CHAPTER 16 — Rimini to the Senio
The manner in which troops out of the line contrive to enjoy themselves can be gathered to some extent by studying the things they are forbidden to do. Thus we find the men of 24 Battalion being commanded, through the medium of routine orders, to refrain from wearing civilian head-dress or killing fish in the rivers with hand grenades, and being cautioned that a litre of Italian wine contained nearly as much alcohol as a pint of whisky.
After eight days at Iesi, the battalion moved to within a few miles of the coast south of Fano, where it went through exercises in embarking in small landing craft known as DUKWs. Here also Sergeant-Major Lane1 and Sergeants Rockell and Graham2 were granted immediate commissions for service in the field. Two more short moves made at intervals of a few days only brought the battalion to a point five miles south of Rimini, close by the main coastal road. It was about this time that Major Aked left the unit with which he had served so long and with such distinction, to act as chief liaison officer to 3 Greek Mountain Brigade. When Captain Borrie met him in the outskirts of Rimini later in the month, he professed a great liking for the Greeks, whom he had already disabused of the idea that they could not fight before breakfast.
To explain the presence of New Zealanders once again on the Adriatic coast, a glance at the general situation is necessary. On its eastern flank the so-called Gothic Line terminated at Pesaro, at the mouth of the Foglia River. Between this stream and the Conca River, some six or seven miles farther north, the ground was well fortified in depth. Late in August the Eighth Army prepared to reduce these positions with a view to drawing enemy strength eastwards, thus facilitating the Fifth page 280 Army's move on Bologna. About a week later the Poles captured Pesaro, while 1 Canadian Corps and 5 British Corps were breaking through the Gothic Line further inland. The Canadians made further progress up the coast to Riccione, but other Canadian troops and 5 British Corps met determined opposition on the Coriano Ridge, where they were held up till 13 September. By the 18th 1 Canadian Corps was preparing to break through the Rimini gap, cross the Marecchia River, and advance on Ravenna. The New Zealand Division was to be the force of pursuit.
The 20th of September saw the Canadians pushing forward on to the ridge of San Fortunato and the enemy beginning to withdraw from Rimini, which was entered soon afterwards by part of 4 NZ Armoured Brigade and 3 Greek Mountain Brigade. The Canadians were about to cross the Marecchia; once their bridgehead was secure, 5 NZ Brigade would pass through to capture the line of a stream three miles beyond. Then, if all went well, 6 Brigade would carry out the pursuit of a retreating enemy over the flat country lying between Rimini and Ravenna.
D Company moving up to the Senio
16 Platoon starts to consolidate a few minutes after reaching the Santerno, 11 April 1945
Smoke ring made by nebelwerfer on Santerno River
D Company under fire in an unfinished German dugout across the Santerno. 2 Lt D. C. Reid is on the left
Oil bomb dropped by Thunderbolt aircraft bursting on the Idice
An anti-tank gun crossing the Po River
At 5.30 a.m. on 23 September 24 Battalion began to move up along Route 16 in column of motor transport towards 21 Battalion's position on the Brancona. Passing through the suburbs of Rimini, with B Company leading, the column was brought to a halt at nine o'clock, when 21 Battalion's patrols met with resistance beyond the Brancona. A ‘set piece’ attack was found necessary, and following an artillery barrage Colonel Hutchens sent B and D Companies forward on the right and left of Route 16 to seize the line of the Fontanaccia Canal. The 22nd (Motor) Battalion was on their right flank, 25 Battalion on their left, and beyond the latter was 12 Canadian Brigade. The 26th Battalion was in brigade reserve.page 282
B Company went steadily ahead under fairly heavy shellfire but without being otherwise opposed until it arrived within 500 yards of the canal, at which point it came under machine-gun fire. The country was unusually bare of cover and the advance was slowed down, but at dusk the platoons were withdrawn to a lateral road, where they dug in for the night only a short way from their actual objective.
