Chapter 9: The Spring Offensive
I: The Plan
AT the end of March 1945 Fifteenth Army Group’s front ran across the Italian peninsula from just south of Massa on the Ligurian coast to Valli di Comacchio on the Adriatic. On the left Fifth Army (Lieutenant-General Truscott) held a zigzagging line across the northern Apennines to Monte Grande, about 10 miles south-east of Bologna; on the right Eighth Army (Lieutenant-General McCreery) continued the line south-eastwards from Monte Grande over the Sillaro and Santerno rivers and north-eastwards along the southern banks of the Senio River to the southern shore of Lake Comacchio and the Adriatic coast. This was the line on which the Allied winter offensive had been brought to a halt by bad weather, lack of ammunition, exhaustion, and the need for regrouping.
There had been little change on Fifth Army’s front since the conclusion of the offensive. The enemy’s sudden attack down the Serchio River valley in December had been blocked and the line restored. In February and early March the newly arrived 10 US Mountain Division, together with 1 Brazilian Division, had captured several heights and advanced a few miles to improved positions on each side of Route 64 (the Bologna-Pistoia highway). Thirteenth Corps had passed from Fifth Army to Eighth Army on 18 January, which left 1 Brazilian Infantry Division, 6 South African Armoured Division and 8 Indian Infantry Division as the only non-American formations, other than the Italian Legnano Combat Group, in Fifth Army.
In both Fifth and Eighth Armies the divisions rested, reinforced and replenished. The reorganisation in Eighth Army included the
expansion of the New Zealand Division already described, and of 56 (London) Division and the two Polish divisions each from two to three infantry brigades, and the provision of flame-throwing tanks (Crocodiles), amphibious carrier-tanks (Fantails), infantry-carrying tanks (Kangaroos), and other types of new equipment.
Planning for the spring offensive was well advanced when the decision was taken to withdraw to western Europe 1 Canadian Corps and two groups of the Twelfth US Air Force, as well as three British divisions (1, 5 and 46 Infantry Divisions) from Greece and the Middle East. Eighth Army’s loss, however, was compensated by a reduction in German strength to meet the demands of other fronts and by the transfer of 8 Indian Division from Fifth Army.1
Command of Army Group C passed on 11 March from Field Marshal Kesselring, who had been appointed Commander-in-Chief West, to General von Vietinghoff, who had at his disposal 21 German and four Italian divisions and various minor formations, against an Allied force of 17 divisions and four Italian combat groups plus six armoured and four infantry brigades. Opposing Fifth Army was the German Fourteenth Army (General von Senger) with 51 Mountain Corps on the west and 14 Panzer Corps on the east; opposing Eighth Army was Tenth Army (General Herr) with 1 Parachute Corps on the west, 76 Panzer Corps on the east, and 155 Infantry and 29 Panzer Grenadier Divisions in army reserve north of the River Po; in Army Group reserve south of the Po was 90 Panzer Grenadier Division. Other German and fascist
formations were dispersed in northern Italy between the French and Yugoslav frontiers. The Corps Lombardy, on the coast of the Gulf of Genoa, and 75 Corps, on the French frontier, formed the Army Liguria.2 Altogether Vietinghoff commanded 599,514 men (439,334 Germans, including approximately 45,000 anti-aircraft and police troops, and 160,180 Italians), of whom about 108,000 ‘of extremely doubtful value’3 came under the supreme SS4 and police command. They faced 616,642 men (including 70,468 Italians) in Fifth and Eighth Armies.
On Eighth Army’s front it was calculated before the offensive began that the Allied infantry strength was 57,000 (of whom 10,500 were in the Italian and Jewish formations), and the enemy’s was 29,600; the Allied forces had 1220 artillery pieces of all kinds and the enemy 665, and in armour (tanks, assault guns and self-propelled anti-tank guns) the enemy was outnumbered by 1327 to 400.
The enemy’s position was weakened by his lack of air support, although he had strong anti-aircraft artillery, especially on the eastern flank. Aircraft of 22 Tactical Air Command of the Twelfth US Air Force and the Desert Air Force almost continuously attacked his transport and lines of communication, including railways, roads, bridges and supply dumps, as far north as the Brenner Pass and the north-eastern corridor through the Julian Alps. The bridges over the River Po had been destroyed in the autumn of 1944, and pontoons and alternative methods of crossing were attacked repeatedly. Consequently the enemy became so short of motor vehicles and fuel that he was obliged to rely increasingly on horse and ox-drawn transport and on farm carts and civilian cars. On the other hand the comparative inactivity of the winter months did not make heavy demands on his stocks of ammunition, food and clothing.
The enemy’s difficulties of holding the broad territory of northern Italy were aggravated by the sabotage and harassing tactics of an estimated 50,000 organised partisans. ‘Large sections of the Italian people had rebelled against their former ally,’ says General von Senger. ‘The route we used for the withdrawal [from the Gothic Line] ran for 100 kilometres across bleak and coverless pass roads into the plain of the Po, which we were unable to dominate. Raids were a daily occurrence, and it was difficult to capture the guerrillas, who roamed about the high mountains. Some were under Communist leadership, others under the British. At first one could distinguish the so-called patriots from the Communists. Thus it might
happen that our trucks would be intercepted by bourgeois partisans who respected their Red Cross markings; they would be allowed to proceed after being warned of a Red partisan ambush farther along the same road.
‘The justifiable anger that was generated by these raids, especially when the situation was critical, and the fact that the perpetrators were not caught, led to reprisals by the German troops. But the guerrillas evaded these counter-measures, which unfortunately fell too often on innocent people, thus producing the opposite effect to that intended. Consequently the Germans were hated by more and more people. ...
‘The development of the situation had robbed the Fascist- Republican Government of its last support from the Italian people. The government-sponsored Blackshirt Brigades were probably more loathed by the population than were the German occupying troops or the Allied liberators, or the guerrillas of whatever political colour. The compulsory co-operation with the Blackshirts, far from easing the task of the German armed forces, made it more difficult, for it meant that the Germans were put in the same category with the most hated section of the population...’5
In Bologna, says von Senger, ‘there had been serious excesses by the German troops. ... little realising that in the end they are piling up trouble for themselves.’ The partisans ‘were the underworld and the gangsters who ruled the town. Before I took over the sector, they had made an armed raid on the leading hotel, firing indiscriminately on the guests in the hall, most of whom were German officers or Italian Republican Party adherents. Our own security service came to the conclusion that it would not be possible to arrest any large number of partisans in the town, since they could always go underground again. ...
‘In the Bologna area the partisans became especially dangerous through their close contact with the increasing number of German deserters from the colours. These gave the partisans first-hand information on conditions in the Wehrmacht, which was useful to them since they were working as spies for the Allies. We knew about this through occasionally catching some of these spies. Nor could we trust our own spies, who seemed to be moving about much too freely on the enemy’s side, and were probably taking money from both sides.’6
General Clark’s plan for Fifteenth Army Group’s spring offensive was similar to that which had been drawn up in December. The
object was to form in the Po valley a bridgehead which would include Bologna and Ferrara to facilitate the regrouping and building-up of supplies before the continuation of the operations. If the situation permitted, however, there was to be no pause on this line.
The operations were to be conducted in four phases. In the first Eighth Army was to force a crossing of the Senio River and advance to the Santerno River. In the second it was to cross the Santerno and advance to the Sillaro River, and at the same time launch an amphibious operation on the right flank directed on Argenta, while Fifth Army was to undertake some preliminary operations west of Route 64. In the third phase Eighth Army was to direct its main effort to the capture of Budrio (north-east of Bologna) and at the same time develop a strong secondary thrust towards Argenta (the importance of these two thrusts might be reversed), while Fifth Army was to open its main offensive west of Route 65 (the Florence-Bologna highway) with Bologna as its objective, and was to make a secondary attack through the high ground west of Route 64 (the Pistoia-Bologna-Ferrara highway) to the north-west. In the fourth phase the two armies were to establish the Po valley bridgehead around Bologna and including Ferrara and the River Panaro.
Thus an attack by Eighth Army was to be followed by one by Fifth Army, with the object of securing a large bridgehead in the Po valley as the first stage of an advance into north-eastern and north-western Italy.
When Fifteenth Army Group issued the directive for this plan on 24 January, Eighth Army comprised nine divisions, three Italian combat groups, two independent infantry brigades and six independent armoured brigades. Eighth Army’s plan for its part in the offensive was to attack with two corps (six divisions) between Routes 9 and 16 and establish a bridgehead over the Santerno River. A third corps (three divisions) would then mount an amphibious and airborne attack against Argenta across the flooded areas; this thrust was to be supported by advances towards the north and west by the troops in the Santerno bridgehead. No drastic revision of this plan was necessary when General McCreery was told of the decision to withdraw to western Europe the Canadian Corps, the three British divisions from Greece and the Middle East, and 200 American fighter-bombers.
In the original Eighth Army plan the Canadians were to have been responsible for the attack on the northern flank, the amphibious operations across Lake Comacchio, the pursuit and the further
semi-amphibious operation involved in crossing the Po, which would have left 5 Corps and the Polish Corps free to concentrate on the main attack farther inland. Headquarters 13 Corps was responsible for looking after the extended left flank south-east of Bologna, and Headquarters 10 Corps was still in Greece. With the departure of the Canadian Corps, therefore, 5 Corps became responsible for the right flank as well as the right of the main attack in the centre.
To bring the greatest possible weight to bear on the front of the assault General McCreery allotted the larger proportion of his forces to 5 Corps, which then comprised 56 and 78 British, 8 Indian, and 2 New Zealand Divisions, 2 and 9 Armoured Brigades (the latter including the Fantail force and sufficient Kangaroos to carry two infantry battalions), 21 Tank Brigade, 2 Parachute Brigade, 2 Commando Brigade, Cremona Combat Group, and the Jewish Brigade (later transferred to 10 Corps). Fifth Corps’ tasks were to establish bridgeheads over the Senio and Santerno rivers, to be prepared to exploit rapidly on the axis of Bastia-Argenta-Ferrara, and to mount an operation with Fantails across Lake Comacchio with a view to seizing the Argenta Gap (not before the bridgehead had been established over the Santerno).
The Polish Corps, comprising 3 Carpathian and 5 Kresowa Divisions, 2 Polish and 7 British Armoured Brigades, 43 Gurkha Lorried Infantry Brigade, Friuli Combat Group (later transferred to 10 Corps) and 7 Hussars (with Kangaroos to lift one battalion), was to establish bridgeheads across the Senio and Santerno rivers south of and in conjunction with 5 Corps, and was to be prepared to exploit rapidly on two axes, towards Medicina-Budrio and Castel San Pietro. Thirteenth Corps (10 Indian Division and Folgore Combat Group) was to hold Eighth Army’s left flank, advance towards Route 9 when the Polish gains gave the opportunity, and eventually go into army reserve. The 6th British Armoured Division was in reserve at the start of the battle.
Eighth Army’s plan, therefore, was for a frontal assault by two corps on parallel axes north of Route 9 and towards Massa Lombarda, and an amphibious thrust against Argenta; subsequently the main weight of the army was to be directed northwards through Argenta, while the Poles continued the advance westwards on Budrio and Bologna. General Clark approved of this plan – if the advance through the Argenta Gap was considered feasible – but was of the opinion that it did not provide sufficiently for thrusting westwards; he desired that Eighth Army should be equally prepared to thrust either westwards or northwards after establishing a bridgehead over the Santerno River. He also doubted
whether 13 Corps’ sector, which included Monte Grande,7 was held strongly enough. To comply with his wishes, 5 Corps’ tasks were revised, 13 Corps’ strength was increased by one battalion, and when it became known that Headquarters 10 Corps would be available, it was given a sector (to be held by the Jewish Brigade and Friuli Combat Group) between 13 Corps and the Poles.
Fifteenth Army Group issued directions on 12 February for the conduct of the battle after the fall of Bologna. The capture of a large bridgehead, including Ferrara, in the Po valley would accomplish the immediate object of the initial battle as defined in the directive on 24 January. The army group’s intentions then were the ‘development’8 of the Po and Adige river positions with the object of capturing Verona. After Eighth Army had crossed the Adige it was to capture Padua and Venice as quickly as possible. The army group axis of advance was to be from Bologna to Verona, and the capture of the latter town was intended to seal the main escape route and make major operations in north-west Italy unnecessary.
