Chapter 17 — The Advance from Rimini
The Advance from Rimini
AFTER the battalion reached the Riccione concentration area on 18 September there was a delay of several days before 6 Brigade was ordered into the line. Canadian infantry charged with establishing a bridgehead over the Marecchia River, met strong opposition from the enemy holding the San Fortunato Ridge, which covered the approaches to Rimini from the south and barred the entrance to the south-eastern end of the Po Valley. While the battle for the ridge continued, plan to maintain the momentum of the Eighth Army assault and drive north and north-west into the Romagna, as this part of the Po Valley was called, were completed. When the bridgehead over the river had been established, three divisions (2 NZ Division on the coast, 5 Canadian Armoured Division inland of it, and 1 British Armoured Division farther inland still) were to begin a drive to capture Ravenna on the Adriatic coast, Castel Maggiore, a few miles north of Bologna, and Bologna itself. The New Zealand Division, under command of 1 Canadian Corps, was directed on Ravenna, and it was intended to use 6 Brigade, with strong armoured support, for the first phase. On the 20th this plan was changed. Fifth Brigade was to lead the advance as far as Rio Fontanaccia, about three miles beyond the Marecchia, and 6 Brigade would then pass through. The Division was temporarily commanded by Maj-Gen C. E. Weir,1 who had succeeded General Freyberg when the latter was injured in an aircraft accident on 3 September.
At this juncture there was a widespread belief amongst all ranks of the Eighth Army that the country ahead would prove to be a playground for the armour. A study of maps of the area served only to confirm this belief, although it was realised that the many rivers and canals would cause some engineering prob- page 443 lems. Only after the Eighth Army entered the plain and encountered the new terrain was it fully realised that the Romagna imposed possibly more tactical problems than the rugged country through which the Army had been advancing. The area had formerly been a vast swamp, and the work of reclamation had continued through the centuries right up until the outbreak of war. High floodbanks were built alongside the principal rivers and streams, and these together with an extensive network of canals, dykes and irrigation ditches, ensured a rapid outflow of water after heavy rain. Some of the dykes were raised and drained naturally into the larger streams, but the majority required the use of pumps. There were in all thirteen major rivers running across the Romagna, their floodbanks rising in some instances as much as 40 feet above the surrounding plain. As there were few bridges or fords, all were tank obstacles. In autumn and winter they were frequently infantry obstacles as well. Apart from the larger streams there were the innumerable smaller watercourses—called ‘Fosso’ or ‘Scolo’ locally—running more or less parallel to the main streams, and some of these were often both tank and infantry obstacles. The two main roads which ran through the area were both embanked and safe from flooding. Route 9 ran in a direct line from Rimini to Bologna and Route 16 through Ravenna and Argenta to Ferrara. Most of the secondary roads which ran between these two highways were badly formed, narrow, and subject to flooding. Few bridges existed except on the main highways, and the secondary roads were more or less independent systems between rivers.
Apart from the roads and rivers there were other obstacles in the path of the Eighth Army. The ground was clay-based and in dry weather all movement of tracked vehicles caused thick dust. A heavy shower was all that was needed to make the surface slippery and greasy; and when the weather was really wet, or after floods, the ground became a morass into which men sank over their ankles and vehicles to their axles. In winter the ground dried more slowly so that one fall of rain could hold up operations for some time. The country was in places thickly populated, the small farms and villages providing the enemy with excellent strongpoints and snipers' posts. Much of the area page 444 was given up to viniculture. The vines were grown on wire trellises carried on fruit trees spaced about ten feet apart, and were allowed to grow to a height of about 15 feet. In summer and autumn when the vines were in full leaf, visibility was severely restricted.
The Germans exploited these natural obstacles to the full in the ensuing months, and as winter set in the Eighth Army's offensive was gradually brought to a standstill and the attack on Northern Italy delayed until the following spring.
