Chapter 10: The Westward Thrust
I: The Sillaro River and Medicina
ON 13 April Eighth Army had completed the first phase of the offensive begun on the 9th; three divisions – 8 Indian and 2 New Zealand of 5 Corps and 3 Carpathian of 2 Polish Corps – were firmly established across the Santerno River, and an amphibious assault by 56 British Division of 5 Corps across the flooded ground south of Lake Comacchio had made some progress towards the Argenta Gap. The German 98th and 362 Infantry Divisions had been thrown back from the Senio River by the New Zealand and Indian divisions; 1 Parachute Corps, astride Route 9, had been compelled to pull back 26 Panzer Division, whose northernmost regiment had been outflanked by 5 Corps, and 4 Parachute Division, in the Apennine foothills, had to retire to conform with the 26th Panzer. Because of the progress made by 56 Division and 8 Indian Division, 42 Light Division had withdrawn from a salient at Alfonsine on Route 16, and the Italian Cremona Group had occupied this town and advanced along the highway to the Santerno River.
The enemy had not yet indicated where and when he intended to use his two reserve divisions, 29 and 90 Panzer Grenadier Divisions. The 90th was not expected to leave its central position until Fifth Army began its offensive, when General von Vietinghoff would be better able to assess the situation. The results achieved by Eighth Army’s offensive so far did not indicate whether it should concentrate on the northward thrust through the Argenta Gap or the westward thrust from the Santerno bridgehead. General McCreery therefore decided to increase the weight of both thrusts to the limit of his resources. Orders were given for 78 Division to advance north from 8 Indian Division’s bridgehead to Bastia, where Route 16
crosses the Reno River and enters the Argenta Gap, and for 56 Division to make another outflanking move across the flooded ground south of Lake Comacchio. Fifth Corps was to be relieved of participation in the westward thrust and concentrate on the task of breaching the Argenta Gap; to give the westward thrust the necessary momentum, Headquarters 13 Corps and 10 Indian Division were to be brought in on the right of 2 Polish Corps.
Thirteenth Corps, therefore, was ordered on 12 April to hand over its sector in the hills south of Route 9 to 10 Corps and to proceed into the Romagna plain. The boundary between the Polish Corps and 5 Corps (later between the Polish Corps and 13 Corps) was defined on 13 April so as to give the Poles an axis of advance passing through the towns of Medicina and Budrio, and 2 NZ Division (which transferred from 5 Corps to 13 Corps at 6 p.m. on the 14th) a parallel axis of advance passing to the north of these two towns.
The 56th Division’s first amphibious operation had begun on the night of 10–11 April. Assisted by a Royal Marine commando advancing on its right flank, 169 Brigade had embarked from the Wedge (between the Reno River and Lake Comacchio) in a fleet of Fantails, crossed the floods south of the lake, captured the village of Menate, and linked up early on 12 April with 167 Brigade, which had advanced westward along the Reno River until near its confluence with the Santerno. The two brigades, however, made little further progress.
The 78th Division advanced on 13 April towards the Argenta Gap from the south, but 36 Brigade, after crossing the Scolo Fossatone, was checked at the village of Conselice, while 38 (Irish) Brigade, heading northwards between the Santerno and the Scolo Fossatone, was halted at the village of Cavamento, about two miles from Bastia. The 56th Division’s second amphibious operation, which began the same day, met with little success because of the difficulties of the terrain and because the enemy reinforced this sector. The 24th Guards Brigade, using Fantails and with 9 Commando under command, was ordered to cross the floods east of Route 16 and advance on Argenta from the north-east. They landed little more than half a mile beyond the positions reached by 169 Brigade in the earlier amphibious operation, and could go no farther until the evening of 17 April.
Apparently the threat of amphibious attack had induced the enemy to commit 15 Panzer Grenadier Regiment of 29 Panzer Grenadier Division on the Lake Comacchio flank while the remnants of 42 Light Division defended Bastia and the Argenta Gap; later he committed 71 Panzer Grenadier Regiment of the 29th to
the defence of Argenta. The opposition already encountered by 56 and 78 Divisions persuaded 5 Corps to deploy as many troops as possible and attack on a wide front.
The 78th Division’s northward advance had caught 362 Infantry Division in the rear and thrown it into confusion, but the remnants of this division and of 42 Light Division, which had tried to stand against 56 Division, were organised into battle groups. One of these groups defended Bastia, which did not fall until early on 16 April. The 11th Brigade of 78 Division then passed through to the line of the Fossa Marina, a watercourse just south of Argenta. The assault on this line on the evening of 16 April began ‘the decisive battle which was to end nearly forty-eight hours later with the forcing of the Argenta Gap. The obstacle was stubbornly defended by the Panzer Grenadiers, but the leading British battalion managed to secure a small foothold on the far bank from which, in the course of several attacks on the morning of the 17th, the remainder of the brigade pressed forward passing by Argenta village to the east.’1
The 78th Division was assisted by 56 Division sending 169 Brigade across the floods to Fossa Marina. The arrival of this brigade and the advance of a commando along the Reno River to the west of the village ‘stretched the defenders of Argenta to breaking point.’2 The village was captured before midnight, and on 18 April 36 Brigade of 78 Division began a fresh series of attacks which breached the last of the enemy’s prepared defences.
Meanwhile Fifth Army had opened its offensive towards the Po valley on 14 April, and Eighth Army’s westward thrust from the Santerno River had crossed the Sillaro River and on the 17th reached the Gaiana, between Medicina and Budrio and about 10 miles from Bologna.
Until the arrival of 10 Indian Division the westward thrust from the Santerno was made by 2 NZ Division on the right and 2 Polish Corps on the left. By midday on 13 April the leading New Zealand troops were across the Scolo Zaniolo about a mile and a half beyond Massa Lombarda; north of the Massa Lombarda – Medicina railway 23 and 21 Battalions of 5 Brigade both had two companies over the canal. At this stage 5 Brigade was relieved by side-stepping 6 Brigade to the right and bringing in 9 Brigade on the left.
Ninth Brigade3 left positions near Lugo on the 12th and, after crossing the Santerno, advanced next day with 22 Battalion on the right, Divisional Cavalry Battalion on the left, and 27 Battalion in reserve with the role of protecting the left flank. Beyond the Canale dei Molini the leading companies (A and C) of 22 Battalion dismounted from the Kangaroos of 4 Hussars to mop up pockets of resistance in some houses, but brought the Kangaroos into use again when they found that they could not keep pace on foot with the tanks of C Squadron, 19 Regiment. The tanks, on the other hand, had difficulty in negotiating the ditches, drains and canals, and had to call on the engineers for assistance.
The 22nd Battalion and (on the left) Divisional Cavalry Battalion, the latter led by A Squadron in Kangaroos and supported by A Squadron of 19 Regiment, crossed the Scolo Zaniolo, Scolo Viola and Fosso Gambellara, and by evening were about two and a half miles west of Massa Lombarda. They had very few casualties and took 50-odd prisoners, among them men from 9 Panzer Grenadier Regiment of 26 Panzer Division, which suggested that this division was withdrawing north-westward and might offer the main opposition at the Sillaro River, where the remnants of 98 Division could not be expected to hold more than a small sector.
The tanks covering the enemy’s withdrawal were engaged during the day by the New Zealand tanks, the artillery and the dive-bombers. A Panther which knocked out a tank in C Squadron of 19 Regiment in turn was set on fire by a direct hit by a 17-pounder Sherman of the same squadron. The medium guns set fire to two Tiger tanks and possibly damaged a third.
To secure a firm base for an attack to the Sillaro River (about six miles from the Santerno), which was planned for the early hours of 14 April, A and C Companies of 22 Battalion advanced in the evening of the 13th to the line of the next watercourse, the Fosso Squazzaloca, a mile and a half short of the river, and later A Squadron of Divisional Cavalry Battalion moved up on the left flank to conform.
Meanwhile, after the relief of 5 Brigade about midday on the 13th by 6 Brigade on the Division’s right, 26 Battalion, led by A Company and supported by C Squadron of 20 Regiment, advanced towards the Scolo Correcchio, about a mile from the Sillaro. The tanks approached by a single road north of the railway until by mistake the leader turned left after crossing a culvert; the others followed, formed up line abreast and continued across an open paddock until halted by a ditch. In the ensuing exchange of fire
with the enemy along the Scolo Correcchio about 1000 yards away, one of C Squadron’s tanks was put out of action and one or two of the others damaged. As it was impossible to go any farther in daylight, the tanks withdrew under a smokescreen to the shelter of some houses near a lateral road, where they stayed with the infantry.
The leading company (B) of 24 Battalion rode on the tanks of A Squadron, 20 Regiment, down the same road and, because of misleading information, went almost too far. ‘We careered happily down the road past the flabbergasted 26th to be halted suddenly by enemy tank fire,’ wrote Major Turbott,4 who was on the leading tank. ‘AP shells soon caused a quick dismount and hasty scatter for cover.’5 Turbott made contact with Lieutenant- Colonel Fairbrother and arranged for his company to work with 26 Battalion, which it did until later in the day, when D Company of the 24th joined B on the right of the 26th.
At the end of 13 April, therefore, the foremost troops of 6 Brigade were approximately the same distance from the Sillaro River north of the railway as were those of 9 Brigade south of the railway.
The 12th Royal Lancers (Lieutenant-Colonel K. E. Savill), which had come under the command of the New Zealand Division the previous day, was ordered to protect the right flank. Two squadrons of armoured cars set out on the 13th to probe the ground between the New Zealand Division and 78 Division (which of course was heading towards Bastia). They were delayed by the congestion of traffic on the roads, and in the afternoon were opposed by self-propelled guns and groups of infantry about two miles north-west of Massa Lombarda.
Divisional Headquarters had arrived in the morning at the southern outskirts of Massa Lombarda. General Freyberg ruefully commented on the devastation done by the bombing, ‘This place has been liberated by us!’6 General Keightley (5 Corps) called after lunch to discuss the situation and boundaries, but his talk with the GOC was abruptly interrupted by the arrival of some 105- millimetre shells. The two generals were among those who dived into ditches and slit trenches. At least two men were killed and 15 wounded, many of them in Divisional Signals. After an orders group conference in the afternoon the GOC decided to take Divisional Headquarters back behind the Santerno River.
The Division was to capture the far stopbank of the Sillaro River on a front of 3200 yards. The attack was to be made by 24 and 26 Battalions of 6 Brigade and 22 and Divisional Cavalry Battalions of 9 Brigade. The artillery barrage was to begin at 2 a.m. on the 14th, pause for half an hour on the opening line (the Scolo Correcchio), advance at the rate of 100 yards in five minutes for 2500 yards, and pause for the final 15 minutes on a straight line 300 yards beyond the farthest bend in the Sillaro just north of the railway. On roads jammed with transport which raised clouds of choking dust, the artillery had succeeded in bringing forward across the Santerno five field regiments and two medium regiments with enough ammunition for a set-piece attack.
The GOC was concerned that slow progress by the Polish Corps might endanger his left flank. Fifth Brigade, therefore, was to detail a battalion with tanks to protect the flank south of Massa Lombarda if required, and in addition 12 Lancers was to keep contact between 9 Brigade and the Poles. Keightley told Freyberg by telephone at 9.45 p.m. that the Army Commander had assured him he would push the Poles along.
