CHAPTER 16 — Iesi to Gambettola
Iesi to Gambettola
THE stay in the Castellina rest area was limited to ten days but the time was enjoyably spent. In addition, the war news was cheering: the landings in the south of France, which had taken some of the American and all the French divisions away from Italy, were progressing favourably; in France, too, the Americans were approaching Paris; and good news came from the Russian and Pacific fronts.
In Italy, it was hoped to break into or through the Gothic Line, the chain of positions across the backbone of Italy from Pesaro to Massa which the Germans had begun to prepare in the autumn of 1943. To add weight to surprise, General Alexander now decided to switch the main thrust of the Eighth Army back to the Adriatic coast. General Leese appreciated that the comparatively flat country north of Rimini would favour his armour and permit a faster advance than did the central mountain sector. Others feared that the rivers and canals running at right-angles to the axis of advance might aid the enemy in fighting a series of rearguard actions. But appreciations are merely well-founded theories which can be tested only when put into operation. Once it was decided to move to the Adriatic coast, the normal security precautions were taken and the switch was made.
In 5 Brigade, again under Brigadier Burrows, the advance parties moved on 25 August, the Bren carriers on the following day and the main body a day later. The troops saw very little of the country through which they drove as the move was made at night. The convoy travelled via the outskirts of Siena, Castiglione, Perugia, the staging area at Foligno, and Tolentino to the new concentration area at Iesi, about 15 miles inland from the Adriatic port of Ancona. This 220-mile journey took the 23rd over roads whose dustiness made the discomfort of those in the backs of the trucks almost as acute as in dusty desert days. The steep mountainous country also imposed a heavy strain on the drivers. But by the early morning of 29 August, the battalion was settling down in a new area near Iesi.page 385
Here training was resumed. Special attention was given to night exercises: three nights a week were devoted to this training, which was designed to prepare the men either for straightforward infantry night attacks or for variations of the infantry-cum-armour attacks made in the advance to Florence. To iron out problems that had arisen in these combined tank-infantry attacks, Brigadier Burrows held a series of conferences and exercises under 5 Brigade auspices. In particular, he decided after consultation with those most concerned that the type of country would determine the nature of the operation, and therefore the vexed question of command as between infantry and tank officers.
In the meantime, the Eighth Army offensive had opened on 25 August with the Canadians and then the Poles spearheading the attack. Later, 3 Greek Mountain Brigade, under command of the New Zealand Division, joined in, as did various British armoured and infantry divisions. The New Zealanders themselves remained in Army reserve in the expectation that they would be used in a fast-moving pursuit role, as after the ‘breakout’ at Alamein. Private diaries reveal how stimulating the news was to the men in the 23rd. ‘The news tonight was great— 20 mile gap torn in Gothic Line. So soon we will be cracking in our original role…. Great events, great days.’1 News from other fronts was also good. In Western Europe the Allied armies were on the German border by early September, while farther east the Russians were reported to be streaking across the Rumanian and Hungarian plains. ‘Momentous and sensational world news today…. Come on, Joe!’2
As the Eighth Army pushed the Germans back past Pesaro, the New Zealanders moved up in the rear to be readily available. Thus, on 6 September, the 23rd moved to near Mondolfo, just south of Fano on the coast. Morale had definitely risen again during the interval out of the line. The old recipes modified to suit the circumstances produced the desired results—good food, plenty of letter and parcel mail from home, a sensible variation of the themes of rest and training, the resumption of games of rugby football, with a tour of the United Kingdom by a New Zealand Army team held out as a prospect for the best players, and a variety of entertainments. Cinema shows were common and the Kiwi Concert Party No. 10 show was a great success. ‘Pedro the Fisherman was launched on the road page 386 of popularity tonight,’ wrote one diarist with reference to a particularly tuneful melody. On 1 September Brigadier Burrows addressed the unit on the situation on the Eighth Army front. He considered the prospects good. Something of the general feeling of growing confidence is seen in Somerville's diary entry for 4 September: ‘… will soon be on our way in a do or die show. For some reason I am optimistic about whole thing as I believe it will be successful.’
By this time, too, the 23rd was nearly up to strength again. By 10 September, the ‘Strength State’ indicated that the unit had 29 officers posted to it, with another 8 attached, together with 716 other ranks. As from 11 September, the infantry company commanders were Major D. G. Grant (A), Major J. W. McArthur (B), Captain H. J. G. Low (C), and Captain N. Buchanan (D). Don Grant had just returned from hospital on 9 September, and his appointment to A Company was designed to restore the discipline and fighting spirit of that company to its former high standard. Even two days before his return to the unit, an A Company man could record in his diary: ‘Some of our Coy out shooting up Ities last night for some mad reason… the coy is all to hell. Needs Ian Wilson back again as OC.’