D Company also came under shellfire soon after starting, and machine guns firing from 25 Battalion's front were a source of much annoyance until silenced by one of the supporting tanks. The advance was carried forward to a point about 500 yards from the canal where the leading platoon, No. 17, was pinned down by close-range machine-gun and mortar fire and one of the company's supporting tanks knocked out. The platoon was obliged to withdraw under cover of a smoke screen. Marshall-Inman's headquarters, in a house not far behind the forward position, was shelled by an enemy self-propelled gun or tank, and also machine-gunned. The top floor of the house was blown off, machine-gun bullets came through all the windows on the ground floor, and wireless communication was lost. The company pulled back to a line along a road about 500 yards ahead of the Brancona, where it got in touch with B Company and 25 Battalion. The Carrier Platoon moved up on B Company's right flank at dusk, while A and C Companies took no part in the action but remained dispersed along Route 16, north-west of Rimini. During the night the advanced troops heard a roving tank about 200 yards forward of their positions. An artillery ‘stonk’ was put down on the area, and next day the tank was found to have been knocked out.
At dawn 11 and 12 Platoons of B Company passed beyond the objective, a dry canal 12-15 feet deep, and advanced a few hundred yards farther on, when they were suddenly fired upon by spandaus. No. 12 Platoon took refuge in a house, while 11 Platoon went to ground among grape vines. A smoke screen was put down by the artillery at 10.15 a.m. to cover their withdrawal, but this operation seemed so hazardous to Captain Pirrie that he ordered them to stay where they were for the time being. Eventually, at 2 p.m., they made their getaway by crawling along the bottom of a half-filled ditch, page 283 followed, to their intense annoyance, by a large dog which barked at them from above ground, giving away their exact position to the enemy. The dog was shot and the retreat at length accomplished, but casualties had been so heavy among 11 and 12 Platoons that when they were once more behind the canal they were amalgamated into a single unit. During the morning A Company had moved out on to the brigade's right flank, close to the sea coast north-west of the village of Torre Pedrera.
After returning from a brigade conference, Colonel Hutchens sent for his company commanders in the evening and explained the details of an attack to be undertaken that night on the lateral road cutting Route 16 at Bordonchio, about 3000 yards beyond the dry canal. Advancing on the right and left of Route 16, 24 and 25 Battalions would leave their start lines on the Fontanaccia Canal at 8 p.m. behind a creeping barrage. The 22nd Battalion still remained on 6 Brigade's right, while protection for its left flank would be afforded by a company of 26 Battalion with supporting tanks.
The attack was a hurriedly organised affair, and A, the right forward company, was barely able to reach the start line in time for Major Howden to confer with Captain Stuart of C Company, which had moved up on to the battalion's left front. B and D Companies were to mop up behind C and A, whose task was to keep up with the barrage and reach the objective, rather than divert their strength to cope with small points of resistance.
Grape vines and ditches made it difficult for A Company's platoons to keep in touch over the first 600 yards. Before reaching the Rio del Moro they ran into a nest of strongpoints, which checked their progress and caused them to lose the barrage. Nos. 7 and 8 Platoons had a stiff fight for the possession of a house, which they eventually captured together with eight German prisoners. Here about twenty Italian civilians, embroiled in the action much against their will, greeted their liberators with garlic-scented embraces, and then offered them a welcome gift of wine. By midnight A Company was close upon the Rio del Moro, but, having little idea of the whereabouts of troops on his flank or rear, Howden sent out patrols page 284 right and left. One of these got in touch with D Company, which then came forward to consolidate the existing line, while A pushed forward and crossed the Rio del Moro just before dawn. Here, however, a strong point of resistance came into action on the left flank, and Howden decided to await the arrival of supporting tanks. The armour came up three-quarters of an hour later, enabling the infantry to push on to within 200 yards of the Bordonchio lateral road.
Sergeant-Major Marshall, DCM, was killed by shell splinters soon after C Company left the start line. Later the advancing troops came upon a disabled Tiger tank being towed away by another tank. A third tank was heard approaching, but this was allowed to go by in the hope that it might be dealt with by our supporting armour. The advance continued and, having arrived close to their objective at 4.30 a.m., Stuart's men dug in on A Company's left.
