, but re-entered Faenza on the morning of the 20th.
III: The Halt at the Senio
By 17 December 5 Corps’ spearheads had reached the Senio. The New Zealanders patrolled to the river, but the enemy still held positions on the near bank, especially in the vicinity of the Route 9 bridge site. The 10th Indian Division secured small bridgeheads farther upstream, but was compelled to withdraw when they were counter-attacked. This division could make no further progress until the supply situation improved and the enemy was cleared from the environs of Faenza.
The first New Zealanders to reach the bank of the Senio were members of a patrol from D Company, 22 Battalion, who approached the winding river south of Castel Bolognese unopposed in the evening of 16 December. That night and subsequently patrols from 23 Battalion were prevented by machine-gun, mortar and artillery fire from getting close enough to examine the Route 9 crossing of the river. B and C Companies of 22 Battalion, in the Casale–Osanna area, were consistently and at times heavily shelled and mortared, and had to vacate several houses which were badly hit. Patrols reported that the river near Casale was some 30 feet wide and swift-flowing between 12-foot banks; they did not find suitable sites for bridges.
Contact was made with 10 Indian Division on the left flank. On 5 Brigade’s other (northern) flank 28 Battalion occupied positions between Route 9 and Celle. In the afternoon of the 18th 7 Platoon of A Company, accompanied by three tanks, occupied a house across the highway without opposition. German infantry and tanks counter-attacked a few hours later, but were driven off by accurate artillery and mortar fire after coming within 200 or 300 yards of the house.
Meanwhile 6 Brigade continued its north-westward advance on the right of 5 Brigade. The two leading companies of 25 Battalion (B and D), after reaching Route 9 beyond Faenza, were intended to wheel left and carry on towards the Senio between the highway and the railway; the other two companies were to be relieved near the cemetery by 2/10 Gurkhas. B and D Companies killed or captured a few Germans but were hampered by rows of grape vines and by small-arms, mortar and shell fire; even with the support of tanks from A Squadron, 20 Regiment, they were unable to get closer than about 1500 yards of the Senio during the night of 16–17 December.
The 24th Battalion, which was to advance on the right flank, crossed the Lamone River in the afternoon of the 16th and continued north-westward around the rear of the 25th. By nightfall its B and D Companies were between Route 9 and the railway and the other two companies south of the highway. B Company’s right-hand platoon crossed the railway but came under fire and withdrew. A Company was held up at a road and railway crossing less than half a mile from the outskirts of Faenza. B and D Companies pushed on north-westward and captured Pasotta, a group of buildings about 100 yards over the railway and 2000 yards from the Senio. Two platoons (13 and 15) remained at Pasotta, where for the time being they were the only New Zealanders north of
the railway. Like 25 Battalion, the 24th (supported by tanks from B Squadron of 18 Regiment) could go no farther towards the Senio because of the German defensive fire.
Sixth Brigade was then directed north-eastward beyond the railway and thus parallel with the south-east bank of the Senio. A Company of 24 Battalion cleared the railway crossing where earlier it had met the German strongpoint, but met further opposition in some houses about 300 yards away. B Company crossed the railway on the left of A and reached a group of buildings at Lanzona. The advance was continued in the early hours of the 18th, with the support of tanks, artillery, mortars and machine guns. A Company reached Bocca di Vino, at a road and track junction about half a mile beyond the railway, and B Company a house about a quarter of a mile farther north-west.
Unfortunately the tanks, from B Squadron of 20 Regiment, were delayed by mines and were not in a position to assist the infantry when the enemy counter-attacked at 6.45 a.m. A Company’s commander (Major I. G. Howden) reported that German tanks ‘proceeded to blast the houses, but our troops held on in the hope that tank support would come. ...’ By 7.30 a.m., however, the company was compelled to retire from Bocca di Vino. Some men of 9 Platoon, several of them wounded, had to be left behind; four of the wounded were recovered, but six men, including an officer, were taken prisoner. Meanwhile B Company had found that the house it was supposed to capture was a pile of rubble, so was obliged to return to Lanzona.
The same night (the 17th–18th) the enemy counter-attacked Pasotta, but was beaten off while burning haystacks lit up the scene. This illumination prevented the defenders (13 and 15 Platoons) from withdrawing – had they wished to do so. A Tiger tank surprisingly did not open fire, perhaps because the enemy expected to recapture the house intact. Some German infantry returned at dawn and began digging slit trenches close to Pasotta without troubling to ascertain whether anybody was there. The New Zealanders opened fire, killed an officer (upon whose body was found a key to codewords, maps marked with enemy positions, and other useful documents) and wounded two men; the rest escaped.