The day was rapidly approaching, General Clark wrote on 7 March, when Fifteenth Army Group ‘must contribute its full share to the final offensive which will crush the German armed forces.’9 He directed that plans be completed, movements made and preliminary operations executed to permit the main attack to be launched on 10 April. Eighth Army was to be prepared to attack from three to five days before the Fifth. The situation was to be reviewed on 1 April, when the opening date would be finally decided.
Sufficient Fantails would be ready by 10 April to carry only one infantry brigade, which meant that an amphibious operation with Argenta as its objective would be beyond the capacity of the forces available. The next most valuable objective would be the bridge over the Reno River at Bastia; if this were secured, it would clear the approaches to Argenta from the south and give 5 Corps freedom to manoeuvre, so that it could be directed either north or west from Massa Lombarda; and it would cut off the line of retreat of the two German divisions opposing the corps’ right flank. Parachutists (from 2 Parachute Brigade) might join the amphibious force, but were not to be dropped south of Argenta – to avoid the anti-aircraft defences of the Bastia area.
After considering methods of ensuring that 5 Corps should be able to throw into the northerly thrust sufficient weight to break the Argenta Gap and at the same time retain sufficient in the westerly thrust to satisfy the army group’s requirements – for which the Polish Corps alone was not thought adequate – General McCreery decided that it might be possible to release 10 Indian Division from its task of holding Monte Grande in 13 Corps’ sector in time for it to reinforce the Poles’ drive towards Bologna; also, if 5 Corps’ progress was slow in exploiting northwards, the New Zealand Division might be required to continue on the Budrio axis in conjunction with the Polish Corps.
Thus the Eighth Army plan was for 5 Corps and the Polish Corps to attack across the Senio River and secure bridgeheads across the Santerno (the codename for this operation was BUCKLAND), and for 5 Corps to exploit northwards towards Bastia and Argenta – with the possibility of the New Zealand Division continuing westwards to Budrio. Fifth Corps also was to undertake preliminary operations on Lake Comacchio, and was to be prepared to mount amphibious operations which might include capturing crossings over the Reno at Bastia or in the vicinity, exploiting the capture of the Spit round the north and east of Lake Comacchio and turning or capturing the Argenta Gap in conjunction with 2 Parachute Brigade.
In Operation BUCKLAND 5 Corps directed 8 Indian Division on the right and the New Zealand Division on the left to attack across the Senio River on the corps’ front and converge to meet beyond the town of Lugo; 78 Division, situated between these two divisions, was not to advance until later. The first objective was to be the line of the Canale di Lugo, short of the Scolo Tratturo, the enemy’s intermediate prepared position between the Senio and Santerno. On the second day of the offensive the Indian and New Zealand divisions were to advance side by side to the Santerno and secure a large bridgehead. Then 78 Division was to go forward, pass through the Indian division and strike northwards towards Bastia and Argenta with the object of linking up with the amphibious forces. The pocket of enemy cut off south of the Reno River was to be cleared by 8 Indian Division and the Cremona Combat Group. After crossing the Santerno the New Zealand Division’s task would be either to protect 78 Division in its drive northwards, or to continue westwards towards Budrio.
The preliminary artillery bombardment was to consist of five distinct bombardments separated by intervals, and during the fifth
interval, when it was hoped the enemy would have been deceived by a series of false alarms, the infantry was to attack across the Senio. The foremost troops were to be withdrawn from the stopbanks during the barrage and were to return and form up when the artillery lifted in the final false alarm, which was to be followed by an intensive flaming of the enemy positions on the far bank along the whole corps front by all available Crocodile and Wasp flame-throwers. After the assault the river was to be bridged rapidly.
The Polish Corps (on the left) decided to attack with 3 Carpathian Division, less the new infantry brigade but reinforced by 6 Lwow Brigade from 5 Kresowa Division, and with 7 Armoured Brigade under command. Because the two new Polish infantry brigades lacked training and experience, they were placed under
an improvised headquarters called ‘Rudforce’ with the task of holding the Route 9 sector, where no assault was to be made.
Although the Polish Corps was about half a mile from the near stopbank of the Senio, and 5 Corps was close up to it, they were to attack at the same time, 7.20 p.m. on 9 April, so that both could get the maximum air and artillery support. The Poles anticipated greater difficulty and therefore delay in crossing the Senio, but as the distance between the Senio and the Santerno was less on their front than on 5 Corps’, it was expected that the two corps probably could reach the farther river together.
The plans for the air and artillery support were closely integrated. On the afternoon of 9 April approximately 800 heavy bombers of the Strategic Air Force were to ‘carpet’ with thousands of small fragmentation bombs an area of about two and a quarter square miles in front of the Polish Corps and one of about nine square miles in front of 5 Corps, with the intention of paralysing the enemy’s reserves and disrupting his communications without making large craters which might hinder progress later (as the bombing had done at Cassino). About 120 medium bombers of the Tactical Air Force were to attack three gun areas opposite the Poles’ front, and 48 medium bombers of the Desert Air Force a gun area opposite 5 Corps’ front. About 500 fighter-bombers of the Desert Air Force and 200 of 22 Tactical Air Command (which normally supported Fifth Army) were to attack hostile batteries, strongpoints, mortar positions and headquarters on the frontage of the attack and all movement on the roads approaching the battle zone.
During the intervals between the five ‘false alarm’ artillery bombardments preceding 5 Corps’ assault crossing of the Senio, fighter-bombers were to bomb and strafe the far bank of the river; later they were to blitz the stopbanks in front of the Polish Corps. A hundred night light bombers were to combine with the artillery in a counter-battery programme, and 100 night heavy bombers were to attack the Santerno defences in front of both corps. In daylight on 10 April the normal fighter-bomber support was to be provided, and the heavy bombers were to saturate with small bombs a strip of country of about 10½ square miles immediately beyond the Santerno.
The allotment of artillery in Eighth Army (excluding anti-aircraft, anti-tank and infantry guns) was 678 pieces for 5 Corps, 339 for the Polish Corps, 96 for 10 Corps, and 160 for 13 Corps, a total of 1273 field, medium and heavy guns. The enemy was believed to have only 187 field and medium guns and 36 Nebelwerfers deployed in positions from which they could engage the
assault. The artillery ammunition supply was much better than had been thought possible, and the programme was prepared with the knowledge that reserves were plentiful.
Although the attacks across the Senio and Santerno were expected to destroy a large part of the German forces, it was still necessary to plan for the completion of the enemy’s destruction south of the Po and for the rapid crossing of that river to forestall the occupation of the Venetian Line and the delaying positions south of it. The Allied Air Forces could not be expected to completely block the enemy’s withdrawal; consequently Eighth Army would have to organise a pursuit.
If 5 Corps broke rapidly through the Argenta Gap, it would have to undertake simultaneously the crossing of the Po and the
destruction of the enemy south of it; but if 5 Corps failed to penetrate the Argenta Gap quickly, it would have to press on in as great strength as possible westward towards Budrio and Bologna. In the former contingency the solution would be to relieve 5 Corps of the responsibility for the Po crossing by bringing Headquarters 10 Corps up on the right to assume command of the forces that had taken part in the northern operations, plus one other division from 5 Corps and most of the available amphibious vehicles. This force would then cross the Po rapidly wherever opportunity offered, while 5 Corps continued the drive north-westwards towards Bondeno – which would not preclude 5 Corps also forcing a crossing of the Po if the opportunity should arise.
If 5 Corps failed to penetrate the Argenta Gap quickly, the weight of the westward drive was to be increased by continuing the New Zealand Division’s advance towards Budrio and by bringing 10 Indian Division forward to join it, with both divisions commanded by 13 Corps. As General McCreery believed that this contingency was the more likely, he warned the commander of 13 Corps (Lieutenant-General Sir John Harding) to be ready to assume control at short notice.
‘Whenever we attacked the Germans in Italy we took them by surprise,’ claims Field Marshal Alexander. ‘A particularly successful example was the May, 1944, offensive when we managed to persuade them that we were going to make another landing at Civitavecchia, north of the Tiber, to meet which Kesselring dispersed his reserves well away from the real point selected for the attack. We decided that the only cover-plan which was possible in our present circumstances was another version of the same story. The threat this time was to be directed against the Adriatic coast north of the Po. In fact, according to my naval advisers, an assault landing in this area was a physical impossibility but we hoped that the enemy, who was very ignorant in matters of amphibious warfare, would not have the benefit of such expert advice. We took steps to foster the deception by ostentatious activity in the port of Ravenna and hoped that Eighth Army’s preliminary operations up the coast would help to confirm it. In the event ... our hopes were completely justified.’10
To allow Fifth Army to capture Bologna and thrust northwards with as little delay as possible, Fifteenth Army Group’s plan was designed to draw enemy troops away from that sector without
attracting too much attention to Eighth Army’s front. The object, therefore, was to suggest an imminent threat to the coast at the head of the Adriatic Sea.
The enemy11 apparently appreciated that the first blow would be struck by Eighth Army, which would direct its main effort on the axis of Route 9, and that there would be a seaborne and airborne landing farther along the Adriatic coast. Vietinghoff therefore retained 29 Panzer Grenadier Division well north of the River Po. The commander of 76 Panzer Corps, when taken prisoner, confirmed that this division had been held in readiness for an expected landing in the Gulf of Venice, and declared that it was committed too late in the battle for the Argenta Gap.
Because the enemy expected the main offensive to follow the usual pattern of attacks up Route 9, Tenth Army was unprepared for Eighth Army’s assault on its left flank which outflanked the river lines, and consequently its three most powerful divisions, astride and south of Route 9, were unable to take an effective part in the battle until it was too late. Similarly, Fourteenth Army was occupied with a diversionary attack on its right flank when Fifth Army began its main offensive in the centre.
II: The Senio Stopbank
A conference of the senior officers (lieutenant-colonels and above) of the New Zealand Division in the mayor’s office at San Severino on 18 March ‘packed the old, square, high-ceilinged room, like an audience at a theatre. But no theatre audience ever gave more concentrated attention than did these men to General Freyberg on that spring morning. They sat on rows of chairs facing a small dais, where stood the high-backed carved chair of the mayor, and his desk, between two tall windows whose shutters had been pulled together to keep out the blinding sunshine. Behind the dais hung three big diagrams. It was of these that the General was speaking, and it was on these that the eyes of every man in the room were fixed with that intensity which fighting, or the planning of fighting, gives to those whose lives are directly affected.’12
After stressing the importance of security – only those attending the conference were to know the facts in the meantime – the GOC outlined the plan of attack, which was to be in four phases: in the
first (after the occupation of the near stopbank) the Division was to seize a bridgehead over the Senio on a front of 3200 yards, with 5 Brigade on the right and 6 Brigade on the left, erect high- and low-level bridges, and pass the armour and supporting arms across; in the second phase the Division was to advance to the Santerno, in the third it was to establish a bridgehead over that river, and in the fourth it was to exploit from this bridgehead.
Orders were issued for the Division to take over a sector on the Senio front between Cotignola and Felisio, where 5 and 6 Brigades were to relieve a brigade of 78 Division; 9 Brigade was to be in reserve in a bivouac area. After reconnoitring with the GSO I (Colonel Gilbert13) the sector the Division was to take over, the GOC held a conference of formation commanders and senior staff officers at Divisional Headquarters on the 28th to discuss the return to the line and further planning. The GSO II (Intelligence), Major G. S. Cox, gave the latest information available about the enemy, who was thicker on the ground than previously ‘because he has put almost everything he has got forward along the river. ... We calculate that he has now got one man to every 5 yds of the 4000 yd front we are taking over.’14 His only local reserves, however, were a small assault section for each company, except on the extreme right, where he had two companies forward and one in immediate reserve.
The GOC announced that 8 Indian Division was going to attempt both stopbanks in the one assault, which he considered ‘a tough proposition. ... they are prepared to risk it and to depend on the bombardment.’15 Because the sector in which the New Zealand Division was to attack was some distance downstream from the positions it had occupied near Route 9 during the winter, it would be necessary to reconnoitre and locate the enemy’s wire, bridges, posts and minefields, and ascertain his habits, so as to be able to determine the layout for the assault, crossing places, wire and minefield gaps, fire positions, and ramps from which the Wasps and Crocodiles would flame the far bank.
