CHAPTER 15 — Rimini to the Uso
At 7.30 a.m. on 27 August 25 Battalion left the Castellina assembly area for the staging area at Foligno, a little more than halfway across Italy, the journey of 115 miles taking slightly over nine hours. The battalion followed the sealed highway, Route 2, through Siena, Nottola, Acquaviva, Castiglione del Lago on Lake Trasimene, thence on Route 71 west of the lake to Route 75 on the northern side, where on passing through Passignano and Magione it was on the historic ground where Hannibal had gained a sensational victory over the Romans under Flaminius in the Punic Wars over 2000 years before. The next places of interest were the university city of Perugia, a thousand feet above the Tiber valley, and, not far from the road, Assisi, the birthplace of St. Francis, and then Foligno. Next day the battalion on Route 77 passed through Tolentino, Macerata, and across the Potenza River, thence along a road parallel to and 14 miles from the Adriatic coast, leading to the north-west to Iesi, a journey of 90 miles completed in seven hours.
At this date the German Gothic line stretched across Italy from Pesaro on the Adriatic, about 30 miles north-west of Iesi, generally in a westerly direction through the Etruscan Apennines, passing about 20 miles to the north of Florence to the coast of the Ligurian Sea at a point 15 miles south-east of Spezia. The operations of Fifth and Eighth Armies hitherto had been directed chiefly against the enemy centre, but early in August it was decided that the main Allied effort would be made by Eighth Army up the Adriatic coast. The attack would be made by three corps—2 Polish, 1 Canadian, 5 British —a force of ten divisions and including 1200 tanks and about 1000 guns. The New Zealand Division was to be in Army Reserve ready for its role of exploitation as a fast-moving force.
On the western flank Fifth Army was preparing an attack north of Florence, which would be launched when the enemy had weakened his forces there to meet Eighth Army's attack; in the meantime it was to do everything possible to lead the enemy to think that both armies were preparing an attack up the centre.page 479
With the Division in Army Reserve until Eighth Army broke through, 25 Battalion could expect to remain out of battle for a week or two and concentrate on training and administration and the general welfare of the troops. The sick rate was still causing concern. During August six officers and 140 other ranks had been evacuated sick, again well above the unit average in a brigade total of 14 officers and 317 other ranks; as usual the chief complaints were diarrhoea, fevers, and infective hepatitis. Despite this drain on the unit, considerable reinforcements had kept the battalion practically at full strength throughout the month.
Various changes had taken place during August. The RMO, Captain Pearse, who in the middle of July had been relieved by Captain Begg 1 while he was at 4 NZ Field Hygiene Section, returned on the 25th. The Brigade Commander had also been changed, Brigadier Parkinson taking command on the 22nd from Brigadier Burrows, who took over 5 Brigade. For a variety of reasons (sickness, battle casualties, duties) ten officers left the battalion and nine joined or rejoined.
Swimming in the open sea and also in the River Esino— which was some compensation for those who had missed the two days at the beach at Vada—and rugby football were the chief recreations at Iesi, supported by the excellent entertainments provided by the YMCA Mobile Cinema, the Kiwi Concert Party, and the brigade band. Rugby fever was at its height, more intense than usual, as the despatch of a representative team to Britain was under consideration and the battalion, in common with all other units, was doing all it could by careful selection, trial games, and a physical fitness campaign, to secure adequate representation.
A good deal of the training was related, of course, to the special tactical problems involved in an attack up the Adriatic coast. Such a campaign necessitated the crossing of the numerous rivers running down from the mountainous interior across the line of advance, which gave the enemy excellent defensive positions and the attacking troops the always difficult tactical operations of river-crossings. Much attention was therefore paid to co-operation with the engineers in bridging and the use of assault boats and rafts, demonstrations of bridging by bridge-laying tanks being given by New Zealand armoured units. Snipers practised their art on the rifle range while the companies page 480 brushed up their weapon training and received instruction from the engineers in mine recognition and lifting. Route marches, as always, were frequent.
On 2 September specially welcome reinforcements arrived, including many officers and other ranks who had been on furlough to New Zealand and had returned to see the job finished. It was a grand reunion of old comrades and a very welcome influx of experienced soldiers.
The following day, 3 September 1944, was the fifth annivercary of the British Commonwealth's entry into the war. His Majesty the King had directed that it should be observed as a National Day of Prayer, and as was the case with other units, a special service was held by the battalion. The opportunity was taken by Padre Rowe, 2 on the visit to Iesi of the Bishop of Lichfield, to have a small group of men confirmed, the local theatre being used for the service.
That morning an unfortunate accident befell General Freyberg when the aircraft which was taking him to Eighth Army Headquarters was tipped over by a gust of wind when landing. A wing crumpled and penetrated the fuselage, the General suffering a penetrating wound in his right side which was expected to incapacitate him for from six to eight weeks. Meanwhile Brigadier C. E. Weir, with the temporary rank of major-general, was appointed to command 2 NZ Division.
The battalion's officers on 3 September were:
Lieutenant-Colonel (temporary) E. K. Norman, MC
Major A. J. Neil, MBE
Major M. Handyside
Major N. K. Sanders
Major (temporary) S. M. Hewitt, MC
Captain J. L. Webster
Captain C. W. Taylor
Major (temporary) J. Finlay
Captain B. W. Thomas
Lieutenant K. J. S. Bourke
Lieutenant J. W. T. Collins
Captain (temporary) J. H. Sheild
Lieutenant N. Lawson
Lieutenant R. Easthope
Lieutenant J. B. Maypage 481
Lieutenant D. J. Pocknall
Lieutenant A. G. Henricksen
Lieutenant R. S. Liddell
Lieutenant H. T. Kershaw
Captain (temporary) A. Norton-Taylor
Captain (temporary) A. B. West
Lieutenant S. G. Sidford
Second-Lieutenant P. M. Murphy
Second-Lieutenant E. F. T. Beer
Second-Lieutenant N. K. Chapman, MM
Second-Lieutenant R. D. O'Neill
Second-Lieutenant R. B. Simpson
Lieutenant (temporary) R. B. Grumitt
Second-Lieutenant M. H. Linklater
Second-Lieutenant D. R. S. Mitchell
Second-Lieutenant J. P. Dey
Second-Lieutenant G. E. Wilson
Second-Lieutenant J. L. Thomson
Lieutenant B. A. Andrews
Lieutenant N. A. Rees
Second-Lieutenant E. C. Hansen
Second-Lieutenant B. S. Banks
Second-Lieutenant D. McLean
Captain V. T. Pearse (NZMC), RMO
Rev. H. E. Rowe, Chaplain
The offensive was making progress and by early September the front was about 40 miles up the coast from Iesi; it was time, therefore, for the Division to get up closer. On the 5th Major Neil took forward an advance party, accompanied by minesweepers, and the battalion followed early next morning, timing the start so as to arrive before daybreak at a concentration area a couple of miles south of Fano, 25 miles away. Strict security measures, including wireless silence, were still in force.