From this stage onwards, the CO, Colonel McPhail, and the IO, Lieutenant J. A. Bevin, and, more occasionally, the company commanders, went forward to suitable OPs in the Canadians' territory to view the country over which they expected to advance and fight in the near future. On 20 September the battalion moved to an area inland from the Rimini airfield. The Canadians now occupied the major part of the San For-tunato feature, the key to the Rimini line. The Eighth Army had advanced some 30 miles since the fighting had opened on the Adriatic coast on 25 August, but the attacking forces were nearly exhausted and the New Zealanders were warned to be ready to take their turn in the line. In the absence of General Freyberg, who had been injured when his aircraft crumpled on landing, General Weir discussed various plans with his brigade commanders. After alternative programmes had been considered, it was generally understood that 5 Brigade would either establish or enlarge a bridgehead across the Marecchia River and thus begin the advance across the flat ground to the north. The Canadians secured the first bridgehead over the Marecchia and, at that point, Brigadier Burrows ordered the 21st on the right and the 28th on the left to take over the advance while the 23rd remained in reserve. On the night of 21–22 Setember, there- page 387 fore, 21 and 28 Battalions advanced north of Rimini up Route 16 and across country to the left of that highway, while 22 Motor Battalion, supported by 19 Armoured Regiment tanks, advanced along the railway line nearer the coast. The 23rd edged forward round the eastern slope of San Fortunato and then, on 22 September, moved to San Giuliano, where it waited till called upon to join in the attack.
Early autumn rains had already helped the enemy in making successful withdrawals. Now, soaking rains, both earlier and heavier than had been expected, nearly made the Romagna area return to the swamp from which it had been rescued. Rivers and canals soon became serious tank obstacles. A spectacular fast pursuit was quite out of the question in the conditions now obtaining. Nevertheless, the forward units made some progress— the 21st to the Canale dei Molini and the 28th to Orsoleto.
The 23rd participated to a very limited degree in the 5 Brigade advance. Soon after midnight on 22–23 September, B and C Companies, under command of Major McArthur, went forward to inland Viserba to occupy a reserve position and ensure that no pockets of resistance had been by-passed. In position by dawn, they soon reported four prisoners—two from 162 Turcoman Division, one from I Parachute Division, and a deserter from the 88–millimetre flak battery at Bellaria. These two companies returned to the battalion at San Giuliano late on 23 September. In the meantime, D Company had established a strongpoint at a road junction on the Maoris' left flank to give protection against Tiger tanks believed to be moving in that locality. D Company remained there till the Canadians drew level with the Maoris and put an end to the Tiger threat.
Sixth Brigade now passed through the 5th, allowing the latter to pass temporarily into reserve. On the evening of 27 September, however, 5 Brigade again took the lead from the 6th, which had crossed the rivers Fontanaccia and Uso as well as several canals. On the right, the 21st relieved the 24th and, on the left, the 23rd relieved its sister South Island battalion, the 26th. By 2 a.m. on 28 September the relief was complete: B, C and D Companies were forward, each with a troop of tanks from C Squadron 18 Armoured Regiment in support, while A Company was in reserve. On the route into their new positions, the men saw several German graves and three abandoned German tanks. ‘The Tigers had been pushed off the road by bull-dozers. It was a sight good for morale to see those bare-bellied monsters turned on their sides out of action,’ wrote Doug Leckie.page 388
The 23rd's first offensive task was to advance to a lateral road running parallel to the River Fiumicino. B and C Companies sent patrols forward to locate the enemy and, if possible, to reach the river. B's patrol of four men under Lieutenant Nelson3 struck two heavy demolitions, one of which was impassable to tanks, while the other required only a small amount of work to make it negotiable by tanks. This patrol was about 1000 yards south of the river when daylight made further progress difficult, if not impossible. C's patrol of three infantrymen, two sappers and a tank sergeant under Second-Lieutenant C. B. Grant, advanced until it came under enemy rifle and Spandau fire at three separate points about 900 yards south of the river. As the 21st patrols had encountered even heavier opposition, the Brigadier considered that a major night attack would be required to dislodge the enemy. But, during the daylight hours of 28 September, patrols made minor advances and, about 10 a.m., Colonel McPhail decided to push his leading companies forward to the river. B and C Companies therefore began to advance, despite the pouring rain which was now worse than ever before during this particular campaign. By 12.30 p.m. C Company reported having reached the lateral road which was marked as its first bound. Shortly afterwards, B was moving forward on to a section of the Scolo Cavaticcia which its morning patrol had reached. The tanks had great difficulty in coping with the mud and water. Once they came up against opposition, the infantry waited for the tanks to come forward to their assistance. Around 2 p.m., the tanks caught up and the advance continued, only to run into fresh and heavy enemy fire. No. 12 Platoon suffered most casualties, Second-Lieutenant Morris4 and two others being killed and six being wounded.
Private J. McDowall of that platoon, whose diary entries were always brief but to the point, gives the only contemporary account of that advance. ‘Another daylight attack. Rain pouring down. Sticky show—took objective, pushed back a bit, took up positions round casa, soaked through, cold and miserable. Bill Morris, Jim Ryan,5 and Ben Brown6 killed in Pl. Merv badly smacked, Harry, Aussie, Jack, Dick and Bob wounded in Pl. Casualties in other Pls.’page 389
Shortly after mid-afternoon, the tanks with B Company struck slightly better going and temporarily went ahead of the infantry, but those with C Company got bogged down in muddy fields. Knowing that an attack over the Fiumicino was planned for that night, Colonel McPhail insisted that every effort should be made to reach the near river-bank that afternoon. About 5.30 p.m. B Company reached the bank while, only a little later, C also struck the river at the point where the electric pylon line crossed it. Major McArthur now reported that his men were cold and wet through and hopefully inquired as to the possibility of a relief. Captain Low reported that his men would have to withdraw to the vicinity of the tanks. By this time the CO had learned that the attack across the river had been postponed on account of the weather and, anxious to have A and D Companies fresh for this attack, he ordered B and C to hold on. B drove back an enemy patrol but, mainly to get some of their men under cover, both companies pulled back about 300 yards from the river. It ‘rained like fury in the evening’,7 and indeed all through the night, and those who could not be withdrawn to casas had a wretched time.