Colonel Gilbert outlined the plans to conceal the Division’s return to the line and Eighth Army’s preparedness for an attack by creating the impression with dummy wireless traffic and other means of deception that the Division was in 10 Corps south of Route 9, and that 5 Corps was to do a seaborne landing.
The GOC said he had been very much impressed by all that he had seen during his visits to units. ‘Morale is right on top. We have highly trained leaders, and none of the troops themselves are battle-tired. I consider that the period of preparation before the attack is of very great importance. ... you must get a fierceness into patrolling that we seem to have lost during the last year. I am certain that really active patrolling and sniping in the preparatory period will greatly reduce casualties in the actual attack – you can get on top of the Hun in that way.’16
The New Zealanders’ move from the Fabriano region to Eighth Army’s front, a distance of about 130 miles, began in the evening of 30 March. From assembly areas near Forli the units were directed to their allotted positions, which had been reconnoitred by advance parties. The Division came under the command of 5 Corps on 1 April and completed the relief of 11 Infantry Brigade, 78 Division, the following night. On the right 5 Brigade took over from 5 Battalion, Northamptonshire Regiment, with 21 and 28 Battalions right and left respectively and the 23rd in reserve behind the Lamone River; on the left 6 Brigade relieved 2 Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers, with 25 and 24 Battalions right and left respectively and the 26th in reserve between Granarolo and the Lamone. Each forward battalion had two companies in the line and the others in reserve. The troops – including the Maoris – had sewn 78 Division flashes (yellow battleaxes) on their battledress in an attempt to disguise themselves as Englishmen.
The precautions and subterfuges to keep secret the Division’s move into the line were futile. The New Zealanders’ impending departure from the Fabriano region was a common topic among the Italians from about 25 March, and on the way to the front they were greeted as ‘kiwis’ and ‘Neo Zelandesi’, which was to be expected ‘considering that a number of officers and OR’s had omitted to take down badges or titles and that the “secret” departure of Main Div [Headquarters] and other convoys unfortunately synchronised with the time set for the opening of a Grand Easter Procession in Matelica with the result that NZ vehicles made a spectacular exit through a lane of admiring citizens assembled on the streets of the town.’17
The Field Security Section kept a close watch on all roads and bridges during the period the Division was in the line before the
attack, and as far as possible sealed off such places as Faenza, Russi and Ravenna, which were out of bounds. Nevertheless some Italian families in Faenza were aware that New Zealand troops were in the vicinity of Russi, and the New Zealanders’ identity was soon known to the Italians in the Granarolo area, many of whom had acquaintances among them dating back to the time of the fighting around Faenza.
A document headed 289 Grenadier Regiment, dated 7 April and captured during the advance a few days later, stated that recently part of 78 Division had been replaced by the New Zealand Division. ‘A major enemy offensive must be considered possible any day now. ...’18 Three New Zealanders had been taken prisoner by a German raiding party on the evening of 5 April.
Ninth Infantry Brigade, in divisional reserve, trained with assault bridging equipment on the Montone River north of Forli, and with Kangaroos of C Squadron, 4 Hussars. Fourth Armoured Brigade arrived from Cesenatico; 18 Regiment came under the command of 5 Brigade, the 19th under 9 Brigade, and the 20th under 6 Brigade. C Squadron of 51 Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment, provided a troop of Crocodile flame-throwers each for 5 and 6 Brigades.
The artillery of 78 Division continued normal firing tasks, but only one battery each of 5 and 6 NZ Field Regiments was allowed to join in; the remainder of the New Zealand 25-pounders and the heavy mortars, M10s and 17-pounder anti-tank guns had to remain silent so that they would not disclose their positions to the enemy.
The engineers were to remain under the control of the CRE (Colonel Hanson) so that he could deploy them most effectively for the bridging and other tasks they would be required to do during the advance. A new unit, 28 Assault Squadron, was formed to work where ‘soft-skinned’ bulldozers and other appliances would be vulnerable to fire. Its headquarters and two troops were composed of men from the armoured corps and the engineers, and their equipment – some of which did not arrive until shortly before the attack – included Sherman dozers (tanks with bulldozer blades attached), Churchill AVREs (armoured vehicles to carry sappers and fascines for use in soft ground), Churchill Arks (mobile bridges), Valentine bridge-layers (Scissors) and Kangaroos. This squadron and E Squadron of 1 Assault Brigade, RAC/RE, were
to clear a path for the tanks hurrying forward to support the infantry when the sappers had bridged the river.
The engineers loaded in the correct order on trains of vehicles the materials needed for the bridges they proposed to erect, for which purpose additional transport was provided by 309 Company, RASC, and the NZASC; they searched for mines, reconnoitred and improved roads, cut timber for corduroy, felled trees to improve the artillery’s observation, and completed their preparations for the assault.
The New Zealanders’ immediate task was to winkle the enemy out of his positions on the near stopbank and dominate it. In the centre of the Division’s sector this was comparatively simple, but on both extremities there was ugly, close-range fighting.
Seven Germans had left their outpost on the stopbank to surrender to the Northamptonshire battalion on 1 April, and four men of A Company, 25 Battalion, had dug a tunnel through the bank and occupied the deserted post. When a German relief party, unaware of what had happened, approached about 5 a.m. on the 2nd, the New Zealanders wounded three men and took a prisoner. Later four German stretcher-bearers, with a Red Cross flag, clambered down a ladder on the far stopbank and crossed a footbridge to attend to a wounded man who was out of sight of the post. The New Zealanders, still wearing 78 Division flashes, left the post and tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Germans to desert; they also took advantage of the opportunity to study the river, which was about 15 feet wide, and the banks, which were steep but climbable.
A two-man patrol from 21 Battalion was prevented in the evening of the 2nd from reaching the river by the wire the enemy had erected on the reverse slope of the stopbank. Farther upstream, however, four three-man patrols from 28 Battalion gained the far side of the stopbank, and two of them went to the water’s edge; they gathered much information about the wire entanglements, the river and its banks. A patrol from 25 Battalion reconnoitred to a weir and reported that the approaches were good, and a patrol from 24 Battalion succeeded in crossing the river about a quarter of a mile above the weir, where the water was four and a half to six feet deep.
Although the enemy still had posts on the stopbank in 21 and 24 Battalions’ sectors, at both ends of the Division’s front, work was begun on clearing lanes free of mines to the bank and along its base, digging camouflaged bays for the assault boats and bridging equipment, and constructing ramps for the Wasps and Crocodiles.
A bend in the river permitted the enemy to enfilade part of the bank in 21 Battalion’s sector where C Company, on the right flank, made two unsuccessful attempts to secure a footing on 3 April. B Company completed a tunnel through the bank and found the reverse slope covered with wire entanglements; the enemy crossed footbridges quickly to and from his posts dug into the bank only a few yards from the New Zealanders, and grenades were thrown by both sides. Without any such opposition, however, two Maori patrols waded the river, each at three different places, and had no difficulty in reaching the far bank. The water was about waist deep.
A and B Companies of 24 Battalion, on the left flank, attacked the stopbank in the evening of the 3rd and dislodged the enemy from several posts, with the result that by dawn 6 Brigade was on the bank along the whole of its sector. But the enemy opposite 24 Battalion still held the other side at a distance of only a few yards. Because their grenades rolled down the bank and exploded harmlessly in the water, the New Zealanders removed the pins of two or three at a time and tossed them over in a bag to make sure that they exploded among the enemy dugouts.
As the Poles had not reached the stopbank on the left of the New Zealand Division, 24 Battalion was exposed to enfilading fire and attack from that direction. The enemy attempted twice to regain control of the bank on the battalion’s sector, but was repelled each time. Shells from a tank of A Squadron, 20 Regiment, penetrated the bank where it had been weakened by tunnelling, and destroyed some German dugouts. The battalion had to remain constantly on the alert. ‘The strain of living cheek by jowl with the enemy was beginning to tell upon the men of A and B Companies when C and D took over the line on 6 April, to continue fighting at close quarters right up to the moment of withdrawal before the general barrage. Each forward company ... used on an average 1000 grenades every 24 hours.’19
On the other (right) flank 21 Battalion infiltrated on to the stopbank and began to prepare defensive positions, but was hindered by a strong enemy post near the railway bridge site on 78 Division’s front. A counter-attack at night from that direction forced part of C Company to withdraw from its half-completed positions to previously prepared ones at the foot of the bank. A and D Companies relieved B and C on the morning of 5 April. During the night Second-Lieutenant Kirkcaldy20 and Sergeant Leech,21 of
7 Platoon, had gone forward to reconnoitre. Kirkcaldy blew a track through the enemy wire with Bangalore torpedoes, which enabled Leech to go down to the water, wade to the other side and return without drawing fire.
In the evening of the 5th a German raiding party took three prisoners from 18 Platoon. Sergeant Gardyne22 and others from the same platoon dug through the stopbank and emerged above an enemy post, from which they took five prisoners. Next morning Major Fleming23 led four volunteers (Sergeant Rae24 and Privates Griffiths,25 Tolich26 and Stephens27) from D Company in an audacious dash across open ground to the enemy post near the railway bridge site, where they captured 10 Germans and two machine guns. Early in the afternoon five more Germans surrendered to 21 Battalion after waving a white flag at the exit of a tunnel they had cut through the bank for the purpose. The prisoners and deserters gave invaluable information about the enemy dispositions and defensive-fire plans. On 7 April the Surreys took charge of the part of the stopbank D Company had cleared in 78 Division’s sector.
By this time the New Zealand Division had gained the stopbank along the whole of its front. After about a week in the line the casualties totalled 132, of whom 93 (including 10 killed) had been sustained by 21 and 24 Battalions in their efforts to get on to the bank.
Abruptly at 10.55 p.m. on 6 April the German artillery began a bombardment of Eighth Army between the Adriatic and Route 9. ‘It was a beautiful clear night, and hour after hour the shelling went on, the flashes lighting the western sky, seeming to rip and tear it apart, and the shells wailing and whistling in towards us. ... It was months since the enemy had given us such a doing over. ... This could mean one of two things. The enemy was preparing to withdraw, and was firing off his dumps before he went. Or he expected us to attack, and was shelling us first.’28
The bombardment, which decreased sharply after 1.30 a.m., seemed to be directed mostly against the gun areas and places where troops might be expected to concentrate ready for an offensive. The New Zealand guns had not been located by the enemy and therefore attracted no attention. The only damage reported was to an M10. The infantry experienced intermittent harassing fire, and 21 Battalion bore the brunt of it. Without hindrance seven patrols from 25 Battalion reconnoitred crossing places.
The bombardment raised apprehensions that the enemy might slip away before Eighth Army began its onslaught, which therefore might be wasted on empty ground. The enemy no doubt had reasons to expect an attack. His photographic reconnaissance aircraft might have detected the fresh gun positions and dumps and other signs of preparation. He would have identified as New Zealanders the three men captured from 21 Battalion, and probably recognised the Division’s return to the line as a warning of imminent action. On the other hand there had been none of the usual sounds of a withdrawal. Although the German commanders must have appreciated that the Santerno was a better line to defend, they were not likely to risk the consequences of advocating a withdrawal when Hitler had ordered them to stay.
It seemed to the senior New Zealand Intelligence officer, Major Cox, that ‘we must assume the enemy to be still on the Senio until he was definitely proved to be gone. ... we came to the conclusion that 98th Division was still holding the Senio in strength, and that the attack would hit him all right.’29 Cox put this opinion
forward at a meeting which the GOC called on the morning of 7 April. Later, when they again went over the arguments for and against the enemy having gone, the General said, ‘Don’t forget – we won’t get those quarter of a million shells back if we fire them into an empty bank.’30
Three deserters from 289 Regiment, taken by the Maori Battalion, were brought in on 8 April and, ‘to our relief, confirmed that everything looked normal on the far side.’31 The enemy was still on the Senio line. General Keightley told Freyberg during a telephone conversation in the evening that 56 Division and 8 Indian Division also had found the enemy still there.