Sixth Brigade met virtually no opposition. On the right 24 Battalion’s two or three casualties were believed to have been caused by shells falling short in the barrage. A Company saw no enemy on the way to the river, and occupied the far stopbank about 4.40 a.m. after overcoming very slight resistance there. C Company by 5 a.m. had reached the river on A’s right without opposition.
C and D Companies of 26 Battalion also met only slight resistance. As D (on the left) approached the river it was harassed by tanks hull-down on the far bank, but this stopped when the artillery fired several concentrations. Both companies had very few casualties and were on the far stopbank by 5.30 a.m. They had taken about 20 prisoners from 278 Division, which had recently been in the mountains south of Route 9 but had arrived at the Sillaro on the morning of the 13th and dug in north of the village of Sesto Imolese to allow the battered 98 Division to pass through during the night.
By dawn on the 14th, therefore, both 24 and 26 Battalions had two companies dug in on the far bank of the Sillaro north of the Massa Lombarda – Medicina railway, and the two reserve companies of the 24th were on the flank between the river and the Scolo Correcchio; 25 Battalion guarded the flank between the Scolo Correcchio and the Scolo Zaniolo.
Before the attack started A Company of 22 Battalion, at the Fosso Squazzaloca, suffered casualties which it claimed were caused by the Division’s artillery. Shortly after the barrage opened, 7 Platoon was shelled, and the company therefore withdrew its
platoons. A house in which some of the men took shelter received a direct hit. Altogether A Company had 10 or 12 casualties, apparently inflicted by the Division’s guns.
B and D Companies of 22 Battalion, after passing through A and C, crossed the Scolo Correcchio against slight opposition, but made slow progress towards the Sillaro against fire which increased between the last lateral road and the river. Stiff small-arms fire came from the vicinity of the railway embankment beyond the river. Both companies reached the near stopbank, B north of the railway and D south of it, but only part of the latter (14 Platoon, led by Lieutenant Hayter,7 with perhaps a few other men) succeeded in
crossing the river, and it was soon compelled to retire to the near bank.
On the left B and D Squadrons of Divisional Cavalry Battalion made good progress against little opposition, and by 5 a.m. had occupied the far stopbank of the Sillaro near the village of Sesto Imolese. On the flank C Squadron was a few hundred yards from the river and A Squadron farther back towards the Scolo Correcchio, in rear of which 27 Battalion also took up positions defending the flank. At daybreak, however, only half of both B and D Squadrons of the Divisional Cavalry Battalion were across the Sillaro, and there were no bridges by which tanks could go to their assistance. Men still on the near side of the river discovered that they were overlooked by the Germans in Sesto Imolese. In the face of machine-gun and grenade fire Corporal Rawson8 led his section across the river and silenced three enemy posts.
‘Counter-attacks started coming in from 8.30 onwards, but though the positions were rather precarious, they were held, as defensive fire tasks could be called down and the tanks also were able to give help from the near stopbank. Throughout the day, both
B and D Squadrons had to accept mortar and shell-fire which steadily whittled down their numbers. Snipers, too, were claiming their quota. D Squadron alone lost four killed, three of these to snipers, before tank fire blew up the building from which they were shooting.’9
The engineers had opened a route in each brigade sector, and the tanks of 19 and 20 Regiments went into positions where they could support the infantry at dawn or soon afterwards.
‘I hear the New Zealand Division has done it again,’ said General Keightley when he called on General Freyberg at 7.45 a.m. on 14 April. The GOC replied, ‘All we have tried to do was to anticipate Boche on the river and get our communications through and tanks up. ...’10
At an orders group conference in the morning Brigadier Gentry (9 Brigade) said that if the enemy kept up his mortar fire there could be no question of bridging the Sillaro that day. Colonel Hanson claimed it would require an 80-foot bridge, but it would not be as big a task as bridging the Santerno, provided that the engineers could get to the river to work; he believed it could be done that night. Brigadier Parkinson said 20 Armoured Regiment thought it might be able to get tanks across a ford towards 6 Brigade’s right flank. ‘If you can get tanks across and get out on to the road on the far side of the river,’ the GOC told him, ‘then the bridgehead is established and you will have done away with the set-piece attack.’11 It was agreed to wait until 1.30 p.m. before deciding whether or not to make a set-piece attack.
Keightley called again in the morning; this was his last visit before the Division passed from the command of 5 Corps to 13 Corps (at 6 p.m. on the 14th). The GOC told him that he wanted an extra 25-pounder regiment and another 5.5-inch regiment. Lieutenant- General Sir John Harding (13 Corps) arrived shortly afterwards and said his policy would be to keep going on the present axis and to feed in 10 Indian Division on the right or the left of the New Zealand Division depending on how things went.
When the orders group conference resumed at 1.30 p.m., Parkinson said resistance had gradually increased on 6 Brigade’s front, and the party trying to make a bridgehead was being engaged by the enemy; Gentry said there had been no real change on 9 Brigade’s front. The conference then discussed the set-piece
attack, which was to start at 9 p.m. Before this 9 Brigade was to get 22 Battalion on to the far bank of the Sillaro. Later 5 Corps told the GOC that the two extra artillery regiments which the Division was expecting would not be available until next day. Freyberg therefore decided to postpone the Division’s set-piece attack for 24 hours. But 22 Battalion was still to cross the river that night.
The Division had met less resistance than expected on the Sillaro, but the troops occupying the far bank came under fire from the enemy dug in and occupying strongpoints along the line of a lateral road beyond the river. It seemed that the enemy had purposely kept his main defence line clear of the stopbanks in anticipation of a bombardment and flame attack similar to those employed at the Senio. By not manning the stopbanks, however, he had deprived himself of a chance of halting the attack short of the river.
The attempt by infantry from 24 Battalion and tanks from 20 Regiment to ford the river about 400 yards outside the right boundary did not succeed. The first tank, although equipped with ‘grousers’,12 could not climb the steep bank on the far side; it remained in the river under desultory fire until another tank towed it out. In the evening about 60 Germans approached the ford but were dispersed by shellfire. Parkinson told the GOC that the enemy had ‘found out about his plot ... and that idea has now been given up.’13
The infantry holding the stopbanks were supported by artillery counter-battery and defensive-fire tasks, gunfire from the tanks, and fighter-bomber attacks on targets not far from the river. The 5th Medium Regiment’s guns damaged a Tiger tank and started a large fire where two others were located. The enemy’s shell and mortar fire exacted retribution. An observation post from 5 Medium Regiment with 9 Brigade received a direct hit which caused several casualties. A battery commander (Major Macindoe14) and another man from 4 Field Regiment were mortally wounded when a shell struck the window of the room in which they had an observation post. Two tanks in 19 Regiment were damaged. The severity of the fire retarded the work of the engineers. A reconnaissance party from 6 Field Company was unable to get within 300 yards of the river to select sites for two bridges in 9 Brigade’s sector, but 8 Field Company found a suitable place for a bridge and a possible Ark crossing in 6 Brigade’s sector.
Armoured-car patrols of 12 Lancers on the right of the Division closed up to the Sillaro, where the enemy, conforming with his
withdrawal farther south, had left the east side by nightfall. The Lancers also went out to the south to watch that flank and keep contact with the Polish Corps, which captured the town of Imola on Route 9 and was approaching the Sillaro.
Ninth Brigade’s task on the night of 14–15 April was to complete the occupation of the far stopbank of the Sillaro on its front. The plan was for the artillery and mortars, starting at 8 p.m., to fire concentrations for half an hour, after which 22 Battalion was to make a silent crossing with B and D Companies. If this attack failed, the battalion was to launch another at 2.30 a.m. with the aid of eight Crocodiles and six Wasps.
Two platoons each from B and D Companies of the 22nd waded or swam the river and dug in on the far bank; they took a handful of prisoners from 278 Division at very small cost to themselves. The enemy continued his harassing shell and mortar fire, but the New Zealand artillery’s ‘stonks’ and ‘murders’ dealt severely with self-propelled guns, mortars, vehicles and other targets, helped to drive off a counter-attack on D Company’s front by some 30 Germans supported by bazookas and spandaus, and also repelled a party probing towards B Company.
Shortly before 22 Battalion crossed the river, enemy activity was noticed on Divisional Cavalry Battalion’s front in the vicinity of Sesto Imolese; infantry appeared to be working towards D Squadron, on the left flank. This counter-attack – if it was one – was beaten off with the assistance of the artillery. The battalion adjusted its positions by easing out to the left; it then had troops on the far bank south of Sesto Imolese.
Meanwhile, about midnight, 24 Battalion was relieved by the 25th, which put C and D Companies on the stopbanks north of the railway. D Company of the 24th stayed to guard the ford outside the Division’s right boundary. The foremost infantry heard the movement of vehicles at dawn on the 15th, but observation was hampered by fog, although C Company caught sight of a tank which withdrew when engaged by a Piat. On several occasions tanks or self-propelled guns were heard a few hundred yards away, apparently moving from south to north.
During the day the enemy’s positions beyond the river were ‘softened’ by continual air attacks and artillery concentrations, which had the effect of diminishing his shelling and mortaring. With the assistance of the air observation post 5 Medium Regiment bombarded Sesto Imolese all afternoon, and demonstrated ‘the great power of the 5.5 shell’.15
A gap of 600 yards was discovered between 26 and 22 Battalions, probably the result of a discrepancy in the boundaries given in 6 and 9 Brigades’ orders. The two battalions closed up to seal the gap, in which B Company of 22 Battalion took 15 prisoners. A Wasp flamed a house at the bend of the river north of the railway to silence a machine-gun post whose enfilade fire had been troubling the 22nd, and the enemy was seen running away.
On the Division’s extreme left flank a troop of C Squadron, Divisional Cavalry Battalion, was counter-attacked and, after a vigorous exchange of grenades, was forced to withdraw from the far side of the river. Supported by tanks of B Squadron, 19 Regiment, the other two troops of C Squadron regained the position. One of the tanks was set on fire by a Nebelwerfer.
General Freyberg told an orders group conference on the morning of 15 April that the divisional attack had been called off the previous night because the artillery preparation was too hurried. Now, instead of one, the Division would have three medium regiments, as well as the artillery of 6 British Armoured Division and a 155-millimetre battery. The attack was to start at 9 p.m., and the object was to pass two regiments of tanks through the bridgehead and continue the advance beyond the Sillaro River. The artillery barrage was to be 2000 yards in depth, with an extra 600 yards to be taken up in the early stages on 6 Brigade’s front (which curved back to the east). The GOC said the brigades were to ‘push on when your armour is over and try to exploit across the open country past the final objective under cover of darkness, otherwise 6 Brigade will be held up by Tigers.’16
Opposite the New Zealanders from Sesto Imolese northwards was 278 Division; south of the village were 26 Panzer Division and then 4 Parachute Division. The 278th was believed to have four battalions about 300 to 500 yards from the far stopbank of the Sillaro, another battalion in reserve, and up to 15 Tiger or Panther tanks in support. The GOC told Parkinson that the Division would be attacking with an advantage in men of two and a half to one, ‘and I think he is going to hold in depth – hold with infantry or Tiger tanks. If they start to try and get away, I think we can bazooka them.’17
The advance, at the rate of 100 yards in five minutes, was to be made by 6 Brigade on the right and 9 Brigade on the left; 5
Brigade was in reserve.18 The Division was to exploit to the Canale di Medicina, north of the small town of Medicina (which was the objective of 43 Indian Lorried Infantry Brigade, under the command of the Polish Corps). The barrage, which was to last for two hours 50 minutes, was to be fired by seven field regiments, and concentrations, counter-battery and counter-mortar tasks by four medium regiments (including one from the Polish Corps) and the heavy and some other guns;19 in addition the tanks of C Squadron of 18 Regiment were to fire a barrage on a dummy lane on 6 Brigade’s right flank. The artillery expended nearly 45,000 rounds, and the tanks 5000. General Harding and the CCRA of 13 Corps had not been easily convinced that such a programme could be planned in the time available. It was a superb feat by the NZA staff and the Divisional Signals.