The 24th Battalion now held a line which was a north-westward prolongation from the Scolo Cerchia (which turned south just beyond Faenza). The enemy brought down intense shell and mortar fire: 70 mortar bombs were counted in the vicinity of Pasotta in an hour.
West of 5 Corps, the Polish Corps had crossed the Sintria River and reached the Senio; the Canadian Corps, on the seaward flank, had crossed the Lamone River and the Canale Naviglio, which runs north-eastwards from Faenza, but had made little progress in very hard fighting north of Bagnacavallo. Eighth Army, therefore, was still some distance short of the Senio between Route 9 and the coast.
Meanwhile some important changes had taken place in the Allied command. Field Marshal Alexander became Supreme Allied Commander Mediterranean on 12 December in succession to Field Marshal Wilson, who was to lead the British Joint Staff Mission in Washington, and Lieutenant-General Clark left Fifth Army to take Alexander’s place at Headquarters Allied Armies in Italy, which was redesignated Headquarters Fifteenth Army Group. Lieutenant-General Truscott, who had commanded the US 6 Corps at Anzio and in southern France, assumed command of Fifth Army.
Clark intended to continue the existing pattern of the offensive: he instructed the Eighth Army Commander (General McCreery) to ‘proceed with current operations with the object of launching an attack to force a crossing of the Senio River in conjunction with the Fifth Army’s attack’,84 which he hoped to deliver against Bologna shortly before Christmas.
Eighth Army’s pressure on the Adriatic flank had shown results: the enemy had brought 90 Panzer Grenadier Division from reserve to aid 305 Infantry Division and on 9 December had thrown it into battle against 5 Corps south-west of Faenza; shortly after the Canadian Corps’ attack over the Lamone River, he had taken 98 Infantry Division from Fifth Army’s front and rushed it across to bolster 356 Infantry Division; he had also committed 29 Panzer Grenadier Division to relieve 26 Panzer Division on the New Zealand Division’s front north-west of Faenza. Thus he had been compelled to relieve two of his divisions opposing Eighth Army and bring in an additional division at the expense of the front south of Bologna, where evidently he had discounted the possibility of an offensive by Fifth Army in the prevailing bad weather.
The enemy might have been holding the long switch-line between the Lamone and Senio rivers because his only good bridge (at Felisio) between Route 9 and the small town of Cotignola (where the two rivers curve towards each other) was being harassed by 5 Corps’ artillery – or because Hitler had ordered positions east of the Senio to be held at all costs. Fifth Corps’ immediate task was to
break through this switch-line and close up to the Senio north of Route 9. The 56th Division had attempted without success to cross the Lamone east of Faenza. As long as the 56th and New Zealand divisions were short of the Senio, an advance beyond it farther south was out of the question: 10 Indian Division would invite disaster if it crossed with an open right flank.
It had been intended that Fifth Army should open its offensive against Bologna when Eighth Army had seized bridgeheads over the Santerno River, but it was now decided that the Fifth would have to attack when the Eighth was on the Senio instead of on the Santerno. Eighth Army, therefore, was to resume the offensive on the night of 19–20 December to secure the east bank of the Senio between Route 9 and the sea, and Fifth Army was to be prepared to launch its attack on Bologna three or four days later. After crossing the Senio, Eighth Army was to drive the enemy beyond the Santerno; it was to develop its main effort from Imola (on Route 9) towards Budrio (north-east of Bologna), and was also to make a strong secondary effort (which might become the primary one if the situation developed in its favour) farther north through Lugo and Argenta to Ferrara, on Route 16.
Fifth Corps’ immediate plan was for the New Zealand Division to attack north-eastwards to clear the enemy from the ground between the Naviglio Canal and the Senio River, and for 56 Division to cross the Lamone River and clear the ground on the New Zealanders’ right between the Lamone and the Naviglio.