This weather, with the resulting muddy ground conditions, created many problems, not the least important of which involved the evacuation of the wounded. Doug Leckie, who had transferred to the carrier platoon, gives a graphic account of this task:
‘The infantry had a hell of night. The boys had to lie in their slitties which were full of water all night. Cocky Anderson had his Carrier cut down for RAP work and was driving throughout the show over tracks feet deep with mud that were even impossible for RAP jeeps, Honey & Sherman tanks to traverse. The lives of four seriously wounded shock cases were saved by the warmth given off by the carrier engine. Our section relieved Andy Walker's…. We were flat out day and night carrying out wounded and sick cases, taking up hot food in special containers and more ammunition. Recovery gangs were busy pulling out tanks and ammo trucks stuck in the mud and capsized over banks. I cannot see how another attack can be made while the roads are a mass of mud. It is impossible to get tanks across the canals to support the Infantry. This is imperative because the Boche has been counter-attacking, victoriously supported by Tiger and Mark III tanks.’page 390
Private Leckie was right. No attack could be mounted under the appalling weather and ground conditions of that period. On 29 September, therefore, Colonel McPhail ordered D Company to relieve C on the right and A to relieve B on the left. Some enemy were still holding out on the near bank, but during and after the relief D Company moved closer to the river, killed three Germans and took some prisoners, later identified as belonging to 71 Regiment 29 Panzer Grenadier Division and the Fusilier Battalion of 20 German Air Force Division. A Company also captured a panzer grenadier and fired on other Germans as they withdrew across the river.
Battalion Headquarters was, at this stage, housed, according to Dawson of the ‘I’ section, in ‘A small flimsy house, with its lower storey consisting mainly of a stable occupied by Italians and cattle, and with a smell all of its own.’ Communications between this headquarters and the companies were difficult to maintain. The ‘exchange in the stable with the oxen’ did not function very well and on 29 September Lieutenant Keith Burtt, the signals officer, ‘Sent up Ron Ritchie and four men to establish a forward Sig centre approx 250 yds from C Coy. Nig Dunlop8 also took up 18 set for relay from the forward Coys.’
That night both forward companies sent forward patrols to establish whether or not the enemy still occupied posts in the near bank and to reconnoitre the river. The A Company patrols found only empty dugouts. Two D patrols had a similar experience, but Second-Lieutenant Chapman's from 18 Platoon came under Spandau and other automatic fire when operating on the right of the 23rd sector. Captain Buchanan was thus able to report that the sector immediately forward of the 23rd's occupied houses was clear of the enemy, but that some posts remained on the right flank between the line of electric pylons and the road which marked the inter-battalion boundary and which was known as the Black Diamond route. Heavy and prolonged enemy shelling and mortaring gave the men of A and D Companies a disturbed night. Signallers were out most of the night, fixing breaks in the lines, ‘an almost hopeless task with the stonks that are coming over even at this moment’.9
Early on 30 September, D Company observers brought down a series of artillery ‘murders’ on the far bank of the Fiumicino when tracked vehicles were heard moving about, presumably page 391 delivering meals and ammunition. A patrol from D Company found the river to be slow running, about knee deep and about 20 feet wide. This patrol also found a foot track, which indicated that the enemy was crossing the river at a certain point. Colonel McPhail ordered the company to establish a post on the bank near this point in order to stop enemy infiltration.
Brigade Headquarters advised that evening that 22 Battalion would relieve the 23rd in the line that night. Shortly after 8 p.m., the ‘I’ sergeant, Garnet Blampied, began to guide the companies up to the forward areas. He says: ‘It was a hell of a trip up the 2 miles—Jerry hammering the fwd positions with mortars and “screaming minnies” … he fired spandau down the road we took … we kept to the ditches.’ The relief of D Company proceeded according to plan but, to the sound of much firing, all communications with A Company failed before its relief had begun. Both C and D Companies were instructed to send runners to give A Company details of the relief and to discover the true situation there. These runners were delayed by the heavy fire but eventually got through. After 9 p.m. D Company advised that the excitement on A's front had died down and arrangements were now in train for the relief to proceed. About an hour later, when communications had been re-established, Major Grant reported some details, after assuring the Colonel that the situation was under control and that no assistance was required from any other company. A German fighting patrol of twenty or more men, well supplied with bazookas and apparently on a tank-hunting expedition, had attacked 9 Platoon, under Lieutenant A. H. Eddie. A determined attack had been launched, but an even more determined defence had been offered. In 9 Platoon, Private Scott10 was killed and eight were wounded, but heavy casualties were also inflicted on the enemy, so many that the enemy party withdrew more speedily than it had arrived. This incident was succeeded by so much annoying shell, mortar and machine-gun fire that it was deemed necessary to delay the change-over till after midnight, and after the New Zealand artillery had been called upon to silence the enemy. The relief was completed by 2 a.m. on 1 October and the weary troops were glad to move back to houses nearer the Uso.