D Company's progress in rear of A was without major incident. In the afternoon of 25 September it moved out on 6 Brigade's right flank and relieved two companies of 26 Battalion.
On the left B Company had a rather more eventful journey. In the hurry of getting away, twelve reinforcements who arrived on the start line at the last moment had to be posted to the combined platoon without so much as having their names taken. Moving along the left of Route 16, 10 Platoon captured the disabled tank overrun by C Company. The sound vehicle which had been trying to tow it made off, but was found later knocked out a short distance away. Several houses were cleared of the enemy and prisoners taken. Passing a ditch, Captain Pirrie fired at something he heard moving, only to discover that he had killed a calf. Private Worth, the company medical orderly, happened to be in the ditch at the time attending to some wounded, and the sound of a shot close by brought him out with the news that a body of Germans were digging in only about twenty yards away. A section sent to dislodge them was beaten off, and two platoons were organised to deal with what promised to be formidable resistance, but when the assault was made the enemy were found to have gone. After passing beyond the Rio del Moro, Pirrie was directed to withdraw again behind it. By dawn his company was dug in, and in that position it remained throughout the day (25th).page 285
Soon after midday on 25 September A and C Companies sent out patrols along the right of Route 16 to discover the enemy's disposition and strength. The question whether a further advance should be attempted depended on what information these patrols should obtain, as it was not intended at this juncture to press home an attack against strong opposition. The patrols returned early the following morning with the encouraging report that they had been fired upon only from a few isolated posts. At 9 a.m., therefore, having side-stepped to the coastal sector, 24 Battalion began moving towards the Uso River with C, A and D Companies aligned from left to right, and B following on in rear of C. Scarcely any resistance was met with, the only incident of note being the capture of 20 prisoners from a Russian Turcoman division which had been persuaded to join the enemy and fight against its own allies. B Company, mopping up in rear, encountered no resis- ance other than that of an Italian woman driven to desperation by repeated searchings of her house. Italian civilians affirmed that the enemy had retreated at daybreak, leaving the coastal region clear for some miles. That night a Greek battalion came up and relieved the 24th, which returned to Bordonchio, where its men had a hot meal and part of a night's rest—two luxuries they had not enjoyed since the advance began.
Meanwhile the other battalions of 6 Brigade, with the Greeks on their right, gained the line of the Vena, a small stream a mile or more beyond the Uso. Having rested the best part of twelve hours, 24 Battalion was ordered to pass through the 25th and occupy the line of a road 700 yards short of the Fiumicino River. The advance, which began early in the afternoon, inclined slightly to the west and away from the coastline. On the battalion's left D Company moved steadily forward under fire till its progress was checked by a large house, strongly fortified. Armoured support was called for, but at first the tanks hesitated to operate on account of the deep ditches that had to be crossed. Lieutenant Lea, of 16 Platoon, then climbed into one of the tanks and directed its fire from the turret as it went forward. The house was captured and nine prisoners taken, but enemy shellfire was so heavy that, although his objective was still distant, Captain Marshall-Inman decided to stay where he was and consolidate the house.page 286
In the centre A Company advanced along the left of a main road running inland of Route 16. Scarcely 300 yards had been covered when its men came under heavy fire from concealed machine guns and snipers on the tops of haystacks, the latter making themselves scarce with alacrity when smoke shells from our supporting tanks set alight to their hiding places. Hard fighting ensued, and 7 Platoon made two determined attempts to capture a house on its left flank but was driven off on each occasion. Ahead lay a large expanse of bare ground, which Major Howden decided could best be crossed after darkness had fallen, and with that intention he halted his company for the time being.