Sixth Brigade attacked with 25 Battalion on the right and the 26th on the left; 24 Battalion, in reserve, was to be responsible for protection of the right flank.
The 25th encountered German infantry in strongpoints and trenches, supported by tanks or self-propelled guns. Both leading companies (C and D) reported the presence of tanks. D (on the left) claimed at 10.15 p.m. that it had knocked out two. A Company, following in reserve, reported nine minutes later that the supporting tanks were with it, but as the New Zealand tanks had not yet crossed the Sillaro, these obviously were enemy; the company therefore engaged them, and claimed that it knocked out one. C Company also reported that it had engaged tanks and probably knocked out two, which it declared were Tigers. Later, however, these claims were contradicted by a statement that no Tigers had been encountered and that most of the reported tanks were self-propelled or assault guns.20 One of these had been set on fire by Sergeant Mitchinson,21 who dashed towards it with a Piat and at very short range scored three direct hits. Its crew then fired on him, but he killed three of them with his tommy gun.
Early in the attack 26 Battalion met infantry resistance which soon crumbled, and took so many prisoners that the reserve companies had to assist in escorting them to the rear. German tanks (or self-propelled guns) were heard moving about, but none was seen. Shortly after midnight the leading companies of both 25 Battalion (C and D) and 26 Battalion (B and A) were on the objective, a lateral road north of the village of Fantazza. The reserve companies of the 25th took up positions protecting the right flank. About 180 prisoners had been captured, the majority of them by 26 Battalion, and many enemy had been killed by the bombardment or the infantry.
The engineers constructed two crossings over the Sillaro for 6 Brigade: 8 Field Company completed a drum and fascine culvert about a quarter of a mile downstream from the railway soon after 1 a.m. and, although hampered by machine-gun, shell and mortar fire, a 40-foot Bailey bridge a quarter of a mile farther downstream three hours later. The tanks crossed the culvert when it was ready, and by 6 a.m. on 16 April C Squadron of 20 Regiment was deployed with 26 Battalion, and B Squadron with the 25th; both battalions also had their support weapons with them.
It had been intended to place an Ark bridge at the ford just outside the Division’s right boundary. Sappers from 8 Field Company blew a gap in the stopbank in the evening of the 15th, but E Assault Squadron, RAC/RE, was prevented from completing the task. A German counter-attack on this flank was broken up by artillery defensive fire and mortar stonks, but the party from D Company of 24 Battalion, which was to have protected the engineers, was forced off the bank, and (according to a message from 24 Battalion to the 25th at 2.40 a.m.) the Ark ‘was last seen heading up North with the tail and arms trailing on the ground as it went’ – presumably driven by the enemy.
Ninth Brigade attacked with 22 Battalion on the right and 27 Battalion (which passed through Divisional Cavalry Battalion) on the left. Divisional Cavalry was to cover the flank in rear of the 27th and was to ensure that the enemy was mopped up in Sesto Imolese.
The 22nd met moderate opposition, including shell, machine-gun and small-arms fire, while advancing near the railway north of Sesto Imolese. By midnight A Company (on the right) was on the objective in the Fantazza area, but C Company appeared to be held up by enemy infantry at a lateral road about a quarter of a
mile short of the objective. At dawn Corporal Anderson22 left the house which two platoons had occupied and, armed with a tommy gun, walked towards the Germans in their trenches and demanded their surrender. Others from C Company went out to support him. ‘As Anderson grabbed at an enemy rifle about thirty Germans rose, dropped their weapons, moved forward, and were collected. Then Anderson fell, his left arm (later amputated) severely shattered by a concealed tommy-gunner.’23
The 27th Battalion attacked with 1 and 3 Companies leading. On the right 1 Company, after clearing Sesto Imolese, continued the advance ‘through grape-vines and their fences slowing things down and causing much cursing when shovels and picks kept getting hung up in the wires. Other than mortaring and shelling we struck nothing until after we crossed a road just short of our objective.’24 At a house where Lieutenant Nicol25 (who took command when Major Frazer26 was wounded) intended to set up Company Headquarters, ‘we ran into a tank parked in the yard. In the heavy fog I actually walked into the side of it without seeing it. Just as I hit it, its motor started up with a roar and it took off in a tearing hurry out onto the road and disappeared. ...’27
After going about three-quarters of the way to the objective 3 Company of 27 Battalion came upon several tanks. One was hit by at least three phosphorus grenades and seemed to burst into flames, but made off towards a house. In the lane in front of this house Lance-Corporal Tucker,28 of 14 Platoon, put two Panther tanks out of action by tossing a high-explosive grenade through the open hatch of one and throwing a phosphorus grenade at the other. Flames shot from the latter, and the crew of four or five rushed towards the house. Tucker and Private McIntyre29 were looking for these Germans when they heard a tank start up its engine. Tucker immediately raced to the nearby crossroads, where he attacked his third Panther. His phosphorus grenade apparently set fire to the rubber of its tracks for it made off southward along the lateral road whirling smoke and flame like a Catherine wheel. By this time 14 and 13 Platoons had reached a deep ditch alongside the road, and when the tank approached, Private Walker30 scored a hit on it
with a Piat. The tank continued down the road, but was discovered after daybreak in the ditch.
Another tank, probably a Tiger, was found at a house on the far side of the crossroads. ‘It seemed to be smoking and appeared to have engine trouble, which led me to believe it had already been attacked,’ wrote Corporal Tanner.31 ‘We [three men] hit it and it tore off. ... It stopped, we made another strike, whereupon it staggered off as we pursued it with the last of our phosphorus grenades. It took a desperate zigzag course across country and eventually burst into a great sheet of flame, where it could be seen next day, a gutted wreck.’32
In 3 Company only 15 Platoon had reached the objective at daybreak, but in its first action as infantry the former machine-gun company definitely had accounted for four German tanks. Tucker, who had attacked three of them single-handed, was found dead at the crossroads.
After 27 Battalion had passed through, B Squadron of Divisional Cavalry Battalion entered Sesto Imolese to mop up any enemy who might still be there. Divisional Cavalry then took up positions watching the left flank. The 6th Field Company built two low-level Bailey bridges over the Sillaro for 9 Brigade. One was completed south of Sesto Imolese by 1.30 a.m.; the other, north of the railway, took three or four hours longer because of enemy fire. By dawn on the 16th all three squadrons of 19 Armoured Regiment were across the river, C with 22 Battalion, A with the 27th, and B in reserve with Divisional Cavalry, and the supporting arms were also with the battalions.
The Division was able to report a satisfactory situation to 13 Corps at 6 a.m. The attack had reached its objective; resistance had been strong on both flanks but ‘patchy’ in the centre; more than 260 Germans had been taken prisoner and seven or eight tanks or self-propelled guns had been knocked out or captured; four bridges had been constructed and the armour was with the infantry.
At 7 a.m., in a thick mist, the Division began to exploit about 1000 yards to the next bound, which ran south-westwards along the Scolo Scolatore and to the crossroads at the village of Crocetta. It took 6 Brigade about an hour to get there, but 9 Brigade could not make the same progress. In the Fantazza area 22 Battalion ran into heavy shell and mortar fire, and on the left flank 4 and 2 Companies of 27 Battalion (after passing through 1 and 3) encountered enemy, who included men of 4 Parachute Division more reluctant to surrender than those from the other German divisions.
Major Cox, in an appreciation of the situation he gave the orders group conference on the morning of 16 April, said that the chief change since the previous day was the definite movement of 4 Parachute Division to the New Zealand sector. The Poles had crossed the Sillaro, and according to intercepted enemy information, the German parachutists had been told to drop back north-west- wards. The 26th Panzer Division was being squeezed out and it appeared that the enemy was anxious to get it into reserve. The latest New Zealand attack had practically wiped out a battalion of 278 Division, which was now left with about one and a half regiments, possibly two. ‘We can now expect stronger resistance on the left flank. ... We should now run into a belt with less tank interference. ...’33
A captured enemy map showed (in General Freyberg’s words) ‘that the Boche knew where we were and put the whole of his tank battalion opposite us. I think we are now through the heavy mine belt. Our objective now is to destroy as many of his tanks as possible. It will then be comparatively easy.’34
Lieutenant-Colonel Savill reported that armoured cars of 12 Lancers had crossed the Sillaro at 7.30 a.m. and were pushing out to the north. The 10th Indian Division (coming up on the right) also had patrols over the river. The GOC told Savill to ‘keep very closely in touch with 6 Brigade because it looks as though there is more looseness on the right flank than anywhere else.’35
It was decided that 5 Brigade should relieve the 6th that night, and that the plan for the 16th would be for 6 Brigade to go as far as the Scolo Sillaro Menata and for 9 Brigade to keep on the left flank and try to get around and behind the resistance about Crocetta.
Sixth Brigade advanced from the Scolo Scolatore on a two-battalion front over flat country ‘with patches of cover for rearguards and snipers and far too many ditches and canals to suit the tanks [of 20 Regiment]. The open ground was far too exposed for an infantry advance without gun support, and the tanks usually softened up likely danger spots before making a dash forward to the next lot of cover. Among the hedges and vines [tank] troops often lost visual contact with each other and with the infantry, but the radio link with the infantry and with the spotter aircraft overhead more than made up for this loss of sight. However, crews sometimes had some anxious moments as their Shermans poked their
noses through a hedge on to a road, especially when the spotting plane had reported enemy tanks or anti-tank guns in their neighbourhood.’ Several German tanks or self-propelled guns were seen, ‘but none stayed to contest the way.’36
On the right 25 Battalion reached the Scolo Fenile shortly after midday and the Scolo Sillaro Menata during the next hour. B Squadron of 20 Regiment lost a tank when an armour-piercing shot set it alight. The assault engineers constructed a fascine crossing over the wide Sillaro Menata, which the tanks were able to use by 4 p.m. The tanks and infantry then went on to the Scolo Montanara, where they were established about 7 p.m.
Both 26 and 22 Battalions came under shell and mortar fire when the early morning mist lifted. Artillery concentrations were directed on a group of houses which enemy rearguards were suspected to be holding. The 26th did not move again until midday, and then advanced to the Scolo Sillaro Menata; when the engineers had completed the crossing for tanks in 25 Battalion’s sector, the 26th continued on till about 4.15 p.m. At a lateral road A Company met slight resistance and captured two field guns and some 40-odd Germans from 278 Division. By 7 p.m. 26 Battalion also was at the Scolo Montanara.
After a day’s advance of about two and a quarter miles, therefore, both 25 and 26 Battalions were on the line of the Montanara, which the enemy had proposed to hold, according to statements from prisoners of war apparently confirmed by earthworks. Meanwhile 24 Battalion, still guarding the right flank, was strung out from the Scolo Scolatore back towards the Sillaro River. In the gap which had opened up between it and 25 Battalion were two squadrons of 12 Lancers, whose patrols to the north and north-west bumped into small pockets of enemy which took time to clear without the help of infantry.