When General von Schwerin, commander of 76 Panzer Corps, was taken prisoner on 24 April, he revealed that the bombardment on the night of 6–7 April had been planned originally to cover a German withdrawal to the Santerno 24 hours before Eighth Army was expected to attack; the withdrawal had been cancelled on orders from the German High Command, but the artillery programme had not. The result was a ‘Chinese attack’, from the other side for a change; it achieved very little except a brief stimulus to German morale.
While the New Zealand Division was gaining control of the near stopbank on its sector and making final preparations for its part in the assault on the Senio line, other forces began attacks on the extreme eastern and western ends of the front, preparatory to the opening of the Allied offensive.
The first blow was struck by 2 Commando Brigade in the early hours of 2 April on Eighth Army’s right flank, on the isthmus known as the ‘Spit’ which divides Lake Comacchio from the Adriatic Sea. The Fantails which were intended to convey the commandos to the western shore of the Spit stuck during the night in the mud close to the southern shore of the lake, and the men and their equipment were transferred to stormboats, which were hauled through the glutinous shallows in the dark. Although it was impossible to reach the Spit before daybreak, the commandos, landing behind a barrage and curtain of smoke, took the enemy completely by surprise and by the 4th had secured their objective as far as the canal south of Port Garibaldi. A squadron of the Special Boat Service captured the islands in the lake next day.
Should 5 Corps’ main thrust, after crossing the Senio and Santerno rivers, continue on a northward axis towards Argenta, it was to be
supported by a series of ‘right hooks’ on the south-western shore of Lake Comacchio designed to outflank the narrows at Bastia and Argenta. First it was necessary to capture the two-mile-wide ‘Wedge’ between the Reno River and the lake. The 167th Brigade of 56 Division crossed the Reno on the night of 5–6 April and in the next two days accomplished this task. The attacks on the Spit and the Wedge killed and wounded many of the enemy and captured well over 1000, mostly from 162 Turcoman Division (half of them Germans), and much equipment.
At the western end of the front Fifth Army began a diversionary attack against Massa on 5 April. This task was entrusted to 92 US Division, in which 442 (Nisei – Americans of Japanese ancestry) and 473 (formerly anti-aircraft) Regiments had replaced two regiments which had been detached to the Serchio valley. The enemy abandoned Massa when it was outflanked from the east, but reacted more energetically than was expected to the American advance, which did not aim at a vital objective. General Lemelsen called upon his small reserves in a futile attempt to retrieve the position.
III: The Assault on the Senio Line
Fifth Corps sent out the order late in the evening of 8 April: ‘subject to last minute changes timings for BUCKLAND will be as follows. D day 9 Apr. H hr 1920 hrs.’ At daybreak it was obvious that there would be no postponement because of the weather: the sky was bright and almost cloudless; there was a light breeze from the west. The ground was dry and firm after weeks unusually free from rain. And there had been sufficient activity on the far bank of the river during the night to confirm that the enemy was still there.
The great fleet of four-engined heavy bombers, 242 Flying Fortresses and 583 Liberators, came into view shortly before 1.50 p.m. and during the next hour and a half ‘carpeted’ their target areas in front of the Polish Corps and 5 Corps with 5171 100-pound and 143,385 20-pound fragmentation bombs. Subsequent investigation revealed that this blitz did not inflict many casualties on the enemy because of the shelter given by his well prepared positions, but it disrupted his communication system. The medium bombers of the Tactical Air Force concentrated on the areas near Route 9 where guns might interfere with the Polish Corps’ assault, and later in the afternoon medium bombers of the Desert Air Force
attacked a gun area north of Lugo, opposite 5 Corps. Fighter-bombers strafed a wide variety of targets west of the Senio.
The inaccurate bombing of Cassino the previous year had caused hundreds of casualties among Allied troops and civilians, many of them far from the town. Some aircraft had bombed Venafro, 10 miles from Cassino but similarly situated near high hills. To guard against the repetition of such an error (for the Lamone River might be mistaken from the air for the Senio), and also because there was a very narrow margin of safety between the target areas and the foremost troops, Eighth Army employed navigational aids for the bombers, such as ground indicators and bursts of anti-aircraft fire over prearranged points. Nevertheless a Polish battalion was bombed, and 40 men killed and 120 wounded. On 5 Corps’ front most of the bombs were dropped as intended, between the Santerno River and the Canale di Lugo (about two miles from the Senio), but at least one aircraft released its load on the wrong side of the Senio, in the New Zealand sector. The ‘explosions thumped and thundered just down the road behind us. ... As it happened, the bombs, though they fell right in our dumping area, caused no casualties and did very little damage.’32
The bombing beyond the Senio raised a thick cloud of yellow dust. At 3.20 p.m., when the troops had moved back from their positions near the river, the artillery and fighter-bombers began their elaborate timed programme to neutralise the foremost enemy defenders and their supporting weapons. ‘We prepared our ears for the guns, but before we heard them the patch of the stop-bank ahead seemed to be lifted in the air. Black earth, grey smoke, yellow dust, red and ochre flames suddenly rose along its edge. Then, and then only, came the sound of the guns, roaring and baying and clamouring one after another, until the whole eastern horizon was solid sound. ...’33
During the four-hour preliminary artillery programme, which was divided into five bombardments varying in duration from 20 to 31 minutes, with intervals varying from 21 to 32 minutes, the Division disposed six field regiments and two 5.5-inch medium regiments for the frontal attacks on the Senio, as well as field, medium and heavy guns, anti-aircraft guns and mortars for counter-battery, mortar-neutralisation, enfilading and harassing tasks.34
The guns firing the frontal bombardment used a technique known as the ‘Dragnet’, designed to deceive the enemy by simulating a creeping barrage behind which infantry might be advancing. When the shelling had lifted beyond the far bank, the enemy might be expected to raise his head to look around and perhaps get out of his shelter to see if an infantry assault was coming. The guns then switched their fire back to his positions on the bank.
For the first 10 minutes of each interval between the bombardments all the guns were silent while the fighter-bombers raked the stopbanks with bombs and cannon and machine-gun fire. During the remainder of each interval the enfilading guns fired along the line of the stopbanks so that their shells fell upon the weapon pits and shelters dug in the reverse slopes which escaped most of the fire from the guns shooting frontally, and other guns harassed the defences and ground beyond the river. Supplementing them were mortars, tanks (C Squadron, 20 Regiment) and machine guns. The enemy replied with spasmodic shell and mortar fire, with a lack of co-ordination which gave the impression of weapons shooting in isolation.
In the last few minutes of the fifth bombardment the artillery fired smoke on a line beyond the river, and for the next two minutes (7.20–7.22 p.m.) all guns were silent while the fighter-bombers, flying low along the river without strafing and bombing, simulated a repetition of their previous attacks to keep the Germans down in the trenches during the critical interval between the lifting of the artillery bombardment clear of the objective and the arrival of the assaulting troops. Already, shortly before 7.20 p.m., the Crocodile and Wasp flame-throwers and the leading infantry with their boats and kapok bridging, their rifles, shovels, packs and all the gear they carried, had come as close to the river as the bombardment would allow.
While the fighter-bombers were making their dummy run the flame-throwers and infantry surged forward to the river. ‘And then, quick and red and evil, came the first streak of flame, like a whip-lash between the trees, a streak of red marked in abruptly on a green canvas. The first Crocodile was hosing the stop-bank. The black smoke of burning oil rose straight up against the pale sky. Then another to the right, and others, and others – brief as the spurt of a match but, even at this distance, full of awe. One by one, like funeral pyres, the smoke rolled up. Then the orchards shook again, and the noise of the guns came back. The protective barrage was going down. ... It marked the start of the infantry assault. ...’35
While the New Zealanders rushed to the water with their boats and kapok bridges, the troops of 8 Indian Division on their right stormed the near stopbank. The advantage of having already cleared the enemy from the first bank enabled the New Zealanders to get across the water and among the warren of defences on the far bank within five minutes. Meanwhile the artillery barrage stood for 10 minutes on a line 400 yards beyond the river and conforming with the shape of its course, and for the next 15 minutes on a similar line 500 yards beyond the river.
Technically the flame-throwers had been only partly successful. Because the bombardment had destroyed the prepared ramps from which they were to direct their flame, many of the Wasps had to fire at a high angle and consequently failed to reach their target. Where the flame did not come into contact with the far bank, however, the ground was charred. This did not inflict many casualties on the enemy who sheltered in dugouts on the reverse slope, but coming as it did after the Air Force and artillery bombardment, the flame-throwing seemed utterly to demoralise him. He offered little resistance other than scattered grenade-throwing and machine-gun fire. The use of flame-throwers, in fact, ‘provided the junior leaders with soldierly excuse for surrendering. Who could resist in the face of such attacks? Again and again the N.C.O.s asked as that question.’36
The Division attacked with four battalions, the 21st and 28th of 5 Brigade and the 25th and 24th of 6 Brigade, in that order from right to left.37 In the first stage – the assault crossing of the Senio and mopping up of resistance as far as the start line for the set-piece advance, 300–600 yards beyond the river-21 Battalion had three companies forward, while the fourth company and also the Surreys of 78 Division gave covering fire; the other battalions had two companies forward, covered by men on the near stopbank.
D Company of 21 Battalion, on the right flank, was opposed by a German post which had survived the bombardment and the flame-throwing, but it was silenced by Second-Lieutenant Boys,38 who attacked at point-blank range with a Piat. B Company, in the centre, lost two officers at the outset: while leading his men towards a German footbridge which miraculously had escaped damage, a
platoon commander was wounded; so also was the company commander (Major Butler39), who hastened forward to supervise the use of the bridge. Meanwhile, on the left, A Company lost contact with the rest of the battalion but cleared the enemy from some buildings and a strongpoint beyond the stopbank.
A and B Companies of 28 Battalion, the same two companies of 25 Battalion, and C and D Companies of 24 Battalion (one of whose platoons found a footbridge intact) all swiftly crossed the Senio and, meeting little resistance – none in places – gathered prisoners on the far side. They had remarkably few casualties.
While the infantry closed up to the start line for the set-piece advance, the artillery lifted to the straight opening line of the barrage, 600–900 yards from the river. At 8.5 p.m. this barrage, in which eight regiments – one 25-pounder to every 15 yards – participated, began to lift forward at the rate of 100 yards in five minutes; an hour later it paused for 35 minutes 300 yards in front of the infantry’s intermediate objective, and after lifting at the same pace for another 50 minutes, stood for 25 minutes (until 10.55 p.m.) on a line 300 yards beyond the final objective, approximately 3000 yards from the river. The barrage was augmented by concentrations from five medium regiments and a heavy regiment, and by counter-mortar tasks by a 25-pounder regiment, a 105-millimetre self- Propelled regiment and two troops of 3.7-inch heavy anti-aircraft guns. During the first 24 hours of the attack the New Zealand field artillery fired 42,886 rounds of 25-pounder ammunition, which was easily the largest number fired by these three regiments in that length of time.
The artificial moonlight of the searchlights and the tracer fired by the Bofors guns to mark boundaries were so obscured by the dust and smoke that, despite the constant use of compasses, the infantry found it hard to keep direction in the north-westward advance which diagonally crossed roads and vineyards instead of following the grain of the country.
In this phase 21 Battalion’s intention was for D and A Companies to take the lead, followed by C and B. Houses cleared by D Company, on the right, had to be cleared again by C, probably because the Germans attempted to counter-attack on that flank. Nevertheless D Company collected about 150 prisoners. B Company, on the left, arrived at the final objective ahead of both D and A. A Company had lost touch on both flanks and with Battalion Headquarters, ‘and was in a maze of grape-vine wires, ditches, and unoccupied
enemy pits. Progress was depressingly slow and Major Bullock,40 convinced that he was behind the rest of the battalion, formed the company into column of route with 9 Platoon the right, 8 the centre, and 7 the left-hand file. In this novel formation they covered a mile without meeting friend or enemy.’41 At a road thought to be the final objective the company seemed to be surrounded by parties of enemy roaming about aimlessly. Some 90 of them were taken prisoner and many killed before the situation was under control. A Company made contact with B about an hour before dawn.
The leading companies of 28 Battalion (A and B) met only scattered fire. During the pause at the intermediate objective they occupied a schoolhouse, with sections dug in around the building. Rather than reduce their fighting strength by providing escorts for the many prisoners they had collected, they disarmed them and locked them in the school – where the Germans probably did not remain very long.