Training and recreation continued for the next five days. Some new equipment for the artillery attracted attention; 4 Field Regiment received six new armoured cars (Foxes) to replace its Honey tanks for OP work and a light AA battery was issued with twelve self-propelled Bofors guns. Also, for impending operations two British medium artillery regiments, one with 5.5-inch guns and the other with 4.5-inch, were to be under command of the Division. The 4.2-inch mortars added page 482 to the general interest by an attempt to add to their efficiency in mobile operations, base plates being fitted into the crew-commander's cockpit of each carrier to enable the mortar to be fired on the move. According to one account, ‘…this was fixed up by Div Workshop in the Fano area. To try this out the Pl (2nd-Lieut R. B. Grumitt 3) went up a hill by Gradara Castle and carried out a shoot. They fired all charges and it was found that it wasn't successful for anything over Charge 1 —giving a max. range of over 1600 yards. The reason for this was that the recoil was punching out the floor of the carrier. This was used on the first day of the Mobile Role (23 Sep) by No. 2 Section who were firing on a range of 300 yards. The mortars were in front of the infantry during the Mobile Role and C Coy were directing behind No. 2 Section.’
Describing the organisation of the mortars, the same account said: ‘The four mortar carriers travelled from Sienna to Iesi as a body and from then on the Mortar Pl moved with 25 Bn as a Pl until Gradara (12–18 Sep 1944) when they were detailed to Coys—No. 1 Sec to A Coy, No. 2 Sec to C Coy, No. 3 Sec to D Coy. Phil McGowan 4 (No. 1 Sec), Dan Lance 5 (No. 2), Bill Bavin 6 (No. 3). Bruce Grumitt was Pl Commander. There were 6 mortars, 2 to each section. Ammo was carried in the carriers and each carrier had a load of approx 60 bombs; 2 carriers to each section. 2 i/c Sections were Johnnie Pilbrow, 7 No. 1; Leo Forman, 8 No. 2; and Ted French, No. 3. Jimmie Cullen 9 was Pl Sgt.’
Late on the night of 10 September 2 NZ Division came under command of 1 Canadian Corps and two days later 25 Battalion moved on about 14 miles to the vicinity of Monteluro, six miles west of Pesaro, where A Squadron 20 Armoured Regiment, 5 Platoon 2 MG Company, M Troop 33 Anti-Tank Battery, page 483 39 Heavy Mortar Battery, and 3 Platoon 8 Field Company came under command of the battalion. This was termed a ‘Battalion Battle Group’ and 24 Battalion was similarly reinforced, the intention being that these two battalion battle groups should be ready to lead an advance of 6 Brigade Group (which would be followed by the remainder of the Division) up Route 16 towards Ravenna (45 miles to the north-west) if such an operation became feasible. At the time fighting was proceeding near the Marano River, south-west of Riccione, about eight miles away, where the New Zealand artillery regiments, 22 (Motor) Battalion, a New Zealand tank squadron, and the 17-pounders of M Troop from 25 Battalion were participating.
On 18 September, after six days in the Monteluro district, where the battalion lost one man died of wounds, 25 Battalion Group left about daylight for a forward concentration area close to the Rio Grande River, 1000 yards west of Riccione, a journey of an hour and a half; the tanks and other tracked vehicles travelled separately and did not rejoin the Group until the evening. To the north-west the active front was only three and a half miles away, where troops of the Canadian Corps were engaged near San Martino, while six miles west of the battalion a British division was fighting in close proximity to the interesting little Republic of San Marino (area 38 square miles, population 14,000). As its neutrality was respected by both sides, a corridor barely six miles wide was created between it and the coast.
During the operations that night, 18–19 September, the Canadian and British forces used searchlights to create artificial moonlight and so help the advance, as had been done in North Africa, but it astounded and perturbed the Germans, according to reports and recorded conversations obtained from German documents:
‘Morning report, 19 Sep: 29 Pz Gren Div: … Since 2200 hours an enormous number of searchlights has been lighting up our FDLs and the forward areas… making it most difficult to carry out moves.’
‘General Herr to General Vietinghoff: “This new enemy trick of lighting up the battlefield has harassed our moves and blinded our people. We are going to try to knock out the searchlights with night fighters, 88mm and 17cm guns….”
‘Chief of Staff 10 Army to COS Army Group C, 1045 hours 19 Sep:page 484
Army Gp: “How are things on 76 Pz Corps front?”
10 Army: “Comparatively quiet … but things will almost certainly flare up again…. Last night he did the weirdest thing I ever saw. He lit up the battlefield with searchlights.”
Army Gp: “From the sea?”
10 Army: “No, on land. He turned on a display like Party Day in Nuernburg.”
Army Gp: “Really from the land, not the sea?”
Army Gp: “Couldn't you get them any way?”
10 Army: “No.”
Army Gp: “They can't have been as far away as all that.”
10 Army: “Anyway, we couldn't get them. I must discuss the matter with the Army CRA.”
Army Gp: “They will do that again tonight.”
10 Army: “I don't know what we are going to do about it. … We may detail a few 88mm guns to deal with them. … Couldn't we send a few aircraft over?”
Army Gp: “I'll see what I can do.”
10 Army: “It is a great worry to the boys to be lighted up and blinded and not be able to do anything about it.”
Army Gp: “Was that over the whole sector?”
10 Army: “Over a wide area. Mainly on 29 Pz Gren Div and 26 Pz Div.”’
An operation order on 18 September gave several plans to meet various situations which might arise in the offensive then under way. If the Canadian Corps attack on the San Fortunato position south-west of Rimini succeeded, 5 Brigade would pass through to establish a bridgehead over the Marecchia River west of Rimini and 6 Brigade, with 24 and 25 Battalion battle groups leading as previously described, would then pass through the bridgehead and, as the advanced guard of the Division, lead the pursuit.
If the Canadian attack failed, 5 Brigade would attack and 6 Brigade would pass through, establish the bridgehead, and then, if strong enough after that operation, push on as advanced guard; if 6 Brigade was not strong enough, 4 Armoured Brigade would pass through 6 Brigade and take up the pursuit.
These somewhat complicated possible courses of action involved Colonel Norman and many of his officers in various conferences at Divisional and Brigade Headquarters and within page 485 the Battalion Group, and required a good deal of reconnaissance by officers and other ranks. On the 20th 25 Battalion Group was warned to be ready to move at daylight next morning, 50 Self-Propelled Battery, RA, being attached in readiness to accompany it, but the move was postponed. At the same time instructions were received that the balance of the 4th Reinforcements were to be withdrawn in readiness to return to New Zealand on leave; much the same sort of thing had occurred in July last before the attack on Monte Lignano, though this time the impact was not so severe, since the departure of these men was expected and the arrival on 2 September of the men from New Zealand leave had made replacements much easier.
That day 5 Brigade Group had gone forward to the vicinity of the Rimini airfield and had its advanced units a mile east of the Fortunato ridge in readiness to secure the bridgehead. Two days later 25 Battalion Group with attached troops and supporting arms (including M Troop 33 Anti-Tank Battery which had rejoined three days before) advanced in tactical formation covered by its advanced guard to a lying-up position immediately east of San Fortunato; it was then a mile and a half south of Rimini, and it halted there in a formation suitable for a tactical advance on the morrow. Two days before, the Fortunato ridge had been cleared, and early on the morning of the 21st New Zealand tanks and infantry and Greek troops had entered Rimini. Greatly assisted by heavy rain on the 20th and 21st, the Germans had retreated across the Marecchia River, and by the afternoon of the 22nd the leading troops of 5 Brigade Group, against stiff opposition, had advanced a mile and a half beyond the river. That night the attack was being continued to the Scolo Brancona, a further mile and a half to the north-west.
