CHAPTER 17 — The Senio
The last few days of October were spent in settling in to the camp and improving the accommodation by covering the open windows, constructing beds, and installing heating; the muddy tracks and roads were gradually improved though bad weather during the first few days had turned the whole area into a quagmire; and with a very pleasant countryside, friendly and hospitable people, and the improvements in the buildings—unfinished barracks intended for Allied prisoners of war—the battalion was soon comfortable. Castelraimondo is situated in a narrow valley in the eastern foothills of the Apennines, and though it was refreshing to be in a countryside peaceful and untouched by war, the weather was unkind, bleak and cold, with a good deal of heavy rain, dull weather, and wintry winds. It was, of course, late in the year, the first snow falling on 10 November. There was little of interest in the immediate neighbourhood and, especially after dark, the state of the roads and tracks discouraged movement on foot. Leave to Rome, Florence (where a new New Zealand club was available), and to the 6 Brigade rest camp at Perugia was available, though the allotment was not sufficient to satisfy all demands; a pleasant feature of the camp at Perugia, which was in a disused wing of the university, was the employment of civilian labour to free the men of all menial tasks.
The battalion had come out of the Savio position 8 officers and 134 other ranks under establishment, very much the same as at the end of September; the number evacuated sick, still rather high in comparison with the other two battalions of the brigade though showing an improvement, was 1 officer and 110 other ranks; and its share of the reinforcement of 13 officers and 503 men, which reached the brigade in October, was barely sufficient to replace its losses. The health of the unit was normal except for a marked increase in skin infections (especially boils), while the wet and cold weather was causing trouble to those with any history of rheumatic and similar complaints.
Training, which included two route marches and two night exercises of two hours' duration each week, was otherwise con- page 535 fined to the mornings, the afternoons being devoted to sports which covered a wide field—boxing (including tuition), tenni-quoits, basketball, soccer, and rugby—the last named terminating in a divisional competition of keen interest. A ‘Real Live Donkey Derby’ was held at San Severino, a few miles away, by D Squadron of the Divisional Cavalry, 25 Battalion on invitation attending in force and helping considerably to swell the 100-lire ‘tote’; 6 Brigade Band enlivened the occasion, as also did a wet canteen (no glasses provided), and the outing was most enjoyable.
But the grim business of war was not forgotten. Apart from the subjects already referred to, the main features in the training were a seven-days' course in mines and booby traps (for eight men per company); a battalion NCOs' course; a lecture for officers on the interrogation of prisoners of war; instruction for the Intelligence Section in the German Army, current affairs, interpretation of air photographs, the Slidex, compass, map-reading, road reconnaissance and reports; range zeroing and practices for all weapons (Bren, Tommy gun, Piat, rifle); use of flame-throwers; field works, demolitions, and tactical exercises; and instruction for mortar, signal, carrier, and anti-tank platoons in their various equipments.
On 19 November at a conference of commanding officers, Brigadier Parkinson said that in the European theatre there was a possibility of the enemy being defeated before the spring; in Italy, to prevent the withdrawal of troops for service elsewhere, it was the intention to exert the utmost pressure against the enemy.
After a warning order and a postponement of six days the battalion at 1 a.m. on 25 November left for a divisional concentration area near Cesena. Arriving there at 9 a.m. after a fast journey, the battalion was directed to Forli, 12 miles to the north-west, where at the eastern side of the city the troops occupied houses and flats, mostly in good condition and fairly comfortable. The city's peacetime population was 65,000 and its chief industries the manufacture of silk and ironwork; it housed large numbers of Allied troops.
The weather was cold, the winds from the Alps (130 miles to the north) being particularly frigid, and the discovery of a large stove factory with considerable stocks seemed especially fortunate; in many of the billets to the great comfort of the troops, stoves soon made their appearance, some with their page 536 stove-pipes at strange angles which apparently did not affect their efficiency; the battalion records do not disclose the source of the fuel.
That morning 2 NZ Division had come under command of 5 Corps and on the afternoon of the following day (26 November) was to relieve 4 British Division on the Lamone River, just to the east of Faenza, a town on Route 9 eight miles north-west of Forli. Fifth Brigade was to hold the right sector and 6 Brigade the left (on a one-battalion front) with 46 British Division on its left. Twenty-sixth Battalion took over 6 Brigade's front of 800 yards between the Rimini-Bologna railway and Route 9, the other three battalions of the Brigade—24, 25, and Divisional Cavalry Battalions—remaining in Forli in reserve; the RMT vehicles which had brought the troops forward from the rest area remained under command.
Heavy rain for the next two days made conditions miserable, even in the town. The discovery of cinemas, ENSA shows, and three canteens, however, did much to counter-balance the bad weather, though all were so popular that queues were necessary. On the 28th improved weather pleased the troops but also suited the enemy aircraft, which at 5 p.m. raided the town, dropping three bombs which caused no casualties. On the 27th training had been resumed with the ubiquitous route march separately by companies. During the month changes continued as usual; on the 11th Major Kedgley1 took command of B Company and on the 17th Captain J. W. T. Collins, on evacuation to hospital, was relieved in command of HQ Company by Captain M. H. A. Clay; Major C. S. Wroth, a former company commander in the battalion, vacated the appointment of Brigade Major at Brigade Headquarters to command D Company.
There had also been changes in the infantry brigades of the Division, which had temporarily been increased to four battalions, 6 Brigade securing the Divisional Cavalry Battalion (already referred to above); this was caused chiefly by the nature of the country requiring the employment of more infantry and limiting the scope of armoured and reconnaissance vehicles. The war establishment of the battalion had also been altered from 642 to 737 other ranks, the number of officers remaining at thirty-two; by the end of the month the increase page 537 had almost been effected. Another change was the transfer of the battalion's medical officer, Captain V. T. Pearse, to Divisional Headquarters and his replacement by Lieutenant Nathan.2 Captain Pearse had served the battalion with distinction for nearly two years, taking part in all its campaigns, and was awarded the Military Cross, the citation (in part) reading:
‘…in such actions as Takrouna May 1943, the crossing of the Sangro Nov 1943, the Battle of Cassino March 1944, he won the respect of all he came in contact with for his skill as RMO and devotion to duty under dangerous and trying conditions.
‘In Sept 1944, during the advance north from Rimini, Capt Pearse maintained a small RAP with the fwd troops while the action was still mobile. When a set piece attack became necessary on the night 24/25 Sept 1944, he established his RAP on the inf start line and in spite of intense enemy shelling, with total disregard for his own safety, attended to the wounded immediately.
‘On Sept 26th, 1944, when the Bn crossed the Uso River, he again moved his RAP fwd to the troops in spite of heavy hostile shelling.
‘During subsequent actions when the Bn moved up to the Rubicone and later crossed the Pisciatello River on the night 18/19 Oct 1944, Capt Pearse always moved his RAP as far fwd as the state of the roads would allow.
‘His cheerful disposition, total disregard of his own danger, and knowledge of human nature has always been an inspiration to all in contact with him, and his skill as a Medical Officer has done much to lessen the extent of casualties suffered by his unit.’
Only one casualty—Lance-Corporal Dalzell, died of wounds, on the 30th—was reported in November. The sick rate for the month was still above the average, 1 officer and 111 other ranks having been evacuated in a brigade total (for four battalions) of 11 officers and 307 other ranks. Reinforcements reaching 6 Brigade in November were considerable—38 officers and 926 other ranks—creating quite a problem in assimilation and training for the units.
During the first two weeks of December the battalions in reserve were able to concentrate on training, in which in view of the nature of the country special attention was paid to river-crossing. This was practised on a branch of the Lamone River, the Montone, near Brigade Headquarters about four miles from page 538 the front, using assault boats, kapok bridges, and Mae West life-jackets; demonstrations of bridge-launching by tanks and of Weasels and Wasp flame-throwers were also given, and on the 5th Colonel Norman discussed the new weapons and establishments introduced since the last operations, such as the two-pounder Squeeze gun, the Wasp and Lifebuoy flame-throwers, and the four-battalion brigade. He also explained a proposal to form a special task-force of 6 Brigade to exploit through a bridgehead at Faenza and force a crossing of the Senio River three miles beyond; this operation was to take place after the high ground south-west of Route 9 had been captured by 46 Division, which on 3 – 4 December had forced a crossing over the Lamone south-west of Faenza. The task force, to be commanded by Brigadier Parkinson and named ‘Parkinson Force’, was to consist of 6 Brigade, 20 Armoured Regiment (with a troop of Crocodile flame-throwers from 51 Royal Tanks), 1 RHA, 33 Anti-Tank Battery, half 34 Mortar Battery, 8 Field Company, bridging detachments and equipment, 3 MG Company, a Field Ambulance company, Provost detachment, and a couple of miscellaneous detachments. A somewhat similar group was formed by 5 Brigade and a powerful artillery group organised under the CRA, Brigadier Queree.3 In the event Parkinson Force was not required.
Twenty-fifth Battalion and the other two reserve battalions were to be ready to advance through Faenza on the south side of Route 9 and thence to the Senio, possibly on 9 December but dependent upon the success of flanking formations. These tentative plans necessitated numerous discussions and a conference of the company commanders and the commanders of the supporting arms; as the battalion diarist put it, ‘if nothing could be finalised until the situation clarified, it was of value however, in that it enabled the reps of the various arms to meet and discuss problems over the odd glass of excellent Vermouth donated by a one-time Fascist merchant of Forli’.
The enemy in Faenza was resisting strongly and there seemed little prospect of an early advance through the town. The bridgehead over the Lamone secured by 46 Division had been page 539 held against heavy counter-attacks and that division had been relieved by 10 Indian and 2 NZ Divisions (less 6 Brigade), 5 Brigade having moved from its position on the right of the Division's front to relieve a British brigade in the bridgehead. Sixth Brigade, which had held the sector from Route 9 for 2500 yards to the north-east, was side-stepped to the south-west with its right on Route 9 and its left adjoining 5 Brigade's sector, the Division thus straddling the Lamone River south-west of Faenza. At this date (10 December) 6 Brigade front was held by the Divisional Cavalry Battalion on the right and 24 Battalion on the left, 25 and 26 Battalions being in reserve in Forli.
On the evening of the 12th Colonel Norman gave details of future operations. On the night of the 14th 5 Brigade was to advance on Celle, a small village two miles west of Faenza, while at the same time 10 Indian Division and Polish troops farther to the left were also to attack; 6 Brigade was to be ready to pass through 5 Brigade, but prior to the attack 25 Battalion was to send two companies across the Lamone to take over the Maori Battalion's positions on the right flank of 5 Brigade.
At 2 a.m. on 14 December 25 Battalion (less B and D Companies) moved in vehicles from Forli to Marzeno, four miles south of Faenza. Severe traffic congestion on the secondary roads stopped the vehicles there and the troops marched to an assembly area about two miles south-west of the town, where they were within 1500 yards of the Lamone. In the afternoon the other two companies arrived from Forli and at dusk A and C Companies left to relieve the Maoris, who were near the crossroads just north of the river. Celle, 5 Brigade's objective, lay about a mile and a half north-west of the crossroads. Shortly after dark the relief was completed with little difficulty, though a platoon of A Company lost touch for a time and the positions were being heavily shelled and mortared.
The CO had explained that when 5 Brigade attacked, the position held by 25 Battalion would become a key one and a likely objective for enemy counter-attacks. Certainly the position was important. Five roads from various points of the compass met there and a railway running to the south-west from Faenza passed through this communications centre, offering an attractive artillery target; while Faenza itself, its outskirts a mile to the north-east, with an active garrison and good observation from its high buildings and towers, could well be a menace.page 540
Except to the south-west and west, where spurs of easy gradients projected from the high hills beyond, the country was flat and covered with an intricate pattern of very narrow rectangular strips of cultivation, with grape vines predominating; there were numerous roads, tracks, and ditches, and a great many houses dotted the landscape.