With the Greeks on its right, B Company had an easy passage for the first half mile, at the end of which it came under heavy fire from a group of houses 300 yards ahead. Supported by our armour, the Combined Platoon5 advanced upon the largest house, coming as it did so under mortar fire with phosphorus bombs, which set alight to a number of haystacks nearby. The Carrier Platoon, which was operating on this flank, did great service in giving additional fire and evacuating wounded. As the attacking lines converged on the house, an Italian and his wife made their way out towards the New Zealanders under cover of a ditch, and told Lieutenant Hulton6 that the Germans had gone but that a large number of Italian civilians still remained in each of the buildings. Hulton at once ordered his men to rush the position. The houses were found to contain about 150 Italians, all suffering demonstrably from the experiences they had undergone. ‘The noise made by the half hysterical Ities was terrific’, says B Company's diary. ‘Cries for “silenzio” [only] made things worse.’ The liberated ones were got rid of as soon as possible, and at dusk orders came from Hutchens for all companies, none of which had reached its objective, to consolidate on the ground they then occupied and to send guides back to the Vena. Late that night 21 Battalion came up to relieve them, after which they moved back to a beach near the mouth of the Uso.
The pursuit, it must be admitted, had been partially foiled page 287 by an enemy who skilfully adopted his tactics to country scored and furrowed with watercourses. Standing firm on every natural line of defence, the Germans had inflicted upon their pursuers the delay of organising set-piece attacks, and had then in every case withdrawn before the attack went in. In these operations 24 Battalion had had 17 men killed and upwards of sixty wounded, nearly half of these casualties occurring in B Company; but if losses had been more severe than expected, it seemed for a time as though the enemy was being hustled into a less orderly retreat. These hopes, however, were soon dispelled by a change of weather, seasonal but disastrous. Relieved from the pressure of pursuit by impassable roads and flooded streams, the enemy formed a defence line north of the Scolo Rigosso, protected by an outpost screen along the Fiumicino River. The Eighth Army prepared to reduce this line as soon as the weather should permit. On the right of 5 British Corps, 1 Canadian Corps awaited the favourable moment, with 2 New Zealand Division on its eastern flank.
The 24th Battalion remained resting on the coast with its four rifle companies housed in a large orphanage building until 5 October, when it relieved 23 Battalion of 5 Brigade, whose units were dispersed west of the Uso. Two days later orders were issued for a general attack in which 6 Brigade was to capture the line of the Scolo Rigosso, but after continued postponement the New Zealanders were relieved by a regiment of Canadian Dragoons and 24 Battalion moved back to Viserba, two or three miles north of Rimini. Here Captain Borrie left the unit with which he had served for more than two years, to join the staff of 3 NZ General Hospital. Much could be written of this officer's army career, but a number of incidents already recorded throw light upon the qualities that had earned him so generous a measure of both popularity and respect. His place was taken by Lieutenant Blain,7 of the New Zealand Medical Corps.
Sixth Brigade now prepared to cross the Pisciatello and form a bridgehead for the armour. The weather had cleared, and at 11 p.m. on 18 October A and B Companies of the 24th advanced under cover of a barrage to cross the river, with D in support and C in reserve. The 25th Battalion moved forward simultaneously on the left. By 1.30 a.m. A Company had reached its objective—a lateral road 1000 yards beyond the river. Resistance had been slight and most of the nine stretcher casualties had been caused by shellfire. Soon after midnight engineers had laid a scissors bridge8 at the western end of the battalion's sector. This was used by tanks of 4 Armoured Brigade until the structure was damaged, and for a time all traffic had to be diverted to another bridge farther up stream. A line of barbed-wire entanglement was found to cut right across B Company's start line, and Captain Pirrie moved his men up to the river in column instead of deploying beforehand. Shellfire caused a few casualties and Second-Lieutenant Wetherill, of 10 Platoon, was killed, but having once crossed over the company reached its objective without a check. Following up closely, D Company mopped up the small village of Macerone on the river's further bank, while a platoon of C Company protected the engineers working on the scissors bridge. By midday on 19 October the bridgehead was secure and tanks of 4 Armoured Brigade were pressing forward to the north-west over boggy ground.