Sixth Brigade Group had orders to be ready next morning to pass through 5 Brigade Group and press on 1000 to 1600 yards beyond the Brancona to the Rio Fontanaccia. The night 22–23 September was somewhat disturbed by enemy shelling of 6 Brigade area, most of it against the artillery near Rimini and 24 Battalion Group, while 25 Battalion Group, a little farther away from the guns which seemed to have been the target, was hardly troubled.
It was with something of this spirit that at 5 a.m. on the chill grey morning of 23 September, 25 Battalion Group, with page 487 its advanced guard leading, resumed the advance. The route crossed the Fortunato ridge and thence northwards over flat, cultivated country to a wooden bridge across the Marecchia River, a couple of miles west of Rimini. ‘Destruction in the hilly country to the west of Rimini was terrific and dead cattle were lying everywhere.’ As previously planned, 24 Battalion Group at the same time advanced up Route 16 on the right of 25 Battalion and parallel to and a mile from the coast.
Led by tanks of 2 Troop of 20 Armoured Regiment (Second- Lieutenant Burland 10), the vanguard of 25 Battalion Group— anti-tank guns, C and A Companies, with C on the right preceded by 2 Mortar Section, and A on the left followed by 1 Mortar Section—had reached Route 9, 500 yards north of the Marecchia, and by 6.30 a.m. was crossing a railway embankment on its way to San Martino and thence to Orsoleto, a mile away to the north-west. There had been no interference from the enemy though the sight and sound of very heavy shelling of the village of Savignano, in the Canadian sector seven miles north-west of the river crossing, tended to reduce some of the earlier optimism.
When its head reached the Marecchia, the remainder of 25 Battalion Group—the mainguard—halted to allow the vanguard time to test the situation farther ahead. Apart from occasional Spandau and rifle fire no opposition was encountered as the vanguard continued its advance for another mile and a half to the crossing of the Scolo Brancona, which the leading tanks reached about 9 a.m. The tanks had somewhat outpaced the rest of the vanguard and beyond the river they took the road to the right towards Route 16 instead of that to the left, which led to the Rio Fontanaccia. This error led the tanks into German defences midway between the two rivers and on to the axis of advance of 24 Battalion, which had been held up 600 yards back; as the enemy position was within 500 yards of the vanguard's true line of advance, the enemy would no doubt have disclosed himself and, especially in view of the check to 24 Battalion, could not have been by-passed by 25 Battalion's vanguard.
A few yards up Route 16 two tanks were lost by direct hits at close range, but the third tank of the troop retired to the shelter of a house about 150 yards from the road junction, page 488 where it held its ground, together with a Bren and two mortar carriers which had followed the tanks. The commander of the leading tank, Second-Lieutenant Burland, was killed.
The sergeant in command of the mortar section, D. W. Lance, describes the action of the vanguard:
‘The advance began 0400 hours on Sat 23rd when we crossed the Marecchia river and passed through Maori 28th Bn who from Intelligence reports at the time stated they could not contact the Germans…. All went well for a while after passing the forward Maori sections. We in carriers got some small-arms fire but this was not noticed by the preceding troop of tanks. At this stage the tanks must have gone astray for they came out on to the main road running north parallel to the coast. This road was the line of advance of 24 Bn. It was at this point … that the two tanks … were lost. They were knocked out at point-blank range a few yards up the main road. One of the crew of one tank and the remaining and last tank of the troop managed to get back along a side road to a house about 150 yards from the corner. All the vanguard (the remaining tank, Bren carriers and our two mortar carriers) consolidated at this house…. This happened about 1000 hours….It appeared as if we had penetrated some distance into the enemy lines as there were Germans everywhere. All movement of our whole column had ceased. OC C Coy Major Handyside (who was badly wounded the following day) eventually got part of a pl of infantry up to us. The enemy tried to do some reforming but did not attack in strength. Our mortars, also Brens, had some excellent shooting at 160 – 200 yards. The range was so short we had to run the carriers on to logs to fire the mortars at the right elevation. I would point out we had for this move mounted the mortars in the cockpit of the carriers and they were used like this that day. Later in the day a platoon of 24 Battalion joined up with us and it was only then that we fully realised we had veered on to their line of advance…. In the evening A Coy (Major Webster 11) came up and took positions in front and we (C Coy) went over to the left where we had a comparatively open flank with little or no support.’
The enemy kept the vanguard under considerable mortar, Spandau, and gun fire, C Company, which was in six RMT vehicles, being forced off the road into the cover of nearby houses south of the Scolo Brancona; two of the trucks were page 489 damaged. Troops of the Divisional Cavalry on the same route with orders to exploit to the Uso River, three miles ahead, lost an armoured car. The engineers with 25 Battalion, 3 Platoon of 8 Field Company, had a White scout-car and its contents destroyed by a direct hit from an enemy mortar, losing two men killed and others wounded. A second scout-car containing the platoon wireless was abandoned till nightfall, enemy mortars and snipers forcing the platoon to take cover till after midday.
At 9.30 a.m. under instructions from 6 Brigade, Colonel Norman ordered the mainguard to concentrate across the Marecchia and then went forward in a tank to see the situation for himself. He found that the platoons of C Company had occupied houses close to the Brancona crossing, with Company Headquarters a little in rear, and had sent out a patrol (Lance- Corporal Dick Parker, and Privates Joe Gilmour, 12 Bert Meier, 13 Ron Lucas, 14 Goodwin, 15 and Hugh Robertson 16) to probe to the north and north-west. In addition to the enemy opposing the vanguard near Route 16, enemy troops were reported on the Rio Fontanaccia, 800 yards west of the Brancona crossing. For some hours the axis of advance of 25 Battalion Group and the area generally was kept under fire by enemy guns, believed to be self-propelled, and by mortars, the fire being particularly brisk for an hour and a half about midday. Spandaus and snipers were also active.
As a counter-measure 25 Battalion mortars engaged various targets and the self-propelled 105s of the attached 50 Battery, RA, as well as the New Zealand field artillery units, were very busy. An enemy SP gun on a road 500 yards west of the Fontanaccia was spotted by an artillery FOO and engaged with a ‘murder’ concentration from his own guns; it was also engaged by a troop of the Divisional Cavalry from a position a couple of hundred yards south of C Company's headquarters. Enemy nebelwerfers had also opened fire but most of the bombs fell on vacant ground east of 25 Battalion.
The enemy was obviously in some strength on the Fontanaccia as, farther south, advances by the Divisional Cavalry and page 490 by the Canadians were stopped by heavy fire. On the right, 24 Battalion Group, which at 11.30 a.m. had resumed its advance, was held up a few hundred yards short of the Fontanaccia. Meanwhile on 25 Battalion's front the mainguard had been concentrated before noon in an area across the Marecchia and at 2.45 p.m. Colonel Norman, on forward reconnaissance, was called back to meet Brigadier Parkinson, who had come forward with orders for a further advance by 24 and 25 Battalions to the north-west to the Fontanaccia, while 28 Battalion moved round the left flank.