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When San Fortunato Ridge fell on the 20th Rimini became untenable to the Germans, and on the following morning New Zealand tanks and infantry of 3 Greek Mountain Brigade entered the town without opposition. Fifth Brigade took over from 1 Canadian Division north of the Marecchia River and began advancing towards the Rio Fontanaccia. On the 22nd 6 Brigade moved to a concentration area about a mile south of Rimini, and next morning 24 and 25 Battalions left to relieve 5 Brigade, which had been ordered to stop at the Scolo Brancona, south of its objective. The 26th Battalion, in reserve, was ordered to be ready to move at short notice. By midday on the 24th the battalion was in a reserve area about two miles north of Rimini. At this stage 24 and 25 Battalions were still short of the Fontanaccia but were continuing to advance against heavy fire. In the afternoon Brig Parkinson gave orders for the forward battalions to advance to the line of Bordonchio during the night. D Coy 26 Battalion, under command of 20 Armoured Regiment, would move out on the left to provide flank protection. The village of Bordonchio lay in the centre of the brigade sector, a mile and a half north of the Fontanaccia.
About the same time as D Coy left its rendezvous, Col Fountaine arrived back from a conference at Brigade HQ with orders for another flanking role.2 A and B Coys, both with a section of mortars, anti-tank guns, and carriers under command, were to close the gap between 22 Motor Battalion on the coast and 24 Battalion on the right flank of 6 Brigade. The two companies were to be ready to move to a start line at 6 a.m. on the 25th. The 22nd Battalion had been advancing along the coastal road and had halted beyond the village of Torre Pedrara and about a mile short of 24 Battalion's position south of Bordonchio. The two companies were to take up a position along an embankment which ran parallel to and approximately midway between the coastal road and Route 16.
The CO accompanied the two companies when they left the reserve area next morning, and Tac HQ was set up near the start line. Major Murray led his company along Route 16 until it was almost opposite the section of embankment it was to occupy. B Coy, with Capt Kerr in command, advanced from a lateral road which linked Route 16 with the coastal road. Except for some Shermans which were supporting the infantry, all supporting arms were left at the start point. Apart from some shell and mortar fire no opposition was encountered, and both companies were in position by 9.40 a.m. B Coy had taken eight prisoners who seemed eager to be captured. They were identified as from 162 Turcomen Division. At 11.30 a.m. the CO was ordered to relieve 22 Battalion and advance up the coast to link up with 24 Battalion. The objective was the lateral road running from Bordonchio to the coast. Retaining the same formation, the two companies crossed the railway line and, extending across the front, resumed their advance at a quarter past twelve. Again no opposition was encountered; 500 yards from the lateral road A Coy linked up with 24 Battalion, which was not as far forward as was thought. Both companies reported page 448 an unusual number of enemy dead, mostly Turcomen, in the area, the result of a heavy bombardment. The companies held these positions until relieved by 24 Battalion after dark.
On the left flank D Coy had not had a very peaceful time. During the day the forward platoons had been heavily mortared and three men wounded. Enemy tanks and infantry attempted to approach the sector several times but were driven back by concentrated artillery and tank fire. A carrier was bazookaed at a range of about ten yards. The driver was badly shaken but unhurt. On another occasion an enemy party approached 17 Platoon but was driven back by LMG and rifle fire. One German surrendered but the others escaped under cover of a smoke screen. A Sherman tank was hit and it blazed for some time. Later Allied fighter-bombers attacked the suspected locations of the enemy tanks and the shell and mortar fire slackened off for a while. After dusk Maj Hunter moved 18 Platoon forward on the left of 17 Platoon so that the company could give better all-round protection.
During the night A and B Coys were relieved, and early on the 26th Brig Parkinson ordered the battalion to move forward on the left of 25 Battalion and establish a bridgehead over the Uso, a narrow, meandering river with many U-shaped bends, reputed to be the ancient Rubicon. The 24th and 25th Battalions were already advancing towards the river and intended to establish bridgeheads. The 26th Battalion crossing was to be made at a point almost due west of Bordonchio, and as soon as sappers had completed crossings for the supporting arms it was planned to continue the advance to the next river barrier, the Fiumicino. This meant that after crossing the river the battalion would have to advance north-west with its left flank on the divisional boundary.