The infantry of 6 Brigade followed, but a setback came later when 25 Battalion, advancing towards Osteriaccia, came under heavy shellfire, and 20 Armoured Regiment was driven back from beyond Calabrina. As a result the companies of 24 Battalion were ordered to form a firm base for the armour south-east of the Cesena-Cervia road, instead of passing beyond it to the north of Osteriaccia as originally intended. There, sheltering in houses, they spent a cold night without blankets. Starting page 290 from this firm base at dawn on 20 October, 4 Armoured Brigade swung west towards the Savio, while the infantry of 6 Brigade followed on a one-battalion front, with the 26th leading. Our armour reached the Savio at dusk. The 24th Battalion, bringing up the rear of 6 Brigade, did not arrive there till next day, when it relieved 22 Battalion near the small village of Ronta. That night its three-inch mortars, anti-tank guns, and machine guns fired to create a diversion while Canadian infantry attempted a crossing upstream. The firing drew down heavy retaliation in the shape of mortar fire on our lines, and the Canadians were not successful.
After being relieved in the afternoon of 22 October, 24 Battalion went back to the Pisciatello and started next day for a rest area at Castelraimondo, near Fabriano in the Apennines, but being held up on the road by working parties it was obliged to halt for the night at Iesi. The country round Fabriano was mountainous, peaceful, and unravaged by war. There was no training in the afternoons and football was played almost every day. On one occasion some hockey enthusiasts from B Company challenged C to produce a team to meet them. The match duly took place. Many of the players had never had a stick in their hands before, but fortunately no one was badly hurt. Leave was granted to Rome and Florence, and 40 men under an officer went for a few days to a newly-opened rest camp in a disused wing of Perugia University. This camp was run on lines specially designed to give the troops attending it a complete rest from all duties. To that end, the daily odd jobs were performed by Italian labour. Snow fell on 10 November—seven weeks earlier than in the previous year. As usual the battalion contained a number of men for whom the experience was entirely new. ‘Many had never handled snow before’, notes B Company's diary, ‘but this was early remedied.’ The fall, however, was not heavy enough to interfere with football, and an inter-company game was played the same afternoon. Sixty-three reinforcements arrived during the rest period, and before leaving Castelraimondo the battalion's strength stood at 32 officers and 767 other ranks.
Though the season was far advanced, efforts to contain the enemy's reserves in Italy were not relaxed. On the Bologna page 291 and Adriatic fronts the Fifth and Eighth Armies maintained their pressure. When 6 Brigade returned to the line late in November the Canadian Corps was moving slowly towards Ravenna, while 5 British Corps was already west of Forli and preparing to advance on Faenza. The 4th Division, from which the New Zealanders were about to take over, lay astride Route 9, facing Faenza and the line of the Lamone River.
Half an hour after midnight on 25 November the battalion set off on what must have been one of its fastest journeys. Travelling back through Iesi on to the coastal road, and turning west along Route 9 at Rimini, it reached Forli at 8.30 a.m. The brigade sector taken over was being held on a one-battalion front, and next day 26 Battalion relieved the 2nd Bedfords north of Route 9, astride the railway and close to the Lamone's banks. The 24th Battalion remained in Forli on two hours' notice to move. The men of A Company were housed in a palace, those of B in a three-storied school, while C and D Companies shared a large stove factory. Billets were comfortable, if somewhat overcrowded. Fireplaces were remarkably scarce and a brisk trade was done by the stove factory. As the stoves were without proper chimneys some arrangement had to be made for getting rid of the smoke, and many a noble pile was rendered unsightly by the improvised tin chimneys that projected from its windows. Three picture theatres and an Ensa show offered entertainment, but all were crowded nightly and a visit to any one of them entailed a long wait in a queue. When a Vermouth factory over which the battle had rolled was discovered more or less intact north of the town, jeeps and trailers were sent to collect a supply, and the companies ‘had one glorious session by platoons’.9 Forli itself was not greatly damaged, but its old- fashioned streets were narrow for motor transport. Congested with troops, it would have been vulnerable to air attack, but the only attempts made by the enemy were sporadic and half-hearted. On one occasion a building near Battalion Headquarters was set alight by incendiary bombs. The fire was soon extinguished, and an hour later the Forli fire brigade arrived upon the scene.