C Company of 28 Battalion, following A, had to contend with resistance on the right which had not been eliminated by the leading infantry. Corporal Rakena,42 who took control of 15 Platoon when its commander and several others were wounded, charged two spandau posts and killed both crews single-handed, and also killed the crew of a bazooka. C Company took some 60 prisoners, and together with D Company, which had a comparatively easy passage following B on the left, stopped at the school where the two leading companies had paused on their way to the final objective.
D and C Companies of 25 Battalion, followed by A and B, advanced against negligible opposition. When armoured vehicles were heard approaching, several C Company men took up a position at an intersection on the Barbiano-Lugo road. ‘After a wait of a couple of minutes the first two 88 SP guns came out of the mist nose to tail followed by a Tiger tank. For a few tense moments we thought they were going to spin round the corner but to our relief they passed straight by within 3 feet of us. When the Tiger had passed us about two yards L/Cpl Parker43 squeezed the trigger of the Piat but to our amazement nothing happened. He squeezed again and still nothing happened. He suddenly realised the safety catch was still applied. ... By that time the tanks had disappeared in the mist so L/Cpl Parker picked up the Piat and went charging down the road after them. As soon as he caught sight of the rear
of the end tank he got down and let a shot go, which hit the Tiger and put it out of action.’44 When a Panther tank rushed and overran one of C Company’s platoons, Lance-Sergeant Begley45 and his Piat gunner gave chase and at a range of eight yards scored three direct hits, which forced it into a ditch.
The leading companies of 24 Battalion (A and B) had such difficulty in keeping direction that they changed places without colliding with each other before they reached the intermediate objective. They took up their correct positions during the pause before going on to their objective, close to the Canale di Lugo. Patrols found the canal undefended and its bridges intact.
Although the village of Barbiano had appeared to be deserted when the leading troops of 24 Battalion passed through its outskirts, D Company, following B on the left, saw three tanks emerge from it. The Piat gunners waited alongside the road and fired into
the rear of each tank as it passed. The last one showed signs of distress and later was found to have broken down about half a mile away. The village was cleared and some prisoners taken. C Company, in rear of A, struggled through vines and across ditches to the Barbiano-Lugo road, along which a tank with lights approached slowly in the darkness. Corporal Pountney,46 who sheltered with some men in a ditch, saw four Germans armed with rifles riding on the back of the tank. He sprang up and threatened them with a tommy gun, which induced them to dismount and surrender. The tank continued on its way.
Anticipating that the Poles might not be able to catch up with 6 Brigade’s leading infantry, which consequently would be left with an open left flank, Brigadier Parkinson had ordered 26 Battalion to be prepared to despatch companies there when needed. The battalion was committed to this task shortly after midnight. A and B Companies went into position facing west between the river and Barbiano, and C and D also crossed the river.
The engineers, who began work at the bridge sites on the Senio soon after the advance began, completed six crossings: a scissors bridge, three low-level Bailey bridges, which were open in time for the tanks and support weapons to reach the infantry before daybreak, and two high-level Bailey bridges.
The sites for these bridges had been selected beforehand with the aid of aerial photography.47 Despite shell and mortar fire, which knocked out several vehicles and caused others to be ditched on the way, the lorries carrying the bridging materials arrived on time and were unloaded in the correct sequence. The sappers cleared the banks of mines and wire and blew charges to assist the bulldozing of the approaches.
In 5 Brigade’s sector 7 Field Company constructed a low-level Bailey which was open in time for the tanks of 18 Armoured Regiment and the support weapons to reach 21 and 28 Battalions before dawn, and on the right flank, under fire from guns and mortars, a high-level bridge which was ready for traffic at 8 a.m. In 6 Brigade’s sector 8 Field Company built a low-level and a high-level Bailey, both of which were ready before daybreak. In the centre, near the inter-brigade boundary, 28 Assault Squadron placed
a Valentine scissors bridge just below the weir, and 6 Field Company erected a low-level Bailey about 300 yards farther downstream. A route suitable for tanks but too boggy for wheeled vehicles was completed from 6 Field Company’s bridge to 6 Brigade’s axis road before the route was open from 8 Field Company’s low-level bridge. Two squadrons of 20 Armoured Regiment, therefore, used 6 Company’s bridge. The third squadron used 8 Company’s low-level bridge until it was closed temporarily when a tank shed a track. By that time the high-level bridge was available for both tanks and wheeled vehicles.
The newly formed 28 Assault Squadron completed the laying of the scissors bridge before 1.30 a.m., but because of a series of accidents, including the blowing up of a bulldozer, a Sherman dozer and a Kangaroo troop-carrier on mines, this crossing place was abandoned. ‘The scissors remained as a standby and a monument to gallant work by a squadron out on operations under difficult conditions for the first time.’48
The Poles on the left had not been able to make the same progress as the New Zealanders. They had to cross extensive minefields under fire before reaching the Senio, and had not completed one bridge before daylight. They therefore sent some of their tanks across the river through 6 Brigade’s sector.
The river-crossing technique devised by the New Zealanders had proved highly successful. ‘For the type of river and canal encountered from the SENIO to the PO,’ Colonel Hanson later claimed, the low-level Bailey built in situ at the bottom of the riverbanks, only a few feet above water, was by far the speediest means of getting tanks and Divisional transport forward. These low level bridges were invariably completed in half the time required to build and launch by orthodox means the 100 to 150 feet Bailey bridge at natural (not flood) bank height above water. Furthermore, owing to the greatly reduced span length at the bottom of the banks, a great deal less Bailey bridging was expended, a very important factor when supplies are short and replenishment difficult.
‘Another advantage of the low level Bailey is the fact that down at the bottom of the river banks there is considerable cover from enemy fire; there were occasions when work would have been interfered with and delayed had a high level Bailey been under construction whereas on the low level bridge the work went ahead comparatively smoothly.’49
At daybreak on 10 April, therefore, 21 28, 25 and 24 Battalions were on the Division’s objective, 26 Battalion had gone into position protecting the left flank, and the tanks, M10s, 17-pounder anti-tank guns and heavy mortars were across the river in support of the infantry. During the day the self-propelled 105s of 142 Army Field Regiment, the 25-pounders of 4 Field Regiment and the self-propelled 25-pounders of 1 Royal Horse Artillery completed the crossing.
Everywhere could be seen the evidence of the violence of the bombardment: ‘blackened stretches of stopbank scorched by the flame-throwers. ... in the fields beyond [were] thousands of black shell holes with jagged edges, mutilated trees, damaged casas. ... Even so, the tempest of fire had left many deep-dug positions in the stopbank intact.’50
The Canale di Lugo, to which the Division was to exploit, ran diagonally from south-west to north-east across its front. Consequently 24 Battalion, on the left flank, had only to pivot to conform with the line of the canal, while 21 Battalion, on the right, had to advance up to about 2000 yards. A and B Companies of the 21st, accompanied by the tanks of C Squadron, 18 Regiment, but without an artillery barrage, set out about 6 a.m. and, meeting only slight opposition on the exposed right flank, in mid-morning reached the Lugo – Massa Lombarda railway a quarter of a mile from the canal. Italians said the enemy had gone from Lugo during the night. A patrol from 15 Platoon entered the town and found that a group of partisans had taken charge. They handed over 11 Germans. Meanwhile A and B Companies and the tanks pushed on to the Canale di Lugo, and were established across it well before midday.
With less distance to go, 28 and 25 Battalions, also with tank support, began their exploitation about 8 a.m. and were reported on the canal about an hour later; 24 Battalion, pivoting on its B Company, conformed by bringing A Company to the line of a track which ran south-westwards from a right-angle bend in the canal.
The Maoris met no opposition, only small groups of Italians looking at the destruction the bombardment had done to their homes. ‘Some were very outspoken, but the Italian linguists among the Maoris were equally terse and reminded them that Italy had started the war and that they had only themselves to blame for the
devastation.’51 Some horse-drawn vehicles, including at least two howitzers, were captured by 24 and 25 Battalions.
In the small pocket between the bridgeheads won by the New Zealand Division and 8 Indian Division, 9 Infantry Brigade had been given the task – its first assignment – of capturing the small town of Cotignola. The attacking force of 27 Battalion with Kangaroos and tanks52 was unable to cross the Senio until after daybreak because the support weapons of 21 and 28 Battalions had precedence, and by the time the 27th had assembled on the other side of the river it was no longer required. The 78th Division, opposite Cotignola, had seen white flags in the town and had sent troops to investigate. The enemy had gone.
The near stopbank of the Senio was still smouldering from the flames of the Wasps and Crocodiles when the infantry of 8 Indian Division stormed it at the same time as the New Zealanders began their assault.
On the far right 1 Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of 19 Indian Infantry Brigade overcame opposition on both stopbanks and by mid-morning on the 10th had also crossed the Canale di Lugo. The 6/13th Frontier Force Rifles of 19 Brigade had harder fighting. One company quickly secured a foothold on the near stopbank, and another company, passing through, ‘discarded their boats and jumped into the water which was four feet six inches deep at this place. In spite of a withering but somewhat wild fire coming from the far bank, they, too, secured a crossing.’53
The exploits of one man, Sepoy Ali Haider, contributed very largely to the Frontier Force Rifles’ progress. He ‘waded into the Senio with the left hand section of one of the forward platoons. Almost immediately, German machine gunners opened fire from the posts about sixty yards away on the left flank. Man after man in the platoon fell dead or wounded. ... Of Ali Haider’s section, only two men besides himself succeeded in running the gauntlet of death. The remainder of the platoon and the rest of the company were temporarily held up.’54 The sepoy, although wounded in the back by a stick grenade, charged a German post and wounded its four occupants. While attacking another post, he was wounded
again, this time in the right leg and arm, but crawled towards the Germans and threw a grenade, which seriously wounded two of them; the other two surrendered. The rest of the company then crossed the Senio and occupied the far bank, and the advance continued. Ali Haider was awarded the Victoria Cross.
The 21st Indian Infantry Brigade, on the left of the 19th, ran into stiff opposition and suffered many casualties.55 The enemy had survived the bombardment in deeply dug defences and, ‘though badly shaken, was nevertheless very much alive. Too soon a shower of mortar bombs was falling between the floodbanks and close range machine gun fire met the Indians from every quarter.’56 Nevertheless men from both 1/5 Mahratta Light Infantry and 3/15 Punjab Regiment succeeded in wading to the far side, where ‘the most vicious fighting in which 3/15 Punjab [on the left] had ever been engaged took place. ... on both banks of the river the Punjabis were storming dug-out after dug-out with hand grenades, and tommy-guns, whilst the Germans made desperate sorties to drive them off the banks.’57
When the survivors of a Mahratta company were compelled to withdraw to the shelter of the near stopbank, Sepoy Namdeo Jadhao carried back two wounded men from the far bank through the deep water to a place of safety, and then alone charged and wiped out three German posts, which silenced the machine-gun fire on the near bank and enabled his company to cross again and secure the far bank. Namdeo Jadhao was awarded the Victoria Cross.
By daybreak the Mahrattas had advanced beyond the river, the Punjabis had made some progress towards Lugo, and 1 Jaipur Infantry had completed the clearing of the enemy from the near stopbank.
In 19 Brigade’s sector the engineers, with scarcely any German interference, built two Bailey bridges; tanks passed over the first at 4.15 a.m. and wheeled vehicles over the second at 11 a.m. on the 10th. In addition six six-pounder anti-tank guns and two jeeps were hauled across a steel cableway before dawn. Bridge-building in 21 Brigade’s sector was delayed by the fighting. The Mahratta anti-tank gunners erected a steel cableway under mortar and machine-gun fire, and hauled over four six-pounder guns and two jeeps. The engineers, working in most difficult circumstances, opened
an Ark-bridge crossing for tanks before 6 a.m. and a trestle bridge for light vehicles about three hours later.
Undoubtedly 8 Indian Division had far more numerous casualties and took longer than the New Zealand Division to cross the Senio because the enemy had not been cleared from the near stopbank before the attack started.