It was decided, however, to deepen the bridgehead, and at 8 p.m. the two companies moved forward 500 yards. This move was carried out without difficulty, although enemy mortar fire was still fairly heavy. Major Hobbs had not been able to locate 13 Platoon, so 14 Platoon was brought across the river to take up a position on the company's left flank. During the night B Coy and the sappers working on the crossing were troubled by spandau fire. No. 11 Platoon, commanded by Lt Milne,3 was most affected, but by using the No. 38 set to guide the three-inch mortars onto their target the Platoon Commander was able to silence the enemy machine-gunners. During the early hours of 27 September tanks and the supporting arms moved forward to B and C Coys. The 25th Battalion also crossed the Uso and moved forward on the right of C Coy. Nearer the coast the Greek Brigade had relieved 24 Battalion, and elements of the Divisional Cavalry were in Bellaria, a town north of the river. At first light the missing C Coy platoon was found and it moved into reserve around Coy HQ.
During the early part of the morning some regrouping was carried out in preparation for continuing the advance to the Fiumicino. The 24th Battalion relieved the 25th on the right flank. A Coy moved across the river to come up on the left of C Coy, which in turn moved a short distance to the right. Battalion HQ and D Coy also moved forward. The CO planned to advance with two companies (A and C) forward and B Coy providing left-flank protection. Tanks were to accompany each platoon. The objective was not to be the river but a lateral road about 1000 yards south of it.
Shortly after 2 p.m., as the companies were forming up on a start line, A and B Coys were heavily mortared and both suffered casualties, Maj Murray losing his wireless operator, and B Coy having two men killed and two others wounded. At 2.45 the advance began. From the start the enemy resisted fiercely. A Coy was pinned down by accurate spandau fire, and when the tanks went forward to deal with it down came mortar bombs page 451 and shells. Frequently the enemy machine-gunners fired white flares to indicate targets. The fire went on all afternoon, and it was almost dusk before any of the companies got close to their objectives. By this time all three had suffered more casualties and had lost touch with one another. After losing his wireless operator Maj Murray had considerable difficulty in getting messages to and from his forward platoons. A section of 8 Platoon, commanded by Sgt Tavener,4 became separated from the rest of the platoon, made contact with B Coy, and later advanced on to the objective, occupying a house close to the road. Sergeant Tavener was well aware that no friendly troops were nearby, but neither he nor any of his section made any attempt to move back. Enemy infantry attacked the house but the section fought them off, killing one and wounding others.
By dusk the companies had consolidated about 400–600 yards from their objective. Colonel Fountaine decided not to continue the advance after dark as 23 Battalion was to move forward and relieve the battalion during the night. The day's casualties had totalled 21, including seven killed. A Coy reported two men killed and seven wounded, B Coy two killed and three wounded, and C Coy three killed and four wounded. Casualties for the period 24–27 September now totalled 31, including ten killed.
That night, as the companies of 23 Battalion moved forward, the 26th Battalion companies moved back to occupy houses close to the Uso. B Coy was the proud possessor of a large pig traded by an Italian farmer for some tins of bully beef and a few hundred lire. For the next two meals pork was the staple item on the menu
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The Brigade Commander called at Battalion HQ during the morning of the 28th and ordered the battalion to move back to a reserve area near the coast. Reconnaissance parties sent out to find a suitable place had no success, and the battalion remained where it was until Sunday, 1 October. Nothing of importance occurred during the three days. Some mail arrived page 452 and a small party left on leave to Rome. The weather, which had been good up till this stage, deteriorated. Heavy showers fell on the 28th and more rain fell before the end of the month. As a result Eighth Army preparations to continue the offensive were considerably hampered. On this Sunday Lt-Gen Sir Oliver Leese relinquished the command he had held since the beginning of the battle for Orsogna. He was succeeded as Eighth Army Commander by Lt-Gen Sir Richard L. McCreery. In the battalion Capt P. J. Humphries was evacuated to hospital and Lt B. H. Palmer became acting Adjutant.
After lunch the same day the battalion embussed and travelled via Route 16 and the coastal road to a reserve area about a mile north of Torre Pedrara. A and B Coys occupied houses and the rest of the men camped along the sandhills. Early on the 2nd heavy rain began and a squally onshore wind made conditions very unpleasant for those in tents. First C Coy and then D Coy sought refuge in houses about a mile up the road, leaving Battalion HQ to brave the elements and score an issue of rum.