Training was mainly confined to route marching, but since page 292 it was intended to force the passage of the Lamone as soon as possible there were exercises in the use of assault boats and Mae West life-jackets. The 24th Battalion's experiment in the procedure was carried out on the Montone River, north of Forli, on 1 December. ‘In the afternoon C and D Coys put on a demonstration of river crossing with full equipment…. Each coy put a section over by means of swimming with the assistance of a Mae West float. The water was bitterly cold and progress was naturally slow. The next method was by far the most successful, though there was some disorganisation owing to the inexperience of the boatmen. Assault boats were used with ropes to pull them from bank to bank.’10 A very short time was to elapse before the same procedure was tried out again under still more realistic circumstances.
On the night of 3 December 46 Division of 5 Corps bridged and crossed the Lamone three or four miles south-west of Faenza. Sixth Brigade supported the attack by firing across the river with all arms. The Divisional Cavalry, now serving as infantry, was in the line at this time, and all that 24 Battalion was required to do was to send dummy messages to Brigade. Ravenna fell to the Canadians on 5 December. The 46th Division expanded its bridgehead, while the New Zealanders awaited their opportunity to seize Faenza and go on to the Senio, but determined counter-attacks showed the enemy to be stronger than expected. The original plan was modified and 2 NZ Division regrouped on the night of 10 December, 5 Brigade moving down from the right flank to cross the Lamone on 46 Division's front, while 6 Brigade side-stepped from north to south of Route 9.
C and D Companies of 24 Battalion now moved up from Forli into the fork of the Lamone and Marzeno rivers, C to make a general reconnaissance of the Lamone's banks, and D to find a suitable place from which to launch a kapok bridge. It was intended by this means to get supplies across to 5 Brigade, which was about to take up a position on 46 Division's right flank. The spot chosen by D Company was about two miles south of Route 9, where the river formed a great loop. The 28th Battalion was the unit of 5 Brigade with which contact page 293 was to be made, but there was no sign of it across the river on 11 December. The bridging train of five jeeps and trailers, however, arrived from Forli in the evening. Two bridges were ready for launching by midnight, but the party in charge ran into mines, one man being killed and another wounded. As a consequence the company commander decided to wait till dawn before doing anything more. This was just as well, for daylight showed the whole area to be thickly mined, and another spot was chosen a little way downstream. Foothills rose up almost immediately west of Faenza, and emerging therefrom the river ran far too rapidly to be easily bridged; nevertheless the newly-chosen place proved more suitable for the purpose than that first selected. The 28th Battalion had appeared within shouting distance on the opposite bank when a second attempt was made the following night. A signal, to which there was no reply, was fired as the bridge was launched, but before morning the whole affair had been washed away. At last, on the third successive night, the D Company men got a rope over the river by which to pull across an assault boat. The craft was found very difficult to handle on account of the current, but in any case the progress of events had rendered it no longer necessary.
A and B Companies also moved forward into the river forks early on 12 December, A (Major Howden) taking up a position overlooking the Bailey bridge on 46 Division's front over which the armour was to pass next day. The hours of darkness were spent in carrying 720 smoke canisters to the river bank. On the 13th all was ready, and at 11.30 a.m. word came through from Battalion Headquarters that the armour was about to make its passage over the Lamone. The canisters were lighted and heavy clouds of smoke drifted down towards the bridge, obscuring it from view as the tanks passed over. Early in the afternoon they were all across, in spite of the heavy fire attracted by the smoke screen. The supply of canisters was exhausted by 3.30 p.m. The men operating them had come under a certain amount of machine-gun fire, and one platoon was pinned down in its position on the bank till after dark.