For the next few days, the 23rd remained in this sector immediately behind the front line. B and C Companies, in fact, remained in the same houses they had been occupying page 392 after their relief on the night of 29 September. All the 23rd houses were subjected to spasmodic enemy shelling and D Company's headquarters and two trucks sustained direct hits. On the night of 1–2 October Second-Lieutenant H. Cameron11 took a covering party for an engineer patrol forward to the Fiumicino, where a careful reconnaissance of a site for a Bailey bridge was made. Otherwise, this was simply a period of waiting for the next move. The men found some compensation for being crowded into poor farmhouses in the livestock the Italians had left behind. ‘Pork for tea … local grown, too.’ ‘Shelling is terrific but we have escaped so far…. Cooked the turkeys for lunch today and though were boiled quite enjoyed them.’ ‘Boys killed pig. Had great meal’. These are typical diary entries for men from Battalion Headquarters, A and B Companies. Although 4 October was sunny, the next day was wet and plans for an advance had to be postponed.
On 5 October, therefore, the 24th came up and relieved the 23rd as part of a general brigade relief. The 23rd then moved back to its old billets at Rimini. Apart from the wounded, some men had to be evacuated with boils or jaundice.12 The 4th Reinforcement officers, Lieutenant Kearney and Second-Lieutenant Bassett, left the unit on 8 October. A small number went on leave to Florence under a divisional scheme, both at this time and while the battalion was in the line. The change from the miserable life of an infantryman in the mud and wet weather to the comforts of the New Zealand Forces Club was much appreciated. McDowall, the laconic nature of whose diary entries has already been mentioned, possibly spoke for others when he reported on Florence: ‘Marvellous city. Great service at hotel. Great meals. Marvellous orchestra in lounge. Florence girls very beautiful.’ But leave was restricted to very small groups. The unit itself had to return to the line on 10 October.
While 5 Brigade was out of the line, the continuing bad weather had prevented any major advance. The brigade now took over a sector to the left or south of that previously occupied, as a consequence of a decision to move the main New Zealand axis of advance farther inland from the coast and closer to the Rimini-Cesena railway. By this time, 5 British Corps, operating in the drier foothill region, had made such marked progress that the Germans had withdrawn there, and page 393 had also pulled back opposite the Canadians and New Zealanders in order to take up a shorter defensive line. This was not known for certain when Brigadier Burrows put the 28th forward on the right and the 23rd forward on the left with orders to patrol vigorously.
In the early hours of 11 October, A and D Companies of the 23rd sent their first patrols out. Both patrols crossed the river and reconnoitred the nearest houses without encountering any enemy. Colonel McPhail now ordered A on the right and D on the left to move a platoon at a time across the river and establish a bridgehead. This was done around 6 a.m., and both companies then began to patrol forward towards the town of Gatteo. Reluctant to see his men committed to any serious engagement in which enemy tanks might be a deciding factor, McPhail did his utmost to get the tanks of C Squadron 19 Armoured Regiment, under Major S. J. Wilson,13 forward from page 394 Bellaria. During the course of the day, the A and D Company patrols found Gatteo unoccupied, although D took two prisoners, men who were either deserters or who were too slow in making their withdrawal. By early afternoon, the sappers had completed the bridge over the Fiumicino and the tanks were moving forward to support the infantry. Two large demolitions in Gatteo itself and the need to sweep methodically for mines prevented any further advance that day, and a halt was called with the Maoris up to the road line Gatteo-Sant’ Angelo and with the 23rd, plus C Squadron, consolidating in and around Gatteo itself. The 23rd had taken six prisoners from 20 GAF and 90 Panzer Grenadier Divisions.
That night, 11–12 October, both A and D Companies again sent patrols forward. The Pisciatello River was the next major obstacle, but the smaller waterways, the Rio Baldona, the Scolo Rigossa and the Scolo Fossalta, might also require bridging for tanks and they were marked as bounds in the advance. Neither patrol reached the Rio Baldona but both were able to report on demolitions and tank obstacles.
At 6 a.m. on 12 October, A and D Companies resumed their advance. Shortly afterwards they heard the noise which accompanied the enemy's blowing of a bridge over the Baldona. Some light shelling, mortaring and machine-gun fire were encountered as they advanced. About 8 a.m. A Company called on artillery support to deal with mortars located to the north-west of the Baldona. About half an hour later, D reached this bound and made contact with the Royal Canadian Regiment on the left and, later, with A Company on the right. The tanks now came up, but some got bogged as soon as they moved off the road. Unsupported at first by the tanks, the infantry made a cautious advance over the Baldona and A Company became involved in some sharp fighting with the withdrawing enemy.
R. A. Somerville at A Company's tactical headquarters recorded that afternoon: ‘Headed up the road in bounds…. Got up to canal dodging the shell fire all the time. Crossed over and became involved in 7 Platoon's good show of putting 30 Huns on run and taking 7 prisoners. Plenty excitement for a while. Got into a house and were held up by a sniper who collected Bill Stewart14 and others. Got a couple of quid & a clasp knife from the Teds…. Returned to Tac where am writing this in bit of dugout in floor of place. Feel uncommonly page 395 confident today. Only 3 p.m. and day seems like a week so much has happened. Sweat and wet with dodging snipers and shells. Maoris and tanks put in attack to help us in afternoon. Nowhere near objective yet but making slow progress.’
At last light, A Company was still two or three hundred yards short of the Scolo Rigossa, while D Company, farther to the left, where the canal curved towards the north and west, was about 600 yards short of it. The going had been slow, largely because of the sodden nature of the fields and the thickness of the vineyards and orchards, which restricted observation and hindered the advance of the armour.