At 4.20 p.m. Colonel Norman at an orders group conference explained the plan. A and C Companies were to advance to the river, A Company (Major Webster) on the right and C Company (Major Handyside) on the left; D Company (Captain Thomas 17) was to move up from the mainguard to a position behind C Company, while B Company (Major Finlay) remained where it was near San Martino. Two 3-inch mortars were attached to each of the three forward companies and anti-tank guns were to cover the lateral roads on the axis of advance. Two troops of tanks were to accompany the infantry, and the artillery, if required, was to provide defensive fire across the Fontanaccia while the FOO would engage observed targets. A little later it was decided that 28 Battalion was not to take part and that 25 Battalion would swing farther to the left.
At 6.30 p.m. the advance commenced and a few minutes later Colonel Norman was informed that the Divisional Cavalry on the left was in touch with the Canadians 400 yards south-west of Orsoleto and was advancing to the north-west. A Company, which as its objective had the Fontanaccia from Route 16 on the right to the road-crossing over the river 900 yards to the south-west, advanced with its supporting tanks from the forward positions held by C Company, and for nearly an hour had little difficulty. It then encountered Spandau fire, which for a time held it up, but this was soon overcome and by 8.35 p.m. the company was moving up the lateral road running northwards parallel to and about 300 yards from the river, clearing the houses as it went. On reaching Casa Ripa, 500 yards from the right of the objective, the leading sections were halted by very heavy machine-gun fire. Major Webster then sent a patrol under Corporal Cameron 18 to the river, but enemy fire page 491 which caused four casualties forced it to withdraw; another patrol went out but was stopped by heavy Spandau fire. ‘An amusing incident occurred to Pte John McAvoy 19 during this attack,’ it is related. ‘He had become a little separated from the rest of his platoon, when on jumping into a ditch, he was confronted by two Jerries, both armed with rifles. Mac only had his rifle and his thinking ran along the lines of “If I shoot one of them the other one will shoot me while I'm reloading”. Apparently the Jerries thought the same as they kept their rifles trained on him. McAvoy called on the Germans to surrender but they also in turn gave him the same opportunity to surrender to them. A stalemate developed, both keeping the other covered, but fortunately for McAvoy Jack Cuff 20 of 14 Pl came along and was able to help Mac take in two prisoners.’
As A Company could make no further progress, Colonel Norman at 10.15 p.m. asked for artillery defensive fire, stonks ‘Jack’ and ‘Kitty’, which were prearranged concentrations on the west side of the Fontanaccia, 400 yards north-west of the right flank of the objective. While the guns were firing Major Webster told Battalion Headquarters that, as an enemy tank was believed to be on the main road, he did not wish to move farther up the lateral road towards it; he was told to stay in his present position and supporting tanks took up positions with the infantry platoons.
Meanwhile C Company had withdrawn its forward troops to the neighbourhood of the Brancona crossing and, together with its tanks, advanced towards the Fontanaccia, its objective stretching from the left of A Company, where it was responsible for the road crossing the river, to a point about 400 yards north of the crossroads at Casa Raggi, a frontage of 1300 yards. For forty-five minutes the advance went well. The company was then halted by Spandau fire, but not for long and the advance was soon resumed; about 8.15 p.m. the men dug in within 150 yards of the river and also, together with the supporting tanks, occupied suitable houses in the vicinity. Company Headquarters was established about 600 yards back, near the Brancona crossing. The company had suffered casualties, the whole of 14 Platoon's No. 5 Section under Lance-Corporal R. J. Parker having been wounded by enemy grenades.page 492
At this stage D Company (Captain Thomas) had completed its move forward from the mainguard and was in position south of the Brancona, with its headquarters at San Giovanni in Perareto. Shortly before midnight, 23 – 24 September, a 17-pounder from 31 Anti-Tank Battery arrived at Battalion Headquarters and was sent up to support A and C Companies. Two M10s (tank-destroyers) from the same battery took up positions 700 and 900 yards east of the secondary road crossing the Fontanaccia, where on the lateral road running from Route 16 to the Brancona crossing they guarded the gap between 24 and 25 Battalions. The 105s of the attached 50 Battery had a successful day, knocking out a gun near the Uso River, a couple of thousand yards west of the Fontanaccia, and a nebelwerfer 1400 yards south-west of the left flank of C Company's objective, as well as carrying out numerous shoots on other targets. Casualties reported in the battalion on the 23rd were one killed, one died of wounds, and sixteen wounded.
Shortly after midnight A and C Companies were connected by L/T with Battalion Headquarters, always a welcome state of affairs to the Commanding Officer, the company commanders, and not least to the runners. It was early in use by A Company to ask that stonk ‘Jack’ be lifted 100 yards beyond where it was placed a couple of hours earlier. Snipers were causing a good deal of trouble, C Company in the very early hours reporting that its forward posts close to the river near its right flank were being fired on from the left. Spandaus of course were in evidence, as always, and, stated one account, ‘Cpl Ted Saunders’ 21 6 Section was pinned down in a cornfield by Spandau fire and spent a considerable time lying on their stomachs feeling the cornstalks falling on their backs as they were chopped off by Spandau bullets'. A Company also had sniper trouble and was advised by Colonel Norman to use its tanks at first light ‘to eliminate them’.
Reports continued to come in and evidence was piling up that the enemy intended to contest the river crossing in such strength that to dislodge him a deliberate attack with strong artillery support would be necessary. A little after midnight 25 Battalion had been informed that, according to an intercepted message, there were enemy Hornet SP guns at Casa Portico, 1100 yards north-west of A Company's existing right flank, a position that was shelled, five rounds per gun, by the page 493 New Zealand artillery. About an hour later C Company reported a stationary enemy tank about 200 yards ahead, which it could not engage until it knew the positions reached by the Canadians. About dawn enemy tanks 500 yards west of the Fontanaccia, opposite the junction of A and C Companies, were engaged by SP guns and the field artillery; half an hour later the New Zealand tanks asked that a second ‘stonk’ be fired on the same target.
Meanwhile, A Company had been trying to secure the remainder of its objective and at 8.20 a.m. was able to report that 7 Platoon was 100 yards from Route 16, from which it was separated by two enemy-held houses; patrols had been sent out to deal with the houses, and enemy on the west bank of the river were being engaged by the company's SP gun and mortars. The tanks with A Company reported that there was an enemy SP gun in the vicinity.
A little earlier in the morning Captain B. W. Thomas (D Company) sent to Battalion Headquarters a message he had received from Major Webster:
‘A Coy approx 200 yds short of river with open ground between them and the river—ground covered by enemy Spandau fire. This morning a Spandau opened up from a house on their left front. This was shot up by tanks and a section went in. The Spandau opened up again and was once more fired on by the tanks after which the section took the house. Further fire was then encountered from the next house about 100 yds away. Enemy in strength across river are being engaged by mortars and SP guns. Major Webster asks for arty on the far bank. He is trying to contact C Coy.’