C Company (Major Taylor) occupied houses in the two angles formed by two roads converging from Faenza and by the railway which also converged on one of the roads. A Company (Major Webster), also in houses, stretched to the north-west from the vicinity of a sharp bend in the river on its right to another road junction within 150 yards of C Company, the two companies facing Faenza on a frontage of a thousand yards. The siting of anti-tank guns in the enclosed country was difficult but Colonel Norman insisted they be west of the river. A site covering the road running south-east from Celle was therefore selected, 700 yards west of C Company on rising ground and close to a building from which some command was obtained over the roads from Faenza and over the countryside to the north. Battalion Headquarters was situated near the road about 400 yards north of Hunter's bridge, a Bailey bridge spanning the Lamone 1500 yards south-west of the crossroads.
At 11 p.m. that night (14 December) the barrage for the attack by 5 Brigade commenced; it opened on an initial frontage of 800 yards, only 400 yards to the north of C Company, and both companies immediately came under small-arms fire and some heavy mortaring, chiefly from Faenza. With the attack under way there was little artillery support available but the battalion mortars briskly retaliated. Tanks of A Squadron 20 Armoured Regiment were on their way to the companies, which about midnight were still under heavy fire and, as enemy movement had been heard in front, were making frequent requests for artillery defensive fire and tank support. Three hours later the house occupied by C Company headquarters was badly damaged by shellfire and had to be vacated, the headquarters sharing 15 Platoon's house; its Slidex had been destroyed. Slowed down by demolitions, the supporting tanks were making slow progress but by 3 a.m. were at the crossroads, and after constant efforts Colonel Norman had succeeded in arranging for three artillery ‘stonks’ for thirty minutes, one along the roads skirting the western outskirts of Faenza, another on three crossroads, and the third on the two roads leading to the companies' positions.page 542
About 4 a.m. C Company reported that enemy infantry was close to its forward posts and that it was occupying only three of the five positions it originally held. About that time a 20 Regiment tank visited the company's area but could not find the infantry; tanks had reached A Company and, continuing their efforts, eventually established touch with C Company. The companies were fortunate to have survived the night with only four casualties, one died of wounds and three wounded.
As the tanks (18 Armoured Regiment) supporting 5 Brigade's attack were held up by a demolition 800 yards south-west of C Company, Brigadier Parkinson just before dawn asked whether it was possible for 25 Battalion's reserve tanks to get forward to la Morte, at a track and ditch crossing 400 yards north of C Company. The tank commander thought this to be impossible, but under cover of smoke to blind the very active enemy artillery observers in Faenza, a troop was sent forward to reconnoitre. A couple of hours later the Brigadier instructed Colonel Norman that A Squadron tanks with a scissors bridge were to attempt to cross the ditch 300 yards west of la Morte to help 28 Battalion, which had already repulsed one counter-attack; shortly afterwards the 17-pounder Sherman tank with the forward troops was knocked out. Machine-gun fire directed at A Company from its right remained unexplained but ceased after inquiries were made, the culprit naturally enough preferring to remain quiet after discovering his error. Meanwhile and throughout the morning the battalion mortars had been busy, firing concentrations on request in front of C Company. Twenty-fifth Battalion was without an artillery FOO, but at 10 a.m. one arrived from 6 Field Regiment after having been held up for six hours on the congested roads.
After all these various happenings, incidental to most tactical operations, and with the success of 5 Brigade's attack, which had secured the greater part of its objective, the situation on 25 Battalion's front was comparatively quiet. In the afternoon it was decided that B and D Companies, still back in reserve east of the river, were that evening to relieve two companies of the Maori Battalion which were in position on the ditch running westwards from la Morte. B Company (Major J. Finlay4) was to be on the right and D Company (Captain J. H. Sheild5) on the left, the frontage being 800 yards. On the telephone later in the day, Brigadier Parkinson gave further page 543 details of what was intended; 5 and 6 Brigades (6 Brigade on the right) were to advance to the north-west on the Senio River, the boundary between the two brigades being Route 9, for which 6 Brigade was to be responsible; 24 Battalion was to cross the Lamone and come up on the right of 25 Battalion, and with the railway as the boundary between them both battalions would then advance on the Senio, followed by 26 Battalion.
By 9.15 p.m. that evening (15 December) B and D Companies were in position on the la Morte ditch, the relief accomplished without difficulty though some of the houses, selected in advance, were found to be uninhabitable and others were chosen. From 28 Battalion D Company collected two prisoners. The bad roads and heavy traffic congestion caused much difficulty and delay in bringing up the rations, but ultimately, by 3 a.m., all the jeeps reached the companies; it was a praiseworthy effort on the part of the drivers but was only in keeping with the high standard they maintained in supplying the front-line troops.
The enemy view of the operations of 14–15 December is shown in the following extracts from Field-Marshal Kesselring's report to Supreme Headquarters in Germany:
‘15 Dec. After an hour's tremendous barrage the enemy attacked in great strength on a narrow front south-west of Faenza after midnight. During the day he extended the attacking front and kept up his heavy artillery and air support. Confused fighting lasted throughout the day…. During the afternoon the enemy brought up reinforcements and attacked again with his main weight immediately SW of Faenza. After bitter fighting his most easterly attacking group succeeded in crossing the Via Emilia [Route 9]. The westerly attacking group pushed forward to just south of Casale, well back in our main defence zone, where the attack was sealed off and halted…. In the afternoon the attack spread further … and to the western outskirts of Faenza. There our men fought with the utmost stubbornness for every foot of ground, but the enemy penetrated our positions after his artillery and aircraft had smashed our heavy weapons and strong points…. By midday the enemy advancing along the road to Casale from the road junction west of Faenza, had taken Celle and pushed NW from there. A counter-attack pushed the enemy back to Celle and halted his attack. During the afternoon the enemy brought up fresh troops and formed up again, still under cover of terrific page 544 shellfire and air attacks. He then launched another attack in two groups with tank support. The easterly group thrust north from Celle and crossed the Via Emilia NE of Celle, while the westerly group pushed to 1 km south of Casale. Our last available troops pushed the enemy spearheads back and halted the attacks after bitter fighting. Attacks on Faenza from the SW did not penetrate our positions until after they had been repeated over and over again…. By throwing in every available man we were able to form a continuous line NW of Faenza and prevent the enemy from pushing along the Via Emilia into the town from the NW. 26 Pz Div, whose main body is on the southern outskirts of Faenza, is in a grave situation….’
The report continued on 16 December: ‘Today the enemy continued his offensive with the aim of breaking through to the Via Emilia on a wide front…. During the day he extended his attacks to the sector east of Faenza…. The Pz Grenadiers of 26 Pz Div, fighting with determination …, defended the southern outskirts of Faenza against attacks from three sides. … Today, thanks to excellent defence by all arms, the Tenth Army once more prevented a break-through and inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy….
‘Heavy attacks against 305 Div's centre led to … the enemy's pushing forward to the Senio in the afternoon. Attempts to widen the breach to the east and west were foiled. 90 Pz Gren Div's battle groups east of the Senio were attacked during the afternoon by strong enemy forces with tank support and after stubborn fighting, in which both sides lost heavily, were pushed back over the river…. 26 Pz Div: The enemy pushed in strength towards the Via Emilia from Celle and south of it, and thrust north and north-east across the road. Our battle groups, supported by tanks, offered stubborn resistance, and prevented the enemy from advancing any farther. The enemy attacked Faenza from the NW, SW, and south, but the defenders withstood the assault all morning. This afternoon the enemy broke into the western part of the town, where violent house-to-house and street fighting is now in progress.’
Meanwhile, a couple of hours before dawn on the 16th, Brigadier Parkinson telephoned to ask for information as to the whereabouts of the enemy and said that 25 Battalion would probably be required to advance that morning. The enemy had been very quiet during the night and an attempt on A Company's front to draw fire had failed; it was the page 545 general opinion that the enemy had withdrawn. On passing this information to the Brigadier shortly before dawn, Colonel Norman was directed to move A and C Companies north-eastwards along the two roads towards Faenza. On 5 Brigade front patrols were being sent out, to be followed up in force unless there was heavy opposition.
By 7.30 a.m. C Company (Major Taylor) had occupied houses immediately to its front while A Company (Major Webster) had attacked the first house ahead, capturing three Germans. Shortly afterwards, B Company (Major Finlay) from its ditch near la Morte was ordered to patrol to Pogliano, a group of houses 500 yards to the north-east, and to be ready to occupy it; at the same time D Company (Captain Sheild) on its left had similar orders to patrol forward as far as a road junction and buildings at Casa Gazzolo, 1000 yards to the north of the ditch, and to be prepared to follow up.
On these cautious probes succeeding, B and D Companies at 9.35 a.m. were directed to take another step forward, this time 800 to 1000 yards on to Route 9, which they were to hold, with B on the right and D on the left, as a firm base while the tanks moved through. At that time A and C Companies had advanced 1100 yards towards Faenza and were consolidating a position near the cemetery, where later they were to be relieved by Gurkhas. About noon 25 Battalion Tactical Headquarters moved forward 1500 yards to the house vacated by B Company, and soon afterwards B and D Companies were in position on the general line of Route 9; the other two companies were firmly established near Faenza though a tank going to the support of A Company had been blown up on a mine; C Company had taken one prisoner.
Early in the afternoon the tanks moved forward via Celle (the rather roundabout route selected for vehicles to avoid interference from Faenza) in support of B and D Companies on Route 9, one troop to each company. About 4 p.m. A and C Companies were relieved by the Gurkhas and moved up behind B and D Companies, which an hour later were ordered to move on towards the Senio, 2000 yards to the north-west of D Company. As Colonel Norman explained to Majors Webster and Taylor after their companies had come across from Faenza, D Company on reaching the Senio was to explore possible crossing-places as it was intended to cross the river, if possible, the following night; in the meantime A and C Companies were to rest.page 546
B and D Companies made rather slow progress towards the river. B Company encountered small-arms fire and, the now far-too-familiar complaint, reported that some of the shells from the supporting artillery were falling short. As the two companies advanced there was heavy shelling back near 25 Battalion Tactical Headquarters where, a little later in the evening, the medium machine guns and mortars were taking up positions. Shortly before 10.30 p.m. Major Finlay sent a message to Battalion Headquarters:
‘Have run into a lot of SA fire. Position rather confused as we occupy small ditches about 25 yds apart. Now intend to move towards the house from which we have been fired on rather vigorously three times.’
A member of B Company has contributed a graphic account of his experiences in the attack:
‘“B Company will advance to the Senio—Jerry has dropped back to a new line on the Senio. The advance will be a silent advance of 2000 yards under artificial moonlight…. D Company will be on the left. No opposition is expected but every soldier will be on the alert.” How often had information similar to the above tactical move been conveyed to the common infantry soldier and how often did that “dropped right back” story and “no opposition” cry portray a hair-raising night? The silent advance this night was no exception.
‘B Company under Major Jack Finlay left the start line in open formation two platoons forward, Company HQs behind & one platoon in reserve. The railway line was the right boundary. The ground to be covered was flat but across the line of advance every 30 yds ran endless rows of grapevines. The whole area was illuminated by the light of searchlights burning on fixed lines which served as direction indicators and moonlight.
‘The advance had not been under way very long before Jerry put in an appearance on the left flank & D Company could be heard exchanging small arms fire and grenades. B Company soon encountered opposition & after a short exchange on the left the two platoon front was reduced to one platoon No. 12 forward and the advance continued until more opposition was met. Major Finlay ordered 12 Platoon to put one section forward and the Company to advance behind this probe.
‘The advance continued by leaps and bounds—that is, an advance from one grape vine to the next 30 – 40 yds—a short wait and listen then another bound. The searchlights illumin- page 547 ated the ground extensively and the dung heaps scattered on the ground in small mounds glittered with an uncanny reflection. “Halt Achtung” the dung heap challenged me and it was soon apparent just why the heaps were shining as only a Jerry steel helmet could. I yelled “Look out Jerry” emptied my drum type magazine from my Tommy Gun and hit the ground. Jerry reciprocated from 15 yds with grenades & automatic fire and the ground vibrated from his reply. We had come across a large German patrol.
‘“Fix bayonets & we will charge the bastards” ordered Major Finlay. No man had a bayonet—old hands supporting automatic weapons—so up and into them charged eight men firing as they went. It must have been a good show but Jerry had scurried across our front to the railway line. A burst of tracer from a machine gun from this direction stopped the advance temporarily.