Orders had been given for the relief of 6 Brigade by the 5th that night. During the seven days since the crossing of the Senio River, 6 Brigade had captured nearly 600 prisoners (out of a total of 2200 who had passed through the divisional cage) and had destroyed or captured a number of tanks, self-propelled guns and field guns. The brigade’s casualties had been 30 killed and 180 wounded.
The shell and mortar fire in the Fantazza area had halted 22 Battalion of 9 Brigade in the morning of 16 April. After discussing the situation with General Freyberg and Brigadier Gentry, Lieutenant-Colonel Donald gave his company commanders a plan for exploiting with Kangaroos in co-operation with the tanks of
C Squadron, 19 Regiment. The battalion set off after midday, but still made slow progress. Both leading companies (B and A), however, were reported to be up to the Scolo Sillaro Menata about 4.30 p.m., and the lateral road beyond it less than an hour later. At nightfall 22 Battalion had not yet reached the Scolo Montanara, but was ordered to push on past it to the Scolo Rondone with all speed. After some difficulty in negotiating the drains and canals in Kangaroos, A Company was at the Rondone. A patrol which went out to Ganzanigo, a village about three-quarters of a mile north-east of the town of Medicina, found no enemy and no demolitions.
Two troops of Kangaroos joined 27 Battalion late in the afternoon, after 4 and 2 Companies had reached the Scolo Sillaro Menata. The Kangaroos were allotted to 1 and 3 Companies, which went ahead at 5 p.m., followed by 2 and 4 riding on the tanks of A Squadron, 19 Regiment, and on Battalion Headquarters’ Kangaroos. The rate of advance was limited only by the time it took the assault engineers to provide crossings over the canals and drains. By 5.45 p.m. the leading companies had reached the Scolo Montanara and made contact with the enemy. They debussed and dug in along the canal while the Kangaroos went back a short distance to laager. Patrols later in the night did not meet the enemy, who obviously had gone.
Divisional Cavalry Battalion, still with the role of left flank protection, moved in the late afternoon towards the Scolo Sillaro Menata in rear of the 27th. Ninth Brigade advised Divisional Headquarters in the evening that the number of prisoners it had taken in the 24 hours ending at 5 p.m. was 330, plus nearly 50 evacuated through medical channels. The total since the start of the offensive was about 500.
At an orders group conference at 5 p.m. on the 16th General Freyberg took a very bright view of the prospects: ‘I think we are pushing him back and forcing him to withdraw along Route 9 as the Poles have not taken many prisoners. He is on the verge of a very big decision about going back. I think if he does not do it in two or three days it will be too late. The Staff estimate it will take him three weeks to get out of the hills in the West. He will hold at every obstacle on the front to gain time for that. Most people think he has left it too late.’37
Ahead of the New Zealand Division, between Medicina and Budrio, were several small streams or canals – the Gaiana, the Acquarolo, the Quaderna and its tributary the Fossatone, and the Centonara Vecchia – and beyond Budrio was the more considerable Idice River, into which these watercourses drained. It was to the Idice that the conference now turned its attention. Preliminary information showed that it was no wider than any other river the Division had crossed, and the stopbanks resembled those on the Sillaro. The GOC thought it might need a certain amount of boating, for which they would have to be prepared. The enemy might fight small delaying actions forward of the Idice, but the General thought he was going back behind it.
The intentions for the night of 16–17 April were to go as far as the Division reasonably could, then get some sleep and go on again at daylight. ‘There is one point – we are getting tired,’ said the GOC. ‘It is essential that the reserve brigades and the reserve battalions are out of the battle. We will be going on for another five days.’38
After the conference the information was received that 43 Lorried Infantry Brigade had taken Medicina. General Freyberg then told Brigadier Bonifant to get 5 Brigade to the Canale di Medicina, north of the town. He also advised Brigadier Gentry that 43 Brigade was to be under the New Zealand Division’s command and on 9 Brigade’s left. The Division would then continue the advance with these two brigades. Ninth Brigade would have an exposed right flank until 10 Indian Division arrived, whenever that might be. The GOC reiterated his belief that the enemy had ‘taken a very big decision and is going right back. If so then tomorrow we may approach the Idice, unless he stays on the Quaderna. ...’39
The New Zealand Division was to sidestep to the left by taking over 2000 yards of the Polish Corps’ sector (to 43 Brigade’s left boundary) and handing over about 2000 yards to 10 Indian Division. General Harding informed the GOC in a telephone conversation that he had told 10 Indian Division ‘to get a move on and take over from your right boundary. There is every indication that the Boche has withdrawn and I do not think Denis [Major- General Reed, GOC 10 Indian Division] can catch up with you tomorrow.’ The corps commander also asked Freyberg to keep his ammunition expenditure low ‘unless there is something really worth throwing it at.’40
The railway line from Medicina to Budrio was to be the Division’s thrust line and inter-brigade boundary. The GOC told the brigade major of 43 Brigade that 9 Brigade ‘will come level with you tomorrow morning. Be ready to start. Tell your Brigadier [Barker] how delighted I am to have him with us. It is the “old firm” again.’41 The 43rd Brigade came under the command of the Division at midnight.
Fifth Brigade had left Massa Lombarda area in the late afternoon of the 16th. The 23rd and 21st Battalions, each with a squadron of 18 Armoured Regiment in support, passed through 6 Brigade at the Scolo Montanara about 9 a.m., and well before midnight had reached the limit for the night’s advance without opposition. The Maori Battalion, also with a squadron of 18 Regiment in support, replaced 24 Battalion on the right flank, with companies spaced between the Sillaro River and 23 Battalion.
Early on the 17th 23 and 21 Battalions set off again, rounded up a few stragglers, reached the lateral road running through Ganzanigo about 6 a.m., and the Canale di Medicina about half an hour later. The German equipment found in the brigade’s sector, most of it apparently knocked out by air attacks, included 13 105-millimetre guns, a Panther tank, a self-propelled gun, five infantry guns and five anti-tank guns. When a brigade of 10 Indian Division passed through about 1.30 p.m., 5 Brigade again went into reserve. By this time the number of prisoners it had captured since the start of the offensive on 9 April had passed 1000.
II: The Account Squared with the Parachutists
‘If the Idice proves tough I want to step back from it, and bomb and shell it. Halt 9 Brigade and 43 Gurkha Brigade, put the other two brigades [5 and 6] through to establish a bridgehead, tidy your two [9 and 43] brigades up and put you through the bridgehead, get right out beyond and try to make a break,’42 General Freyberg told Brigadiers Gentry (9 Brigade), Barker (43 Brigade) and Queree (CRA), and Colonels Gilbert (GSO I) and Cook43 (AA and QMG) at Headquarters 43 Brigade on the morning of 17 April. Queree listed the formidable array of artillery available for the task: six regiments plus a battery of 25-pounder and 105-millimetre
guns, five regiments plus a battery of 5.5-inch gun-howitzers, a regiment of 4.5-inch guns, a battery of 7.2-inch guns, a battery of 155-millimetre guns, and eight 3.7-inch anti-aircraft guns.
It did not seem likely that the Division would meet strong opposition before the Idice River. Apparently the conference expected no resistance at the Gaiana,44 towards which 9 and 43 Brigades had begun to advance. Pushing on as fast as they could, 22 and 27 Battalions of 9 Brigade were across the Canale di Medicina before 8 a.m. The supporting tanks of A and C Squadrons of 19 Regiment had some difficulty in passing this obstacle, but were assisted by 28 Assault Squadron, which kept close behind the leading troops. Two hours later the two battalions passed the Fosso Sillaro, and about midday they reached the village of Villa Fontana, some 1000 yards short of the Gaiana.
Between the village and this small river, which flowed between stopbanks like so many the Division had left behind, a flat approach gave no cover other than a few ditches; from the left of the village the embankment of the Medicina-Budrio railway led to a demolished bridge, and from near the right of the village the Budrio road led to another demolished bridge. Major Titchener,45 who commanded 2 Company of 27 Battalion on 9 Brigade’s left flank, took a foot patrol to the railway station, from which it could be seen quite clearly that the enemy was holding the near stopbank.
The 27th advanced towards the Gaiana with 2 Company alongside the railway embankment and 4 Company (on the right) on the Budrio road. At a speed which apparently took the enemy by surprise Headquarters 2 Company and 10 Platoon, in Kangaroos accompanied by a troop of A Squadron’s tanks, drove right up to the stopbank, where the men debussed under the shelter of the bank while the tanks held the enemy at bay. Second-Lieutenant Vazey46 left his tank to observe the enemy from the stopbank and returned to direct his troop’s shooting until his tank was knocked out and he was wounded. Lance-Corporal Hutchison,47 of 10 Platoon made a solo dash over the crest of the bank, killed a German, wounded another and took a prisoner.
Titchener’s plan was that if the first platoon reached the stop-bank the other two were to be called up and the company would cross the Gaiana. All three platoons arrived at the stopbank with
very few casualties. At this point, however, Lieutenant-Colonel Sanders48 ordered 2 Company to stop. The men had left their digging tools in the Kangaroos, which had withdrawn and had to be persuaded to return with them. Casualties among the unprotected infantry were caused by the supporting artillery and the tanks supporting the Gurkhas on 9 Brigade’s left, as well as by the enemy’s fire. The company, therefore, was reorganised into two platoons, one with Company Headquarters based at a house in a bend in the stopbank near the railway, and the other on the stop-bank itself farther to the right (north).
From the upper windows of the house the men retaliated against the German snipers and killed or wounded several. ‘The rest of the afternoon we spent trying to keep the enemy from using the steep bank as an observation point. We used Artillery, 2″ mortars, small arms fire, and also called in the Air Force who did particularly good work with close support bombing. ... It was only by the grace of God and a lack of aggressiveness on the enemy’s part that 2 Company was not overrun. We were stretched in a thin red line along the stopbank with both flanks open and a determined assault may have dealt with us very quickly. In fact I do not think the enemy realised we had [only] one Company in that sector.’49
The Germans opened fire with a variety of weapons, including faustpatronen, on 4 Company’s Kangaroos when they drove along the Budrio road towards the Gaiana. The leading platoon (No. 16) turned off to the right behind a house, where casualties occurred while the men were climbing out of the Kangaroos. Only 17 Platoon reached the stopbank, but left the entrenching tools in the Kangaroos; and as the men could not dig in, their effective strength was reduced to three or four by the enemy’s enfilading fire from both flanks and by the fire of the supporting tanks and artillery. Meanwhile 18 Platoon was obliged to take shelter about 150 yards from the stopbank in a lateral ditch, on which the enemy was able to range with his mortars. This platoon also had many casualties.
The officer commanding 4 Company (Major Bullen50) noticed that the enemy, who apparently had concentrated his force farther north (opposite the approaching 22 Battalion), had quickly switched his infantry to 27 Battalion’s front. Through his glasses he could see the Germans diving across the gap in the bank where the bridge
used to span the river. ‘The right flank was wide open and remained so until 22 came up under cover of 25 pdr. smoke. ... By the time Kangaroos had removed the wounded we found ourselves theoretically occupying 350 yards of stop-bank with a coy. H.Q. and remnants of 16 Platoon, totalling 9 or 10 men on one flank and about 3 in Jessup’s [17 Platoon]51 position on the other. ...’52 All the platoon commanders were wounded, two sergeants dead and the third wounded.