To deal with snipers on C Company's front 17 Platoon (Lieutenant Easthope 22) at first light left D Company and moved down to the vicinity of Casa Raggi, 400 yards east of the left flank of C Company's objective; the platoon then turned to the north and, moving in single file and more or less parallel to the Fontanaccia for about 800 yards, reached C Company's left platoon; from there it turned to the left towards the river and for 600 yards followed a ditch downstream. At that point, 200 yards north of the boundary between A and C Companies, 17 Platoon was fired on by a Spandau ‘at six yards range’, suffering two casualties and withdrawing thirty yards upstream. Leaving Sergeant Harrison 23 in com- page 494 mand, Easthope went back to C Company's platoon in rear to report the position to D Company, which sent 16 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant N. A. Rees) up to him. With the aid of one of C Company's tanks 16 Platoon advanced to mop up a supposed enemy outpost, but the tank was soon knocked out and set on fire by a bazooka and the platoon then joined 17 Platoon in the ditch. An attempt to outflank the enemy post from the east was met by overwhelming fire from six Spandaus and the two platoons, fortunate to escape disaster, withdrew to D Company, the total casualties being one missing believed killed, one wounded and missing, and several wounded. By 1.15 p.m. the platoons were back with their company, 17 Platoon having been away for about seven hours.page 495
In their forward positions the tanks with A and C Companies were very vulnerable in daylight to fire from enemy SP guns and tanks, which made full use of the excellent cover from view provided by the foliage of the vineyards. C Company's tank had been lost about nine in the morning, and an hour later Major Handyside was severely wounded when his Honey tank was also hit by a bazooka. Early in the afternoon two tanks of A Company were lost, one by a direct hit from an SP gun and the other ditched when trying to avoid a similar fate, resulting in the company asking for an M10 to be brought up.
During the morning (24 September) it was decided that in the evening 6 Brigade would launch an attack, supported by a barrage, with 24 Battalion Group on the right and 25 Battalion Group on the left; the brigade objective was a lateral road which crossed Route 16 at Bordonchio, 2600 yards north-west of the Fontanaccia, the boundary between the two battalions being Route 16, for which 24 Battalion was responsible. Twenty-fifth Battalion's objective ran from Route 16 south-west along the lateral road to Palazzo Spina, a frontage of a thousand yards. The barrage was to open at 7.40 p.m. on the road held by A and C Companies, which with their tanks were required at 7 p.m. to withdraw clear of it to a start line selected by the battalion. The barrage would advance at the rate of 100 yards in five minutes.
In addition to the New Zealand artillery, two Canadian field regiments and a British medium regiment would support the attack and Canadian artillery would fire on counter-battery tasks, air observation being provided. Sixth Brigade Group also had, under command, 41 AA Battery and B Sub-battery of 39 Heavy Mortar Battery. Bofors of 14 Light AA Regiment were to mark the flanks and centre line of attack by firing tracer in bursts of three rounds every two minutes from 8 p.m. to the end of the barrage or limit of range.
To guard the exposed left flank Headquarters 20 Armoured Regiment and B Squadron (the reserve squadron of 6 Brigade, A and C Squadrons being with 25 and 24 Battalions respectively) and one company of 26 Battalion were to move across and be responsible for the protection of that flank under arrangements to be made with 25 Battalion. Using its own resources, which it will be recalled included 3 Platoon of 8 Field Company, NZE, 25 Battalion Group was to prepare a track for tanks west of Route 16 while 24 Battalion Group would do likewise on the eastern side.page 496
On the right of 24 Battalion, 22 (Motor) Battalion was attacking on a one-company front along the narrow coastal strip. West of the Fontanaccia, but about 1300 yards to the south-west of C Company, Canadian troops were advancing, and if they made good progress would, of course, secure 25 Battalion's left flank; the Canadians had been observed in that area during the morning of the 24th, and about the same time a force of infantry with tanks in strength, believed to be Canadian, was reported only 500 yards south-west of C Company.
The Germans on the New Zealand front were old antagonists —I Parachute Division of Cassino fame. At noon a prisoner from one of its units was brought in to 25 Battalion headquarters. Extracts from that division's report of 24 September on the fighting of 23 – 24 September included references to 25 Battalion's attack:
‘Morning Report: During the night the enemy infantry and tanks attacked again and again both on our left [east of Route 16] and west of the Via Adriatic [Route 16]. A penetration in the centre was sealed off. 8 en tanks destroyed by close-range weapons during the night. Heavy HF [harassing fire] on rear areas.
‘Interim Report: The penetration at Castellabate [by 24 Bn] was eliminated by 1 Para Regt's local reserves and the situation restored. During the morning the enemy continued his attacks on either side of the Via Adriatic, but was driven off.
‘Evening Report: The enemy attacked with great stubbornness throughout the afternoon. His thrusts were mainly in Battalion strength, supported by 6 – 12 tanks. All attacks were beaten back with heavy loss to both sides. 13 enemy tanks destroyed. During the last 36 hours the division has beaten off 27 attacks in battalion strength. It is still holding a continuous line. [Note: New Zealand tank losses during the morning and afternoon were five, including one Honey tank, but the number 13 could also include Canadian losses.]’
Throughout the afternoon enemy guns and mortars, as well as snipers and Spandaus, mainly from positions west of the Fontanaccia, continued to harass the battalion and were vigorously replied to by all weapons. The field artillery was called upon for defensive fire on numerous targets: on an area 450 yards in width 200 yards across the river west of A Company; on an enemy SP gun at the junction of the lateral road with Route 16, close to A Company's right flank; on nebelwerfer page 497 positions 1500 yards and 2600 yards west of the boundary between A and C Companies, the farther one in a bend of the Uso River; on SP guns at Palazzo Spina on the left of 25 Battalion's objective for that night, and also near a road junction 900 yards north of A Company's right flank; and on machine guns and infantry close to a road junction about 650 yards west of the river opposite A Company. It was a considerable list of observed enemy positions and weapons; no doubt there were many which were not observed, and much of the defence observed was mobile; and it emphasised the potential threat to 25 Battalion's left flank when it advanced later in the day.
The battalion's casualties on the Fontanaccia front, reported on 23 – 24 September, were eight other ranks killed, four died of wounds, four officers and nineteen other ranks wounded, and two wounded and prisoners of war. The wounded officers were Major Handyside, Lieutenant Grumitt, Second-Lieutenants Dey 24 and Hansen. 25 This was the third time that Major Handyside had been wounded. In the attacks on Monte Lignano in July and before Florence at the beginning of August he had shown great skill, determination, and courageous leadership. During this last attack, when the vanguard was checked on the Scolo Brancona, Major Handyside carried out a personal reconnaissance which greatly assisted subsequent operations and handled his company with skill and judgment. For these services he was subsequently awarded the Distinguished Service Order.
After a reconnaissance by the IO (Lieutenant R. S. Liddell) in the late afternoon of the 24th, Colonel Norman at 7.15 p.m. moved his Tactical Headquarters forward to the vicinity of the area occupied by C Company the previous morning near the road crossing of the Brancona, and twenty-five minutes later the barrage opened. The leading companies of 25 Battalion then moved up to their start line, D Company on the right with Route 16 as its right boundary, A Company in the centre, and B Company on the left; C Company was in reserve.
The first report on the progress of the attack came from A Company at 8.39 p.m. reporting all well; nine minutes later a second message reported one signaller lost and two wounded, page 498 and a third six minutes afterwards that the company was still advancing; it was still going well at 9 p.m. One of the wounded, Corporal McManaway, 26 carried on all night.