At an orders group conference at Divisional Headquarters on 18 December the commanders of 6 Brigade (Brigadier Parkinson) and 43 Gurkha Brigade (Brigadier Barker) said they would be ready to attack on the night of the 19th–20th. General Freyberg told his officers that if the ammunition was available and the guns could be deployed, ‘we are considering withdrawing to the line of the railway to get onto a straight line and putting in a full-scale attack as a surprise. ... We know the enemy is holding on a line of strong posts; 6 Brigade is against them already.’85 The difficulty was that if the Division attacked with its left flank on the road parallel with the Senio, the enemy defences along the banks of the river would be able to shoot into this flank. ‘If we leave things weak there the enemy will be in a position to come in and cause a certain amount of trouble in our rear. ... However, we have very good roads ahead and we have three regiments of tanks. As long as the
country is dry we might be able to do a full-scale attack and then exploit in the direction of the [Felisio] bridge which must carry most of his maintenance. ...’86
Details of all phases of the attack were discussed at this and another conference in the evening. The General indicated that in the event of 6 Brigade ‘getting well through’, the 5th might have to take over on its left, and 10 Indian Division would then be asked to relieve 5 Brigade. ‘We want to ensure that if 6 Brigade gets a bridgehead we can consider going over. In the meantime the only thing we have promised to do is clear Route 9. ...’87
The Division’s orders, issued that evening, stated that its intention was to attack north-eastwards with 43 Gurkha Brigade on the right and 6 Brigade on the left88 to open up Route 9 west of Faenza. The infantry was to advance at the rate of 100 yards in six minutes, for about 2500 yards on the Gurkhas’ front and 3000 on 6 Brigade’s.
The artillery barrage was to open at 9 p.m. on 19 December, pause for 36 minutes at 10.40 p.m. and finish at 12.50 a.m. on the 20th. Ten field regiments and four and a half medium regiments – more than 300 guns altogether – were to participate in the bombardment; their tasks, in addition to the barrage, were to fire timed concentrations on known enemy locations and a counter-battery and counter-mortar programme.89
Sixth Brigade’s object was to secure a line extending about 2500 yards south-eastwards from the Senio River near La Palazza along a lateral road through San Pietro in Laguna towards San Silvestro (in 43 Brigade’s sector), with 24 Battalion on the right, 25 in the centre and 26 on the left.
On the night of 18–19 December patrols from 56 Division still were unable to cross the Lamone River because of enemy activity, and there was no sign of a withdrawal on the New Zealand Division’s 8000-yard front. German infantry and tanks counter-attacked a house held by 7 Platoon of 28 Battalion just west of Bastia Nuova, between Route 9 and the railway about 1000 yards from the Senio, but were repulsed by the artillery and heavy
mortars. The enemy was very sensitive to movement in the vicinity of the Route 9 crossing of the river, where he brought down defensive fire on the slightest provocation.
About dawn on the 19th, however, reports from civilians and the sound of demolitions indicated that the enemy was withdrawing from his positions north of Faenza. Divisional Cavalry heard 20 or 30 explosions in the direction of the Naviglio Canal. The Gurkha Brigade, without opposition, occupied San Rocco and by evening had troops within half a mile of San Silvestro. Despite the many mines in the vicinity, the engineers completed a bridge over the Scolo Cerchia.
On 6 Brigade’s front the enemy appeared to have vacated some of his foremost houses and to be on approximately the line of a track scarcely half a mile north of the railway. Support Company of 23 Battalion took possession of an empty house at Fabbriche, between the Senio and the Maoris’ houses near Bastia Nuova, and the enemy abandoned another house at Fabbriche when it was demolished by tanks of C Squadron, 18 Regiment. The tanks also engaged Pieve del Ponte, closer to the river, but the enemy did not give up this locality, although some of his men ran from houses there.
Despite the reports of the German withdrawal on the Gurkhas’ front, General Freyberg decided not to cancel the attack that night. After visiting the three infantry brigades he declared that the enemy was ‘holding very tight on the left. Battle is on.’90 At a divisional conference in the afternoon it was resolved not to alter 6 Brigade’s plan ‘by a single gun’, but to start the barrage for 43 Brigade about 400 yards ahead of the line it was on already. The GOC said that at a certain stage he would tell 5 Corps he had ‘reached his limit’; 56 Division was then to go up on the right, and 43 Brigade go into reserve. Later the New Zealand Division might cross the Senio on its own front or do a ‘left hook’ through 10 Indian Division.
General Keightley telephoned in the evening to say that he had seen General McCreery, who had agreed that the attack was to go on. Freyberg commented that he did not really know whether the enemy was ‘falling back now or not, but at any rate it was too late to do anything.’ Keightley thought it might be ‘a very big thing if we caught him on the move.’91
Sixth Brigade’s advance on the night of 19–20 December cut diagonally across the boundary between 278 Division (north and
north-east of Faenza) and 29 Panzer Grenadier Division (near and along the Senio) and captured over 180 Germans. Prisoners, when interrogated, said that the barrage had not killed or wounded many men because of the protection given by houses and slit trenches, but the closeness with which the New Zealanders had followed the shelling had had a very great effect on morale.