It was intended that 1 Company should replace 4, but Bullen withdrew his surviving men before the relief arrived. At dusk the enemy had set fire to the house occupied by nine or ten men of 16 Platoon and Company Headquarters, and as he had received no orders from Battalion Headquarters since the start of the attack and no reply to wireless messages relayed through the artillery, Bullen decided ‘that there was little purpose in being cooked, so I gave orders for the remaining few troops to make a run for it. Which they did.’53
Sanders ordered 1 Company, which had been in reserve near Villa Fontana, to occupy the near stopbank when darkness fell. This the company did without interference, with a platoon on each side of the road. Thus 27 Battalion had secured a foothold on the bank. Its casualties on 17 April were 19 killed and 64 wounded.54
After passing Villa Fontana 22 Battalion planned to push to the Gaiana with B Company leading in Kangaroos accompanied by tanks from C Squadron, 19 Regiment, followed by D in a second line in support, and then by C on foot in reserve. It was intended that B Company, after securing the near stopbank, should establish a bridgehead over the river, and that D should pass through and enlarge the bridgehead or gain the next bound. This plan, however, had to be abandoned: instead, B Company was to gain a strong foothold on the near stopbank.
The mortars laid a smokescreen across the immediate front, and B Company’s Kangaroos advanced into intense mortar and small-arms fire. They stopped 30 or 40 yards from the stopbank. ‘The first thing we saw as we jumped out of the Kangaroos was a line of paratroopers’ heads and shoulders above the bank, firing at us. Not one man in the platoon was hit in the charge to the stop-bank, thanks to the covering fire, small arms, etc., from the Kangaroos and other sources. A hand-grenade battle then followed. Never have I seen anyone dig so fast and furiously in all my life.
The ground was like concrete. We cussed another crowd who had borrowed our sharp shovels earlier, and never returned them. The paratroopers seemed to have an endless supply of grenades which they rolled over the bank. So to fool and annoy them (and also to save our own supply of grenades) we would occasionally throw over empty bully beef tins or sods of dirt. ... The Teds55 fired two bazookas into a Kangaroo on our left flank which burst into flames, causing the ammunition on board to explode. The noise and heat was terrific.’56
One of the Kangaroos did not get near the stopbank. It ‘bumped and jolted along with funereal speed until our Tommy driver ran us into a large ditch. The Kangaroo pitched nose downwards and became immovable. Everyone scrambled out and started to run forward in the open field to the nearest house about 120 yards away. The whole section made it without mishap.’57 By 4.30 p.m. B Company of 22 Battalion was strung out along the stopbank for about half a mile or so north of the road. The 22nd’s casualties were only one killed and five wounded, and 19 Regiment, whose tanks had supported both 22 and 27 Battalions, had lost one killed and six wounded. Two squadrons of Divisional Cavalry Battalion dug in behind the 22nd to protect 9 Brigade’s right flank.
Meanwhile, on the morning of 17 April, 2 Battalion of 6 Gurkha Rifles, in Kangaroos, led 43 Lorried Infantry Brigade’s advance along the Medicina-Bologna road, south of the railway on 9 NZ Brigade’s left boundary. The supporting tanks of 2 Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment, went ahead and reported that the Gaiana was held by the enemy. A and D Companies of 2/6 Gurkhas, ordered to cross on a wide front, attacked about midday. They took the enemy by surprise, but suffered many casualties before some of their men reached the objective beyond the river. They began to take prisoners from 4 Parachute Division, but when the enemy ‘saw the state of our men they grabbed up arms again and dived into trenches, and got away.’58 Late in the afternoon every Gurkha who had crossed the river had been killed or wounded, ‘but they held on until no ammo left and came back at last light.’59
Major Titchener, whose 2 Company of 27 Battalion was nearest to the Gurkhas, was totally unaware of their daylight attack across
the river. ‘Perhaps I was too interested in my own sector but I neither saw nor heard any sound of fighting on my left.’60
At a divisional conference in mid-afternoon, just before the Gurkhas began their attack, Brigadiers Barker and Gentry reported on the opposition 43 and 9 Brigades already had encountered, but General Freyberg was still looking ahead to the Idice: ‘I think we are up against a screen – a good shelling is what they need. You will both keep pushing on after dark. You should get through easily at night. Push, but no further than the next ditch during daylight. There will no doubt be a battle on the Idice.’61 He wanted 9 and 43 Brigades to keep going until they were close to the Idice, and 5 and 6 Brigades then to ‘go in in a properly co-ordinated attack after one afternoon at least of proper softening. If we can paste him on that then there will be only the Reno and the Po.’62 Ninth and 43 Brigades were to be made completely mobile; 5 Brigade would be lorry-borne and it and 6 Brigade in turn would have to be shuttled forward in lorries; as many bridges as possible were to be put over the Idice; the use of parachutists to secure a bridgehead on the Reno or the Po was being studied. ‘I will put the 12 L [Lancers] through and try to find a suitable route to the Po and then push the task forces up quickly. ... It will require fast movement and deep recce before we commit you on account of possible demolitions. ... If you get a chance to jump the Idice do it, but I don’t think you will get the chance.’63
Later in the afternoon, after 43 Brigade’s abortive crossing of the Gaiana, Barker told Gentry that he felt his brigade could not attack that night, but he was reluctant to admit to the GOC that he could not satisfactorily carry out the orders he had been given. Gentry therefore went to Divisional Headquarters to explain the situation, as he himself ‘was convinced by this time that it would not be a good attack. ... I arrived to find the General having dinner. ... He accepted my advice to call the attack off for 24 hours. ...’64 It was decided that both 9 and 43 Brigades should do no more that night than send out strong patrols and go forward if they could without fighting and occupy any ground abandoned by the enemy.
Meanwhile 10 Indian Division was reported level with the New Zealand Division’s right flank; it hoped to push on during the night and expected to make fairly good progress because it was opposed only by 278 Division. A captured map showed that in the
sector between the flooded land near Lake Comacchio and the Apennines 278 Division, 4 Parachute Division and 1 Parachute Division, grouped under 1 Parachute Corps, had swung round in their withdrawal to face south-east instead of east. Seven battalions of 4 Parachute Division had been identified by prisoners captured on the New Zealand Division’s front. The enemy had manned thickly the Gaiana anti-tank obstacle and had fought hard, using Nebelwerfers and more artillery than the New Zealanders had encountered for some time. This resistance could be expected to continue on the 18th, either on the Gaiana or the Quaderna, to delay Eighth Army’s approach to the Idice. Not only did the enemy require time to prepare ‘what he has named the “GHENGIS KHAN” line on the IDICE, but he must also swing back his flank in the mountains South of Route 9 to link up with it. We may therefore expect him to fight as hard as the morale of his troops and the state of his equipment will allow.’65
Major Cox told the GOC that it had been established, after checking, that the Division had destroyed seven Tiger, six Panther and six Mark IV tanks and four self-propelled guns since the start of the offensive. The 161 prisoners taken on 17 April brought the Division’s total to 30 officers and 2312 other ranks. Freyberg telephoned the corps commander to give him this information, and added, ‘It is going to be a long tough job to get through the paratroopers.’66 Harding arranged for additional field and medium artillery for the Division, and said he would inquire about extra Crocodiles (of which the Division already had eight). He also confirmed that there was no change in Fifteenth Army Group’s plan to destroy the enemy south of the Po. ‘I personally think your thrust will pay the best dividend because it is the most immediate threat. ...’67
General Freyberg was busy on the telephone that night. He discussed harassing fire with the CRA. The Germans opposing the Division were ‘fresh from the mountains and haven’t been shelled for some time. We will have to educate them.’ He obtained an assurance from Gentry that the enemy had not gone, and told him, ‘Do not fight tonight. It is no good having a little bridgehead.’ He advised 5 and 6 Brigades to be sure to get plenty of rest, and he assured Barker that it was ‘going to be tough, but OK, we will put some solid harassing in front of you tomorrow.’ Barker said the enemy had panicked at Medicina the previous night, ‘but the para boys fought like hell against us today. We gave them everything we had – fought them hard and they still came back on us.
We killed a lot of them today because of their sheer bravado. They are really fanatical.’ The General replied, ‘After we have finished with them they will be in a ripe state to yield us plenty of PW!’68
Before the postponement of the attack that night orders had been given for 9 Brigade’s part in it: after the relief of 22 Battalion by Divisional Cavalry Battalion, these two battalions, with Divisional Cavalry on the right and the 22nd (passing through the 27th) on the left, were to have attacked across the Gaiana. Divisional Cavalry, with A and C Squadrons forward, completed the relief of the 22nd before midnight, and while it was still dark sent out patrols to the river, which in that sector had less than a foot of water in it.
The patrol from A Squadron found that the enemy was not very numerous on the far bank but was well sited and strong in automatic weapons, which responded to the fire put down by the rest of the squadron to cover the patrol. A wounded parachutist, from 3 Company, Sturm Regiment, was brought back. The patrol from C Squadron, farther downstream, ‘ran into trouble from automatic weapons dug in on the same bank and were driven back over the water after suffering a man wounded, whom they were forced to leave behind. But the squadron commander, Major Maclntyre69 ... immediately organised another patrol, himself in command, which rushed back over the river, silenced the weapons in question, and chopped their crews about properly while the wounded man was being carried back to safety.’70
The following afternoon (18 April) the enemy succeeded in infiltrating amongst C Squadron. ‘This attack was contained, but not before Maclntyre again had occasion to strike a blow. This time he climbed into a knocked-out Sherman tank and brought its machine gun to bear on the enemy, inflicting casualties, and pinning them down until fire from the supporting tanks of 19 Armoured Regiment could drive the enemy off.’71
Otherwise Divisional Cavalry was disturbed only by Nebelwerfer and mortar stonks. A patrol from 1 Company of 27 Battalion, sent out near the road-bridge site in mid-afternoon on the 18th, went 250 yards along the reverse slope of the stopbank without seeing the enemy but found trenches which had been vacated recently.
From their house near the stopbank 2 Company’s sharpshooters continued their duel with the German snipers and by the end of the day claimed 13 of them. A patrol crossed the river near the demolished railway bridge, where the water was found to be up to the men’s chests. The patrol was climbing the far bank when the enemy opened fire, but got back without casualties. After that the enemy remained alert and shot at any movement he could see over the crest of the near stopbank.
‘It is now clear that his [the enemy’s] plan is to fight us to a standstill on each of the three fronts where he is threatened, i.e., in the mountains, here, and at the Argenta Gap,’ Major Cox told the divisional orders group conference at Headquarters 9 Brigade on the morning of 18 April. ‘All his reserves have been committed to this end.’72 These included 29 Panzer Grenadier Division at Argenta (where already 5 Corps had begun to breach the gap) and 90 Panzer Grenadier Division astride Route 64 south of Bologna, ‘and he has concentrated all he could on our front.’73 Seven parachute battalions had been identified on the ground, six of them holding the front opposite 9 and 43 Brigades. These were two battalions each of 12 and 10 Parachute Regiments, and one battalion each of 4 and 11 Parachute Regiments. Against the whole of the Polish Corps there were only five battalions of similar size, and opposite 10 Indian Division only the weak 278 Division. Cox said the enemy had put his Tiger tanks on the Indian division’s front, and his Panthers, of which there were seven or eight, with the parachutists facing the New Zealand Division. In reserve behind the parachutists was 26 Panzer Division, which had 50 Mark IV tanks and two fairly weak regiments of infantry. ‘Although the parachutists have fought well against us here, there is plenty of evidence to show that their move across was made in the utmost confusion. Yesterday they passed a message in clear to Para Corps – this was the first time they have done this since TUNISIA. There is no sign that they intend to go back from the GIANA unless perhaps their flanks go. I think they have 800 to 900 men at the most in the area [extending] 2000 yds each side of the railway.’74
The conference then proceeded to discuss the plan for the attack. Brigadier Gentry said the enemy was dug in on the other side of the near stopbank and also on the far bank. ‘They apparently have
not got many men but are very strong in weapons. The situation is most suitable for flaming. After discussion with my Bn Comds we all agreed that another SENIO technique is what is needed.’75 Brigadier Barker said 43 Brigade was now firm with 9 Brigade on its right. ‘We are on the near bank there – they are having rather a hard time. Further to the left we are about 400 yds back from the bank and patrolling up. ... I agree with the technique of withdrawing and then stropping him. ...’76 It was decided that the two brigades should withdraw their men 500 yards after nightfall.