IV: Gate-crashing the Santerno Line
General Freyberg held a conference at 9 a.m. on 10 April in the farmhouse where 5 Brigade had its headquarters. Brigadiers Bonifant58 (5 Brigade) and Parkinson (6 Brigade) were able to report that the attack over the Senio had been a complete success. Major Cox gave an appreciation of the situation: ‘I think there is now a hole in front of 6 Brigade and that 5 Brigade will meet the heaviest resistance.’ The enemy ‘has been forced over to the right and is probably pulling back along the Lugo road.’59 The General gave orders that the advance was to continue at 12.30 p.m., when the heavy bombing had stopped.
The intention was to gate-crash the Santerno line before the enemy manned it. The Santerno River was a more formidable natural barrier than the Senio. In the region towards which the Division was heading it presented a double obstacle in front of the town of Massa Lombarda: an embanked channel had been cut to carry the water straight across the loops of its original sinuous course (the Santerno Morto). Aerial photographs showed that the old bed was dry, but like the canalised river was a tank obstacle well prepared with defence works.
Later in the morning the GOC told Bonifant to ‘push on. Withdraw back a bit before the heavy bombing. Then at 12.30 split out using artillery as you want it and get to the Santerno.’ He also told Parkinson to ‘push like hell at 12.30. ... you must get the near flood bank and as much as you can of the far bank but don’t push out into the blue without bridges. The limit is the Po.’60 It was decided to do without the artillery barrage planned for the crossing of the Scolo Tratturo, midway between the Senio and the Santerno, and to support the advance with tanks and artillery concentrations.
Cox was correct in his forecast that 5 Brigade would meet stronger resistance than the 6th. The tanks of C Squadron, 18 Regiment, accompanying 21 Battalion, had no difficulty in crossing the almost dry Canale di Lugo, which ran on an embankment above the level of the plain. ‘But just beyond it Jerry suddenly showed his teeth. As the Shermans were dispersing under the trees by the road [south of Lugo], 88-millimetre shells began to come in thick and fast from in front of the right flank.’61 Almost immediately the self-propelled 25-pounders of 1 Royal Horse Artillery went into action, but their observation-post tank was knocked out, its commander killed and all the crew wounded. The leading tank of C Squadron and the artillery engaged the position from which the enemy was shooting, and later, when the enemy had gone, a Tiger tank was found abandoned with a track broken by shellfire.
The 23rd Battalion, after taking about 10 hours to make its way from its location in reserve through the congestion of traffic on the roads and at the Senio River crossing, passed through 21 Battalion about 2 p.m., and with A Squadron of 18 Regiment in support, advanced together with 28 (Maori) Battalion (on its left) towards the Scolo Tratturo, half a mile beyond the Canale di Lugo. The 21st Battalion remained deployed south-west of Lugo.
The 23rd was opposed at the Scolo Tratturo by machine-gun and mortar fire, much of which came from the right of the embankment of the Lugo – Massa Lombarda railway, which followed the direction of the advance to the Santerno River, a mile and a half away. D Company, on the right, assaulted and reduced a strongpoint, killed some of the enemy and took a few prisoners. As a Tiger tank was concealed behind two houses on the immediate front, and there was much less opposition on the extreme left flank, Lieutenant- Colonel Thomas decided that while D Company advanced along the railway embankment, A Company should make a wide left-hook which would take it some distance behind the strongpoint containing the tank. A Company made contact with the Maoris on the left and continued on as far as a minefield near the Santerno, but as this was covered by machine-gun fire, withdrew to a lateral road about 500 yards from the river. D Company occupied a house a similar distance from the river. While going forward to support A Company, C Company attempted to eliminate the strongpoint which A had bypassed, but the enemy still resisted and was left to his fate.62
The engineers bulldozed crossings of the Canale di Lugo, placed Ark bridges in the Scolo Tratturo, and filled demolitions and small
canals, which enabled the tanks of 18 and 20 Armoured Regiments and the support weapons of 5 and 6 Brigades to get through on roads leading towards the Santerno. A Squadron of 18 Regiment lost a tank with a broken track at the Canale di Lugo and another which slipped off a narrow bridge and ended on its side in the Scolo Tratturo. Its other tanks bypassed the German pocket and set out to catch 23 Battalion’s leading infantry. ‘This was not easy country, mostly thick vines strung on wires and trees cutting across the line of advance, and the tank commanders, advancing blind, had a terrible job keeping in touch with the infantry. On the other hand, it was just as hard for Jerry to see A Squadron as it pushed on past his flank.’63
While advancing to the Scolo Tratturo 28 (Maori) Battalion, with B Squadron of 18 Regiment in support, at first passed unmanned strongpoints and dummy guns. When D Company, which was ahead of C on its right, emerged from some trees on to a field of foot-high wheat just short of the Scolo Tratturo, it was engaged by four machine guns. Without hesitation Private Nia-Nia64 led his section in a charge which silenced the four posts, killed 11 Germans, cleared some houses and took four prisoners, at the cost of one man wounded.
C Company of 28 Battalion made good progress until it also was held up by machine-gun posts close to the Scolo Tratturo and by a 105-millimetre gun at a house beyond it. Lieutenant Tibble65 brought up a six-pounder anti-tank gun, which was manhandled to a suitable position and with its first shot scattered the German gunners; its second shot, a direct hit, was a knock-out. C Company had lost wireless contact with B Squadron, but Private Maangi66 crossed open ground swept by fire to guide the tanks. The Maoris, with the tanks in support, then ‘surged forward with their bayonets at the ready. The enemy asked for no quarter and received none. Three Maoris were killed and six wounded, but there were ten nests of rifle pits filled with dead men when the company pushed on.’67
After a brief halt for reorganisation 28 Battalion resumed the advance about an hour before nightfall. Every house had a white flag waving from the roof, and Italians indicated that the enemy had fled. At the Santerno C Company put a post on the near stop-bank, which was not manned by the enemy, and D Company put one on the old bank of a loop of the Santerno Morto east of the
river. The rest of the battalion came up in rear and the position was secure before midnight.
Sixth Brigade was accidentally bombed shortly before it was about to advance to the Scolo Tratturo. Flying Fortresses and Liberators, a total of 848 aircraft, dropped 179,190 20-pound fragmentation bombs in front of the Polish Corps and 5 Corps between 11 a.m. and 12.30 p.m. Not all of them found their assigned targets close to the Santerno River; many fell in the vicinity of one of 8 Indian Division’s bridges on the Senio River and did much damage among the men and vehicles waiting to cross; some others caused 20 or 30 casualties among the foremost troops of 25 Battalion and other New Zealand units near the Canale di Lugo.
Sixth Brigade began to advance about 1 p.m., with 25 and 24 Battalions supported by the tanks of 20 Regiment and artillery concentrations, and about two hours later had reached the Scolo Tratturo. Apart from the sporadic resistance of small isolated groups, the enemy made no attempt to dispute the two battalions’ progress. The 25th discovered – as did the Maoris – that what appeared to be abandoned field guns were wooden dummies.
A and B Companies of 25 Battalion passed through C and D, which had led to the Scolo Tratturo, and continued the advance to a lateral road about 1000 yards short of the Santerno, where they halted in the evening. Likewise A and B Companies of 24 Battalion passed through C and D at the Scolo Tratturo; later after crossing the Scolo del Fossatone half a mile past the Tratturo, C and D again took the lead and finally halted in the vicinity of the same lateral road as had 25 Battalion’s leading companies.
The 26th Battalion, on the left flank, kept pace with the advance by a method called ‘hem-stitching’, in which each company in turn circled round on the right to take the lead. This covered the Division’s exposed flank. The Poles had crossed the Senio in the morning of the 10th and by evening had reached the Canale di Lugo, in their sector still about 3000 yards from the Santerno.
Meanwhile 9 NZ Infantry Brigade completed its crossing of the Senio.
Thus, by the end of 10 April, the New Zealand Division had advanced six miles in 24 hours and was ready to drive across the next obstacle, the Santerno River. On the right 8 Indian Division, which did not cross the Scolo Tratturo until nightfall, closed up to the Santerno River on the morning of the 11th, ‘only 10 hours behind the New Zealanders’.68
Casualties suffered by the New Zealand Division on 9 and 10 April were 28 killed69 and 153 wounded; the majority of these had occurred during the advance after the crossing of the Senio River. Fifth Brigade, with 14 killed and 81 wounded, had lost twice as many men as the 6th, with seven killed and 40 wounded (including the casualties caused by the accidental bombing). The engineers had one killed and 14 wounded, and Divisional Cavalry Battalion, which gave the engineers close protection while they were building bridges and clearing routes beyond the river, also had one killed
and 14 wounded. The rest of the Division, including the armour and artillery, had only one man killed and four wounded.
By 6 p.m. on the 10th 591 Germans had passed through the Division’s prisoner-of-war cage, and another 36 had been evacuated through medical channels; 24 hours later the total had reached 877. The New Zealanders had encountered only 98 Infantry Division. The interrogation of the prisoners and study of captured documents proved that the enemy had hoped to check the attack, if not on the Senio stopbank, at least among the houses from 1000 to 2000 yards behind it. The defence in depth consisted of two lines of diggings and wiring, behind which were grouped the reserve companies. Six Tiger tanks and some self-propelled guns were to have formed the spearhead of the counter-attacks to regain the Senio stopbank. If these failed, 98 Division was to have fallen back towards the Santerno (the Laura Line), pausing or leaving rearguards on the Canale di Lugo and Scolo Tratturo or on the Scolo del Fossatone.
‘The Senio part of the scheme failed completely and the LAURA outpost part was compromised by the weight of the attack and the tactical surprise it achieved. The bombardment and the flame-throwers, although they apparently did not cause heavy casualties in wounded and dead on most of the line, reduced the garrison on the north [west] bank to a fit state for surrendering in large numbers. The barrage and advance in depth carried the attack through the remaining lines before any counter-attack could be mounted. ... The Tigers could not act in the dark, separated from their infantry. The result was that at dawn the enemy found himself not only off the Senio but with a large gap in his front, with I and II Bns of 289 Regt virtually out of action and II/290 badly mauled. He had pulled back I/290 from Cotignola and I/117 from the Senio north of it during the night. These and his reserve battalion (II/117) provided him with something to delay the advance south of Lugo and gave him at least a screen to put on the Santerno. ... Small units ... sent back two days previously to dig in on the Scolo Tratturo, were encountered during the morning, and the Tigers came in on the scene in their delaying role, but they were insufficient to halt the advance to the Santerno.’70
The New Zealand Division had outstripped both 8 Indian Division on its right and 3 Carpathian Division of the Polish Corps on its left; if it was to maintain its momentum, it could not wait
to attack simultaneously with the two flanking divisions to secure bridgeheads over the Santerno River. General Freyberg therefore decided to keep going and to push across the river at dawn on 11 April.
During the evening of the 10th Lieutenant-Colonel Hutchens had instructed C and D Companies of 24 Battalion to start at 5.45 a.m., test the enemy’s strength and, if possible, occupy the near stopbank and attempt a silent crossing. With tank support the two companies reached the near stopbank unhindered, except for sporadic mortar fire, after an advance of about half a mile. Within half an hour C Company, on the right, had waded through the water, which was about three feet deep. Corporal H. E. Smith’s71 section surprised some Germans on the far bank, killed six of them, and occupied 50 yards of the bank although still under enfilade fire from the left flank. D Company crossed the river not long after C, but one of its platoons was held up by fire from a concealed dugout until Private Freeman72 captured it; although wounded, he escorted eight prisoners back across the river.
A and B Companies of 25 Battalion had been instructed to make a silent attack at dawn. Patrols from both companies reached the river, and shortly after 6.30 a.m., when reports were received that 24 Battalion had men across the river, Lieutenant-Colonel Norman ordered A and B to keep going and C and D to be ready to follow. By 8 a.m. A and B Companies were consolidated on the far bank. Thus, early in the morning of 11 April, 6 Brigade had established four companies on the far side of the Santerno – but the banks of the winding Santerno Morto still lay ahead.
Fifth Brigade had not yet crossed the Santerno. On the right flank 23 Battalion was astride the Lugo-Massa Lombarda railway about 500 yards from the river, and the ground held was thickly sown with mines. Sergeant Michie73 led a patrol from D Company to the bridge site on the Lugo-Massa Lombarda road, about a quarter of a mile downstream from the railway, where he reconnoitred the river and the opposite bank despite machine-gun and mortar fire. South of the railway 28 Battalion had a platoon from C Company on the near stopbank and one from D Company on a loop of the Santerno Morto east of the river; between these two platoons the enemy still occupied the near stopbank of the Santerno.