Fifth Brigade, whose role was to support the attack with neutralising fire on the far side of the Senio and on strongpoints in advance of the barrage, used its mortars, M10s and 18 Regiment’s tanks. Two companies of 27 (MG) Battalion put down harassing and defensive fire across the river, and a third company fired on the roads parallel with 6 Brigade’s line of advance; altogether the Vickers guns fired nearly 100,000 rounds. The enemy reacted vigorously to the artillery barrage and 5 Brigade’s demonstration, especially with shell and Nebelwerfer fire in 23 Battalion’s sector near the Route 9 crossing.
During the attack 24 Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel R. L. Hutchens), farthest from the Senio River in 6 Brigade’s sector, advanced with D Company on the right and C on the left, followed by A and B. Each company had a troop of tanks of B Squadron, 20 Regiment, in support, and C also had a troop of M10s. Shortly after crossing the start line 17 Platoon of D Company ran into a minefield and shellfire, which caused 15 casualties, including its commander killed; it was replaced by the reserve platoon (No. 18), and the company was on its objective by 1 a.m. C Company was opposed at Casa Busa, about midway between San Silvestro and the Senio, but was ordered to leave this place for B Company and continue on to its objective; it consolidated in and around San Pietro in Laguna at 1.30 a.m. A self-propelled gun caused some concern until the supporting tanks knocked down the house from which it had been firing. B Company, following C, took Casa Busa, and A Company mopped up pockets overrun by D. Altogether the battalion’s casualties on 19–20 December were seven killed and 21 wounded.
In the centre of 6 Brigade’s sector, 25 Battalion (Lieutenant- Colonel Norman) attacked with three companies – A, D and C from right to left – and with the fourth (B) in a mopping-up role. At the start C Company was caught at the railway crossing by heavy fire,92 which caused casualties and delay while the survivors were regrouped, but continued the attack under Major Taylor93 ‘armed with a walking stick’.94 Meanwhile A and D Companies made good
progress and were on their objectives shortly after 1 a.m.; they were an hour and a half ahead of C, which had incurred about two-thirds of the battalion’s casualties of 13 killed and 49 wounded. A bulldozer filled in a demolition which had blocked the road near the railway crossing; this enabled the tanks of A Squadron, 20 Regiment, to be with the infantry before dawn.
The 26th Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Fairbrother95), on the left flank, was set the difficult task of holding a long front: its objective was from the crossroads at La Palazza (about two miles north-east of Route 9) to the Senio stopbank 250 yards away, and then south-westward along the winding river to just south of the railway. Fairbrother decided to commit all four rifle companies: C (on the right) and D (left) were to go about half-way; B was then to pass through and advance to the objective in the vicinity of La Palazza; two platoons of A were to follow C and D in a mopping-up role, and the third was to protect the engineers who were to clear the road to La Palazza. The supporting arms, excluding the Mortar Platoon, which was to go into position behind the start line, were to stay at Faenza until called forward when the road was open. At first it was intended that the companies, after reaching their objectives, should wheel left and advance on to the stopbank, but shortly before the attack began ‘the Colonel learned that the eastern stopbank of the river was extensively mined; acting on orders, he told his company commanders to stop short of the river bank.’96
The battalion motored from Forli to Faenza early on the 19th, and marched along Route 9 to the start line in the evening. Within a few minutes of the beginning of the attack the battalion came under artillery and mortar fire, which caused most of its casualties, but it met little opposition on the ground. C and D Companies were in position about 12.30 a.m., and B an hour later. Each turned to face the river, which placed B on the right, C and A in the centre, and D on the left. They did not close up to the stopbank. The tanks of C Squadron of 20 Regiment arrived before dawn. The 26th Battalion’s casualties were 12 killed and 45 wounded.
When Brigadier Parkinson reported the situation as he knew it to General Freyberg at 1.45 a.m., the GOC said that if the tanks could get through he wanted to direct 6 Brigade on the Felisio crossing of the Senio: ‘Now is the time for energy. Push on those tanks and push hard. I think you are just about up to him and I
believe you can get your armour through by daylight where it will be able to move across the open.’97 A few minutes later, when Brigadier Barker reported that the tanks were with the battalions of 43 Brigade, the GOC told him, ‘Now is the time when the enemy is disorganised and you can get your tanks forward in the dark. Push on as fast as you can but you must have your tanks up.’98 The General also discussed with Brigadier Queree the movement of the guns north of Route 9, where the problem would be to anticipate the direction of future attacks.