‘A massive 3 story house loomed up ahead and machine gun fire mortars and shelling peppered the area. The section of men charged forward and captured the house with slight resistance—Jerry getting away by seconds. This house was to become our HQ for the next two days—days of heavy and uninterrupted shelling.
‘Private Olsen6 (Wanganui) was killed in this advance. Corporal Doug Meades slightly wounded (7 holes through his trousers), Mulholland7 a bullet lodged in his Bren magazine, Hunter a hole in his water bottle, and Copeland a bullet in his Tommy magazine. A “quiet” advance.
‘A counter attack later in the night was repulsed but two or three bazooka shots in the casa did receive a reply from Tiger Davidson who launched a grenade from inside and well back from the window on the second floor. Privates Archer8 and Lee9 at the window were not amused when the grenade hit the top of the window and fell back into the room to explode at their rear. Three men in the room plus one grenade and no casualties!!
‘Just a quiet night—Jerry has dropped back to the Senio or perhaps he meant to.’page 548
Yes, throughout the war there were many such quiet nights but at least, as the B Company man has stated, they had been warned: ‘but every soldier will be on the alert’. The company killed a number of enemy in the house and captured a prisoner.
Meanwhile D Company was advancing slowly but at midnight was held up at a lateral road a mile from the river by heavy resistance from enemy posts and from a house, Bastia Nuova, 200 yards to its front, and asked for support. Within an hour a troop of tanks sent via Route 9 had arrived, but Captain Sheild told Colonel Norman by telephone that even with tanks he thought further progress impossible. He was instructed to consolidate on the line of the lateral road and establish contact with B Company, which was close to the road where it crossed the railway.
To cover the front of the two companies, artillery defensive fire tasks were arranged and the battalion mortars had moved into position alongside Route 9, about 1000 yards south-east of D Company. By 3 a.m., despite heavy enemy shelling and mortar fire, the front was firmly established. The men of D Company saw many enemy in and around Bastia Nuova and killed one by sniping.
The casualties during the night 16–17 December were four wounded.
A man of 5 Section, 17 Platoon, of D Company, who previously had never been under fire, tells of his experiences in this advance, and gives a picture of the ‘ups and downs’ in an operation of this nature which must revive memories in the minds of many members of the battalion.
‘I feel I could relate quite a full story of the attacks along the Senio river from Faenza just before Xmas 1944. It was my first time in action and, believe me, it has left quite clear memories. I had then been in D Coy 25 Bn about a fortnight so it gave me time to learn the ways of a fighting soldier and to chum up with my fellow men, which later I found was a big thing.
‘It was on the morning of the 14th Dec that we received the long-awaited orders to pack up. In the afternoon we were crammed into trucks and set sail in the direction of Faenza. Someone remarked that it was in the wrong direction, but the rest seemed very silent under the brims of their tin hats, so I just followed suit. We turned off Route 9 a few miles out of Forli and took to a very rough, shell-battered side road. It had been raining heavily and we soon had to abandon our page 549 waggons and take to the hoof. Our Ptn Commander, Ken Hamilton,10 sent back orders to keep well spread out and I soon found the reason why, when an odd shell or two landed a few hundred yards to our rear, which gave me the feeling to get a wriggle on. It was dusk when we reached our casa for the night and it once again came on to rain. We then had a spot of trouble in locating the coy jeep, which was loaded with our blankets and rations, and I landed the job of trotting down to the turn-off 500 yds away to wait for it. All I got was wet feet and told I'd get used to it after a fortnight or so. The jeep turned up at 10 o'clock and we were all very thankful for a feed.
‘At 11 the 5th Brigade put in an attack under a barrage, along a valley which we were overlooking. In the morning we packed our blankets, etc, while Ken Hamilton was away at an “O” Group. On his return he gave us the news of our next move, which was to relieve the Maoris. We started out after lunch and by nightfall we were waiting in a barn for the rest of the Coy to come up when a whopper landed just outside, nearly wrecking our flimsy shelter. I made a dive for the floor, but landed on someone else, as I was no competition against the old hands at making for cover. After that incident my name was called and I soon found that I had landed the Piat, such as all new men. Slinging this over my shoulder we set out up the muddy slope and I soon began to pant with my 32-pound weapon. When we reached the top it seemed twice that weight and I had “had it”. We still pushed forward and it was an effort to keep up. We passed the casa where we were meant to stop, as the night was dark and we had to retrace our steps to locate our destination. I had just taken off my pack when the order came out for a section to go forward to a listening post for the night. I was just unlucky enough for it to be our section with Cpl Kev Cleaver11 in charge. We no sooner got on to the road when over came a half-dozen mortars and all hands went into the drain in an instant. It was then that one Pte “X” couldn't take it and cleared out back to the casa. (We didn't see him again until later when he got 12 months for his crime.) At the post we had to dig slitties. I remember being told twice not to whisper so loudly. page 550 Later it came on to rain again and our slitties gathered about six inches of water in the bottom. Still we stood in it and froze till dawn. It was impossible to sleep in the hour off [sentry], so I just had to dig quietly to keep warm. At short intervals Jerry was sending over mortars and rockets. At first light we were pleased to return to the platoon, thinking of a good sleep, only to hear we had to push on in a daylight advance to Route 9, which we carried out without resistance and taking one prisoner. At times I was left a little alone and felt helpless with my Piat. It didn't take me long to dive at the odd glass of vino, offered by Italian civilians at various casas. Our destination was a house containing an Italian woman who was in an obviously pregnant condition. She did quite a lot for us in the way of meals and fruit. (A few days later we heard that the woman had been presented with twins in the thick of a mortar stonk and our support coy was there to assist.)
‘That night we had to cross Route 9 and make a silent drive to the river against the 90th Light. Ted12 was nasty and kept on popping over all the mortars he could. We got across the road all right and were lined up nicely, ready to advance, when there was a hiss and all hands hit the ground. I went down so hard that my tin hat took some skin off my nose, but no thoughts were there. Hell let loose all in one minute and we were in the centre of it. I thought all my birthdays had come in one. Luckily the ground was soft and there was little shrap [shell-splinters, commonly called shrapnel]. They were landing all round us and I kept thinking the next one must be mine. I seemed to be the only one left and yet we all got through, except for a scratch here and there. Pogo Hagerty13 was the lucky one. He couldn't get down low on account of his wireless but a nice sized lump of shrapnel went right through it. When that was over I just couldn't speak for a while. It was a cold night but I hadn't lost so much sweat for a long time.
‘We pushed on and passed one empty casa but the next contained roughly 15 Teds with a few Spandaus. I was following Joe Milne14 and we got lost from our ptn, lying in the mud under a grapevine, letting strip all we could. I was now promoted to Bren gunner No. 1, as all new men. I was happy all at once to get a few away and must have been a bit anxious as Joe remarked “Don't use all that—ammo, we may need page 551 some later”. After a time we heard a voice screaming “Where the hell are Hope15 and Milne?” It was our section leader Kev Cleaver. We retired to our reserve position. The house occupied by Ted was strongly held and he was using numerous rifle grenades along with his Spandaus, so we were ordered to return to the casa we had previously cleared. Jerry was awake to this and pelted us once more with his various sized mortars. We needed tank support so Lieut Hamilton and the runner went to contact same. In the meantime, Howard Hughes,16 our Ptn Sgt was questioning the one prisoner we had just taken. When our officer returned he informed us that the tanks could not get up till morning and that we were to shelter in a house back on Route 9. He also told us, while getting there to make full use of the ditch running alongside the road, but I didn't need to be told that. We remained there for a couple of days and we made the best of all the sleep we could get in between the noise of bursting shells. B Coy were on our right and they got hell for these two days. I thought I had experienced the ins and outs of battle, but didn't realize there was worse in store, when the big attack came off along the Senio on the 21st December17 under a barrage with its shorts and many casualties, along with many other things I had not witnessed, but that is another story.’
On the previous evening, 16 December, 24 Battalion had taken up its position on the right of 25 Battalion, between the railway and Route 9, immediately north-west of Faenza. Gurkhas and the Divisional Cavalry Battalion on the right or east of 24 Battalion were on the northern outskirts of the town. From there British and Canadian troops extended the front along the Lamone River to the north-east for the next eight miles and from thence were across the river to beyond Route 16 and seven miles north-west of Ravenna, the objective in ‘the mobile role’ of September last, which had been taken by the Canadians only eleven days before.
On the other flank, from Faenza the line extended to the south-west into the high country, where ten miles away troops of the Eighth and Fifth Armies were in contact.
During the night 16–17 December C Company of 24 Battalion had advanced to the north-west on the right of 25 page 552 Battalion and had captured a group of houses at Pasotta, 200 yards north of B Company 25 Battalion. By the morning of the 17th Faenza had been cleared of the enemy, removing a considerable nuisance and greatly easing the very difficult supply problem since additional bridges could now be built and other roads brought into use.
Early in the afternoon 24 and 25 Battalions were to have continued the advance towards the Senio, but the appearance of the enemy in some strength on the right of B Company caused a postponement and artillery and machine-gun fire was called for. This quietened the enemy, but he was still seen in front of D Company and 25 Battalion was instructed to stand fast until 24 Battalion came up on the right. Heavy enemy shelling and mortar fire had caused several casualties in B Company and a tank had been disabled; as the whole company was in one house, Colonel Norman directed that outposts be placed in other houses nearby. Sent out after the light failed, a patrol from D Company visited a house 300 yards to its front, finding it unoccupied and badly damaged, and reported that a Spandau in a house 400 yards farther west was firing on fixed lines.
A lull in enemy activity about 9 p.m. proved to be only temporary as soon afterwards increased Spandau fire caused B Company to stand-to; for the next three hours the two forward companies were under heavy fire from Spandaus and artillery, the companies calling for several artillery tasks to be fired. A few minutes after midnight the enemy shelling extended to Battalion Tactical Headquarters and continued against the forward companies, B Company's house receiving many hits. About 4 a.m., except for machine guns firing on fixed lines, the front was fairly quiet, but within the hour and until 8 a.m. it flared up again with heavy mortar and machine-gun fire along the whole front; several defensive fire tasks were fired in reply by the supporting artillery. An expected counter-attack did not take place but the enemy was seen; with a burst of Bren fire at long range, Private Lee of 12 Platoon wounded several of a party of Germans, of whom two of the wounded and one other surrendered.
Despite observed shoots by artillery and tanks and a ‘murder’ shoot on three enemy machine-gun positions at the next railway crossing (700 yards to the north-west but still 800 yards east of the river), the hostile fire continued throughout the day. Tactical Headquarters was twice hit by an enemy SP gun of page 553 fairly large calibre, and as the heavy fire continued along the front, the CO, through the artillery liaison officer at Brigade Headquarters, called up an air OP. B Company, still under heavy fire, was sending in flash and sound bearings and calling for more artillery support; it had had a second tank knocked out but without casualties to the crew.
About 6 p.m. that evening (18 December) Colonel Norman told A and C Company commanders (Majors Webster and Taylor) that the enemy strength on 25 Battalion front was estimated to be about 1100; the banks of the Senio were known to be mined, and the enemy policy seemed to be to hold every house until forced out. He said that instead of an advance to the north-west as at present, a full-scale attack was to be made the following night in a north-easterly direction by two battalions of 43 Gurkha Lorried Infantry Brigade (under command of 2 NZ Division) on the right and by the three battalions of 6 Brigade on the left, the Senio being the left boundary. The battalion's casualties during the 17th and 18th were two died of wounds and five wounded.
The front, which was very rowdy until midnight, was quiet afterwards but about 9.30 a.m., during shelling of Battalion Tactical Headquarters, the house was twice hit and a tank outside was also hit. Shortly before noon, under orders from Brigadier Parkinson, Colonel Norman instructed B Company to send a patrol to two houses 1000 yards to the north-east where a road crossed the Scolo Contrigo; if no enemy was encountered a patrol was then to be sent along the road in the direction of the river to a road junction 800 yards north-west of the two houses. The patrol (under Corporal Tutty18) went out but almost at once was fired on by Spandaus; it then attempted to patrol towards the river but was again fired on, by two enemy posts, and withdrew. Meanwhile, before noon orders were issued for the attack to the north-east. There would be three companies forward, A Company on the right, D in the centre, and C on the left; B Company, in reserve, would follow, mopping up behind them.