The GOC told an orders group conference at 9 a.m. that the Division could either wait until night to do a set-piece attack or
try to get over the river during the day. It was to attempt the latter because ‘we should exploit the soft spot that is there now.’74 Fifth and 6th Brigades, therefore, were to secure a bridgehead over the Santerno; the engineers were to start bridging the river so that two armoured regiments could cross as soon as possible.
Shortly after the conference Brigadier Bonifant ordered 28 Battalion to cross the Santerno, while 23 Battalion remained where it was and gave supporting fire. The Maoris were to start at 2 p.m. on a two-company front and under an artillery barrage, and were to hold ground not more than 500 yards beyond the river; they were to have the support of fighter-bombers, tanks and infantry weapons as well as the artillery. The foremost troops withdrew a safe distance before the barrage opened on the near stopbank. A low-flying fighter-bomber dropped a 500-pound bomb about 100 yards in front of Battalion Headquarters, killing a man and wounding two others. Later a message expressing regret for the error was received from the RAF.
A Company, on the right, plunged into the muddy water of the Santerno. The first man across, Private Kira,75 alone destroyed two machine-gun posts and a sniper post. B Company crossed a footbridge, 18 inches wide and still intact. Beyond the river ‘olive trees and orchards in full bloom gave excellent cover to both companies, but searching fire from the railway embankment, at that point some thirty feet high, was showering the men with leaves and twigs.’76 The artillery and heavy mortars responded to a request for defensive fire on the embankment. Both Maori companies were reported on their objective at 3.20 p.m. A Company exploited to a point on the railway less than a mile from Massa Lombarda, but was obliged to return to avoid Allied air attacks. Many Germans were seen in full flight towards the town.
The air observation post directed the 5.5-inch guns of 5 Medium Regiment (which had already crossed the Senio) on to German tanks beyond the Santerno. At a house where three tanks were recognised as Tigers, one was knocked out and a vehicle left burning; the other two tanks made off and were being chased by fighter-bombers when they disappeared from view. Spitfires swept across the front engaging targets in or near Massa Lombarda, which ‘appeared to be in eruption by the amount of smoke and dust rising from it.’77
Lieutenant Tibble had been given the task of finding a way to get at least two anti-tank guns over the river to strengthen the bridgehead before the tanks arrived (which would not be until
the engineers had completed a bridge). The Anti-Tank Platoon solved the problem by loading four rafters from a demolished house on the portee which towed the two guns to the river. The Maoris manoeuvred the rafters into place across the water channel and then hauled and pushed the guns over the river and across both stopbanks. By dusk A and B Companies each had an anti-tank gun ready for action.
Enemy tanks were reported at several points, and artillery concentrations were fired against these and other targets. One Tiger actually stopped alongside the house in which A Company had its headquarters. From an upstairs window Captain Harris78 watched it ‘nestle in alongside the wall and switch off its engine. The Maoris kept studiously out of sight; the turret top opened and one of the crew sat on the edge for a while and conversed with others in the bowels of the Tiger. Harris told one of his men to slip Hawkins grenades under the tracks as soon as the turret closed. This was done, but when shortly afterwards the unwanted visitor moved away the grenades failed to explode. Probably in the excitement of the moment they had not been primed.’79
A horse and cart containing three Germans singing ‘Lilli Marlene’ came down the road into B Company’s lines; they had thought they were bringing rations to their own men on the river line. The Maoris considered the soup unpalatable but liked the black bread. Altogether 28 Battalion took about 30 prisoners on 11 April.
Meanwhile 23 Battalion rested in houses, some of which had to be cleared of the enemy – these brought its tally of prisoners for the day to 47. Two patrols from D Company were prevented by small-arms fire from getting near the bridge site on the Lugo – Massa Lombarda road, but a patrol from A Company succeeded in silencing a machine-gun post near the railway bridge which had been troubling 28 Battalion.
Before 6 Brigade resumed the advance on 11 April, its next objective, the Santerno Morto, was shelled by the medium and field guns. The 24th Battalion, on the left, was to secure the larger of the two loops of the old riverbed on the brigade’s front, and 25 Battalion the smaller. Taking advantage of the barrage fired for 28 Battalion’s attack at 2 p.m., A Company of the 25th had no difficulty in reaching its objective; B Company came up on its
left, and D put two platoons across the river to cover the site of a proposed bridge.
Meanwhile 24 Battalion was exposed to fire from the left flank, where the Poles had not yet reached the Santerno. To counter this, 26 Battalion was brought up towards the river, where it also came under fire from the Poles’ sector. Towards evening, however, the Poles closed up to the river, and at 7 p.m. they attacked under a barrage and secured a crossing.
Already, at 6.30 p.m., 24 Battalion had begun its advance to the large loop of the Santerno Morto. D Company reached the banks of the western part of it soon after nightfall, but C Company was forced to ground by machine-gun fire and grenades as it approached the eastern part, and had to retire; consequently B Company, in the middle, did not attempt to occupy the farthest segment. The places still held by the enemy were ‘stonked’ and harassed by the medium and field guns and mortars, and next morning, when the Santerno had been bridged and tanks had arrived, B and C Companies completed the occupation of the loop. By that time, also, C Company of 26 Battalion was holding a section of the far stop-bank of the Santerno on the 24th’s left flank.
General Freyberg told Brigadier Parkinson late in the afternoon of the 11th that ‘we want to get two regiments of armour across to open the Lugo – Massa Lombarda road along which we will have
to maintain; then we shall get everybody across in two groups, turn him out of Massa Lombarda by going round it, and then I will put Gentry [9 Brigade] through.’ He told Brigadier Bonifant that 5 Brigade ‘must pass a regiment of tanks across, clear Sandy’s [23 Battalion’s] front and open up the road – that is tonight’s objective.’80
The Division was to continue the advance to a line just short of Massa Lombarda and on the railway which ran south-westward towards Imola, and then to a second line just beyond Massa Lombarda. But first 5 Brigade was to be responsible for clearing the village of Sant’ Agata, on the right flank, which would permit the construction of a bridge where the Lugo – Massa Lombarda road crossed the Santerno.
Sappers from 6 Field Company began work before nightfall on the 11th on a bridge in 28 Battalion’s sector. Despite harassing shell and mortar fire the approaches were bulldozed before it was dark, which allowed the bridging train to get to the site without delay. Because the Maoris’ bridgehead was only about 500 yards deep, the enemy could observe the site and interfere with the bridge-building with machine-gun fire from that flank. Lance- Sergeant Roberts,81 who was in charge of the work, placed a sapper with a Bren gun where he could divert some of the hostile fire. A bulldozer driven by Sapper Strahl82 under mortar fire made a gap in the far stopbank, and the construction of a 40-foot low-level Bailey bridge was completed by 1.30 a.m. Within the next two hours two squadrons of 18 Armoured Regiment, 32 Anti-Tank Battery and 28 Battalion’s support weapons were safely over the river. A squadron of 20 Armoured Regiment crossed just before dawn on the 12th, followed by the third squadron of 18 Regiment. The other two squadrons of the 20th used a crossing in 6 Brigade’s sector, where much bulldozing had to be done before one Ark tank was placed on top of another to make a bridge.
The 23rd Battalion was to pass through 28 Battalion’s bridgehead and attack northward to Sant’ Agata. The tanks would join the two battalions at dawn, if not earlier, and when the marrying-up of the tanks and support arms with the infantry was complete, they were to begin the westward exploitation north of Massa Lombarda. Sixth Brigade would advance south of the town.
The Maoris’ bridgehead was on ground free of mines. By crossing the Santerno in that sector, therefore, 23 Battalion would avoid the risk of casualties which certainly would occur in a frontal
assault on a defended stopbank and over ground thickly sown with mines. Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas’s plan was for C Company to cross the river in 28 Battalion’s bridgehead and wheel to the right to cross the railway embankment; with the aid of the tanks he hoped to get to it, the company was to take a group of houses outside Sant’ Agata. A Company, also with tank support, was to pass through in rear of C, and these two companies were to swing in west of the village while D Company engaged the enemy with a limited frontal attack across the river from the east.
C Company attacked from the Maoris’ bridgehead about 9 a.m., with 14 and 15 Platoons going towards the railway embankment between the river and a road which passed under the railway, and 13 Platoon, on the right, towards the Santerno stopbank south of the railway. After quickly clearing the stopbank 13 Platoon captured the railway station, about a quarter of a mile from the river. The other two platoons, after killing some Germans, dug in on the southern slope of the embankment, where they had lively exchanges with the enemy still holding firmly in places on the other side. At one stage 15 Platoon crossed the embankment in pursuit of a party of Germans, but met a larger group (possibly fresh reinforcements), and when a Tiger emerged from behind a house, the platoon returned to the southern side of the embankment. When 14 Platoon tried to advance beyond the embankment, it also found itself in danger of being cut off by a large party of Germans, so retired.
C Company was joined about 1.30 a.m. by A Company (less 9 Platoon, which had been given another task), and together they made a further attempt to drive the enemy from the embankment. The A Company men tried to capture some houses on the road which ran under the railway towards Sant’ Agata about half a mile from the river, and in an assault in which Sergeant Russell83 distinguished himself, killed or drove back the first Germans they met, but were halted and had to be pulled back to C Company. Further progress seemed impossible without tank support.
After crossing the low-level bridge over the Santerno, B Squadron of 18 Regiment linked up with the Maoris, and A Squadron went out towards the railway to help 23 Battalion. Because the embankment was too steep for tanks, a bulldozer began to make a diagonal track up the side of it, but this was abandoned when it was realised that the Shermans would be sitting shots as they went over the top. ‘Indeed, 88-millimetre shells were whistling low overhead just in that place.’ On the other side ‘were wide Tiger tracks all over
the place, and the infantry reported a group of big tanks not far ahead. It looked as if A Squadron, once across the railway, would run into something tough.’84
The tanks might have to use the road which passed under the railway. After a bold assault by 14 and 15 Platoons to clear the defenders from the underpass, one of B Squadron’s tanks went through, but ‘was immediately drilled by a small armour-piercing shell from straight ahead.’85 The bulldozer made a fresh track over the embankment nearer the Santerno, and about 10 a.m. a troop of A Squadron crossed and took cover among vines and trees on the outskirts of Sant’ Agata. By this time 23 Battalion had crossed the river east of the village, presumably while the enemy was distracted by the outflanking attack at the railway.
Having concluded that his plan to take Sant’ Agata from the south-west had failed, Thomas at 2.15 a.m. had sent B Company northwards along the eastern side of the Santerno, with orders to cross it where 8 Indian Division was reported to have done so and then to close in on the village from that side. B Company, however, had found that 8 Indian Division was not yet over the river, so returned to its houses to await further orders.
Thomas then decided to commit D Company to a frontal attack across the river. The information gained by Sergeant Michie’s reconnaissance the previous day now proved valuable. It had not been possible to get D Company’s supporting tanks (protected by 9 Platoon) to the place where the company was to cross the river, but without much difficulty 18 Platoon gained a foothold on the far bank; 16 and 17 Platoons passed through and took the enemy completely by surprise. D Company entered Sant’ Agata and occupied some houses.
At dawn B Company crossed the river to reinforce D’s right flank and, also taking the enemy by surprise, rounded up many prisoners in a few minutes. Fighter-bombers, which were already attacking targets close to 23 Battalion’s foremost troops, dislodged a Tiger tank. The New Zealand infantry and tanks consolidated in and around Sant’ Agata.
On 12 April the engineers erected two high-level bridges over the Santerno: 7 Field Company built a 120-foot Bailey between the Lugo – Massa Lombarda railway and the road near Sant’ Agata, and 8 Field Company a 110-foot Bailey where the straightened river course intersected the winding Santerno Morto. These bridges, on the route from the Senio for each brigade, were essential to the maintenance of the Division beyond the Santerno.