When he heard about 6 a.m. that the tanks were with 6 Brigade’s infantry, the GOC said it was most important that the brigade should get the Senio crossing: ‘The Gurkhas are on the way now. Push on as hard as you can. ...’ The policy was for 6 Brigade to go to Felisio, and 43 Brigade for Casanigo (farther east) and Sant’ Andrea (near the Naviglio Canal). The crossing of the Senio that night (20–21 December) ‘might well save another operation.’99
The Division, however, was unable to exploit 6 Brigade’s gains. In daylight on the 20th the enemy was able to prevent any further northward advance. A platoon from B Company of 24 Battalion and a troop of tanks could not conform with what was intended to be a thrust by 25 Battalion. A patrol from A Company of the 25th was despatched to a road junction about 1000 yards beyond La Palazza, to occupy it if unopposed and then continue on to the Felisio bridge; the rest of the company was to be ready to follow. The patrol was pinned down by machine-gun fire well short of the road junction and returned without several men who were wounded. Two of the wounded came back later to report that their officer was dead; another man died of wounds while a prisoner of war.
Any chance of seizing the Felisio bridge intact had long since gone: the Divisional Artillery had reported at 9 a.m. that observation from the air had found it demolished.
A party of engineers from 8 Field Company who set out in a scout car to remove a demolition charge was ambushed by some Germans in a ditch alongside the road between La Palazza and the road junction which had been the 25 Battalion patrol’s first objective. The driver and a wounded corporal escaped, but a sergeant and four sappers were taken prisoner. The car contained codes and marked maps.
In the afternoon Colonel Norman advised Brigadier Parkinson that, because his men (25 Battalion) were tired and the enemy apparently still present in some strength, he thought further advances
in daylight were out of the question; instead he favoured an advance at night after the men had rested.
To close a small gap on 25 Battalion’s left flank D Company established a standing patrol in a house between La Palazza and the Senio. Already 28 Battalion had moved troops into the area between Route 9 and the railway to link 5 and 6 Brigades and thus give the Division a continuous four-mile front near the south-east bank of the river. The Gurkha Brigade, by occupying San Silvestro and other positions between San Pietro in Laguna and the Naviglio Canal, completed the Division’s north-eastern front of about two and a quarter miles between the Senio and the Naviglio.
Meanwhile 167 Brigade of 56 Division had crossed the Lamone River not far from Faenza and taken up a line between that river and the Naviglio Canal east of San Silvestro. By the end of 20 December, therefore, 5 Corps’ line north of Route 9 ran from the Lamone near Ronco to the Senio near La Palazza.
The attack by 6 NZ Brigade on the night of 19–20 December, according to a German report, ‘wasted an enormous amount of ammunition.’100 On the 18th 15 Panzer Grenadier Regiment of 29 Panzer Grenadier Division held a narrow bridgehead forward of the Senio River, but that night adopted a new grouping in great depth; next morning most of 15 Regiment was in defensive positions on the west bank of the Senio, ‘with battle outposts in about battalion strength left in the bridgehead, accompanied by an artillery OP.’
‘The orders given to these battle outposts were to cover and screen the adoption of the new positions in depth; to keep up plenty of activity and vigorous fire and deceive the enemy into thinking the bridgehead was held in strength; and to make a fighting withdrawal by groups over the Senio if attacked by a superior force. ...’ In the evening of the 19th the ‘terrific fire’ of the barrage (three-quarters of which was on 29 Division’s sector, the rest on 278 Division’s) ‘led to the certain conclusion that the enemy imagined our bridgehead to be strongly held, and planned to cut off and destroy this large force forward of the Senio. Taken by and large, his thrust was wasted. The battle outposts offered stubborn opposition, but the night was so pitch black that the enemy was able to penetrate the line and attack the company HQ
and Bn HQ while the forward outposts were still reporting “No sign of the enemy yet”. The heavy shellfire cut all the telephone lines very soon, and wireless communication failed about midnight, so that from 0100 hrs on it was impossible to co-ordinate the operations of the outposts. Each outpost was therefore forced to act on its own initiative, in accordance with the orders previously given. After many adventures, including some magnificent feats of valour by individuals, the greater part of the outpost garrison succeeded in making its way through the curtain of fire and our minefields to the FDLs west of the Senio by midday on 20 Dec. Early that morning several of our forward outposts could still be heard firing their MGs, although completely cut off. They must have continued to fight against overwhelming odds until their ammunition ran out. ...’