The start line for 25 and 26 Battalions was an extraordinary one: whereas the Gurkhas and 24 Battalion on the right started off parallel to the railway and so at right angles to the axis of advance, the start line of 25 Battalion, from the left of A Company, bent back to the west at an angle of thirty degrees for a distance of 1100 yards before resuming its initial direction, page 554 i.e., to the north-west. This was done so as to include in the barrage enemy posts on or south of the railway in front of 25 and 26 Battalions. In consequence the 25 Battalion companies had varying distances to advance, A Company having 2600 yards, D 2800 yards, and C 3400 yards.
To avoid the barrage, which would open on the line of B Company's position, the forward companies would retire to an assembly line; as soon as the road was opened behind the infantry advance, the tanks were to move up to the companies on the objective; after supporting the attack for the first 1500 yards (where the artillery was to pause for some time) the battalion mortars at the first opportunity were to move forward. On the left of 6 Brigade the forward troops of 5 Brigade would support the attack by fire of all arms against targets on the left bank of the Senio; this was especially necessary as, although at the start line the river was 1600 yards to the west of 25 Battalion's left flank, it converged at the objective (nearly two miles to the north-east on that flank) to within a couple of hundred yards of the left of C Company.
The barrage was to open at 9 p.m. and, after ten minutes, advance at the rate of 100 yards in six minutes to the pause line, where it would halt from 10.40 p.m. to 11.16 p.m., then advancing to the final barrage line, which it would reach thirty-four minutes after midnight 19–20 December. After a further sixteen minutes there it would cease. In addition to the barrage the medium artillery would open on selected targets, but five minutes after zero two-thirds of the batteries would switch to counter-battery tasks. To aid direction the Bofors were to fire three rounds of tracer per two minutes along the brigade and battalion boundaries, but would fire ten rounds' rapid fire to indicate that the barrage was lifting from the opening line; and again, both when the pause in the barrage began and when it ended, repeating the ten rounds when the barrage reached its final line.
One company of machine guns was to fire on the roads parallel with the line of advance and two companies were to concentrate on harassing and defensive fire on 6 Brigade's open left flank across the Senio. From the conclusion of the attack the artillery would be ready to fire prearranged DF19 tasks, of which there were to be thirteen, all with code-names, on 6 Brigade's front.page 555
The inter-battalion boundary on the left of 25 Battalion between C Company and 26 Battalion was the main road running north-east from Route 9 to Felisio, more or less parallel to the Senio. The right boundary between A Company and 24 Battalion was an arbitrary line, with few distinctive features, parallel with the left boundary and 1200 yards from it.
The infantry was to make certain that all opposition on the way was cleared up; it was not to by-pass strongpoints. While the engineers were making the roads passable for vehicles by removing mines and dealing with craters and other obstacles, they would be protected by a platoon from B Company. The tanks of 25 Battalion had priority over the roads, then those of 26 Battalion, and after that the other supporting arms of 25 Battalion.
By 8.45 p.m. on the 19th B Company (Major Finlay) had withdrawn to its assembly area about 1000 yards to the east, where it was just behind A Company's position on the start line; fifteen minutes later the barrage opened. From the start of the advance at 9.10 p.m. Battalion Headquarters received several messages from C Company (Major Taylor) saying that the artillery barrage was falling short; Taylor was told to keep the company under cover until the barrage moved on, and he then reported that because of casualties the company must be regrouped before the advance could be resumed. In these difficult circumstances Corporal Grenville20 of 15 Platoon showed great skill and coolness when he took command of the remnants of the platoon, rallied the men, and led them forward in a successful attack against two strongpoints; he was seriously wounded while leading an attack against a third position, but nevertheless assisted one of his badly wounded men back to the RAP. In the Pisciatello River operations he had also distinguished himself and his award of a Military Medal was well-earned. An intercepted message from 26 Battalion to 6 Brigade confirmed that C Company was having trouble; later, Colonel Fairbrother (26 Battalion) told Colonel Norman that from his headquarters near the start line he had seen C Company on the railway crossing encounter a very heavy enemy concentration which had caused many casualties. ‘Under Major Taylor (armed with a walking stick),’ wrote a member of the battalion, ‘C Company finished up by continuing the attack with only page 556 forty men. A number of the casualties came when a phosphorus grenade carried by one of the men was hit by a shell splinter and ignited.’
The other two companies, A and D, were making good progress. Three lateral roads 800 yards apart and bearing the familiar codenames of Dalgety, Levin, and Loan, had been selected as bounds or intermediate objectives, the objective 600 yards beyond ‘Loan’ being named ‘Feilding’. A and D Companies reached ‘Dalgety’ within the hour; delayed by its disorganisation at the railway crossing, C Company was instructed to push on as soon as possible, and reached ‘Dalgety’ about an hour after A and D Companies, which continued to advance, A Company reporting the capture of six prisoners.
About 11 p.m. the tanks reported that the road and railway crossing on the battalion's left boundary was impassable and an engineer officer was sent to investigate it. At this time the battalions on the flanks were advancing according to plan, and thirty minutes later D Company (Captain Sheild) was at ‘Levin’, closely followed by the engineer road-reconnaissance party. A few minutes later A Company was held up by Spandau fire but, overcoming it, advanced steadily and was soon in touch with D Company which was still making progress. C Company was then 400 yards from ‘Levin’ and had taken eight prisoners.
Shortly before 1 a.m. A and D Companies passed the third bound, ‘Loan’. They still had 500 yards to go to reach the final objective, and as the artillery pause 450 yards beyond it was about to end, Colonel Norman asked that it continue for twenty minutes to cover the approach of the two companies, which shortly afterwards were on the position. Some 1300 yards back, C Company was then passing ‘Levin’, and although delayed by having to clear a number of houses and by anti-personnel mines at ‘Loan’, reached the final objective about an hour and a half later.
There was urgent need to get the supporting arms forward, and the engineer parties were deciding which route for tanks could be opened the soonest when B Company reported that tanks could get past the demolition on the battalion's left flank at ‘Levin’. D Company then reported the track passable and by 4 a.m. the tanks were moving forward, and an hour later were with the three forward companies. A Company had given a warning that there were mines at the crossroads on the objective in the right centre of the battalion's position; some hours later it was found that the crossroads had been prepared page 557 for demolition and the engineers were asked to remove the explosives. The other supporting arms were on their way up, and soon after first light the anti-tank guns were sited and one regiment of artillery was firing harassing tasks on the battalion's front, pending the arrival of an air OP an hour or so later.
Except for the disaster to C Company the attack had gone very well indeed, the casualties reported up to 7.30 a.m. on the 20th being: A Company, 1 officer, 1 other rank killed; C Company, 2 other ranks killed, 2 officers and 31 other ranks wounded, 6 other ranks missing; D Company, 1 other rank killed, 9 other ranks wounded. Many of the missing were expected to come in. The battalion had taken fifty-four prisoners, many of whom were still with the forward companies, as were many of the wounded—the RAP vehicle had been damaged and jeeps were being collected to bring them in.
The units on both flanks had reached their objectives, and farther afield the attack had also gone well.
A German report on the fighting in the Faenza area, written by 29 Panzer Grenadier Division, was incorporated in a pamphlet on ‘Preparation for Defensive Campaign in 1945’, issued by the Commander-in-Chief South-West (Kesselring). The extracts which follow refer to the fighting between 16–20 December:
‘Situation: On 16 Dec 1944 15 Pz Gren Regt … held a narrow bridgehead forward of the Senio R, with its front running SW-NE. The Via Emilia [Route 9] formed one flank. The FDLs had been formed by 26 Pz Div during withdrawal following enemy penetration and were not strongly dug out. The bridgehead consisted of cultivated land, with trees and groups of farm buildings. The ground was wet under the surface and digging was possible only to a limited extent.
‘Between 16 and 18 December the enemy launched a series of raids in pl or coy strength, mainly by night but also in the daytime. All these were beaten back, and considerable casualties were inflicted on the enemy by counter-thrusts and carefully planned concentrations by our light and heavy infantry weapons and artillery. The enemy obviously gained the impression from this that the bridgehead must be strongly held.
‘On 18 Dec, shortly before nightfall, the troops in the b/h beat off another raid, knocking out 2 tanks with Bazookas. That night the div. adopted a new grouping in great depth. By the morning of 19 Dec the majority of 15 Pz Gren Regt was in new defensive positions on the west bank of the Senio, with battle page 558 outposts in about bn strength left in the b/h, accompanied by an arty OP. The orders given to these battle outposts were to cover and screen the adoption of the new positions in depth; to keep up plenty of activity and vigorous fire and deceive the enemy into thinking the b/h was held in strength; and to make a fighting withdrawal by groups over the Senio if attacked by a superior force.
‘19 Dec was a quiet day but at 2100 hours a heavy barrage opened up on ¾ of the division's sector…. Until 2300 hours the barrage was spread over a wide, deep area but at that time it concentrated on the spots where the enemy intended to penetrate…. Simultaneously the enemy charged the battle outpost line, using assault groups in coy strength followed by tanks…. The battle outposts offered stubborn resistance, but the night was so pitch black that the enemy was able to penetrate the line and attack the coy HQ and Bn HQ while the forward outposts were still reporting “No sign of the enemy yet”. The heavy shellfire cut all the telephone lines very soon, and the wireless communication failed about midnight, so that from 0100 hrs on, it was impossible to coordinate the operations of the outposts. Each outpost was therefore forced to act on its own initiative…. After many adventures, including some magnificent feats of valour by individuals, the greater part of the outpost garrisons succeeded in making its way back through the curtain of fire and our minefields to the FDLs west of the Senio by midday on 20 Dec. Early that morning several of our forward outposts could still be heard firing their MGs although completely cut off. They must have continued to fight against overwhelming odds until their amn ran out.
‘Enemy Tactics: The New Zealanders do not send out small recce patrols as we do … their recce patrols were almost all raiding patrols of at least a pl, and sometimes as much as a coy. All members of these patrols were armed with machine pistols and hand grenades. They are well-known specialists in the use of these weapons…. The NZers have a great preference for night patrolling, mainly in cold blood with no preliminary bombardment. On the few occasions when they patrol by day they put strong covering parties out on the flanks to protect the advance with fire. Tanks are also brought right up to the front line to cover the patrols. If the patrols are fired on, they are immediately screened with smoke, under cover of which they either withdraw or work their way closer in…. The page 559 enemy very seldom attacks positions frontally but always tries to take them from the flank or rear. During its advance the patrol remains closely concentrated.
‘Defence: The NZers base their defence mainly on houses, which they very quickly convert to strongpoints for all-round defence. Dug-outs are made under the house floors, and cellar windows or anything of that nature are used as fire slits, or else the enemy makes new ones. Protective posts are sited outside the houses among the groups of buildings. The enemy allows our patrols to come to close range and then opens a concentrated fire on them with machine pistols. Snipers have been met in the upper stories of houses and in trees. These are particularly unpleasant when our patrols are not expecting to be fired on.
‘Tactics during a major attack: [After referring to the usual barrage, the report continued:] The enemy laid a thick curtain of fire down along the Senio between our outposts and FDLs, probably to prevent reserves from crossing the river eastwards and to prevent the troops in the bridgehead from withdrawing over the river…. During the preliminary bombardment our own arty was not engaged…. on the whole our div and Corps arty was not methodically shelled. It was therefore able to bring the whole weight of its fire to bear on the enemy unhampered. Since 22 Dec our guns have been shelled more and more, which leads to the conclusion that in future attacks the enemy will pay more attention to counter-battery fire….
‘Conclusions for our future tactics: Against the NZers the troops must be particularly alert at night. Not more than ⅓ of the men in the front line must be asleep at once… A system of alarm signals and the increase of the supply of flares to infantry companies will make defence by night much easier. Mines with trip wires have proved most useful in the protection of strongpoints.’