As at the Senio, 8 Indian Division suffered numerous casualties while crossing the Santerno. After a short artillery preparation, which began at 5.30 p.m. on the 11th, the Wasps and Crocodiles – with the exception of one Crocodile – failed to flame the banks of the river. The two assaulting battalions of 17 Indian Infantry Brigade, after being exposed to machine-gun, shell and mortar fire from both flanks on the near stopbank, waded waist-deep through the water, and on the far side came under fire from almost every direction. On the right 1/5 Royal Gurkha Rifles was counter-attacked five or six times and lost many men killed and wounded. On the left 1/12 Frontier Force Regiment succeeded in occupying some houses beyond the river, but the seven Kangaroos bringing its two reserve companies to the river were all blown up on mines.
The 1st Royal Fusiliers passed through 1/12 Frontier Force Regiment’s small bridgehead and made some progress until counter-attacked by German infantry and tanks at 6.30 a.m. The enemy fire had delayed the construction of a Bailey bridge, but by dawn three Ark tanks had succeeded in making one crossing, by which
some British tanks entered the bridgehead. Later in the day, when two more bridges were thrown across the river, 8 Indian Division firmly held its bridgehead over the Santerno.
The Maori Battalion resumed the advance from its bridgehead at 6 a.m. on the 12th, with the assistance of a barrage fired by 5 Field Regiment. The leaders had gone scarcely half a mile when they came under heavy fire from the front and the railway embankment on the right. The tanks of B Squadron, 18 Regiment, stopped to return the fire, and the infantry took shelter in whatever buildings were handy. C Squadron’s tanks were brought up to help; one was hit by a light anti-tank shell, which did only slight damage. The air observation post found four German tanks at a house on the other side of the railway embankment and directed the artillery on to them. Aircraft were ‘diving and strafing round Massa Lombarda in a most satisfying way.’86
The Maori Battalion’s advance had created a gap of about 1000 yards between it and 25 Battalion, which was occupying the smaller of the two loops of the Santerno Morto in 6 Brigade’s sector. To close this gap, therefore, 26 Battalion was ordered to pass through the 25th and occupy a line between 24 Battalion’s foremost positions on the larger loop and the Maori Battalion. When 26 Battalion’s leading company (A) was crossing the Santerno at midday, however, advice was received that the plan had been changed and there was to be an attack by 5 and 6 Brigades in the afternoon.
While 24 Battalion protected the left flank, 23, 28 and 26 Battalions, in that order from right to left, were to advance 1200 yards at the rate of 100 yards in three minutes under a barrage to a line just short of Massa Lombarda; later they were to advance under another timed barrage to a line just beyond the town. The Division was then to regroup and continue with 6 Brigade on the right and 9 Brigade on the left.
The barrage, fired by 5 Field Regiment, 4 Field Regiment and 1 Royal Horse Artillery, opened at 3 p.m. and began to lift forward 20 minutes later. The 23rd Battalion attacked with B Company on the right and C on the left, followed by D and A. Tiger tanks which had earlier opposed the battalion still tried to delay its progress. Although stonked by the artillery one of them prevented B Company from leaving the start line on time. The heavy guns (7·2-inch) shelled the Tiger’s location, and tanks of A Squadron,
18 Regiment, manoeuvred to deal with it. Finally a Sherman ‘bounced a 75-millimetre shell off its hide, and the Tiger, unwilling to take any more, made off at top speed in a cloud of dust. A few hundred yards farther on another big tank held its ground for a while, but pulled out after swapping shots with Mowat’s87 tanks, and was seen no more.’88 B Company and the tanks then proceeded to the objective, the lateral road just east of Massa Lombarda and north of the railway. C Company lost touch with B and was not accompanied by tanks of A Squadron, but was assisted by B Squadron (with 28 Battalion on the left) in reaching the objective.
Before the advance began the medium guns scored a direct hit which set fire to a Tiger tank reported by 28 Battalion near the railway. The leading companies of this battalion (A and B) had difficulty in getting back behind the artillery opening line. A Company called for smoke to cover this move and sheltered in some houses which were shelled by a tank on the other side of the railway. After knocking out a six-pounder anti-tank gun, this German tank was driven off by shell and mortar fire. From a start line which straddled the railway 28 Battalion advanced with A Company (on the right) and B, followed by C and D. B Squadron’s tanks set fire to a Tiger tank which was sitting out in the open – it had probably been disabled by air attack – and ‘brewed up’ another tank which was camouflaged in a wooden shed. Near a high-walled cemetery a Tiger or Panther was seen in a roadway, but was able to get away in the failing light.
At the cemetery A Company had ‘a short sharp fight’ with about 30 enemy. ‘They fought until they were all killed. The Germans were apparently on the point of pulling out for their gear was neatly stacked and ready for removal.’89 This was the only infantry clash. While taking the evening meal to B Company at the objective, Staff-Sergeant Rangitauira90 went too far in his jeep and entered the outskirts of Massa Lombarda. He took shelter when 18 Germans approached, dashed out behind them and, by pretending to call up others to help him, persuaded them to surrender and hand over their arms.
The 26th Battalion was still crossing the Santerno to fill the gap between 5 and 6 Brigades when orders came for the attack. Lieutenant-Colonel Fairbrother therefore had very little time to prepare a plan and get his men on the start line. Verbal orders were given for A and B Companies, which were already across
the river or about to cross, to form up on the start line, with A on the right, and each with a troop of tanks from C Squadron of 20 Regiment in support. D Company, also with a troop of tanks, was to follow and cover the left flank.
Despite such short notice the three companies were in position before the barrage opened. During the advance they met stronger opposition than had been expected – from tanks and machine guns. From a ditch alongside a road Lance-Sergeant Grainger91 and his assistant disabled a Tiger with two shots from a Piat at close range. The crew was taken prisoner. One of C Squadron’s tanks fired smoke and armour-piercing high-explosive shells at another Tiger. A shot aimed at the driver’s hatch struck the periscope, ricocheted and exploded inside the tank, which stopped about 50 yards away. Nine Germans, including several spandau gunners, baled out and took shelter in a ditch. One escaped, two died of wounds, and the rest were taken prisoner. C Squadron accounted for another Tiger after the infantry had reached the objective and before the light began to fail. This tank was knocked out in the middle of a crossroads by a 17-pounder Sherman which fired two shots into its rear at a range of 400 yards.
By about 5 p.m. on 12 April the New Zealand Division was firmly on its first objective just short of Massa Lombarda. German tanks, horse-drawn transport and motor vehicles, packed with men and gear, could be seen from the air retreating along the roads from the town. The Air Force and artillery attacked these targets.
The Division had captured over 1000 prisoners since the offensive began. Of the 135 Germans who passed through the prisoner-of-war cage on the 12th, half were from 117 Grenadier Regiment of 98 Division and (with the notable exception of 28 men from 26 Reconnaissance Battalion of 26 Panzer Division) most of the others were also from the 98th. A German officer who had been sent to reconnoitre positions on the Canale dei Molini said the New Zealand attack had made it impossible to hold the line of this canal, and in his opinion a withdrawal to the Sillaro River was inevitable.
When General Freyberg learnt of the congestion of vehicles and guns trying to get away from Massa Lombarda, he telephoned Brigadiers Bonifant and Parkinson at 6.45 p.m. and told them to probe ahead; he also rang Brigadier Gentry (9 Brigade) and said it appeared the enemy was ‘pulling out on rather a big scale. Be
prepared to move very fast at first light. This is the time for tanks and Kangaroos as hard as you can get them through. ... I think the Hun is a rabble and his tanks have had it.’92 Later the GOC told General Keightley (5 Corps): ‘We have written off a certain number of his tanks. I think we will take Massa Lombarda tonight and that he will hold an intermediate position tomorrow with tanks and infantry between us and the Sillaro.’93 Keightley said General Leese would transfer the Gurkhas (43 Indian Lorried Infantry Brigade) from the Polish Corps to 5 Corps if he could not get the Polish troops up on the left. ‘The going for the Poles is slow and sticky and their sappers are not doing their stuff.’94 Freyberg wanted the Poles to get up on the Division’s flank in any case.
The Division was to attack to the line of a road on the western side of Massa Lombarda. At first it was planned that an artillery barrage, opening at 2 a.m. on 13 April and lifting at the rate of 100 yards in five minutes, was to be fired by five regiments (which were deployed where they could support the advance beyond the Santerno), but Brigadier Bonifant decided that 5 Brigade did not require a barrage because the leading infantry of 23 Battalion had gone well beyond the objective of the afternoon’s attack without meeting resistance and was being troubled already by shells from the Divisional Artillery; further the enemy was known to be withdrawing from Massa Lombarda. It was decided, therefore, that 4 and 6 Field Regiments should fire a barrage for 6 Brigade only.
Fifth Brigade attacked with 23 and 21 Battalions. The 21st had left its location near Lugo in the morning, crossed the Santerno in the evening, and passed through 28 Battalion, which went into reserve at Sant’ Agata. Supported by tanks of C Squadron of 18 Regiment, 21 Battalion entered Massa Lombarda shortly before midnight without meeting the enemy, and reached the objective about 1 a.m. With its men mostly mounted on 18 Regiment’s tanks, 23 Battalion pushed on until it also reached the objective about one o’ clock; it then bedded down for a few hours’ sleep.
Because of the lack of opposition Lieutenant-Colonel McPhail decided that 21 Battalion should push on; he asked that there be no artillery fire on the near side of the Scolo Zaniolo, about a mile and a half beyond Massa Lombarda. The battalion made slow progress because of the many tank obstacles, but by 6 a.m. C Company on the right was about half-way to the Scolo Zaniolo, and A Company on the left only about a quarter of a mile from it.
Patrols found that the bridge had been blown where the road from Massa Lombarda crossed the canal, and heard enemy tanks and motor vehicles in the vicinity.
The leading companies of 6 Brigade, A and B of 26 Battalion on the right and C of the 24th on the left, advancing under the barrage, crossed the Canale dei Molini south of Massa Lombarda without trouble, and the supporting tanks of 20 Regiment used two bridges which the enemy had left intact. When Tactical Headquarters of 26 Battalion entered the outskirts of Massa Lombarda at dawn on 13 April, ‘red-eyed civilians emerged from their shelters. ... The town had taken a pounding from the air and civilian casualties had been heavy. Partisans of both sexes were much in evidence.’95 Lieutenant-Colonel Fairbrother ordered A Company, with its platoons travelling on tanks, to continue the advance until contact was made with the enemy. By 6.30 a.m. this company, with seven tanks, was on its way towards the Scolo Zaniolo. B Company, also with seven tanks, followed A.
Brigadier Bonifant advised 23 Battalion at 6.15 a.m. of 21 Battalion’s progress towards the Scolo Zaniolo; 6 Brigade was also pushing on, and he wanted the 23rd to do likewise. Lieutenant- Colonel Thomas therefore ordered A and D Companies to resume the advance immediately, followed by B and C. Again the infantry was mounted on tanks, which took the road leading north-west towards the Scolo Zaniolo. While crossing the railway north of Massa Lombarda they were fired upon by mortars and machine guns from the vicinity of the Canale dei Molini, about 400 yards ahead. This pocket of resistance was soon overcome, and the advance was continued across the flat, open ground between the Molini and Zaniolo canals.
For A Squadron, 18 Regiment, this was ‘a real tank charge such as had been visualised when 4 Armoured Brigade was formed, but which had very rarely been on the cards in Italy. ... tanks in line abreast blazing away at the enemy on the Zaniolo, who stayed and fought it out to the end. They had no chance. All were either killed or scooped up.’96 Two bridges were captured intact, and B and C Companies of 23 Battalion and a troop of tanks crossed the Scolo Zaniolo and established a bridgehead.
The 23rd Battalion had taken 30-odd prisoners at the cost of only one or two casualties.97 C and A Companies of 21 Battalion, after taking a further 30-odd prisoners without loss, also crossed the Scolo Zaniolo. But despite Thomas’s protestation that it was feasible
to go on, 5 Brigade went no farther: it passed into reserve while 6 and 9 Brigades continued the advance.
By this time 2 NZ Division and 8 Indian Division had captured 5 Corps’first objective (the line of the Canale di Lugo) and its second (a bridgehead over the Santerno River), and had taken well over 2000 prisoners. The intention now was that 78 Division, after passing through 8 Indian Division, should strike northward towards Bastia and Argenta to link up with the amphibious forces of 5 Corps, and that the New Zealand Division should either protect 78 Division’s left during this northward drive or continue its own westward advance towards Budrio.