It was very disturbing that no information came from D and B Companies, but just before 9 p.m. the escort to a prisoner said that both companies were across the Fontanaccia and were meeting some opposition from machine guns.
At 9.15 p.m. A Company reported that it was across the lateral road 700 yards beyond the river, near a house called Portico where that afternoon SP guns had been reported. There were still no reports from D and B Companies, nor was A Company in touch with either, though ten minutes later another message from A Company brought the very welcome news that B Company was moving forward on the left flank; B Company headquarters, including Major Finlay, actually moved in front of A Company's advancing platoons and ‘was shot up; Coy SM Anderson 27 lost a finger’.
Both with its frequent reports and its progress, A Company continued to be a model of perfection and at five minutes past ten was within 400 yards of its objective. There was little opposition on its part of the front, but on its left B Company, with which it was in touch, had only fifteen men left to continue the advance. The first news from D Company reached Colonel Norman a few minutes later when the escorts to two prisoners brought in from that company reported that their company had by-passed enemy machine guns, some of which were still firing in its rear. These were probably the guns which B Company 24 Battalion had reported were firing at it from 25 Battalion's sector as it moved up Route 16, mopping-up behind its left front company. About 10.30 p.m. A Company reported the rather startling experience of having an enemy tank passing across its rear, an occurrence not, however, peculiar to A Company as D Company and two companies of 24 Battalion had somewhat similar experiences.
Though there was no report from D Company until 11 p.m., it had in fact made a very rapid and successful advance, reaching its objective at 10.20 p.m. when A Company was still about 300 yards away. D Company placed two of its platoons in two houses north of the lateral road at Bordonchio and one platoon page 499 south of the road. At 11 p.m. A Company arrived on the objective midway between Bordonchio and Palazzo Spina, but it was over an hour later when Battalion Headquarters was able to get in touch with B Company by W/T and learn that it was not able to reach its objective because of enemy opposition. During the attack when part of B Company crossed A Company's front, 3 Section of 7 Platoon became detached from the rest of A Company, to be launched on a night of high adventure, as related by the section commander, Corporal J. Wootton:
‘3 Section consisted of Caldwell, 28 Edlin, 29 Fraser, Murray, Bromley, Wootton. We kept on advancing and around about midnight captured a German Private who was strolling up one side of the hedge of grape vines. Continuing we approached a two-storey house just back from a cross-road. After investigating, and it was found to be empty, pickets were immediately posted, and this had only been concluded when footsteps were heard running across the cobble yard. Up to the door rushed a German who immediately had a Tommy gun thrust in his stomach and invited inside.
‘Very shortly after, this form of German approach was repeated, and by about 4 o'clock in the morning 3 Section had 17 prisoners and when first light arrived it was certainly very welcome, as we felt a little outnumbered. Included in this bag was a German doctor, whose medical kit was handed to 7 Platoon's RAP man, D. Rudman. 30
‘At first light Corporal Wootton and Pte Edlin set out to ascertain exactly what our position was, and fortunately this reconnaissance brought us into contact with Captain Taylor 31 who had the carriers. The position was explained to him and the transfer of the Germans was made about 7 a.m. in the morning.
‘The whole episode was created by the fact that the house we occupied was a German Company's Headquarters.’
B Company headquarters had the misfortune to be out of contact with all its platoons, and on its arrival at A Company's headquarters a couple of hours after midnight, Major Finlay page 500 asked Major Webster for assistance in capturing a house on B Company's objective; Webster detailed 8 Platoon for the task, and with two tanks in support the platoon moved to the south-west along the lateral road, shot up the Palazzo Spina on the extreme left, and captured it without loss.
After the barrage for the attack had ended at 10.35 p.m., some of the batteries had been instructed to continue firing at a very slow rate to assist neighbouring troops; other batteries, as requested about 11 p.m. by Colonel Norman, began harassing fire on enemy positions, including the nebelwerfers observed in the afternoon west of 25 Battalion towards the Uso River. About midnight Norman also arranged for the 105s of 24 SP Battery with his battalion to begin counter-battery fire. Shortly after midnight the supporting artillery ceased fire on the final line of the barrage.
During the attack the supporting arms of the Battalion Group had some difficulty in getting forward; a few minutes before 10 p.m. they were passing 25 Battalion Tactical Headquarters at the Brancona and about forty minutes afterwards A Company had reported ‘our tanks are moving up’. A few minutes after that the tanks reported they were held up, and it was 11 p.m. before they reached the crossing over the Fontanaccia west of the junction of the positions held by A and C Companies that afternoon. Although the tanks reported the crossing a good one, none had crossed within the next half-hour, a bulldozer being asked for. The crossing was then negotiated with little difficulty, and with the help of a bridge-layer tank the next watercourse—the Rio Pircio, 1900 yards farther on and 900 yards from the objective—was crossed. An engineer reconnaissance party in a Honey tank, which had been exploring a route for the tanks, had reached the companies on the objective by 1.45 a.m., the first tanks arriving fifteen minutes later. Two tanks of 1 Troop 20 Regiment joined A Company, two of 3 Troop went to the aid of B Company, and one tank of 4 Troop joined D Company, these being all the tanks which had completed the advance.
It had been a very successful attack for 25 Battalion Group though there had been some tense and exciting episodes. Corporal Reynolds, 32 commanding 7 Section of 18 Platoon of D Company, on the right near Route 16, gives an interesting account of the action:page 501
‘From the commencement of the barrage the enemy small-arms fired constantly on fixed-line crossfire. Our first encounter with the enemy was at the river Fontanaccia, where they were dug in in large numbers. Clearing these positions both sides had casualties, the section killing a large number of Germans. Our strength now was down to 5 men. We then advanced around a house immediately in front from where we struck further opposition from dug in positions and three Tiger tanks which were sheltering behind the house. Our Piat being with Platoon HQ we could only stand and watch the tanks pull out and go down Route 16 towards Bordonchio. The section continued mopping up round the house and later rejoined the platoon, to continue the attack. The Paratroopers as usual proved tough opposition. Before reaching Bordonchio we ran into numerous pockets of opposition dug in on the open ground. On questioning prisoners next morning we discovered that the enemy was in the middle of a change over when the attack started, hence the large numbers…. at first light we had a heavy mortar stonk laid down on our positions at the crossroads but did not receive any casualties….’
A few incidents between the end of the attack and first light caused Corporal Reynolds to conclude that the enemy was taken completely by surprise:
‘…a German ration truck came to the crossroads and after disposing of the driver we found it contained hot boxes of steaming rabbit and poultry along with a ration of black bread; needless to say the section did not eat bully beef for breakfast, thanks to Jerry. A doctor and his orderly came from the same direction a few minutes later and one of the platoon … captured the doctor and we were supplied with medical attention on the spot, together with means of transport for our heavier items of platoon equipment. At first light an elderly soldier with horse and buggy drove down the road with mail for the troops … and two of our prisoners had mail from home within hours of being captured.’