General Clark informed the commanders of Fifth and Eighth Armies on 20 December – five days after the deadline set by General Alexander at the end of October for the cessation of the offensive – that ‘the time is rapidly approaching when I shall give the signal for a combined all-out attack. ...’101 General McCreery was to be prepared to assault across the Senio at the same time as Fifth Army struck northward at Bologna.
The Canadian Corps had begun an attack towards the Senio on the same night (the 19th–20th) as the New Zealand northward attack, and had overrun Bagnacavallo and reached the river on the 21st, but the enemy still held a salient east of the Senio between the Canadians and 5 Corps and another north of the Canadians.
The further continuation of the advance was considered at a conference at the New Zealand Divisional Headquarters on the morning of the 20th. The scheme was to face north with 56 Division, 43 Gurkha Brigade and the New Zealand Division, get the guns into position north of Faenza, reconnoitre the Senio, and cross the river north of Route 9. The CRE (Colonel Hanson102) pointed out that this would present a considerable bridging problem for the engineers. The plan might take four days because work would have to be done on the roads and bridges, and troops would have to be relieved. The alternative was to cross the river south of Route 9, on 10 Indian Division’s front.
General Freyberg told 5 Corps that the enemy was ‘pretty firm on the ground. If he does not go back it will need another operation to push him.’103 In the afternoon Corps confirmed orders that the operation to clear the enemy between the Lamone and Senio was to continue in two stages, the first a northward advance to a line between Borgo Sant’ Andrea and Felisio, and the second to the corps’ northern boundary, which crossed the Naviglio Canal at the village of Granarolo, 3000 yards south of the town of Cotignola (on the opposite side of the Senio).
Because of the length of the Division’s front, about six miles, the GOC wanted to readjust his dispositions as a precaution against counter-attack. Fifth Brigade was to relieve the troops of the 6th south of the railway that night (20–21 December), carry out internal reliefs, and hold its sector with two battalions while the other two rested in Faenza and Forli. It was intended to resume the advance next day, with 6 and 43 Brigades directed on the line between Sant’ Andrea and Felisio.
During the night, therefore, 21 Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel E. A. McPhail) relieved 23 and 28 Battalions between the railway and 22 Battalion. A and B Squadrons of 18 Regiment withdrew to Faenza, but C Squadron’s tanks remained where they could support 21 Battalion if necessary against infiltration at the Route 9 bridge site or elsewhere. Seventeen-pounder anti-tank guns were sited where they could shoot down Route 9.
A mobile reserve called Campbell Force (under Colonel Campbell104) was formed on 21 December for defence against counter-attack in the vicinity of Faenza and to protect the Division’s flanks if necessary. It comprised Headquarters 4 Armoured Brigade, 19 Regiment, an anti-tank battery, two machine-gun companies, and a battalion of 5 Brigade (at this stage the 23rd, billeted at Faenza – the 28th was at Forli); and was in touch with the artillery.
General Freyberg warned the officers attending a divisional conference on 21 December that they would ‘have to be teed up’ for the proposed combined attack by Fifth and Eighth Armies, and to plan for its starting on the 26th. In the meantime he wanted ‘to rest as many people as possible and at the same time to look at the task of getting the enemy back behind the Senio. I think myself he will go.’105 Brigadiers Parkinson and Barker, however, did not think the enemy was going, at least not at that stage.
The minefields near the river presented difficulties in crossing north of Route 9.106 When the GOC suggested to General Keightley that it might be better to go south of the highway because of the difficulties to the north, the corps commander replied that he would much prefer the Division to do so. Finally, after Keightley had discussed the matter with McCreery, the decision was taken to go to the south, and 6 and 43 Brigades were advised accordingly.
The 43rd Brigade, which was to have a rest, was relieved by 167 Brigade on 22 December. The boundary then followed a northerly line from Faenza, west of San Silvestro and east of San Pietro in Laguna, to the Sant’ Andrea – Felisio road. In the New Zealand sector 6 Brigade’s role was to hold its front without going any farther towards Felisio, but it was to try to get the enemy off the Senio stopbank if it could.
A New Zealand attack in conjunction with but after one by 10 Indian Division was considered at a conference on the 22nd. Further information was required on approaches to the Senio and its crossing places south of Route 9, and plans would have to be made for assembling a force to attack in a south-westerly direction. Two or three battalions and two squadrons of tanks might be required. Each brigade was to produce a small reserve of tanks and infantry, and 6 Brigade’s front was to be held by two instead of three battalions.