The intention, stated in the divisional operation order that afternoon, was to cross the Gaiana and Quaderna and continue the advance to the Idice River. The 9th and 43rd Brigades were to attack at 9.30 p.m. in accordance with an artillery programme. The infantry assault on the Gaiana was to be accompanied by a flame-throwing attack directed on to both stopbanks. The engineers were to construct at least two assault crossings on each brigade front over each obstacle, and 5 and 6 Brigades were each to provide an infantry company as close cover for the sappers working on these crossings. After the capture of the objective the two leading brigades were to exploit with tanks and infantry to the line of the Idice; the other two brigades were to be in divisional reserve and were to be prepared to follow up the advance, 5 Brigade in rear of the 9th and 6 Brigade in rear of the 43rd.
The GOC told Gentry by telephone that the artillery support would be ‘a total of 192 fd pieces which will fire about 100,000 rds, or 100 rds per individual paratrooper opposite our front. In addition 48 × 5.5s and 24 × 4.5s with a bty of 7.2s and a bty of 155s.’77 He also advised Barker about the artillery, and said, ‘Early news of a withdrawal is very important. Test the market at dusk.’ He then warned Gentry to watch out for an enemy withdrawal. ‘This is the greatest bombardment we have ever put down.’78 He also told Cox, ‘This will be the most important battle we have fought in Italy. ... They’re worried sick at Corps and Army that we’re going to shoot off all their ammunition to-night. So we are. But we are the only ones in position and ready to do so, so why shouldn’t we?’79
‘It was,’ thought Cox, ‘almost melodramatically appropriate that this battle, which, given good fortune, should be our last major
action in Italy and perhaps in the war, was to be waged against the parachutists. They had dropped on to us on the Corinth Canal in 1941, and in Crete.80 In Cassino 1st Para Division had been our opponents in what was perhaps the ugliest battle of the war. In front of Florence we had met 4th Para Division. 12th Para (Sturm) Regiment, which now occupied the left flank of the Giana, had provided the glider-borne troops who had led the assault on Crete. On just such a sunny day as this we had stared up through the olive-trees at their slow, wide-winged, silent craft swooping down on to us. The 12th Storm Regiment was something more than just one unit in a big corps. From it had been drawn the cadres to rebuild the parachutists after Crete, to transform them into the elite of the German Army under Nazism, brutal, strong, with an almost masochistic willingness to die.81
As he waited for the barrage to open, General Freyberg paced backwards and forwards in his caravan; he was worried that the enemy might not be there on the stopbanks of the Gaiana. ‘He had to justify this tremendous expenditure of shells. He had to show results, German casualties in dead, wounded and prisoners on the morrow. Above all he was gravely worried about our own casualties. Even with the Gurkhas to help this must be our last attack, or at the best our last but one. Yet he knew the Division was desperately anxious to be in the open warfare which must come soon, and which had been promised to the Eighth Army all the way up Italy. He knew too that we were better fitted, from our desert days, for open warfare than anyone else in Italy.’82
The guns opened at 9.30 p.m. on 18 April ‘in one of the most concentrated bombardments ever fired.’83 ‘... The flashes lit and flared like a hundred thunderstorms. The trees around us changed from lumps of soft, slumbrous darkness to shapes of green and yellow. The whole western sky was alive with bursting shells.’84
The artillery expended nearly 72,500 rounds, which brought the total expenditure since the start of the offensive at the Senio to over 320,000 rounds. The barrage started with the equivalent of six field regiments and two medium regiments on a frontage of 3600 yards along the Gaiana, lifted 500 yards, and at 10.30 p.m. began moving forward at the rate of 100 yards in five minutes to a depth of over 3000 yards, with a half-hour pause on the way. At the same time the heavy and medium guns, heavy anti-aircraft guns and mortars fired counter-battery and counter-mortar programmes and many timed concentrations, and the light anti-aircraft guns indicated the brigade boundaries and dummy boundaries on both flanks.
The flame-throwers, which went in at 10 p.m., made a profound impression on all who saw them. ‘Their spurts of flame, red under the lightning flashes, showed again, again, again. All along the line of the river they glared, red and ugly. The black smoke mounted up into the stars.’85 ‘The fearful molten streams curved through the air and slobbered all over the river. Soon the levees were outlined in sizzling, licking fire and looked like walls of hot lava. At every fresh spout of the flaming fluid, the glare would light up the pillaring clouds of smoke giving the sky the appearance of a display of the southern aurora.’86 The bank ‘was just one sheet of flame, a sight never to be forgotten.’87
As soon as the flame-throwers finished, the infantry began to advance, and within a very short time the leading companies of Divisional Cavalry Battalion and 22 Battalion (the latter in the sector from which 27 Battalion had withdrawn) were across the Gaiana.
Divisional Cavalry, attacking with C (on the right) and A Squadrons, and with B and D mopping up in rear, made good progress in spite of hostile shell, mortar and small-arms fire. Mist, smoke and dust so reduced visibility that compasses had to be used to maintain direction. The leading companies were ‘virtually unopposed’ at the Gaiana ‘and covered the next 3000 yards without stopping. But, as soon as they reached the limit of the barrage area, the enemy was there again fighting back stubbornly. ... to deny every yard of ground. ... But the attackers too, flushed with the success of their advance, were to be denied nothing’88 and forced their way across the Quaderna. By 1.30 a.m. C and A Squadrons were on their objective and digging in round a group of houses just north of the Medicina-Budrio railway. The two mopping-up
squadrons, B and D, ‘also found the poor visibility an embarrassment almost as unpleasant as the continued fighting spirit of those paratroopers who had been bypassed’89 by the leading companies.
The 22nd Battalion advanced with C (on the right) and A Companies in the lead and with D mopping up enemy pockets. The men had expected to find the Gaiana quite shallow, but in places they waded up to their armpits in water and deep mud. Once clear of the river, however, they made steady progress and about 2 a.m. were reported on their objective beyond the Quaderna.
As Divisional Cavalry and 22 Battalion passed each water obstacle in the open flat country west of the Gaiana, 27 Battalion despatched companies to protect 9 Brigade’s exposed right flank. Shortly after midnight 4 Company set off down the road from Villa Fontana and at the Gaiana turned downstream for about 1000 yards and made contact with the enemy. Later 2 Company crossed the Gaiana and went into position facing north-east astride the Scolo Acquarolo; 1 Company kept to the road until just short of the Quaderna and then went across country to some houses.
On the right of 43 Brigade two companies of 2/8 Gurkhas met diminished opposition in their advance to the Fossatone (between the Acquarolo and the Quaderna), where they established themselves on the far bank; the other two companies of this battalion passed through, met only disorganised resistance, and by dawn had men on the far bank of the Quaderna south of the railway. On the left flank, however, 2/10 Gurkhas met strong resistance and was prevented from reaching its objective. Two companies made good progress as far as the Scolo Acquarolo, but the other two companies, after passing through, could not get beyond the Fossatone.
The sappers of 6 Field Company, assisted by the bulldozers of 27 Mechanical Equipment Company, had difficulty in opening routes for the tanks and supporting arms of 9 Brigade because of the defensive fire which delayed them at the start and because of the German snipers and machine-gunners who had survived the infantry attack or had infiltrated from the right flank. The first obstacle, the Gaiana, had not been cleared in Divisional Cavalry’s sector by 3.30 a.m. It was decided, therefore, to open the Budrio road instead. A crossing of the river was bulldozed at the demolished bridge site, and a party rushed on to the Acquarolo, where fortunately the bridge was still intact. The next obstacle, the Fossatone, was under defensive fire, and while working there Captain Keller90 was wounded
and a bulldozer damaged by shellfire. Although very shaken, the bulldozer operator (Lance-Corporal Blacktopp91) repaired his machine and carried on with the work, which Keller continued to supervise.
Meanwhile, in 22 Battalion’s sector, crossings were bulldozed over the Gaiana and Acquarolo. This route then converged with the Budrio road to connect with the only crossing of the Fossatone. The ‘soft-skinned’ bulldozers were replaced at this point by an armoured Sherman dozer from 28 Assault Squadron, which placed a scissors bridge at the Quaderna. The railway bridge over the Quaderna was captured intact.
The tanks of the leading squadrons of 19 Regiment were held up at the Fossatone until the crossing there was completed, but later in the morning joined the infantry, B Squadron in support of Divisional Cavalry and C in support of 22 Battalion; A Squadron co-operated with 27 Battalion in protecting the right flank. In 43 Brigade’s sector 255 Field Company, Royal Engineers, constructed a 60-foot Bailey bridge over the Gaiana on the Medicina–Castenaso road and opened a route for the tanks to the far side of the Fossatone.
On the night of 18–19 April and the following morning, C Company of 23 Battalion was responsible for the protection of the engineers working in 43 Gurkha Brigade’s sector. ‘As the left flank was exposed and the paratroopers had concentrated all the guns, rocket-firing projectors, Nebelwerfers and other mortars they could secure in an attempt to stop the advance, C Company found, according to its diary, “the area the most unhealthy of the whole campaign” and suffered casualties of one killed and five wounded. The company RAP men also had a busy time attending to wounded Gurkhas. As the paratroopers emerged from hiding when the attacking force had moved on, C Company had more than once to fight to secure the bridging site for the engineers.’92
The situation was reviewed at a divisional conference at 8.30 a.m. on 19 April. According to the general tone of the wireless interception the enemy was under considerable strain; typical messages were: ‘Enemy tanks in front of me.’ ‘I am now on new switch line.’ ‘Have you any further reserves?’ Some prisoners were still in a state of collapse caused by the flame-throwing.
Brigadier Gentry reported that 9 Brigade’s attack had gone ‘according to plan’;93 both battalions were on their objectives. Brigadier Barker said many casualties had occurred on both sides, but more among the Germans than the Gurkhas. The enemy ‘definitely was holding in depth; our appreciation was wrong about that. ... there was very stiff fighting and we got a bit behind the barrage. ... The country is very open and rolling like the Salisbury Plain. The Poles are a very long way behind us and we are still getting fire from our left flank.’94
It was decided that 9 and 43 Brigades should stabilise on a line some time that evening and that both should be relieved after dark. In the meantime they were to try to push on if they could.
The Division had carried the Gaiana line and advanced beyond it, ‘but ground was not what we wanted,’ wrote Cox. ‘We wanted to destroy the German Armies in Italy this side of the Po, so that they could not get back into the Alps. At first it looked as if this time we had failed.