Many other matters were referred to in these ‘conclusions’. The machine pistol ‘is the ideal night weapon…. Increased use of weapons and improvement in shooting have proved most advantageous for an active defensive policy…. It is a good idea to partially demolish the houses and give them a ruined appearance … providing extra cover from fire and keeping the enemy aircraft away…. The Bazooka has proved invaluable in engaging strongpoints in houses, tanks, and infantry. … It is necessary to construct a large number of dummy positions containing something that will “make a bang”…. page 560 Wireless intercepts … have at times enabled the division to appreciate attacks in advance and find out where the enemy was assembling…. The form of fighting which the infantry must master in defence is the raid by the fighting patrol. During the night 19–20 Dec, old soldiers showed remarkable skill in fighting their way out and bringing their weapons back with them. New chums, on the other hand, had their morale smashed by the barrage…. All commanders must take special care of their new chums and urge them on…. their example must always be there to help the new chums. It has again been proved that defence on flat ground, under present conditions, is easier and less costly than in hills…. Our success in this action was due to the adoption of positions in depth on the night 18–19 Dec, to the splendid defensive conduct of 15 Pz Gren Regt, and to the good co-operation between all arms. All these made the enemy decide to launch a set-piece attack against the bridgehead, which wasted an enormous amount of ammunition.’
About daylight Colonel Norman was instructed to move troops forward as soon as possible to the bridge crossing the Senio at Felisio, a mile and a half to the north. A Company was given the task and was directed to send a patrol to the junction of three roads 1100 yards to the north, and if it was unopposed, to occupy a position there and then advance to the bridge. About an hour later D Company reported that when A Company's patrol was halfway to the road junction it was pinned down by Spandau fire from the vicinity of a wine factory 500 yards east of the junction. Shortly afterwards the patrol returned, having lost an officer and two other ranks wounded and not brought in, and three other ranks missing; the two wounded men came in later and reported that the officer, Lieutenant S. G. Sidford of 9 Platoon, had died and that Private Culver21 was wounded and missing. Sergeant Pike took command of the platoon.
A little later in the morning Major Webster was severely wounded by a mortar bomb; he was evacuated but died very soon afterwards, a sad and serious loss of a very experienced and efficient officer. On his way forward to take over command of A Company Captain A. Norton-Taylor saw Colonel Norman, who had just returned to Battalion Headquarters after visiting the forward companies, and was given the situation regarding the patrol and an outline of proposed operations.page 561
In the meantime a party of engineers who were on their way to A Company to remove the explosives from the prepared demolition at the crossroads had met with disaster. A little before noon an anti-tank vehicle came in with three wounded, including a corporal who reported that the party of engineers, seven in number, in a White scout-car had missed the turn-off to the south-east at La Palazza crossroads and had gone on another 500 yards to the north-east to the vicinity of Casa Galanuna; there they were fired on at very short range from the roadside ditch. It was thought that five of the men who jumped out of the car on the side opposite the enemy were captured; one man escaped with the corporal but the Slidex and marked maps had been left in the car. It was an unfortunate episode.
At 3 p.m. Colonel Norman, in discussing the situation with Brigadier Parkinson, said that the artillery and tank fire against the enemy posts had produced heavy enemy defensive fire; the enemy was still in some strength, and as his men were tired he thought a further advance in daylight was out of the question. He favoured a night advance. Late in the afternoon Brigadier Parkinson telephoned to say that the intention that night was to harass the enemy and stop any crossing of the Senio; the men were to get as much rest as possible. The Brigadier finished with ‘a pat on the back’—‘The Army Commander sends his congratulations on a successful attack’.
A gap on the left flank between C Company and 26 Battalion gave some concern as the Senio on that flank was still held by the enemy, 200 yards away. Twenty-sixth Battalion was facing the Senio to the north-west and its right or northern flank was at the crossroads where its 12 Platoon was situated, about 400 yards from the left of C Company. As 26 Battalion was unable to fill the gap, Colonel Norman at 6 p.m. decided that a standing patrol of fifteen men from D Company (in the centre) was to take up a position about 100 yards south-west of the left post of C Company. No difficulty was experienced in doing this.
On the battalion front the early part of the night was comparatively quiet though many flash-bearings of enemy guns were received from companies and passed on. A Company (Captain Norton-Taylor) picked up a prisoner and sent him in; he proved to be a Pole who had deserted from 278 Division. At 1 a.m. (21 December) on D Company reporting it was being attacked, artillery DF tasks and MMG fire were called for and the attack page 562 did not develop. All was quiet for a time but by 6 a.m. the three forward companies had asked for DF tasks because of harassing fire at various times during the night from enemy machine guns and mortars. D Company's standing patrol in a house on the left of C Company saw no enemy movement but had one man killed by shellfire.
At 8 a.m. on A Company's front SP guns were active and Norton-Taylor, when reporting them, asked that the wine factory east of the triple road-junction (900 yards north-east of C Company), which was an enemy strongpoint, should be dealt with by the medium artillery. An hour and a half later this was done, both A and D Companies reporting that the shoot was a very good one and asking that it be lifted 200 yards. A big gun across the Senio firing on the company areas damaged C Company headquarters' house, apparently a retaliatory shelling; during the morning and early afternoon several DF tasks were called for and special attention was paid to the wine-factory area.
The hostile artillery fire was almost continuous up to 9 p.m. and C Company's house was again hit and badly damaged. ‘Stonks’ fired into the factory area appeared to be very successful, scoring several direct hits after dark which caused a number of civilians to evacuate the factory and come into the battalion's lines. The casualties on the 21st were one killed and three wounded. Visiting the companies after dark, Colonel Norman arranged for B Company, in reserve, to send a patrol of seven men to Casa Galanuna about midnight to investigate the derelict White scout-car in which the engineers had been ambushed; if the patrol struck trouble it was to fire tracer, which would call down artillery fire in its support. A Company was also to send out a patrol to the factory area to look for the three men missing from its patrol and to investigate a reported enemy minefield.
For the next few hours there was a good deal of enemy shelling and shortly after midnight (21 – 22 December) A Company heard loud explosions resembling demolitions. About two hours later a carrier crew stationed with the company sent in a report that there had been heavy mortaring which had put the company's 48 set out of action, a mortar bomb passing through a window and causing three casualties. B Company's patrol to Casa Galanuna, which had gone out a little after midnight, returned within the hour. It consisted of eight men page 563 led by Corporal Robinson22 and had approached the casa from the direction of the river, passing through trees and adjoining haystacks. From there a German was seen in the doorway of the house. ‘At this stage,’ the corporal reported, ‘I looked round to see the disposition of my force and beheld behind me at about four feet two Germans with slung Schmiesers. Two of us shot immediately, one dropped and the other staggered away. We then moved back as per route in…. White Scout car was seen about 25 yds from house but was not investigated.’ The patrol had no casualties.
After 2 a.m. the night was fairly quiet. Shortly after daylight A Company's patrol to the factory returned after being away an hour; it had been unsuccessful. During the morning C Company attracted the attention of Spandaus from across the river when, with a Browning, it attempted to set fire to some haystacks 500 yards in front; the Spandaus were ineffective and one stack was set on fire, a mine exploding in the blaze. After daylight fighter-bombers, always a welcome ally, were available on call but there was no occasion to use them.
Shortly after midday the CO was instructed to extend his front at last light to the south-east so as to take over 24 Battalion's sector, and by 10 p.m. the relief had been completed, 24 Battalion moving back to billets in Forli. To effect the relief A Company from the right of 25 Battalion's position moved over about 600 yards to the right and relieved 24 Battalion's left company; B Company from reserve was sent about a mile to the east and north-east to relieve the right company; D Company, from the centre of 25 Battalion's original position, had to move only its headquarters 250 yards and 17 Platoon 100 yards to its right to cover the front vacated by A Company. Both A and D Companies had standing patrols about 400 yards in front of the FDLs; B Company had 11 Platoon in a rather advanced position at Casa Spagnola, a group of three houses near a right-angle of the Scolo Contrigo on the general line of the standing patrols and out on the right flank; Battalion Headquarters took over 24 Battalion's headquarters a little over a mile to the north-east where it was 2000 yards from the FDLs. The casualties for the day were six wounded.
Soon after the relief was completed a patrol from the London Irish on the right visited B Company, and on instructions from Brigade 25 Battalion within a few hours laid a direct signal page 564 line to that battalion. Except for the usual Spandau fire the night was fairly quiet. Light snow falling at 9 a.m. (23 December) inevitably raised thoughts of a White Christmas which, as the battalion was to remain in the line, it was not likely to enjoy.
In the afternoon Brigadier Parkinson came to Battalion Headquarters and gave Colonel Norman details of an attack to the river bank the following night by 26 Battalion, assisted by mortar fire from 25 Battalion. On visiting 26 Battalion to arrange matters the mortar officer was told that the attack had been put forward to 6.45 in the morning (24 December). At 10.45 p.m. C Company, which had been prevented by the open country from getting a patrol during daylight to the stopbank at the river, sent a reconnaissance patrol there and it was found that the weapon pits on the near side were not occupied. An hour later another patrol visited the river at a sharp bend 200 yards upstream, with the same result. This bend was on the right flank of 26 Battalion's attack, and at two in the morning Colonel Fairbrother (26 Battalion) arranged with Colonel Norman for C Company to provide a guide for a section from 26 Battalion which would place a standing patrol at the bend.
It was breaking daylight on Christmas Eve when the battalion mortars joined in the opening of the barrage supporting 26 Battalion's attack, to which the enemy along the whole front reacted strongly. During the morning a warning was received of a possible relief on the night 26 – 27 December by the Divisional Cavalry Battalion, officers of that unit arriving to reconnoitre. However, the relief did not eventuate though it was twice postponed, at twenty-four-hour intervals, to 28 – 29 December, when 24 Battalion took over the sector. During the intervening days the river bank was frequently patrolled to gather information regarding the very large stopbanks, the depth and width of the water, and the nature of the bottom. The defences were strengthened by reinforcing the houses with sandbags and by constructing weapon pits in their vicinity.
In the circumstances little could be done about Christmas Day, but just before midnight on Christmas Eve greetings were exchanged with the neighbouring London Irish, and about noon on Christmas Day Brigadier Parkinson and Colonel Norman visited the companies to wish all ranks the season's compliments. Very complete arrangements had, however, been made for proper celebrations later.page 565
The day was exceptionally quiet, with very little enemy movement seen or heard, in effect a Christmas truce, with no fire until the early morning of the 26th. The proposed relief that evening was cancelled during the morning when a relief the following night by a battalion of 56 Division was substituted. At dusk 26 Battalion informed 25 Battalion that that evening it was sending out no patrols as it had arranged a large harassing-fire programme; a fighter cover was also operating that night. The enemy reaction was strong. Flares were sent up along the whole battalion front, Spandaus fired steadily on fixed lines, and there was heavy enemy artillery and mortar defensive fire. C Company was heavily shelled and mortared, and just after midnight (26 – 27 December) Major Taylor asked that 26 Battalion be discouraged from arranging a repetition of its HF tasks, a request acceded to by Colonel Fairbrother.
On the morning of the 27th Allied aircraft dropped bombs within 100 yards of C Company's forward posts, which lost no time in reporting the matter; the company had had quite sufficient disturbance during the night and was in no mood to tolerate a continuance by its friends. The second postponement of the relief was notified about noon and in the afternoon a signal from Brigade stated that that night the Divisional Cavalry Battalion would relieve 26 Battalion, and that the following night a battalion of 56 (London) Division would relieve 25 Battalion. But much shuffling and changing of boundaries on a higher level was going on, and eight hours later another message said that 24 Battalion would relieve 25 Battalion though the date was not changed, which was all that mattered to 25 Battalion.
In the evening the discovery of a case of measles in the mortar platoon headquarters caused some stir, the RMO asking that only the most necessary visits should be made to the house concerned; subsequent weekly medical reports do not reveal any spread of the disease. The night was rather disturbed by a good deal of noise in the enemy lines: shouting and movement, a horse and cart, and digging were heard and much confusion seemed to follow machine-gun fire against the localities concerned, the supporting artillery also joining in. On the right of A Company 10 Platoon of B Company reported through that company that a German patrol was moving around near it, A Company adding that a good deal of machine-gun fire was being exchanged. There were, however, no further developments- page 566 ments. In the morning arrangements for the relief were completed with 24 Battalion and by 7.30 p.m. 25 Battalion was on its way back to billets in Forli.