Truly an orgy of highway robbery with considerable profit to Reynolds and his men and some chivalry displayed by captors and captured. The above account gives some indication —though a very modest one, as the following citation will show—of the excellent work of Reynolds and his section. He was awarded the Military Medal, his citation stating, inter alia:
‘He led his section with great dash up to the river line, disposing of all opposition on the way. He then led his section page 502 around a house immediately in front and found his way obstructed by a group of twenty or more Germans. Immediately Reynolds charged in, killing eight, wounding several others, and sending back two prisoners. The section continued to advance and was scattered by a Tiger tank crashing through to the road. Reynolds was very nearly run down but collected his section and led them back to regain contact with the platoon. Shortly after, an enemy machine-gunner opened up on the section on his left. Cpl Reynolds, once again showing great courage and resource, dashed through at the risk of his own life and silenced the machine-gunner….’
Corporal N. Morgan, platoon sergeant of 16 Platoon, was able to give a little more information regarding the operations of D Company. He said that after leaving the start line his platoon advanced a few hundred yards before it came upon the enemy positions—quite strongly dug-in positions in a ditch behind a house and supported by infantry and tanks. No. 18 Platoon went to the right of the house and 16 Platoon, with 17 Platoon on its left, moved to the left, through a hedge and across a track. Two enemy MG posts were knocked out and, as their tanks moved off, the paratroopers surrendered. The company had been ordered to move on quickly after breaking through the paratroops' position. While continuing the advance ‘we found ourselves amongst enemy tanks who were retreating through the fields towards roadways, and along roadways to rear positions’.
On the way to its objective, ‘a house across a parallel road ¼ mile to the left of Bordonchio’, the platoon came across an MG post (on the edge of a wheat field) which was firing on a small party of men moving along the road. Morgan took his section forward and disposed of the enemy post. While digging in around the house, the men could hear the enemy guns, less than half a mile ahead, pulling out under fire from our artillery. Morgan received the Military Medal for his services in this action. The citation says that he ‘jumped into the ditch [where opposition was first encountered] and by firing at the Spandau nests in his immediate vicinity and rolling grenades into dugouts, so disorganised the defence that the platoon reached and cleaned up the position without loss to itself. Shortly afterwards, as the platoon was continuing its advance, word came back of a Mk IV tank on the right front. Cpl Morgan investigated and found a Tiger tank on the left front as well. The Tiger swung towards the Mk IV and then moved into the page 503 Platoon. Cpl Morgan attacked the Tiger with smoke grenades. The tank, which had been firing with its machine guns, made off, sparks trailing from its rear. This tank was later found abandoned. Due to his action the Platoon was able to continue its advance….’
The task of succouring the wounded is an urgent and difficult one. The Medical Officer must necessarily stay at his RAP since, if he went forward, he could rarely, in the circumstances, do more than the stretcher-bearers, while there would be the risk of losing his services through his becoming a casualty; also, in his absence from the RAP many wounded might have been brought there. The site of the RAP is chosen with care. It should be on the best route from the front, as centrally situated as possible, and readily accessible to ambulances or other vehicles for evacuating the wounded. It should, where possible, offer security from enemy fire and from the weather. For reasons of the general morale of the unit as well as of humanity, it is imperative that the wounded be promptly and efficiently attended to, and in this connection 25 Battalion was well served both by its medical officers and by other ranks who tended the wounded. In this attack the driver of the RAP jeep (Private S. J. Copeland 33) received a Military Medal for his services, a very well-earned distinction, as his citation shows:
‘During the advance Private Copeland made many trips throughout the night to exposed positions over the Battalion area, under heavy artillery, mortar, and machine-gun fire, collecting and bringing back wounded to the RAP. Throughout the following two days after the Battalion had consolidated and was suffering casualties, Pte Copeland continually went forward to the Coys under heavy artillery and mortar fire to bring back the wounded from the forward areas….’
On the right of 25 Battalion the attack was almost equally successful. By daybreak 24 Battalion had consolidated its position about 200 yards short of its objective and was awaiting the arrival of its tanks before advancing further. On the narrow strip between 24 Battalion and the coast, however, 22 (Motor) Battalion had made little progress, though soon after midday it had come forward in line with 24 Battalion, which in the meantime had advanced to its objective.
On the left, D Company 26 Battalion and its accompanying armour—which were responsible for the protection of the left page 504 flank—had by 3 a.m. occupied three positions, each with a platoon of infantry and a troop of tanks, at Casa Nadiani 700 yards south-south-east of the left of 25 Battalion's objective, at Casa Bianchini 500 yards farther to the south, and at a reserve position east of the latter between Portico and Route 16. About dawn enemy infantry and tanks in the vicinity launched an attack and were repulsed; about the same time two sections of 25 Battalion carriers coming down a track from the front toward these flank positions were fired on without effect by an enemy bazooka, but another carrier following the sections was hit at a range of about ten yards, the driver being badly shaken but otherwise unhurt. The carriers pointed out one house as the probable position of the bazooka and one of the tanks fired three rounds of AP shot into it, but, as an infantry section later discovered, the house was empty, the bazooka having been fired from a trench at the side of the road.
Farther to the south Canadian troops, west of the positions A and C Companies had occupied prior to the attack, were moving in a westerly direction towards the Uso River, against spirited opposition.
C Company (Captain Taylor), 25 Battalion's reserve, had not been called upon to move forward, but shortly after midnight, on the tanks reporting a threat to the left flank during the attack, the company was ordered to stand-to; no further action was required.
The battalion's casualties on the night 24 – 25 September were four other ranks killed, one died of wounds, one officer (Lieutenant R. Easthope) and forty-eight other ranks wounded, and one prisoner of war. The battalion had taken forty-eight prisoners, forty of them parachutists.
As related by Corporal Reynolds, D Company had some interesting and rather profitable incidents after arriving on the objective, and Captain Thomas, reporting to Battalion Headquarters shortly after midnight, mentions others:
‘Since arrival have shot up two trucks, one petrol, one full of mines. In all, killed or wounded about forty enemy, prisoners two. Two Tiger or Panther tanks are milling about on our line of advance. One has driven off north of Bordonchio.’
During the morning of the 25th there was only light shelling of the battalion's positions. A good deal of enemy movement was observed, however. B Company about dawn called for defensive fire—stonk ‘Lock’—400 yards west of Palazzo Spina, and two hours later enemy tanks were seen a mile farther south; page 505 half an hour later a large concentration of tanks was seen 600 yards north of D Company. The tanks were dealt with by ‘stonks’.
That morning one of the supporting anti-tank guns behind the battalion's forward positions had the unpleasant and maddening experience of being bombed by a Spitfire, fortunately escaping casualties though vehicles were damaged; perhaps the men's feelings were somewhat soothed by their realisation that the pilot's keen spotting and accurate aim were normally employed against the Germans. A later explanation rather upset this view: ‘Apparently two planes had “hang-ups” (bombs which did not release over the target but fell off on the way back)’.
An hour before noon the SP 105s with the battalion were having fine practice chasing with their fire enemy troops who were in houses on the road running north-west from Palazzo Spina. Driven from house to house, the enemy displayed a white flag from one of the houses and B Company sent out a patrol to investigate; half an hour later the patrol engaged enemy infantry and returned with five prisoners. In the afternoon the battalion's position was again shelled spasmodically but, with the exception of a little mopping-up by D Company, assisted by a platoon from C Company, and bridge-repairing by the engineers, there was little activity.