The 25th Battalion expanded to the right to relieve 24 Battalion, which went back to billets in Forli; the 25th’s sector then ran south-eastward from La Palazza approximately along the road through San Pietro in Laguna. Thus the Division held its front with one battalion facing north between the Senio and the boundary with 56 Division, and three towards the Senio River, the 26th between La Palazza and the railway, the 21st from the railway to the Osanna locality, and the 22nd on the left flank in the vicinity of Casale.
In the evening of 21 December a patrol from 21 Battalion had been prevented by machine-gun fire from getting a clear view of the river near the Route 9 bridge site, but before dawn another patrol went through a minefield gap south of the highway and discovered that little bridging would be necessary to provide a crossing for tanks and infantry. Next night 21 Battalion’s patrols encountered gun, mortar and machine-gun fire, which caused several casualties but did not stop the search for crossing places on both sides of Route 9. Patrols from 22 Battalion found one or two suitable sites for a bridge farther upstream, but much work would have to be
done on the approaches before they could be used by wheeled vehicles.
The enemy set fire to haystacks at night to hinder the patrols from 26 Battalion from reconnoitring the minefields and the banks of the river north of the railway. A German patrol which fired a bazooka at a house was driven off by the New Zealand occupants, but left two deserters who gave information about their company’s positions (on the near bank of the river) and defences. Harassing fire by the artillery and mortars periodically checked the sound of digging which could be heard on the stopbank at night, but the enemy, apparently determined to get on with his work, replied with what was claimed to be equally heavy fire on the houses occupied by the New Zealanders.
The information gathered by the patrols was discussed at a divisional conference on 23 December. Brigadier Parkinson said 6 Brigade had been unable to get anybody closer to the Senio than the minefields, and was directed by the GOC to get to the river next night. Brigadier Pleasants reported on 5 Brigade’s patrolling, and Colonel Hanson amplified the information from 22 Battalion, whose patrols had been accompanied by engineer officers. Two routes to the loop of the river west of Casale were merely muddy, narrow tracks which would require several days’ work on them, and this was impossible by day or night on the more southerly route because it came under gunfire; the other crossing would require 100 feet of bridging and probably would take 16 hours to complete.
The GOC pointed out that when Fifth and Eighth Armies attacked, the New Zealand Division’s operation would depend on communications and the state of the river; instead of conforming as planned with 10 Indian Division’s flanks, therefore, the Division might have to establish a bridgehead at a place which would be more likely to stand up to bad weather. ‘We have to consider going north as well as south of Route 9. This operation would mean that we finish up with a bridgehead unrelated to the main attack that is going in in the south.’107 This was a question which would have to be decided by the Army Commander.
There was a light fall of snow on 23 December. The enemy, who increased his mortar and small-arms fire on 26 Battalion, particularly on the northern part of its sector, where any movement drew fire, would have to be driven off the near stopbank to deny
him observation. Brigadier Parkinson, who had been urged to get to the river, ordered an attack in the vicinity of a prominent bend near the demolished Palazzo Laghi. A platoon of A Company (to be reinforced later if possible) was to make the assault before dawn on the 24th, and was to be accompanied by a section of another platoon to reconnoitre the river and its banks; 5 and 6 Field Regiments were to support with a barrage during the advance and were then to engage selected targets; mortars, machine guns and B and C Companies’ infantry weapons were to give flanking fire on both sides of the objective.
Although this supporting fire had been designed to saturate the enemy’s defences – 2200 shells were shot into the target area in a short time – it did not drive him out. No. 8 Platoon (Second- Lieutenant Rogers108) and a section of 9 Platoon followed a track towards Palazzo Laghi, which the company commander (Major Murray109) proposed to use as a control post. Before the men reached the house they were seen in the light of German flares and came under mortar fire. From the house the sections, two heading north-eastward and two westward, made their way as fast as they could along ditches to the stopbank. They were met by fire from posts in front and on the flanks, but climbed the bank and fought the Germans at close quarters. They won several hundred yards of the bank, but the enemy prevented them from consolidating by tossing grenades across the river and shooting with small arms at those who attempted to dig in on the crest.
The enemy brought enfilading fire to bear from both flanks and began a bombardment with field guns, mortars and Nebelwerfers. Almost half the attacking party became casualties: three were killed and 11 wounded. Rogers advised Murray at 8.15 a.m. that he could hold his gains on the stopbank no longer. Under the cover of smoke laid by the mortars, and carrying as many of the wounded as possible, his men returned direct through the minefield because the routes by which they had approached the river were now under fire. Private Prattley,110 who had taken charge when his section leader had been wounded and also had silenced a spandau crew with hand grenades on the stopbank, went ahead cutting trip wires so that his companions could get back quickly and safely.