The following day, 29 December, was spent in celebrating Christmas on the same lines as its four predecessors overseas and with the same free enjoyment. It was, however, to be a very brief respite as two days hence the battalion was to relieve two companies of the London Irish in the line. The only casualty during the past week was one man died of wounds, the last casualty in 1944. Before the battalion moved forward various appointments were made. Captain Clay was appointed to command A Company with Captain Norton-Taylor as second-in-command; Lieutenant Henricksen23 became second-in-command B Company; in D Company Captain Bourke was to be the company commander and Lieutenant H. R. Cameron his second-in-command; Captain Sheild was transferred from D Company to command HQ Company with Lieutenant A. J. Beattie as second-in-command. During this short interlude notes on the last campaign were prepared by the companies for study and discussion and re-equipping and reorganising were rapidly completed. During the month the casualties were 3 officers killed and 2 wounded, 12 other ranks killed and 74 wounded. The battalion's strength had been well maintained, being 60 other ranks under its establishment of 32 officers and 737 other ranks. The sick rate for the month was again rather higher than the average for the four battalions, the evacuations for sickness being 7 officers and 85 other ranks in a brigade total of 15 officers and 267 other ranks.
That night the dispositions of 24 and 25 Battalions were rearranged; each battalion was to have two companies forward, with one in immediate reserve and one farther back. D Company 25 Battalion from Faenza was to take over the sector held by the two right companies (C and D) of 24 Battalion, and C Company 25 Battalion was also to come forward and occupy a reserve position in the rear area behind Battalion Headquarters. These changes were completed soon after dark on New Year's Day, D Company (Captain Bourke) being 600 yards east of C. Nova (where it was 600 yards south-west of B Company) while C Company was about a mile and a half back. During the afternoon A Company (Captain Clay) with 9 Platoon had occupied C. Domenica (500 yards south of B Company), the remainder of the company holding positions on or near the road for a distance of 700 yards to the south-east. The first casualty in the New Year was Private Daysh,25 wounded.
Throughout the night there was much mortar fire and ‘stonks’ fired in retaliation had a good effect. About dawn nebelwerfers opened up, followed by an SP gun which the air OP dealt with. An unpleasant weapon, though inaccurate, was the enemy rocket gun which fired rockets with a startling blast effect over a radius of about 100 yards, but with few splinters; this bore the formidable name of ‘Raketenpanzerbuchse 54’, or more commonly the ‘Ofenrohr’ (stovepipe) or ‘Panzerschreck’ (tank terror), and was similar to the United States bazooka with an effective range of about 130 yards. That morning they were used against 25 Battalion's position and no time was lost in pinpointing their positions, which were then engaged by the mortars of 24 Battalion, itself also under rocket fire.
About 4 p.m. reports from civilians to the London Irish on the right (whose patrols had reached the crossroads 800 yards north-east of 10 Platoon) indicated that about three hours earlier the enemy had withdrawn. By 7.30 p.m. B Company had sent 12 Platoon from Cassanico to C. Nuova (700 yards to the north) and within a couple of hours had 11 Platoon, also from Cassanico, in Fondo Cassanigo where a German from 1/922 Battalion of 278 Division was captured; 11 Platoon was 600 yards west of 12 Platoon and 800 yards north-west of the rest of B Company. Before midnight tanks and anti-tank guns had reached these forward platoons. The village of Cassanigo, page 569 1500 yards north-east of 11 Platoon's position at F. Cassanigo, was reported by civilians to harbour several enemy tanks, and it was suggested as a suitable air target in the morning. The civilians were giving very valuable information regarding the enemy, including his dispositions and movements and the position of minefields in the areas just ahead; they also reported the presence of three Germans with a telephone in a house 700 yards north of 11 Platoon. Before midday next morning (3 January) Cassanigo was bombed as suggested, D Company reporting the bombing to be good and the strafing excellent.
By mid-afternoon a section of 11 Platoon from F. Cassanigo had occupied Palazzo in Laguna at the road junction 400 yards north-west of its platoon, where there were two tanks of 20 Armoured Regiment. The crossroads north-east of 12 Platoon were firmly held by the London Irish whose patrols had been reinforced by a company and a troop of tanks. During the afternoon plans for an attack by 7 Armoured Brigade and 167 Infantry Brigade were discussed; the troops were to form up in 25 Battalion's area and leave the FDLs at 7.15 the following morning, 4 January, for an objective two miles to the north-east, a road running from S. Severo near the Senio on the left to S. Andrea on the railway 3000 yards to the south-east.
The London Irish were forming up round B Company and asked Major Finlay to withdraw his troops from C. Nuova, F. Cassanigo, and Palazzo in Laguna to make room for its command post, RAP, and details. In consequence 12 Platoon moved 800 yards to the south-east to C. Colombara, 10 Platoon in C. Lumina shared its house with the London Irish, and the remainder of 11 Platoon in F. Cassanigo moved forward to join its section at Palazzo in Laguna. The British attack made good progress and by the evening had secured the objective. Prisoners taken by the London Irish were reaching 25 Battalion in some numbers, and B Company with fifty-two of them asked for instructions as to their disposal; eventually they were returned to the London Irish. Twenty-fifth Battalion had three men wounded that day.
The next morning (5 January), after a night disturbed by a heavy bombardment by rockets and following a decision that 6 Brigade would turn to the left to face the Senio, A and D Companies were instructed that they would relieve C and B Companies of 24 Battalion that night. The brigade was to have a two-battalion front, each battalion with two companies forward. On the right A Company (Captain Clay) relieved C page 570 Company 24 Battalion, with 9 Platoon 400 yards north of the wine factory and 7 Platoon 400 yards east of 9 Platoon; 8 Platoon was in the factory area and Company Headquarters 800 yards to the south-east, close to the position to be occupied by C Company. On the left D Company (Captain Bourke) had 18 Platoon near the wine factory close to 8 Platoon and 17 Platoon on the left of the company sector near the crossroads taken over on 22 December from A Company; 16 Platoon was at C. Nova about 500 yards south of the factory; Company Headquarters was close to 17 Platoon. Each platoon of these two forward companies (other than 8 Platoon) had a strong standing patrol in position some distance from the remainder of the platoon; that of 9 Platoon was 200 yards to the west at Villa Gessi, 7 Platoon 450 yards to the north-west of C. Claretta (which would be taken over later by the London Irish), 18 Platoon in a building 200 yards south-west of it, 16 Platoon 300 yards to the south-west, and 17 Platoon near D Company headquarters. A Company 24 Battalion adjoined D Company.
The front held by the battalion from C. Claretta to the left flank near the crossroads was a mile in extent. C Company came up from reserve and occupied the positions vacated by D Company, while B Company fell back 1000 yards to the south to some of A Company's former positions at C. Masirano; its 12 Platoon, however, remained at C. Colombara, where it was 1000 yards north-east of the rest of the company.
The medium machine guns and the battalion mortars took up new positions farther to the north and the anti-tank guns moved as necessary to cover the FDLs. By 7.30 p.m. the rearrangement consequent upon the change of front had been completed. During the relief there had been some Spandau fire and later in the night enemy mortars, which from across the river opposite 7 and 9 Platoons had been causing trouble, were on two occasions heavily engaged by the artillery and the battalion mortars. Casualties that day were two wounded.
In the morning D Company's minesweepers cleared the road between 16 Platoon at C. Nova and the crossroads 200 yards to the north-east and lifted fifty-six mines, many of them booby-trapped; at the crossroads they found a demolition eighteen feet wide and ten feet deep which could not be negotiated till filled with rubble. After dark on the 6th, as arranged, the London Irish relieved 7 Platoon's standing patrol at C. Claretta and asked that, as the patrol was rather isolated from the rest of its company, A Company should keep in touch with it.page 571
All along the front, from the Canadian right north of Ravenna to the foothills south of Route 9, the troops of the Eighth Army had reached the Senio River, the enemy's foremost main defence line south of the River Po, though the enemy still held the eastern stopbank in many places. Until the winter had passed an active defence was to be maintained along that line and when the weather improved offensive operations would be resumed. In the forward area there were many civilians, and in their own interests and for reasons of security and accommodation they were evacuated, together with large numbers of cattle and other animals, following a census on 7 January in which the companies of the battalion played a part.
In the afternoon of the following day another change of dispositions took place. From its reserve position at C. Masirano B Company advanced about two miles and relieved a company of the London Irish within 700 yards south-east of the Felisio bridge. Except for Company HQ and 7 Platoon, A Company remained in position; 7 Platoon went to C. Claretta, where formerly it had had a standing patrol, and Company HQ moved 800 yards to the right flank to the house vacated by 7 Platoon. D Company was relieved by a company of 26 Battalion and returned to the position it had occupied on 1 December east of C. Nova, displacing C Company which moved 1600 yards to the north-east on the right flank behind B Company. Battalion Headquarters went to C. Lumina, about a mile to the north-east, where it was centrally situated behind the companies. The first casualty for four days occurred on the 9th when two men were wounded.
The usual detailed reports of enemy movements, noise, and other activities incidental to static warfare continued to be sent in by the companies each day. The artillery and mortars of both sides were active and little movement was observed, though in the early hours of the 10th B Company reported an enemy patrol near 12 Platoon. On that day the battalion was relieved by the Divisional Cavalry Battalion and in the evening returned to billets in Forli. For the next six days normal out-of-the-line routine followed, and then on the 17th the battalion moved to Faenza, where it was responsible for the defence of the town. After four days there it relieved the Divisional Cavalry Battalion in the sector near Felisio, occupying the same positions as were previously held but with a page 572 general post of the companies. C Company (Major Taylor) took over the right forward position previously held by B Company; D Company (Major Bourke—recently promoted) went on the left flank in place of A Company (Major Clay—also recently promoted), which took over C Company's former support position on the right; while B Company (Major Finlay) took up a similar position on the left behind D Company. Except for C Company, which waited for darkness, the relief was completed by 4 p.m.
The next five days followed the normal pattern. A good deal of enemy movement from time to time was heard on the other side of the Senio and two patrols on the near side were dispersed by the battalion mortars. Self-propelled guns and rockets were used against the battalion's positions, D Company's headquarters on the 21st being bombarded with 7.5-inch rockets containing propaganda pamphlets. In the afternoon of the 23rd an 88-millimetre SP gun scored a direct hit on C Company's headquarters, one man being wounded, the only casualty in the past fortnight. These high-velocity guns firing down the road running south-east from Felisio were a great annoyance to C and A Companies, the two companies which straddled the road, particularly so as after firing they speedily moved off to avoid retaliatory fire. It was thought that in Felisio the enemy used a ramp which the gun mounted in order to clear the near stopbank and fire on the houses in the battalion sector; consequently, the supporting artillery, tank guns, and mortars were laid on to the suspected ramp in readiness to fire when the SP gun opened.
During this period a programme of wiring was pushed on to protect the standing patrols and platoon positions, except in C Company's sector which was too exposed to Spandau fire; anti-personnel mines and trip flares were used there instead. At 4.30 in the morning of the 23rd there was a flare-up when the forward companies engaged the near bank of the Senio farther to the north to assist an attack by 2/5 Queens, which used Wasp flame-throwers. There was, however, no enemy reaction against 25 Battalion and the attack did not succeed.
On the 26th a further readjustment of the front took place, to be completed the following day. Twenty-fourth Battalion on the left of 25 Battalion was to be relieved by 26 Battalion, whose sector was to be extended to the north to include the area held by D Company, the left company of 25 Battalion. Twenty-fifth page 573 Battalion was also to extend its sector by moving its right boundary about 1500 yards to the right, the two reserve companies, A and B, relieving two companies of the London Irish. As a first step, D Company during the afternoon of the 26th was relieved by B Company 26 Battalion, which meanwhile came under command of 25 Battalion; on relief D Company moved back to a staging area a mile and a half to the south-east near C. Masirano, and on the following afternoon moved into the reserve position then vacated by A Company. After dark on the 27th A and B Companies relieved the London Irish companies, with A Company on the right. C Company on the left of B Company remained in its position opposite Felisio; Battalion Headquarters moved 2000 yards to the north to a position behind B Company and the carriers, mortars, signals, and RAP moved to the same general area.