During the course of the afternoon, Colonel Thomas returned to the unit. With Colonel McPhail, he visited the forward companies, acquainting himself thoroughly with the situation before officially taking over the command at 9 p.m. Patrols from A and D Companies reconnoitred crossings over the canal, discovered that bridges were blown, came under a certain amount of fire and took prisoners, which brought the bag for the day to a dozen.
Next morning C Company, under Major Low, and B, now under Captain George Dodds as Major McArthur had been evacuated sick on 10 October, took over the lead from A and D Companies. C and B Companies were ordered to secure a suitable site for a bridge over the Scolo Rigossa as the first attempt by 28 Battalion to take Sant' Angelo had failed. No. 11 Platoon occupied houses close to the canal, and some men obtained an excellent view of enemy positions from an upper window: three dugouts were spotted, with enemy moving carelessly around, unaware they were observed. A call to the 23rd mortars soon brought mortar fire down with great accuracy on these enemy positions. The Germans quickly realised that the OP house was occupied and retaliated. A clever sniper shot one member of 11 Platoon as he was looking out a window. Shell and mortar fire also caused some B Company casualties. The local inhabitants also suffered as this diary entry indicates: ‘Jerry sent over some close stuff and caught a few refugees in it—wounded “Mama” and the rest had hysterics for a while.’ B Company held its ground and continued to bring down mortar and, later on, shell fire on the German-held area.
In the meantime, 13 Platoon had been despatched towards Point 120 and the approach to the Gambettola bridge site. This platoon, under Lieutenant Bernie Cox, found that the enemy had established a strongpoint which he was determined to hold. page 396 Around 11 a.m., the leading sections, advancing one on either side of the road, came under Spandau fire. The section on the south side of the road found itself in the open and had two men killed. The rest of the men were either pinned down by well-aimed fire or managed to dive for cover in a culvert and ditch alongside the railway embankment on their left. The section on the north also went to ground while Cox called up Captain Low on the radio and asked for a troop of tanks to be sent to aid his advance. Hearing of the hold-up, Colonel Thomas urged C Company to bring all available mortar fire down on the enemy, to maintain pressure and, if possible, to get through to the bridge site. He himself promptly arranged for fire on the approaches to Gambettola from the 4.2-inch mortars of 39 Heavy Mortar Battery and from two platoons of 1 Machine Gun Company.
When 13 Platoon resumed its advance shortly after midday, two tanks of 11 Troop, C Squadron, 19 Armoured Regiment were in close support. The third tank of this troop was temporarily left behind until it was discovered whether or not the road and surrounding area were clear of mines. One tank moved on the road and the other behind Corporal Dyne's15 section to the north. The commander of the latter tank said, ‘vision for my part out in the paddock was very poor to the north towards Gambettola, olive trees obstructed the view and also several stacks of straw.’ The tanks gave the infantry greater confidence and enabled them to take prisoner the two Germans manning the nearest Spandau post. The tank on the road was knocked out shortly after this, but the reserve tank was called up and managed to pass its KO'd mate and proceed to the assistance of the infantry. The latter had been temporarily pinned down by Spandau and rifle fire from the roof of one of the houses on the roadside, but some HE shots from the tank to the north of the road soon removed this source of trouble. But, almost immediately afterwards, this tank became bogged down in an asparagus bed and, although able to fire, was unable to move forward or backward. Using the cover on the north of the road, the infantry continued to advance, but the sections got separated from one another and from their sole surviving tank.
Lieutenant Cox with his platoon headquarters and Corporal Dyne's section now went ahead of the rest of the platoon. Keeping in the pomegranate orchard on the north side of the page 397 road, this party tried to cut across the orchard to meet the others following the tank and the road to the corner, which was marked as Point 120 on their maps. But, about 2.30 p.m., as they reached a point about 50 yards south of the Casa Boschetti (this was the house's real name as shown on the Italian map), a Spandau opened fire from the corner. Mortars and automatics from the Casa Boschetti then opened fire, spraying the area all round the 13 Platoon men. Cox was wounded in the leg and, as the party appeared to have run into stronger opposition than it was strong enough to overcome, it withdrew to the nearest house, a large one about 100 yards back, until tank or other aid could be secured. The bogged tank gave some covering fire during the withdrawal but the single mobile tank, out of touch with the infantry and under fire, withdrew to the rear.
Once the 13 Platoon men had occupied their house, it became clear that they would have to withstand an enemy attack. The bogged tank did what it could by Browning and 75-millimetre fire to discourage the Germans but it could not cover more than a small sector. The tank crew then put down smoke and, aware of their inability to deal with bazooka men coming through the orchard, also withdrew. Corporal Laird,16 however, went forward to the house to inform the infantry of the decision taken by the tank crew. Cox's house had been partially prepared for defence by the Germans as the centre room had a dugout sunk in the floor, with its entrance surrounded by heavy drums. Lookout positions were manned and 13 Platoon prepared to beat off any attack.