Information from civilian refugees and the sound of demolitions ahead indicated an imminent enemy withdrawal beyond the Uso River, and after a visit in mid-afternoon to D Company's positions, Colonel Norman at 5.30 p.m. instructed D Company to endeavour to move up Route 16; this was to conform with the left flank of 24 Battalion, which at 1 p.m. had sent patrols forward, preparatory to advancing its front, if that proved feasible. However, on hearing that these patrols had not been able to advance beyond 300 yards, Colonel Norman advised Captain Thomas to proceed with caution. Heavy rain had fallen, and as Thomas thought this might prevent the movement of his supporting tanks, he decided he would not move D Company forward till first light next morning, 26 September.
On the evening of the 25th, according to German documents, the advances of the New Zealanders and the Canadians had caused the German commanders much anxiety and had absorbed all the troops allotted to the first line of defence. The German policy at the time was to have about two-fifths of the strength page 506 in the FDLs and three-fifths in the second line, which was up to 2000 yards back; the troops in the second line were not regarded as reserves as they were in the rear portion of the main defensive zone. The Parachute Divison's casualties on the 24th were stated to be 16 killed, 41 wounded, and 67 missing, and on the 25th 19 killed, 42 wounded, and 89 missing. On that day (25th) 25 Battalion had one man (Private Sattler34 captured, and in a conversation with Field-Marshal Kesselring, Colonel-General von Vietinghoff said: ‘To-day we took a prisoner-of-war from 6 NZ Div. We don't know whether he was under command of 2 NZ Div, or whether 6 NZ Div has come over from Egypt’. Obviously Sattler had not only avoided giving worthwhile information to the enemy but had also succeeded in misleading him in a way which may have had an important effect on the course of the battle. There was, of course, no ‘6 NZ Div’ in Italy, though from mid-1942 the title was given to the troops in Maadi Camp with the object of misleading the enemy regarding New Zealand formations in the Middle East.
Pushing forward patrols at first light on the 26th as planned, D Company found that the country as far as the Uso was clear of the enemy and Captain Thomas ordered the company forward. At 6.22 a.m. this was reported to the CO, who instructed A Company to get in touch with D and go forward with it. The battalion's right boundary was the road running north-west from Bordonchio to the river, 2000 yards away, and the left boundary a parallel road from Palazzo Spina. After discussing the position with Brigadier Parkinson, who had arrived at Battalion Headquarters about that time, Colonel Norman went up to his forward companies and found that D Company had already reached the Uso at the river bend on the battalion's right boundary.
The other companies were immediately ordered to advance to the river, C Company from its reserve position being instructed to fan out, after crossing the Rio Pircio on Route 16, and watch the left flank. New positions were selected for the supporting arms, defensive fire tasks were lifted beyond the Uso, and Battalion Tactical Headquarters advanced about 2000 yards, alongside Route 16 near Castellabate. About forty minutes after the new headquarters was occupied a wounded German page 507 was found under a haystack there; this started an immediate ‘witch hunt’, a party being detailed to search the area, but without result.
D Company soon had a patrol across the Uso, reporting at 11.15 a.m. that it had found one crossing passable, two feet deep and twenty-four feet wide; up to 300 yards beyond the river the patrol saw no sign of the enemy. An engineer officer was immediately sent forward to examine the crossing. As on the previous day, D Company had shown commendable thrust and Captain Thomas quick and sound decision, and on this occasion he was able to maintain communication by W/T with Battalion Headquarters. He was instructed to consolidate and await the supporting arms. On the other hand A Company was slow to move, informing Battalion Headquarters, five hours after it had received the order, that it was advancing at 12.30 p.m., a delay which left D Company exposed. It seems that owing to three signallers of A Company headquarters having been wounded in the previous night's attack, the order went astray, a serious lapse which it is strange Battalion Headquarters did not notice. Colonel Norman ordered A Company immediately to move forward to support D Company but it was not until 2.20 p.m. that the company reported itself on the Uso.
Shortly after midday D Company reported that there was a good crossing where the road on the right flank reached the river but it required bulldozing; a machine gun 300 yards south-west of the crossing was also reported and an immediate ‘stonk’ asked for. Half an hour later a further message reached Battalion Headquarters from D Company, this time a tragic one saying that the company commander, Captain Thomas, had been killed by a sniper while reconnoitring the tank crossing with the engineer officer. It was a severe blow to the company —and also to the battalion—to lose a commander who had shown such excellent judgment and dash and had achieved such striking success in the operation. Lieutenant Bruce Andrews35 immediately took over command until the arrival that evening of the company second-in-command, Captain K. J. S. Bourke. In the afternoon 18 Platoon made another sortie over the Uso River; this was met with Spandau fire, and with two men wounded—one critically—the platoon withdrew to its original position a little to the east of the right bank.page 508
In this important reconnaissance of the Uso crossings Private Schultz36 did some fine work. Going forward as a scout, on his own initiative, he found a covered route for his platoon to the river bank and then again went forward, reconnoitred a crossing, and crossed the river. On Monte Lignano in July Schultz had displayed similar skill and daring in reconnaissance, and although suffering severely from the effects of blast he continually assisted in the evacuation of the wounded under heavy shell and mortar fire. These services earned him a well-deserved Military Medal.
In the meantime other units were directed to get on to the Uso River line as soon as possible, the Divisional Cavalry being ordered to cross and advance northwards down the western bank. On the left of 25 Battalion, where the left flank-guard was in position, 26 Battalion was to move through its D Company and the supporting armour, cross the river, and advance to the next objective, the Fiumicino River, about 3500 yards to the north-west.
On the other flank a company of 24 Battalion shortly after 11 a.m. had reached the Uso, and early in the afternoon that battalion was firmly established there.
Charged with the duty of watching the left flank, C Company during the afternoon reported that its headquarters and two platoons were in the large Palazzo Spina on the left of the previous objective and the third platoon was on its outskirts. The very weak B Company was with C Company. Throughout the afternoon the battalion's positions received a good deal of attention from enemy artillery and mortars, and snipers were also troublesome. Harassing tasks were fired in retaliation by the supporting artillery, and the medium machine guns also engaged enemy positions and communications.
With two troops operating in 25 Battalion's territory, the Divisional Cavalry had reported that the Uso on A Company's front was impassable for vehicles, and Colonel Norman discussed the question of bridging the river with engineer and tank officers, including the commander of a Churchill Ark bridging tank. An hour later when the Brigadier arrived the possibility of crossing the Uso that night was considered, 6 Brigade having received orders to establish a firm bridgehead over the river in readiness for an advance to the Fiumicino River at first light next morning (27 September).page 509
The CO at once gave a verbal warning to all concerned that the battalion some time after last light that night would attack across the Uso. On the right of 25 Battalion 3 Greek Mountain Brigade was to replace 24 Battalion, which would go into reserve at Bordonchio; on the left, 26 Battalion, which already had orders to advance to the Fiumicino, had platoons across the Uso and would move on to the Fosso Vena, a ditch about 1000 yards beyond the river. Twenty-fifth Battalion's casualties on 26 September were one officer killed and one officer (Lieutenant Sidford37) and nine other ranks wounded.
2 Rev. H. E. Rowe, ED; Linton Military Camp; born Reefton, 12 Jun 1914; Anglican minister.
10 2 Lt J. D. Burland; born NZ 13 Oct 1921; survey chainman; killed in action 23 Sep 1944.