‘It was only when I went forward to the river line itself early the next day that I realised that this was not so. We had indeed hit the enemy as we wished. The first count of enemy casualties [about 200]95 had been too low. Along these banks in the stream, in their trenches, in houses and holes behind, lay the massed dead. Few battlefields in this war can have presented the picture of carnage which the banks of the Giana showed that day, this spectacle of Germans killed by the barrage, or caught crouching in their holes by the flame-throwers, or slaughtered in a hundred other ways. ... There they lay in all their ghastliness, the youth of Germany, the pride of Hitlerism. ...’96
Brigadier Gentry says that when he walked over the ground where the flame-throwers had been used, ‘it was quite clear that it had been held in adequate strength to prevent any successful attack in daylight except possibly with very heavy air and artillery support. There were more dead Germans on the battlefield than I saw in any of the preceding operations.’97
The tanks going to Divisional Cavalry Battalion’s support had not married up with the infantry at daybreak. The enemy threatened
to counter-attack at 6.45 a.m., but ‘this was beaten off by defensive fire called down on it from the guns behind. Throughout the earlier part of the day, most of A Squadron was in a decidedly delicate position. Enemy troops that had been overrun had manned their positions again on the banks of the Quaderna behind them; twice the squadron came close to being shelled by the 25-pounders, while they had also to suffer the enemy’s 75-mm. fire. The cab-rank planes also gave them several frights, so, until the arrival of B Squadron as reinforcement enabled the position to be held until the tanks did get up, A Squadron’s predicament was not to be envied. Then D Squadron also came through and, together with the tanks, managed to push further forward to deepen the position.’98
German mortars, Nebelwerfers and self-propelled guns were busy on 9 Brigade’s front. The enemy’s attempts to infiltrate or counter-attack on Divisional Cavalry Battalion’s sector were broken up by the artillery; the houses he occupied and his self-propelled guns were shelled by the mediums.
On the right flank, between Divisional Cavalry and the Gaiana, 27 Battalion also was in action. Early in the morning 1 Company had turned north off the road on the eastern side of the Quaderna and cleared the enemy from a group of houses, but he continued to fire bazookas and small arms from some houses alongside the canal. Tanks of A Squadron, 19 Regiment, shelled these buildings and drove out some 15 Germans, who bolted for the stopbank. Two Wasps then rushed in to flame the bank, which caused panic among the enemy in the vicinity. For 100 yards or so on each side of the flamed ground the Germans discarded their weapons and fled into the open, where a 25-pounder stonk was brought down among them. Later a paratrooper captain walked in and surrendered.
This prisoner must have been the one described in the divisional Intelligence summary as ‘the first parachute officer-deserter we have ever had, and probably the first any formation has had in ITALY. ... he was CO of I/10 Para Regt. ... He had a long record of soldiering for the Nazis, having been a member of Condor Legion – the German forces sent to gain experience in the Spanish Civil War in 1937–38. ... Last night’s barrage was the heaviest he had ever experienced. It was worse than at VELLETRI, at the head of the ANZIO bridgehead. ... His men had, however, been well dispersed in depth, and well dug in, and did not suffer heavy casualties from the actual barrage. Their fighting spirit was, however, badly impaired by it, and they found the flamethrowers alarming. One PW described what hit his sector last night as “something inhuman”.’99
The 22nd Battalion was ready to resume the advance in the morning, but waited to conform with Divisional Cavalry, which did not move until the trouble had been settled on the right flank. The two battalions set off about 2.30 p.m. B and D Squadrons of Divisional Cavalry passed through A and C, and, accompanied by the tanks of B Squadron, 19 Regiment, crossed the Rio Centonara Vecchia and reached the il Canalazzo, a short distance beyond, apparently without having met opposition. B and D Companies of 22 Battalion advanced swiftly towards the Rio Centonara Vecchia, but had difficulty in negotiating this obstacle because of mortar fire from the left flank. The tanks of C Squadron, 19 Regiment, went round to the right because self-propelled guns had the open ground on the left well covered. By nightfall the 22nd also was on the il Canalazzo.
This water channel, about two miles beyond the Gaiana and more than half-way to Budrio, was the limit of 9 Brigade’s advance before it was relieved by 5 Brigade on the night of 19–20 April.
Ninth Brigade’s casualties during the period 13–19 April were 80 killed and 317 wounded;100 it claimed 747 prisoners.
Meanwhile 43 Gurkha Brigade’s advance still was held up on the left flank because the Polish Corps was lagging behind the New Zealand Division. Late in the afternoon the Poles were reported on the line of the Fossatone about two miles south of 43 Brigade.
Not for the first time the New Zealand Division was ahead of the divisions on both flanks. General Harding telephoned General Freyberg at 6.55 p.m. to tell him that a battalion of 10 Indian Infantry Brigade had cleared the right flank up to the Quaderna. The GOC replied, ‘They nearly attacked us at the rear of 27 Bn – but we saw them off.’ In a later telephone conversation Freyberg asked the corps commander whether the Poles had come up into line. ‘I cannot find out where they are,’ he said. ‘... while they hang behind us we get shot up from the flanks. ... One officer deserter says he thinks the enemy has enough troops to regroup unless we push him hard – that I feel is true.’101
The battle of the Gaiana did not attract much attention at the time. ‘Amidst the thunder of blows which were falling on the Third Reich, the hammering which the parachutists of 1st Para Corps got on the Italian front went almost unheard. Yet we can claim, I believe,’ wrote Cox, ‘that few nails were driven into the coffin of Nazism more thoroughly than this. On the Giana we were able to bring down such a blow on to the best German infantry on the Italian front that from then on, with steadily increasing speed, the way to the Po and the Alps opened up.’102
III: A Chance to Jump the Idice
General Freyberg had told his brigadiers on the afternoon of 17 April, ‘If you get a chance to jump the Idice do it, but I don’t think you will get the chance.’103 He could not foresee then that the parachutists’ stand on the Gaiana was to delay the advance for a day, but later the chance did occur to ‘jump’ the Idice River.
By the 19th 5 Corps had breached the Argenta Gap and was within striking distance of the River Po; the westward thrust by 13 Corps and the Polish Corps was approaching the Idice River north-east of Bologna; farther west, in Fifth Army’s sector, the Americans were drawing close to the city from the south. Nevertheless the Allied armies would have to move swiftly if they were to thwart the enemy’s attempt to withdraw his armies across the Po in as good order as possible.
Already General McCreery had issued instructions for Eighth Army’s pursuit to the Po. Fifth Corps was to continue its advance north-westwards to the city of Ferrara (which guarded the bridge across the Po on the main road to Padua and Venice) and to Bondeno; it was also to be prepared to seize a crossing over the Po north or north-east of Ferrara. Thirteenth Corps was to establish a bridgehead over the Idice north of Budrio and continue its advance north-westwards to San Marco and San Giorgio, north of Bologna (which was to be the Americans’ objective). The Polish Corps was to establish a bridgehead over the Idice, on the left of 13 Corps, and was to protect Eighth Army’s left flank and prevent the withdrawal of enemy forces from Bologna by the routes east of the Reno River; it also was to be prepared to occupy Bologna (if the opposition was not too strong) and to cross the Reno.
For the attack across the Idice the Poles were directed to the river south of Budrio, and the New Zealanders were to cross north of the town; to the right of the main effort (farther to the north-east) 10 Indian Division was to cross the Quaderna and also engage the enemy on the Idice. When the enemy position on the river, the Genghis Khan Line, had been broken, the New Zealand Division was to exploit rapidly across Route 64 (the Bologna- Ferrara highway) to San Giorgio di Piano and then northwards, and 10 Indian Division was to despatch a brigade across the New Zealanders’ most northerly bridge to the small town of Minerbio. The boundary between 13 Corps and the Polish Corps was revised so as to be along the railway from Villa Fontana to a road junction just south of Budrio, and thence north-westwards across the Idice. This boundary was to assume unexpected significance.
General Freyberg told a divisional conference early in the evening of the 19th that an intercepted message had revealed that the enemy was pulling back to the Idice that night. The Division was going to attack with the whole of the available artillery – 216 field guns and 120 mediums and heavies – in support, and on a 4000-yard front chosen to open up the two roads leading north-westwards from the Idice north of Budrio. The left flank, exposed because the Poles were so far in rear, would have to be strongly held.
That night 5 and 6 Brigades replaced 9 and 43 Brigades at the head of the Division.
While 28 Battalion protected the right flank, 23 and 21 Battalions of 5 Brigade continued the advance beyond the il Canalazzo, and by 2 a.m. were on the next bound, about three-quarters of a mile from Budrio. After the changeover with the Gurkhas, who withdrew east of Medicina, 6 Brigade set out to conform with the 5th, with 24 and 26 Battalions in the lead and the 25th protecting the left flank.
Fifth Brigade resumed the advance at 5.30 a.m. on the 20th, an hour or so before 6 Brigade reached the bound about three-quarters of a mile from Budrio. The tanks (C Squadron of 18 Regiment) with 21 Battalion subdued a strongpoint at the San Pancrazio crossroads, just short of Budrio, and the infantry passed through the northern outskirts of the town. After meeting only scattered resistance they reached the Idice about 11 a.m., and found the enemy dug in on both banks.
Meanwhile 23 Battalion had bypassed Budrio, approached the Idice about three-quarters of a mile downstream (north-west from the town) without opposition, and captured a few Germans who had been unaware that the New Zealanders were anywhere in the vicinity. By 8.30 a.m. the leading infantry and tanks of A Squadron, 18 Regiment, were about 500 yards from the river. Patrols reconnoitred the 15-foot near stopbank and found it wired and mined, but thought the watercourse, about 30 feet wide, could be forded by infantry. Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas sought Brigadier Bonifant’s approval for an early daylight crossing.
Bonifant instructed 23 Battalion to send a patrol across. If this was successful, the battalion was to follow. In addition 28 Battalion was to go to the right flank, where it was to be prepared to occupy the near stopbank.
While the other two platoons of A Company of 23 Battalion held the near stopbank, 9 Platoon (Lieutenant O’Sullivan104) crossed the Idice shortly after midday and occupied the nearest houses without casualties. Two companies of Germans, ‘with stacks of arms and ammunition’ were ‘totally unprepared for battle. As was discovered later from prisoners, these German troops had marched for two days from the Bologna area to take up positions on the Idice, where they were supposed to fight to the last round and the last man. Their march had been rendered more than arduous
by the bombing and strafing of the Allied air force. Exhausted, they had arrived that morning an hour or two earlier and, understanding the attacking Eighth Army troops to be still miles away, they had taken their boots off and were resting in order to be fit to fight that night or the next day. “They were caught literally with their pants down and boots off,” said the 23rd unit diary. O’Sullivan and his men attacked with vigour, killed 25 and captured 32, and, to quote Major Marett’s105 report, “shot at and chased Germans too numerous to count – a chance that comes only once in a lifetime.”‘106
The bridgehead was reinforced by 7 Platoon and ‘within an hour the two platoons were well into the Genghis Khan Line. ...’107 A Company had captured 42 prisoners without the loss of one man. Before sending two platoons across on the right of A Company at one o’clock, D Company, anticipating that the Germans would now be fully alerted, plastered the far bank with fire from Wasps and tanks. The leading section of 18 Platoon met small-arms fire from a post which had not been eliminated, but Private MacLeod108 stormed it and killed two of the enemy, and the section went far enough ahead to cover the advance of the rest of the platoon. No. 17 Platoon drove the enemy from a large house and had some good shooting with Brens and tommy guns at Germans running from this and other houses in the vicinity. Within a few minutes the two platoons had taken 30 prisoners and killed and wounded others. Some of the dumps of ammunition and weapons – which confirmed that the enemy had intended to make a stand on the Genghis Khan Line – were destroyed so that they could not be recaptured.