Around 2.50 p.m., Major Low, back at C Company headquarters, reported that his infantry were without tank assistance. He was told that no more tanks were available at this time. No. 13 Platoon was thus left to defend itself. Shortly after 3 p.m. enemy mortar, shell and machine-gun fire came down on Cox's house. The German infantry followed up this fire by running in to attack the house: some came from over the railway embankment to the west and others came from the north, but the high hedges and the orchard made it difficult to locate them until they were close to the house. One German forced an entry, threw a grenade without effect, and fired his machine pistol, the bullet of which grazed the head of a New Zealander, before he was forced to withdraw. From an upstairs window, page 398 Lieutenant Cox shot one German at short range. Lance-Sergeant P. J. Robinson and others also engaged the attacking Germans at close quarters and inflicted several casualties. After a time, the white flag went up and stretcher-bearers came forward to remove the German wounded. As the stretcher-bearing party withdrew, a number of Germans, shouting and making a great deal of noise, came over the railway embankment. Robinson gave a lead to his men by opening fire with his tommy gun when the Germans were about 50 yards away. Apparently, this party was not attacking but merely withdrawing to the north, as they sheered off without firing a shot.
No. 13 Platoon remained in the house for the rest of the afternoon. Towards dusk, Private Isberg,17 who had been half-smothered with dust and debris during the shelling of the house, got through on the radio to Company Headquarters and received orders to withdraw. Despite a few stray shots, the men withdrew unmolested. No. 15 Platoon, under Lieutenant Bill Williams, had been in reserve during the day but now came forward to the KO'd tank to cover the withdrawal. This platoon also supplied a section to help the tank crews guard their immobilised tanks, which were later recovered. Total casualties for this action of 13 October, a minor affair but exciting enough for those involved, were light: 13 Platoon had two killed and three wounded, while the tank crews had two wounded.
But 13 Platoon was not the only one engaged that afternoon. Farther to the north, 14 Platoon, under Lieutenant Alex Steele,18 sent a patrol of section strength forward across country to the Gambettola bridge site, with orders to discover whether or not the enemy held the canal bank in strength. The patrol leader, Corporal Black,19 led his men up a hedgerow alongside the Via Sopra Rigossa and then across a lucerne paddock towards the house nearest to the bridge site. As he reached the yard of this house, Black came under fire from machine guns in a ditch to the left and in the house itself. He dived for cover alongside a haystack, whence he returned the fire with his tommy gun. His men, two of whom were new reinforcements in their first action, were pinned down in the open and could not raise themselves to fire. The enemy kept up a steady fire until they page 399 had killed Black and wounded two of his men, who were thus forced to surrender. Yet once again the dangers for unsupported infantry, advancing on prepared defensive positions, had been revealed.
In B Company, farther to the north-east along the Scolo Rigossa, events took a happier turn. Two tanks from 9 Troop took up hull-down positions behind the canal bank and, aided and abetted by Second-Lieutenant Max20 and his men of 11 Platoon, they fired their Brownings against the enemy, who could be clearly seen in trenches and dugouts eighty to one hundred yards away. Firing tracer at a haystack, one tank gunner noted that the bullets ricocheted upwards. He therefore engaged the stack with incendiaries which set it on fire, together with the vehicle concealed inside.
With the better weather, fighter-bombers from the ‘cab-rank’ gave special attention to enemy tanks in the Gambettola area, while the artillery, despite serious restrictions on the expenditure of ammunition, engaged in counter-battery and counter-mortar shoots. Colonel Thomas strengthened his own front during the day and early evening with more tanks, M 10s (tank-destroyers) and anti-tank guns in case the enemy, who had shown aggressive intentions round Point 120, should use his Tiger tanks against the forward infantry. B Company of the 21st thickened up the line by coming into position between the 23rd and 28th.
The day of 14 October passed comparatively quietly as 5 Brigade concentrated on preparations for the Maoris' attack on Sant' Angelo that night. The Canadians moved up on the 23rd's left towards the railway embankment. To confuse the enemy by making him think that the attack was a general one, coming in along the whole front, the 23rd fired its mortars and other weapons, including its supporting Vickers guns, at selected targets and sent a C Company patrol, just when the artillery concentrations on Sant' Angelo began to create a disturbance, near the houses due south of Gambettola. The patrol found the houses occupied, fired a few Bren magazines into them and, after tossing a few grenades, withdrew without casualty.
The Maoris' attack on Sant' Angelo was highly successful. In addition, an ‘intercept’ of an enemy radio message indicated that the Germans were about to pull back to the line of the Pisciatello River. Brigadier Burrows therefore instructed Colonel Thomas to send out small patrols before first light on 15 page 400 October to test the position on his front. At 5 a.m., Second-Lieutenant J. S. Nelson took 10 Platoon across the canal, met no opposition and pushed forward to occupy Point 122, the road junction north-east of Gambettola. Some enemy tanks, obviously a rearguard, were seen withdrawing as 10 Platoon approached this road junction.
More or less simultaneously, C Company was also patrolling forward with even greater success. No. 14 Platoon, under Lieutenant Steele, entered Gambettola at first light and proceeded to clear the town. In the first house it discovered the bloodstained packs of Corporal Black and his men. Splitting into two patrols under Lieutenant Steele and Sergeant Batchelor, the platoon investigated other houses on different sides of the square. Apparently the Germans there were ill-informed as to the extent or method of the withdrawal and both patrols secured bags of a dozen or more prisoners from 2 and 4 Companies of 26 Reconnaissance Battalion. At one house, Batchelor jumped through a window in order to surprise two Germans, one of whom was only partly dressed. ‘But their Corporal beat me—I couldn't catch him,’ he admitted later. Batchelor's return to the company caused some amusement as he was leading a very young German soldier by the hand. ‘He showed me a photo of his uncle who he said was in the USA Navy,’ said Batchelor. Keith Burtt refers to this boy in his diary: ‘In the morning a batch of 18 prisoners was brought in, many of them very young. One boy of 13 had joined the Army 23 Aug 44 and had been in the line only 3 days. He cried when interrogated and Bill Tait, the RSM, gave him some chocolate’. That the youthfulness or plight of a prisoner could sometimes evoke a kindliness in a sergeant-major showed that the latter's parade-ground voice belied his true nature.