North-east of Faenza 1 Canadian Corps, having crossed the Lamone on 14 December, was establishing a bridgehead over page 294 the Naviglio Canal. The Polish Corps and 10 Indian Division were making steady progress in the foothills west of Faenza. After relieving 46 Division, 5 Brigade attacked north-east towards the Senio an hour after midnight, with the village of Celle in the centre of its line of advance. At the same time 56 London Division, lining the Lamone north of Route 9, made a false attack to create a diversion. While 5 Brigade captured Celle and fought its way on to the Senio, two companies of 25 Battalion crossed over on the night of 15 December to relieve two companies of 28 Battalion on 5 Brigade's right flank. A battalion of 43 Gurkha Lorried Infantry Brigade, which had come under command of 2 NZ Division for that special purpose, also crossed over to clean up Faenza. The remainder of 6 Brigade prepared to cross the Lamone next day, move north of Route 9 and the railway, and then swing north-west along the railway line towards the Senio.
D, B, C and A Companies of 24 Battalion crossed over in that order on the afternoon of 16 December. By nightfall they were grouped between the railway and Route 9, immediately north-west of Faenza and on the right flank of 25 Battalion. The Ghurkas and the Divisional Cavalry were in the northern environs of Faenza itself. On the battalion's left C Company (Captain Stuart) pushed forward during the night. No. 13 Platoon seized a house beside the railway, and the company moved on towards Pasotta, a group of houses lying further to the north-west. These were also captured after a sharp fight, but no further advance could be made until both flanks were secure. D and B Companies reached the railway on C Company's right but could make no progress beyond it. A, being nearest to the outskirts of Faenza, occupied a large factory building close to Route 9 and continued its northward advance soon after midnight. No. 9 Platoon ran into opposition at a point where the railway was crossed by a road at right angles. After a brisk engagement the enemy was driven back and Major Howden decided to dig in just beyond the railway.
B Company reached its objective soon after 7 a.m.—a ruined house well beyond the railway, which it succeeded in holding. Our own tanks had moved up in support of this two-company attack, but declined to cross the railway line in the belief that it was mined.
Meanwhile C Company had remained where it was, with 13 and 15 Platoons in Pasotta, and 14 Platoon, together with Company Headquarters, in a building south of the railway line. On the night of 17 December infantry counter-attacked this position supported by a Tiger tank, which fortunately forbore to open fire on the houses, presumably in the hope of reoccupying them intact. The attack was beaten off while blazing haystacks lit up the scene; but next morning at dawn enemy infantry returned and, for some unaccountable reason, began to dig in in front of Pasotta, without troubling to find out whether it was occupied. Nos. 13 and 15 Platoons suddenly opened fire on the startled Germans, killing a captain and wounding two others, while the rest succeeded in escaping. ‘Upon the dead German officer was found a Slidex complete with a key to the code words, maps with marked enemy positions, and an escape road route from Bologna showing roads to be used by the various types of vehicles, tanks, etc.’13 For the rest of the day and well into the night 13 and 15 Platoons were heavily mort- page 297 ared. No. 14 Platoon made a forward reconnaissance and was pinned down by fire until our tanks laid a smoke screen to cover its withdrawal.
By 18 December 10 Indian Division was across the Senio on the left, with 5 New Zealand Brigade up to the river line, its right flank close to Route 9, beyond which 25 Battalion pressed steadily forwards. The 24th Battalion maintained its somewhat tenuous hold on the railway, with the Gurkhas on its right working round the northern outskirts of Faenza. The time having come to clear Route 9 and the railway, 2 NZ Division prepared to attack on a two-brigade front between the Senio River and Naviglio Canal. Sixth Brigade formed up along the railway line, with its right flank 600 yards west of the junction north of Faenza and its left on the Senio. The 26th, 25th and 24th Battalions, all attacking due north-east on a two-company front, were aligned in that order from left to right. On the right of 24 Battalion, 43 Gurkha Brigade prepared to assault the villages of San Silvestro and San Rocco.
C Company on the left and D on the right, with B and A in rear, formed up on the railway line, 300 yards beyond which the barrage came down at 11 p.m. on 19 December. Each of the four companies had a troop of tanks in support. The objective was a road running south-eastward from the Senio through the village of San Pietro in Laguna, about 3000 yards from the start line.