The enemy SP guns, especially from Felisio, were still a menace, and to cope with them extra ammunition was allotted to the artillery and a 17-pounder tank was sited near 17 Platoon on the Felisio-S. Andrea road, 1300 yards south-east of Felisio. Another move against these guns was a bombardment of Felisio in the afternoon of the 28th by 7.2-inch guns; according to a detailed round-by-round report from C Company, forty-seven rounds were fired with good results, apart from a depressingly large percentage of defective rounds; three shells hit the church where an enemy OP was situated, four landed on the stopbank, seven hit houses, seventeen were close to church and houses, and sixteen failed to explode though three of these hit houses.
There was, however, no slackening in the fire of enemy SP guns, C Company reporting early the following morning that about thirty shells fell in its area; about 10 a.m. 9 Platoon on the extreme right of the battalion sector had one killed and six wounded when a shell hit its house. Casualties were mounting, with one man wounded on the 23rd (the first casualty in two weeks), one killed on the 25th, and two killed and one wounded on the 26th; the casualties that morning (29 January) included Lieutenant Hynes,26 wounded.
After dark patrols were out as usual, investigating the stop-bank to learn the position of enemy posts, minefields, and wiring, examining houses, and setting trip-flares. Night patrolling is an eerie and dangerous job at any time, but these patrols had to contend with frozen ground and the snow remaining page 574 from a six-inch fall three days previously, which made silent movement impossible. That night, under orders from Colonel Norman, Major Clay moved 7 Platoon from reserve near Company Headquarters to C. Ghetti, 350 yards to the north-east of 9 Platoon, relieving a platoon of 47 Reconnaissance Battalion and increasing the battalion's frontage to about 2200 yards.
In the early hours of the 30th SP guns harassing the battalion were engaged by all available support weapons, apparently with little effect despite the special measures taken to cope with them, as they resumed firing an hour or so later; together with nebelwerfer and rocket guns they were again active that night, but in the daylight hours most of the enemy fire came from medium artillery and mortars. As soon as the light failed D Company from reserve relieved C Company on the left of the battalion, the two companies changing places.
While the many standing patrols employed in the Senio sector, in their stationary role, were not so vulnerable or conspicuous as the reconnaissance and fighting patrols, they also had an onerous task, as the following personal account indicates:
‘B Company had a forward patrol dug in on a sunken road 300 yards from the Stop Bank of the Senio which closed a gap on the left flank of B Company. At night 15 men occupied this position 300 yards away from the support of the remainder of the Company and at first light three men were left there until supplemented again at night by a full patrol. Telephone communication was maintained with Company HQ.
‘On the morning of the 30th the main patrol had no sooner returned to Company when the noise of an enemy patrol approaching was heard. Privates Archer, Copeland, and Davidson called for urgent mortar & machine gun support but as ammunition at the period was severely rationed only limited support followed.
‘The approach of a Jerry “patrol” in snow clothes through the grapevines leading from the stopbank to the dug-out in unknown strength was a bit hair-raising but Archer's challenge “Halt Achtung” caused two deserters at 10 feet carrying a huge white flag perhaps greater consternation than the fears of the forward patrol.
‘Private Copeland returned to HQ with these deserters and was fortunate to get there without being observed from the Stop Bank.’
The two deserters were from 278 Division. Questioned at Brigade Headquarters the Germans, who were MT drivers page 575 from the workshops, said their company had fifty men, nine light machine guns, and machine pistols, with one heavy machine gun and an 81-centimetre mortar in support; the company had a frontage of 350 metres and with the companies on the flanks was holding the west stopbank, but each company had two sections, each of five or six men, on the east bank, one man in each section being armed with a bazooka. The prisoners gave the position of company headquarters (in a dugout under a house) and divisional headquarters, also the probable positions of battalion and regimental headquarters. A 10.5-centimetre gun was camouflaged in a house which they indicated. They said morale was low, particularly amongst recent reinforcements who had had little infantry experience, and that many would surrender if they got the chance. Their senior officers did not expect a British offensive until the weather improved a month hence.
On the 31st Brigadier Parkinson decided that 25 and 26 Battalions would each endeavour to get a platoon established on the near bank of the Senio, and in the afternoon Colonel Norman instructed Major Finlay to arrange an attempt at 6 p.m. that evening; if the task was found to be impossible the platoon was to inflict as many casualties as possible and withdraw. The flanks were to be secured by fire from A and D Companies, the two flanking companies. The artillery and 4.2-inch mortars would be in support, the former to fire on C. Zachini, a group of houses 350 yards west of the platoon's objective.
At 6.15 p.m. while the battalion area was being heavily shelled and mortared, 12 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant Wilson27 and Sergeant Powell28) was moving forward from B Company headquarters. Passing through 11 Platoon on the company's right flank, it advanced to the stopbank where it overcame slight opposition, taking four prisoners, and by 7.30 p.m. was firmly established. Except for small-arms fire from the flanks everything was quiet. The platoon reported several casualties and asked for ammunition, which a carrying party under Company Sergeant-Major Williams29 took forward, bringing page 576 back the wounded and the prisoners. This initial success was followed by disaster. An excellent report by the platoon commander gives a detailed account of the action, of which only extracts can be given here:
‘The last 100 yds was across open snow,’ wrote Second-Lieutenant Wilson, ‘with no cover where we tripped two flares but no fire was called down. The final stage of our advance was aided by effective fire from our tanks into the stopbank on our flanks…. Considerable confusion was apparent (on the left flank) among the enemy who apparently believed us in greater force. Positions and weapons were abandoned, 4 POWs were taken with no opposition while others of the enemy … dived into the river or made off to the left…. Leaving the section to guard prisoners I took L/Cpl Copeland30 to the river bank and engaged with TSMG fire and 36 grenades, the disorganised enemy, some of whom were still in the river. 3 at least of the enemy were killed. No fire was returned. In the meantime the remainder of the platoon had opened effective fire right along our positions. 8 Sec's Bren gun was engaged by Spandaus from across the river and by a gun firing along the stopbank from our right rear…. Throughout the 15–16 hours we occupied these positions, enemy arty and mortar fire was extremely heavy with occasional relief. Our position on the stopbank was difficult to hit. It was apparent that the enemy was consistently dropping his range on the advice of forward troops…. Eventually he reduced his range to such an extent that one heavy mortar “hate” dropped among his own troops with some effect if the groans and outcries were an indication of casualties. The nebelwerfer was later produced but fired two bombs only and these landed in the river in front of our positions … our 3″ mortars responded well to all requests and made enemy movements over the flat between the river and west stopbank, already covered by our small-arms, extremely hazardous….
‘Owing to the nature of the bank with its fold halfway down, 36 grenades were found to be the only effective weapon against troops between the river and our positions and it was necessary to hold the grenade in hand with lever off for 2 seconds before rolling it down the bank, otherwise it fell into the river. The enemy, however, soon … commenced to cross the river to our page 577 right and left. Darkness made visibility poor…. To the right the bend in the stopbank obscured fire and the enemy could cross unhindered except by mortar fire.
‘The difficulties of our position were very obvious at this stage. It was apparent that the enemy could cross in large numbers and attack from either flank. Positions to our right on the stopbank would enfilade us from our right rear. I did not foresee that he would later occupy Gallegati [a group of buildings 150 yards east of the river] in strength and so cover our rear…. The expenditure of amn was considerable and had to be restricted…. Communications were improved when Major Finlay brought up a telephone and two lines. These lines were very soon cut in many places by enemy arty fire. The 38 set received a direct hit from a stick grenade, and the only communication by this means thereafter was with an enemy set which continued to order us in English to surrender. From midnight onwards the enemy attacked intermittently with small arms and grenades from the right flank and from in front….
‘I had expected heavy sniping by day but had anticipated wrongly that the frontal attacks would cease. Instead, before first light a strong force attacked from the front and both flanks with stick and rifle grenades which were employed with great accuracy. The only weapon of much use to us was 36 grenades of which we threw between 150 and 180 in our period on the bank. With daylight the enemy moved most effectively. From Gallegati and the stopbank to our right and from across the river he kept up persistent sniping and spasmodic bursts of Spandau while a large party operated with grenades from both flanks and in front. 8 Sec was most heavily engaged and ran out of amn which was not unexpected as this section had been almost continuously engaged at close range for 8–10 hrs. This, however, … allowed infiltration of our positions. The enemy operated with much daring and worked right up to our central positions, suffering considerable casualties in so doing. He seemed to possess an unending supply of stick grenades and it was common during the last two hours to see up to two dozen in the air above us at the same time. We sustained several casualties from these.
‘By 9.30 a.m. 1 Feb my position was this:—Amn, practically nil; Comn, with Coy—nil; within the pl comm was difficult. The number of casualties had made gaps in the line and it was difficult to pass messages along the pl; Casualties, Sgt page 578 Powell, Neal,31 Walker,32 Kelly,33 Cpl Lapthorn,34, Small,35 had all been wounded but could not be evacuated nor could they be treated as the RAP bag had been destroyed by a grenade. Schwass36 had been killed. Appreciation. I believed the positions could be held with amn … it was hard to see how it could be brought up in daylight. I believed a total evacuation … impossible owing to the sealing of our lines of withdrawal from the right flank and from Gallegati. Furthermore the enemy immediately in front of us would mount the bank and open fire…. However under smoke a partial evacuation might be possible…. I sent out Cpl Lapthorn and Cpl Giorgi37 at minute intervals to ask for smoke to cover our withdrawal…. Preparations were made to thin out when the smoke arrived.
‘By 10.30 a.m. our fire had almost totally ceased owing to lack of amn. Between 10.30 and 11 a.m. the enemy, sensing the position, charged the bank and took our positions…. It is some consolation to record the enemy's known casualties. … I can record definitely that 11 of the enemy were killed, 15 wounded, and 4 were taken prisoner [These were all actually seen by 2 Lt Wilson]. Others of my pl claim to have seen further dead, especially in front of 8 Sec but these I did not see for myself. It is possible that 40 – 50 casualties were inflicted on the enemy. That his cas were comparatively heavy is largely due to the courageous and aggressive manner in which he attacked. 12 Pl conducted itself well and I could have asked no more from it than was performed…. [Commendation of L-Cpl Copeland (killed) and Cpl Lapthorn (wounded) followed]. After the action had concluded, I was able to see within a 500 yard radius of my positions at least 500 – 800 enemy troops. My NCOs place the figure higher. These lined page 579 the stopbank to either flank, the west stopbank and the river area. The frontal attacking party I put at 80 to 100. This last party and many others were dressed immaculately in uniform and boots that did not speak of a long tenure of the positions. A minority were clad in duty snow suits or dirty uniforms. From this I calculated that the enemy had been alarmed by the move and had expected it to be a prelude to a larger attack and had consequently reinforced heavily.’
Privates Morgan38 and Jacobsen39 of 12 Platoon, who, after capture, escaped from a camp near the Austrian border and rejoined the battalion on 8 May, gave a very good and detailed account of their experiences both in the action and later when prisoners of war, their observations agreeing with those of Second-Lieutenant Wilson. Of him, they wrote: ‘Mr Wilson, the Pl Comdr, had by this time been wounded twice and had acted in a very gallant manner throughout, constantly exposing himself to danger, whilst encouraging and leading his men.’ They were taken about 15 miles back and at 10 next morning ‘the interrogation of the prisoners began in earnest. Each man was questioned singly and then put into a different room. The German officer was at first very polite, offering cigarettes and told the men to make themselves comfortable. Most of the questions concerned the composition of the 8th Army, the dispositions of the divisions in the line, and of those out resting. He had a complete list of all the Div signs, both British and American. The men were not allowed to speak either to the Pl officer or the Sgt and Sgt Powell was roughly treated when he refused to answer questions and was put into solitary confinement with no food or water. Fortunately a hole was made in the wall and the necessary food was passed in to him. … Again questions were put, this time with an effort to locate 46 Br Div … believed to be in Greece. For fully ten minutes questions were fired on the strengths of the Divs in Italy…. His patience became less with continued refusal to answer questions, and he ended up by throwing paper about and generally acting like a spoilt child…. one of the questions was on the alleged shooting of German PWs by the Maoris at Faenza’.