Anxious to discover for himself whether or not he should put more troops over the canal, Colonel Thomas went forward with Lieutenant Bevin, picked up Captain Dodds, OC B Company, and followed 10 Platoon's axis of advance. Delayed by the need to attend to certain matters, Colonel Thomas allowed his officers to go on ahead of him. What happened next is best told in his own words:
‘As I followed, it suddenly occurred to me that I did not know which road the platoon had taken, but, as things were quiet, I continued not particularly worried until I saw glaring from a door a square helmeted spectacled face and a field grey uniform, and, as my predicament dawned upon me, I saw a page 401 Mauser rifle raised ominously in my direction. I rushed my hand under my leather jacket for my revolver. To my horror I discovered that, for the first time I can recall, I had come away without it. What happened then I don't think I can claim any credit for—it was quite automatic and without thought—I just pointed at him quite fiercely and shouted “Drop that rifle, drop it!” and moved towards him. For a nasty second, the rifle came level with my chest then for no apparent reason (except that he must have expected me to have men with me), he dropped it to the ground and put his hands in the air. At that moment, startled by the shouting, a much more formidable Hun burst through the door, rifle at the ready but totally unprepared to find an English officer shouting at him, and his comrade with his hands in the air. He quickly dropped his rifle too, and lo, I had two prisoners. I dived round behind them and grabbed one of the Mausers. I must say the sheepish look those Huns showed when they saw I was alone and unarmed was one of the experiences of a lifetime.’
With this minor experience behind him, Colonel Thomas rejoined Captain Dodds and sent 10 Platoon towards Gambettola. No. 11 Platoon was ordered forward to hold Point 122 as a right pivot, while 12 Platoon was told to follow 10. B Company continued the advance, with 10 Platoon as the leading sub-unit.
C Company also continued to advance on the left of the town and moved towards the point where its axis of advance crossed the railway line. As the men approached the large cement works beyond the town, they heard and saw the fighter-bombers diving over the cement-works buildings and strafing enemy vehicles concealed there. Brigadier Burrows had counselled caution in this advance, at least until the bridges were installed and the tanks were able to join the infantry. No. 10 Platoon did run into heavy fire at a demolition not far north of Gambettola. But, by 11 a.m., the engineers had by strenuous efforts got the bridge across the canal and the tanks were able to move forward. Within half an hour, one troop of tanks was with B Company and another with C. Second-Lieutenant Nelson, whose diary entries were normally limited to three or four words, was able to record his experience with 10 Platoon: ‘Occupied positions north of town. Had great day as forward platoon, with FOO and three tanks attached. Shot up everything in sight.’page 402
Fifth Brigade advised that troops were not to move beyond the line joining the hamlets of Bulgarno and Bulgaria, as it was proposed to move the 21st up on the right of the 23rd and then continue the advance on a two-battalion front. The enemy was making something of a stand and firing all his heavier weapons in an attempt to hold up the advance. Three direct hits by an SP gun crumbled a house in Gambettola on top of its inmates and eight men were injured. Although a counter-attack seemed most unlikely, Colonel Thomas thickened up the defensive positions taken up by his forward companies by moving up the battalion Bren carriers and telling the tanks to fit into the defences.
Next day, 16 October, the reserve companies were to come forward and take a turn in the lead. But, before this took place, a small patrol from B Company reached the Casa della Chiesa without meeting any opposition. The road appeared to be clear for further advances. A Company then passed through B and, with supporting tanks and engineers, began the advance to Ruffio, a village about 700 yards south of the Pisciatello. On the Ruffio-Bulgaria road, A Company came under heavy mortar fire and progress was slow. By 10.25 a.m. the leading section of A Company had reached the road junction at Casa Andreoli, three-quarters of a mile south of the Ruffio crossroads. Enemy fire, including automatic and small arms, intensified. One of the supporting tanks was hit on the track by a 50-millimetre shell but it shot back and knocked the gun out of action. A Company men later captured the gun, its tractor and crew. Further progress was difficult as stronger forces than light rearguards were holding the line they had reached. Colonel Thomas arranged artillery support and warned D Company to be ready to move forward on A's left.
In the meantime, B Company had completed consolidation in the rear of A and had taken fifteen prisoners, ‘apparently just waiting to be collected’. The official unit war diary adds: ‘Most of them seemed fed up with the war and were keen to give information.’
As A Company was held up and a daylight assault would be expensive, the CO told Major Buchanan to advance with D Company by secondary roads to the west of A and try to come in on Ruffio from the left. Soon after 1 p.m., D was on its way forward. By early afternoon, however, artillery ‘murders’ had softened up the enemy in front of A Company, and Major Grant and his men made further limited advances, taking nine page 403 prisoners en route. Second-Lieutenant Eddie and four others in A Company were wounded and one man killed during the advance. B Squadron tanks relieved those of C and, with fresh tank support, A Company was able to secure the Ruffio crossroads. As the 21st was held up on the right, the Brigadier ordered the 23rd to halt until that battalion could conform. On the left, an alteration of boundary between the New Zealanders and the Canadians resulted in D Company running the risk of coming under Canadian artillery fire. This company was therefore pulled back and directed to cover the left flank of A Company. No further advance was made that day. General Freyberg, back in command, told Brigadier Burrows that his brigade had done an excellent job that day.