Disaster attended D Company at the outset when 17 Platoon ran into a minefield, suffering no fewer than 15 casualties, among whom were Second-Lieutenant Ball,14 killed, and Sergeant Kennedy,15 wounded. Corporal McKenzie16 assumed command of the survivors, whose place in the forward line was taken by 18 Platoon under Lieutenant Titchener,17 of 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion, an officer temporarily attached page 298 to the 24th for instruction in infantry tactics, who took charge of a platoon and did excellent service throughout the operation. After this initial mishap, the company met with little resistance in gaining its objective. No. 16 Platoon patrolled 500 yards to its front to capture a house believed to be occupied, but on arriving there found that the enemy had withdrawn. In the afternoon 17 reinforcements who arrived at Battalion Headquarters were at once posted to D Company to replace its casualties.
On the left front C Company was unopposed up to the artillery pause line, a lateral road half-way to the final objective. Resuming their advance as the barrage lifted, the forward platoons were held up at Casa Busa before being ordered to bypass the position and leave it for B Company to mop up. During the advance Second-Lieutenant Price,18 of 14 Platoon, stumbled upon four Germans while moving out alone to one of his sections. He threatened them with a tommy gun and they promptly surrendered, but while escorting them back he fell into a shell hole, and one of the prisoners seized the opportunity to throw a hand grenade, which ripped open his steel helmet. Getting on to his knees, he opened fire on his escaping prisoners, killing three, while the one survivor returned with his hands up to be recaptured. Having got to its objective at 1.30 a.m., the company consolidated in and around San Pietro in Laguna. No. 14 Platoon moved some little way out in advance of the main defence line, as the Germans had demolished practically every building in its sector.
Mopping up behind the leading troops, B Company captured Casa Busa, taking 13 prisoners. A Company also cleared up several pockets of resistance overrun during the advance. Supporting arms arrived forward at dawn. The battalion settled into its new position without being molested and spent two fairly quiet days before being relieved by the 25th on 22 December. Casualties in the foregoing action were nine killed, 44 wounded, and seven missing. Sixty-two prisoners had been taken.
Back in billets at Forli preparations were made for celebrating Christmas. Snow fell two days previously and it was bitterly page 299 cold, but as usual 24 Battalion's cooks rose splendidly to the occasion. A description of the festivities survives in the Mortar Platoon's war diary:
It was fairly well on in the morning before the boys got moving about, but we were up in time to have a few stiff noggins to put us in good spirits for Christmas dinner. Our mess room was in the top floor of a large factory a little way down the road. It was a long winding road up the stairs, and the room would have been hard to find had it not been for a bright idea given birth by Mick Kilduff,19 who, finding a huge roll of white crepe paper … rolled a large white line up the stairs and through numerous rooms to the mess room.
The cooks surpassed themselves with the dinner, the first course being Toheroa soup, followed by pork, baked potatoes and other vegetables, and then came the plum duff.
The Colonel, 2 I/c and Adjutant paid us a visit. The 2 I/c, Major Andrews, blowing one of those trumpet affairs similar to those they use on Wog trains in Cairo, tried to quieten the crowd so that he could make a speech, but it was rather a hopeless task for him. In the first place he had lost his voice for some reason or other, and in the second place the boys were in such high spirits that they couldn't be bothered listening to speeches….
The afternoon was spent in celebrating and rejoicing, and after a very good tea we carried on the good work. A number of the platoon were invited along to a party run by Tommies…. We toddled along to the Tommy Casa and had a rip roaring time. We had no crayfish, balloons and top hats to come home with but we did our best to arrive home in the real festive spirit.
The battalion's casualties from 1 September to 25 December 1944 were:
|Died of wounds||–||6|
|Prisoners of war||1||7|
5 Consisting of 11 and 12 Platoons.
8 The bridge, opening like a giant pair of scissors, is placed in position by a Valentine tank.
9 B Coy war diary.
13 Eye-witness account by 2 Lt J. P. Price, 14 Pl.