The battalion's casualties on 31 January-1 February were two other ranks killed, one died of wounds, ten wounded, page 580 one officer (Second-Lieutenant Wilson) and three other ranks wounded and missing, and nineteen missing. Wilson was wounded both on 31 January and 1 February, while Lance- Corporal Harding,40 who had been wounded on 17 December, was again wounded on 1 February. With the exception of Private Powdrell,41 those wounded and those wounded and missing later rejoined the Allied Forces.
For his fine leadership, devotion to duty, and personal courage, Second-Lieutenant Wilson was awarded the Military Cross, extracts from the citation reading.
‘Soon after the attack started trip flares were set off by the members of the platoon, resulting in the Platoon being immediately engaged by the enemy, with SA fire at short range. 2nd- Lieut Wilson without any regard for his personal safety went from section to section and reorganized his method of approach to the stopbank and successfully drove the enemy from the pl's objectives….2nd-Lieut Wilson then took a number of the pl fwd on to the slope of the stopbank and engaged the fleeing enemy…. During the whole period … the pl area was heavily stonked by enemy arty and mortar fire, but this did not deter the pl comdr from moving around from section to section, organizing fire plans for each one, during which time the enemy was at close quarters…. Throughout the action 2/Lt Wilson led his pl with skill, determination, and without any thought for his personal safety.’
The commander of B Company (Major Jack Finlay), who had served continuously with the battalion since Alamein and had commanded the company with distinction since Cassino, also showed skill and courage in this operation. He was subsequently awarded the Military Cross, the citation, when referring to the attack on the stopbank, stating inter alia, ‘when one of his platoons became heavily involved with the enemy Major Finlay walked fwd across open ground, under heavy small-arms fire, to inspect the position; over a long period this officer's devotion to duty, disregard of danger, and continued cheerfulness have been an inspiration to all with whom he has come in contact.’
In reviewing the operation of 12 Platoon one cannot escape the conclusion that it had no prospects of success. As a raid to take prisoners, inflict casualties, and obtain information regard- page 581 ing the river, stopbanks, and enemy dispositions, there is no doubt it would have succeeded, provided the platoon withdrew before the enemy could counter-attack in any strength. The stopbank was about 400 yards in advance of the battalion's foremost posts and, with the second stopbank and the river between, formed a formidable and important enemy line of defence, proof against tank attack until bridged; the stopbanks afforded cover from view and from low-trajectory fire as well as facilitating the construction of secure dugouts for local reserves. No. 12 Platoon was required to hold 150 yards of the near stopbank, thus exposing the sections to defeat in detail, especially at night, though had the platoon been concentrated it still would have been overpowered but might have had a better chance of withdrawing.
On the left 26 Battalion had a similar task and met much the same reception; it adopted different methods, however, sending only one section to the stopbank and withdrawing it, with difficulty, at 8.45 p.m. when the severe enemy reaction showed there was no hope of success.
Apart from the events of the early hours of the 1st, the first four days of February differed little from the previous days in the sector, the only casualties being one killed and one wounded on the 3rd. On relief by 24 Battalion on the evening of the 4th, 25 Battalion returned to Faenza where it spent the following five days. Returning to the line on the 10th, the battalion occupied 26 Battalion's sector between C. Claretta and La Palazza, the dispositions being much the same as those of 5 January, though the companies were differently placed. A Company was on the right north of the wine factory and C Company on the left at La Palazza. D Company headquarters and 17 Platoon were close behind C Company, but 16 Platoon at C. Nova was 800 yards away to the north-east and 18 Platoon at the wine factory 1100 yards north of Company Headquarters. B Company, 600 yards east of 16 Platoon, held the same position as that occupied by D Company on 1 January, and Battalion Headquarters was at C. Lumina, which it had previously occupied on 21 January.
Once more, for the next fourteen days, it was the familiar round of static warfare, with harassing fire of all natures from both sides and a small but constant toll of casualties of one killed and twelve wounded. Of the effect of the enemy rockets, Lance-Corporal (‘Stonk’) Parker writes:page 582
‘I came down off picquet from the upstairs window and had just had time to stretch out when we heard the eerie noise of the rockets winding up. The majority of the chaps moved down into the “refugio” which had been well prepared [inside the house] by previous occupiers of the casa but before we could get clear of our room the rocket hit us with a devastating crash, the like of which I'd not heard before. It completely demolished the house with the exception of the front and back walls and the room occupied by Jim [Slim] Galvin,42 Ted Schearer,43 and myself. The refugio was completely buried but withstood the shock of the rocket and the weight of the rubble which showered down on it. Those not buried by the falling debris set to work to dig the other chaps out, Wilf Couper44 and Vic Armstrong45 doing great work. It was in this incident that Wally Everett46 was killed. A 13 Platoon chap Fred Langston later told me that when he looked over and saw the pile of rubble he could not credit how any of 14 Platoon could possibly be left alive.’
During this period in the line there were few enemy patrols and none from the battalion. One patrol in snow clothing approached D Company and was driven off by 3-inch mortar fire, and another, near a standing patrol of A Company, was engaged by artillery and small-arms fire and left one dead. Opposite the right flank of the battalion and also a little farther to the right in front of 24 Battalion, there seemed to be quite a jovial group of Germans; one evening there were ‘sounds of a Jerry party enjoying a spot of vino; at nine one morning 7 Platoon heard a working party making a lot of noise and singing “Lili Marlene”’; and a little before noon on another occasion, men of A Company heard ‘Joyful sounds of music’ which entertained the company. The Germans could have had little occasion to be joyful; they may have been using a gramophone to dissipate the gloom.
The snipers with the companies were ever on the alert and on three successive days accounted for a German, one of whom page 583 was in a Spandau post where on the fourth day a tank secured a fourth victim. On 19 February, about 8.30 p.m., 8 Platoon was startled when a trip-flare went up; it was first thought to have been caused by a rabbit but the whole company stood-to for ten minutes before it was confirmed that a rabbit was indeed the culprit. Two days later, just before dawn—always a ‘touchy’ time in the line—D Company had a ‘shrapnel’ mine exploded, investigation showing that a cat was the cause. It was not the first time in the experience of the battalion that animals had sounded the alarm.
On the 13th and again on the 17th, the 7.2-inch guns demolished enemy houses across the river, the enemy replying three days later with artillery and mortars, securing direct hits on several houses. C Company seemed to have rather bad luck with its houses, 14 Platoon receiving two direct hits from rockets on the 12th, and 13 and 15 Platoons having their house twice hit on the 20th by medium artillery. On the latter date one of A Company's platoons, No. 8, had the chimney of its house damaged by a mortar bomb. An unfortunate accident with a grenade on the morning of 13 February swelled the casualties already mentioned when B Company had one man killed, one died of wounds, and two wounded.
On the evening of 24 February the battalion was relieved by 24 Battalion and went back to new billets in Faenza. It had discovered at least one asset in the sector it had left; to quote a member of the unit: ‘A lot of olive oil was discovered, and as it was very valuable much of it was taken out each night by the Jeeps that brought the evening meal to the forward position.’ In the week ending 24 February fifteen officers who had previously served with 3 NZ Division in the Pacific (one major, one captain and thirteen lieutenants) joined 25 Battalion as ‘attached officers’. For the next nine days normal out-of-the-line routine followed, during which, on 1 and 5 March, Polish advance parties arrived to inspect billets and reconnoitre positions; the New Zealand Division was to be relieved for a month's training, not for a rest, as was made very clear by higher authority.
Preceded by the usual advance party, the battalion on the 6th left for San Severino, a small town about nine miles from Castelraimondo, where the battalion had spent most of last November. For the whole period there the weather was perfect, the population very friendly and the billets splendid. ‘During the rest and training period at San Severino,’ wrote one man, page 584 ‘the battalion was allotted the luxury of private houses and large comfortable buildings. This was the first time the Bn had had the opportunity of good living.’ No one would deny that it was well-earned.
Training was commenced immediately and covered a wide field, with emphasis on the mechanics and tactics of river-crossing. There was the usual round of sports and other entertainments, including a donkey derby arranged by 26 Battalion and attended by many men of 25 Battalion. Following company and battalion rehearsals, a brigade ceremonial parade was held on 16 March at the football field at Castelraimondo, where General Freyberg inspected the brigade and presented decorations and awards. ‘For General Freyberg's parade all badges of rank had to be worn,’ wrote one participant, ‘and many were the privates of the various platoons who were surprised at the 1-cpls and cpls of other platoons in their own company’.
Unexpectedly, on the 29th orders were received for a return to the line, and two days later at 6.30 p.m. the battalion set out on the journey, reaching the B Echelon area near Forli at 2.30 a.m. on 1 April, an appropriate date many thought. By 9.30 that night the battalion relieved troops of 78 British Division on the Senio near Granarolo, about two miles to the north-east of the sector it had last held. To deceive the enemy, 78 Division flashes—a yellow battleaxe—were sewn on the battle dress and care was exercised with the telephone and wireless, the latter to be used only in case of extreme necessity. A and B Companies occupied the forward positions on the stopbank and C and D Companies were a mile and a half back near Granarolo. Preparations were soon to be put in train for a major attack across the river.
The nominal roll of the officers of the battalion at the end of March showed a number of changes:
Lt-Col E. K. Norman, MC, Commanding Officer
Capt (T/Maj) J. Finlay, Second-in-Command
Lt B. A. Andrews, Adjutant
Lt D. J. Pocknall, OC
2 Lt J. L. Thomson, Sigs Offr (1 Pl)
2 Lt (T/Lt) E. R. C. Jackson, QM (6 Pl)
Lt E. F. T. Beer, Tpt Offr (6 Pl)
Lt (T/Capt) A. Norton-Taylor, OC
2 Lt G. W. Stephenson, MG Offr (2 Pl)
Lt R. B. Simpson, Mortar Offr (3 Pl)
Lt N. K. Chapman, MM, A-Tk Offr (5 Pl)
Lt (T/Maj) J. H. Sheild, OC
Lt W. M. King, Second-in-Comd (actg)
*Capt I. T. Galloway, 7 Pl
*Maj F. L. H. Davis, OC
Lt (T/Capt) A. G. Henricksen, Second-in-Comd
2 Lt D. W. Harrison, Spare (Sports Offr)
2 Lt G. L. Joyce, Spare
Lt (T/Capt) R. V. Milne, OC
Lt (T/Capt) J. B. May, Second-in-Comd
2 Lt L. Hampton, MM, Spare
Lt (T/Maj) H. R. Cameron, OC
*Lt (T/Capt) R. W. Berry, Second-in-Comd
2 Lt D. H. G. Hawkins, Spare
Lt (T/Capt) A. B. West, NZ Roll
Lt (T/Capt) D. F. Muir, IO, 6 Bde HQ
Lt E. C. Hansen, OC 6 Bde Def Pl
Lt R. D. O'Neill, LO, 6 Bde HQ
Capt P. D. Nathan, NZMC, RMO
Rev. H. E. Rowe, Chaplain
3 Brig R. C. Queree, CBE, DSO, m.i.d.; London; born Christchurch, 28 Jun 1909; Regular soldier; Brigade Major, NZ Arty, Oct 1940–Jun 1941; GSO II 2 NZ Div Jun-Aug 1941, Jan-Jun 1942; CO 4 Fd Regt Jun-Aug 1942; GSO I 2 NZ Div Sep 1942–Jun 1944; BGS NZ Corps 9 Feb-27 Mar 1944; CO 5 Fd Regt Jun-Aug 1944; CRA 2 NZ Div Aug 1944–Jun 1945; QMG, Army HQ, 1948–50; Adjutant-General 1954–56; Vice-Chief of the General Staff 1956–60; Senior Army Liaison Officer, London.
4 Vice Major Kedgley, appointed Bn 2 i/c, 10 Dec.
12 Tedesci, Italian for ‘German’.
17 19 Dec is no doubt intended.
19 Defensive fire.
24 Fondo, farm or estate.
30 L-Cpl W.H. Copeland; born NZ 14 May 1922; shop assistant; killed in action 1 Feb 1945.
* Denotes attached officers.