That night both A and D Companies sent out patrols. A Company men twice patrolled towards Ruffio and both times returned with the report that the enemy was still holding his ground and digging in. The patrol, accompanied by an engineer NCO and a tank officer, moved across country to the east of the village, dodged an enemy party and reached the Pisciatello about 50 yards from a crossing. The tank officer considered that the river was a major tank obstacle, and the patrol also reported that the explosions heard probably meant that the enemy had demolished the bridge.
Next morning, 17 October, at 7.15 a.m., the CO ordered A Company to push on to Ruffio. First, the tanks raked the village with Browning machine-gun fire. As the 25-pounders were limited to forty rounds per gun per day at this time, more use was made of the fire power of the tanks than was customary. This tank fire was effective as, although it was returned by machine guns east of the village, it apparently expedited the withdrawal of enemy rearguards. At any rate, A Company went forward about 8.45 a.m. and occupied Ruffio, according to the official report, ‘without much trouble’. Acting on the CO's orders, patrols then advanced towards the river. Around 1 p.m. an A Company patrol reached the cemetery; a bridge over a culvert prepared for demolition with a fuse burning was saved by an engineer moving with the A Company men. The enemy reacted strongly to these advances and sent over many heavy salvoes, with the result that the company had 3 killed and 5 wounded.
That night, around 9 p.m., the 23rd was relieved by the 25th as part of a general relief of 5 Brigade by 6 Brigade. The 5th had completed seven days in the line which had been notable, page 404 not for any major actions, but for a steady move forward, with companies accompanied by tanks exerting pressure along the front. The 23rd now moved back to houses in Gambettola, where the men spent the next day enjoying hot showers, a rest and good meals. Captain H. Staton, who had succeeded Captain Musgrave as Adjutant, went out on a course of instruction at this time and was succeeded temporarily by Captain Brittenden.
On the night of 18–19 October, 6 Brigade crossed the Pisciatello without much difficulty. On 19 October Battalion Headquarters, B, C and D Companies of the 23rd crossed this river in order to give flank protection to the 6 Brigade bridgehead. By the time the 23rd companies got into position, 4 Armoured Brigade had taken over the advance and there was no need for this flank protection role.
None who saw the demolished houses on the Pisciatello will forget the pathetic sight of the homeless Italians who were to be seen grubbing round in the ruins, where they had lost everything, including, in some cases, friends and relations. Colonel Sandy Thomas, such a genuine enthusiast for soldiering that he normally ‘loved his war’, was so struck by what he saw that he wrote:
‘I shall never forget the sight which met our eyes on crossing the Pisciatello and where the Hun had withdrawn—a whole village demolished flat on the ground with the weeping mothers and children picking over the wreckage for whatever they might find. They were allowed to take nothing out—the Hun just walked in and filled their houses with explosives quite indifferent as to whether the owners were inside or not, and blew them up. It is horribly cruel to see an old lady of eighty hardly able to walk clambering over the rubble crying silently as she pulls a picture from under the beam, or a tablecloth from that pile of bricks—particularly with the sky gathering black for a snowstorm. Where will she go? Could she walk to the next village? How will she keep herself this winter with only an armful of soiled clothes to represent her whole wealth?… Oh! It makes me sick at times—the same day to see the stream of refugees on the road with children of all ages, seeing swollen German bodies in grotesque positions, the stench of their bodies mingling with that from the horses and cattle which litter the road. What a nightmare! Thank God our people at home are spared that, do not and could never understand what war really is.’page 405
The only good to follow from such distressing sights was a heightened resolution to end the war as quickly as possible. But it was time for the New Zealanders to be relieved and to go back to prepare for another campaign. The 23rd was the first unit to go out, with the task of preparing a road into a divisional concentration area in the Apennines about 20 miles west of Iesi. On 21 October it moved back to a staging area at Mondolfo. On the following day the battalion moved on to Cerreto, and, a day later, to houses near the charming hilltop village of Camerino. This part of Italy had been little affected by the war. As it was to be the home of the New Zealanders for some weeks, strict orders were given that there was to be no looting and that all goods were to be paid for. ‘The villagers are very warm in their welcome and are by far the most hospitable yet encountered,’ wrote Colonel Thomas in his letter to the wounded of the battalion. This cyclostyled letter described the recent campaign and enabled the CO to express the hope that the men would either recover quickly or would have a speedy return home. It made the 23rd men feel that even in hospital they were still part of the unit. As Colonel Thomas noted later, ‘some of them were more than thrilled, took it as a personal note’.
The campaign north of Rimini had not been as successful as had been anticipated. The weather and the terrain had played into the hands of a determined enemy, and progress from one water obstacle to another was slow. During this period the 23rd had lost 23 killed or died of wounds, 70 wounded, and 3 wounded and prisoner of war. Now, reinforcements had to be absorbed and weary men rested before they entered another battle.
1 R. A. Somerville, 2 Sep 1944.
2 D. Leckie, 3 Sep 1944.
7 W. D. Dawson, diary, 28 Sep 1944.
9 R. A. Somerville, diary, 29 Sep 1944.
12 Of the men whose diaries the author consulted, all except one complained of boils.