The enemy directed intense shell and mortar fire on 23 Battalion’s shallow bridgehead. The two companies were ordered not to go more than 100 yards beyond the river because of the closeness of the Allied Air Force’s bombing and strafing. Germans ‘came marching down the road in single file as if they were quite ignorant of the presence of the 23rd men, who waited to open fire until they were able to shoot up a dozen or more.’109 When some enemy emerged from dugouts which had not been cleared, Sergeant Maitland110 charged forward, firing his tommy gun, and captured several men. With a small party from his platoon he rounded up 18
prisoners altogether and forced others to flee. The 23rd Battalion took 130 prisoners on 20 April, at a cost of only three men wounded.
Early in the afternoon 28 Battalion, with B Squadron of 18 Regiment in support, went into position on the right flank astride the railway about two miles north-east of Budrio, and made contact with 10 Indian Division and also with troops of 12 Lancers who were occupying houses in the vicinity. The Maoris sent out a patrol to test the strength of the enemy on this part of the Idice, but the patrol was fired on when within 500 yards of the river and withdrew. On 5 Brigade’s other (left) flank 21 Battalion manned the near stopbank but did not cross the river because of the strong defences there.
Meanwhile, about midday, 6 Brigade crossed the railway south-west of Budrio and reached the Idice without opposition. D Company of 24 Battalion had little difficulty in getting to the other side, but C Company, on D’s left, encountered strongpoints on the far bank and needed the support of A Squadron, 20 Regiment. One of the strongpoints was a sanatorium which the tanks’ gunners cleared systematically from top to bottom, one floor at a time, with delayed-action shells. Two platoons of C Company occupied a building on the far side, but later in the afternoon D Company was forced back over the river by German tanks, which left C isolated.
The Germans resisted, mostly with small arms, when 26 Battalion attempted to cross the Idice on the left flank, but by mid-afternoon both C and D Companies had platoons on the far side. The battalion did not attempt to enlarge this bridgehead until dusk because of the closeness of the Allied air assaults on the enemy. In the meantime, however, Second-Lieutenant Burland,111 of C Squadron of 20 Regiment, found that tanks could ford the river outside the Division’s boundary – in the Poles’ sector – where only a few inches of water flowed over a shingle bottom. A few Germans, who had kept quiet while Burland and his squadron commander (Major Moodie112) stood at the water’s edge, tried to surrender to the first tank which got over the ford, but the Sherman did not stop for them. C Squadron formed a bridgehead about 600 yards deep, and in the evening 26 Battalion had three companies (C, D and A) over the Idice. The 25th Battalion, supported by B Squadron of 20 Regiment, still protected the left flank east of the river.
The Division had reached the Idice south of where it had been intended it should cross. This had been anticipated the previous evening, when it had been decided that the Division should sideslip to the north at the river. At a conference at 5 p.m., however, Brigadier Parkinson objected to relinquishing 6 Brigade’s bridgehead in the Poles’ sector: ‘If we have to shift North then we will have no ford or crossing and we will lose the fruits of the battle we fought against 4 Para Div.’ Brigadier Queree pointed out that the Polish artillery was likely to put down harassing fire on the Poles’ side of the boundary at any time, and Major L. W. Colmore-Williams, the GSO II (Air), drew attention to the danger of being bombed by aircraft supporting the Poles’ advance. But
Parkinson held to his opinion ‘that the enemy is putting stuff in as quickly as he can and that we must get on before dark... My people are full of running and if we have to give up our br[idge]head then we will have to fall back to “B”; bank [between the near stopbank and the river] and call it a day.’113 General Freyberg said he had taken up the boundary question on an Army level ‘and I can’t change it’. Brigadier Gentry supported Parkinson: ‘The br[idge]head helps the Poles as well as it does us.’ Parkinson argued that there was ‘only scattered and sporadic opposition. The first man who gets over the river with armour is the important one. After all it was the first man through the HINDENBERG LINE who really broke it.’114
‘The last-war simile hit home. The General grinned, and slowly gave way,’115 Major Cox noted.
Freyberg: ‘If they say you’ve got to get out then you must do so. We have tried. I thought it would be OK because the Poles were 12 miles behind us. I spoke to General DUCH but he was determined to go ahead and cross over just where we have got our br[idge]head. ... There are two alternatives. Either we do a penetration under Brigadiers tonight or else put in a proper show with arty tomorrow night. Ian [Bonifant] could go ahead to the road parallel with the river under a short arty programme of his own. ...’
Parkinson: ‘I think that if we shove enough stuff through our ford the whole thing will bust.’
Freyberg: ‘OK then. Ike [Parkinson] will carry on under his own steam and move across to the right and take over his own bde front. 5 Bde will go in at 2400 [hours] with their own arty plan provided Ian decides that it is possible.’116
Thus the GOC decided upon a compromise: 6 Brigade was to use the ford in the Poles’ sector while 5 Brigade put in a frontal attack under a barrage. The General conferred with the commander of 13 Corps and with Polish representatives to get the plan accepted, secure the use of the ford, and prevent the Polish artillery from firing on the New Zealanders. ‘The great thing,’ agreed General Harding, ‘is not to delay the battle.’117 He suggested that the New Zealand Division went ahead, and that 3 Carpathian Division formed up behind it and took no offensive action until next morning. ‘If we are going to take full advantage of the situation we must leave the New Zealanders where they are till first light. The Polish troops will have the advantage that the
New Zealanders are clearing the ground for them – if they take over before first light they would take over an untidy situation.’118 Freyberg said he had no objection to the Poles putting troops into the bridgehead if they wanted to do so. The Poles accepted this arrangement and agreed upon a line north of which their artillery would not shoot.
After crossing the ford in the Poles’ sector the infantry of 26 Battalion and tanks of C Squadron, 20 Regiment, held a bridgehead over the Idice about 600 yards deep and 700 wide. The three companies (C, D and A) were harassed by spandaus and mortars and, although the tanks retaliated, the darkness made it difficult to pinpoint the enemy positions. About 10 p.m. on the 20th the foremost platoons withdrew to slightly better cover.
At five o’clock A and B Companies of 24 Battalion had been ordered to establish a bridgehead on the line of a lateral road 700–800 yards beyond the river. A Company on the left came under fire from two machine-gun posts which hitherto had remained concealed, and the advance might have been halted had not Lance- Corporal Beckham119 attacked and killed the crews of both of them. By eight o’clock the two companies were about midway between the river and the lateral road and had been joined by the tanks of A Squadron, 20 Regiment, which had crossed at the ford.
Sixth Brigade was not to sideslip to the north until both 5 and 6 Brigades held a firm bridgehead. Brigadier Bonifant gave orders at 7.30 p.m. for an attack by 28 and 23 Battalions to expand the bridgehead. On their left 21 Battalion, after crossing the river and occupying ground in the gap between the two brigades, would be squeezed out of the line when 6 Brigade conformed with the 5th, and would go into reserve.
B, C and D Companies of 21 Battalion, starting at 8.30 p.m., crossed the river without difficulty and before midnight were occupying positions beyond the far stopbank astride the road from Budrio. Meanwhile, in preparation for the assault, A and B Companies of 28 Battalion, assisted by B Squadron of 18 Regiment, approached the river on the right of 23 Battalion and were on the near stopbank by 8.40 p.m. The enemy used bazookas and light mortars in an attempt to dislodge them, but without success.
Divisional Headquarters issued orders at nine o’clock that, to permit the construction of bridges, 5 Brigade was to extend
northwards to the boundary with 10 Indian Division – which it had done already – and, with artillery support, establish a bridgehead on the general line of a track about 400 yards beyond the Idice. Sixth Brigade was to extend its existing bridgehead northwards from the ford with the object of joining up with the 5th west of the river.
Fifth Brigade’s orders for the attack by 28 and 23 Battalions, which was to start at midnight on 20–21 April, gave as the objective a track 800 yards from the river, twice the distance set by the divisional orders. The artillery programme was arranged at lightning speed. The 4th and 5th NZ Field Regiments and 23 Field Regiment, RA, were to cover the advance with a barrage on a 2000-yard front; other heavy, medium and field guns and heavy anti-aircraft guns were to fire counter-battery and counter-mortar tasks and concentrations. Sappers of 7 Field Company were to construct a Bailey bridge, and 28 Assault Squadron was to lay an Ark bridge; the tanks of 18 Regiment were to be ready to use the first available crossing.
The assault over the Idice by C and D Companies of 28 Battalion (after passing through A and B) was to have been preceded by a flame attack by Crocodiles, but owing to a misunderstanding the Maoris crossed without this assistance. They pressed on against only slight resistance, but had difficulty in keeping direction because of what was reported to be dense smoke from the artillery barrage but probably was dust raised by the exploding shells. C Company was guided by a road on its right flank, but D had to rely on compass bearings. The presence of German tanks was reported near the final objective, and for this reason C Company pulled back slightly. Much enemy movement in the vicinity of the Scolo Fiumicello, only a short distance ahead, was engaged by the artillery.
During the first stage of the attack 23 Battalion reported poor visibility because of river fog. D and C Companies, however, advanced without opposition and by two o’clock were on their objective. A patrol discovered that a bridge over the Scolo Fiumicello was intact and would take tanks.
The construction of 7 Field Company’s high-level 100-foot Bailey bridge took longer than expected. Because the bridging train was delayed by a vehicle being ditched and the high banks required much preliminary work, the construction was not begun until after two o’clock, but was completed about six hours later. The assault squadron’s attempt to place an Ark bridge about half a mile farther upstream was abandoned when it was found to be impracticable, but 8 Field Company, assisted by bulldozers from 27 Mechanical Equipment Company, opened a ford in the vicinity about 4.30 a.m.
and began work shortly afterwards on a 50-foot low-level Bailey near the ford. This was completed by nine o’clock.
Because of these delays it was decided to pass C Squadron of 18 Regiment over the ford in the Poles’ sector and direct it northwards through 6 Brigade and 5 Brigade’s sector. This squadron was in contact with 21 Battalion by 7 a.m.; A and B Squadrons, using 8 Field Company’s crossing, were marrying up with the infantry an hour or two later.
On the evening of 20 April the German Commander-in-Chief South-West (General von Vietinghoff) ordered a general withdrawal from the Bologna area. He had not been allowed by Berlin to order a fighting withdrawal to the River Po; he had failed to halt the Allied offensive on the Apennine line, and when retreat ‘was forced upon him as the only alternative to annihilation south of the Po, he found that his armies were already battered, he had no reserves and his pace of withdrawal was limited to that of the foot soldier.’120 Already Eighth Army had breached the Genghis Khan Line in the Argenta Gap and on the Idice River, and Fifth Army had debouched from the mountains into the Po valley.
Early on the morning of 21 April troops of 3 Carpathian Division entered Bologna from the south-west, shortly before men of 34 Division, 2 United States Corps, drove into it from the south; later in the day they were joined by the Italian Legnano Group and troops of 91 US Division. To Eighth Army’s triumph of having the first troops in the city, the New Zealand Division had contributed not a little by seizing the chance to ‘jump’ the Idice River. The Poles made good use of the ford captured by the New Zealanders.