Although 8 Platoon had been unable to retain any part of the stopbank, the section from 9 Platoon completed its reconnaissance in the bend in the river. Sergeant MacKenzie,111 a strong swimmer,
had lowered himself into the water, which was running high between snow-covered banks 20 to 30 feet apart; he submerged to determine the depth (five feet near the edge and eight feet in the middle), climbed the far stopbank and surveyed the reverse slope and the defences along the crest. A shout from a German in a dugout only a few feet away warned him that he had been seen, so he quickly slid back into the water and returned to his own lines.
Later in the morning stretcher-bearers went to the foot of the near stopbank, where several of the wounded had been left. They found that German stretcher-bearers, despite fire from both sides, had bound up the New Zealanders’ wounds and moved them to a safer place. After an exchange of cigarettes and some discussion, the Germans allowed the New Zealanders to remove their wounded to 26 Battalion’s lines.
This was not 6 Brigade’s only attempt to establish a platoon on the stopbank of the Senio. An attack by 25 Battalion five or six weeks later also failed and incurred more numerous casualties.
Late on 23 December a Gurkha battalion (2/6) of 43 Brigade relieved D Company of 26 Battalion and D Company, 21 Battalion, in the sector between the railway and Route 9. The Gurkhas reported that the Senio was unsuitable for crossing by raft, Ark or tank in this sector, and Bailey bridging would be very difficult; also that crossing places on the southern side of the highway would be impracticable because the ground was thickly wooded and the stopbanks and adjacent areas sown with mines. Farther upstream, however, patrols from 21 Battalion found no mines near the river, which flowed between easily sloping banks (not stopbanks) 12 to 18 feet high, and saw a suitable place for launching kapok bridging.
At a divisional conference on 24 December, a bitterly cold day when patches of snow lay on the ground and roofs, the brigade commanders and the CRE reported in detail on the reconnaissance of the river. General Freyberg, who had attended an Army Commander’s conference at Forli that morning, gave an appreciation of the attacks to be made by other corps of the Allied armies and the possible timings for 5 Corps’ assault. His plan was to attack with one battalion of 43 Brigade on the right and two battalions of 5 Brigade on the left at 7 p.m. on 27 December.112 The attack, however, was not to begin unless the Air Force could give it full co-operation; and if it was not under way within four days, it probably
would be postponed until early in January. Late in the afternoon of the 24th the GOC told the commanders of 5 and 6 Brigades and the CRA by telephone that the date of the attack was ‘plus four days’.
On Christmas Eve carol singing was heard from many quarters. The General, in a special order of the day, sent greetings to all ranks of the 2 NZEF in Italy and the Middle East. ‘May this be the last Christmas that we spend away from our homes. ...’
Christmas Day was overcast and very cold, with snow still lying thinly on the rooftops, and for most men was exceptionally quiet. Those in the foremost positions were prevented from celebrating or from attending church services, except perhaps in small groups, because of the danger of moving about in daylight, but wherever possible the senior officers visited their men. Some Christmas dinners were postponed until the unit was out of the line, but many cooks prepared meals which marked the day as being one out of the ordinary. ‘As a result of recent expeditions organised by all ranks,’ 5 Field Regiment – which could not have been alone in this – had ‘an abundance of poultry ... which, helped out by additional grants from NAAFI, provided everyone with a simply magnificent Christmas Dinner. ...’113
‘With great restraint’ most men had ‘accumulated a small hoard of beer from recent Naafi issues, and this together with a generous distribution from the National Patriotic Fund Board, provided a fairly adequate supply of Xmas cheer to observe Xmas Eve in traditional style. ...’114 At least one dinner ‘evoked praise from even the most hardened critics of army cooks.’115 The menu for an NZASC company included roast turkey, chicken and pork, roast and creamed potatoes, roast pumpkin, cauliflower and white sauce, oranges, nuts, beer, wine and cigarettes.
The following night the Luftwaffe raided the Faenza region three times; a large bomb struck the roof of the house in which the GOC’s caravan was located, penetrated a floor and the outside wall, and came to rest on the roadway outside without exploding. Apparently no casualties occurred among the New Zealanders in Faenza during these air attacks, but the remaining civilians were not so fortunate.