Early on the 4th the CO attended a conference at Brigade HQ and returned with orders for another attack. Sixth Brigade, with Wilder Force under command, was to relieve 5 Brigade along the banks of the Fiumicino, 25 Battalion and Wilder Force taking over the forward sectors. The 26th Battalion was to relieve the 28th in its reserve position close to the Uso. This relief was to be effected during the night of the 5th, and 48 hours later a two-divisional attack would be launched with the object of gaining a bridgehead over the river so that the Polish Corps could pass through and exploit towards the next river barrier, the Savio. In the New Zealand sector only 6 Brigade would take part, and the Brigade Commander decided to employ the reserve battalions, the 24th and 26th. After relieving 25 Battalion, they were to attack under an artillery barrage. The operation would be postponed if the weather deteriorated.
The Maori Battalion was relieved without incident during the afternoon of the 5th. Lorries had difficulty in reaching the new sector, for the inland roads were in a bad state after the recent rains. No sooner was the relief completed than it began to rain again. A steady downpour continued throughout the page 453 night and by morning all roads leading to the sector were in a sorry state. During the 6th and 7th rain continued to fall at frequent intervals and only jeeps were able to reach the battalion lines. Ditches and canals rapidly filled and the ground became waterlogged. The operation had still not been cancelled and preparations for it were continued. After dark on the 6th A, C, and D Coys moved forward to commence the relief of 25 Battalion, and by morning 24 and 26 Battalions were occupying part of 25 Battalion's sector. Early on the 7th, while some platoon adjustments were being made, A Coy lost three men wounded by mortar fire. Later the same morning final details of the night's attack were completed, but no surprise was felt when it was learned that the assault had been postponed 24 hours.
Towards dusk the rain became much heavier, and conditions became so unpleasant that the forward platoons moved back from the banks of the river to occupy houses which they manned as strongpoints. At this stage A Coy was manning the river positions, with B Coy on its right rear, C Coy in support close to B Coy HQ, and D Coy in reserve around Battalion HQ about 1000 yards to the rear. It continued to rain during the night, and by midday on the 8th it appeared that even an attack with limited objectives would be impossible. Not only were the roads almost impassable but the Fiumicino had risen considerably. Early in the afternoon there was another postponement, this time for 48 hours.
It was still raining on the 9th when word was received that the brigade would be relieved by the Royal Canadian Dragoons. By the time the Canadians arrived in the area the Fiumicino had become a raging torrent, and ditches and canals had swollen to the size of small rivers. In several places they had broken their banks and flooded large areas. By 2 a.m. the relief had been completed and the battalion was sheltering in a large building close to Route 16. Later on the 10th the troops embussed and travelled down to Rimini, where they occupied buildings on the outskirts of the town; and for seven days they were left to their own devices. Fortunately the weather improved and permitted some sport. Inter-platoon and company games of Rugby were played and finally a battalion team was page 454 selected. It played two games, defeating 18 Armoured Regiment 13–8 and a team of South Africans 50-nil. Outstanding in both games were Tubby Woodhouse at half, Dave Trevathan at fullback, and Bond and Spittle in the forwards. No restriction was placed on those who wished to visit Rimini. The town had been badly knocked about, and there was little of interest left except, of course, the wine bars.
While the unit was at Rimini 71 reinforcements joined the battalion. These, together with the small parties who had arrived from Bari during the past month, more than replaced those evacuated through wounds, jaundice, and influenza. Several more officers left the unit. Three, Capt Kerr, Lt Pritchard, and 2 Lt Herbison5 left on appointment as instructors at Base Camp, Maadi. The last to go was Col Fountaine who had been appointed Commandant of NZ Advanced Base Italy. Except for one short break the Colonel had been CO 26 Battalion since September 1942, and under his leadership the battalion had had many successes. This in itself was a tribute to his tactical skill, fine leadership, and popularity amongst all ranks. In his place came Lt-Col M. C. Fairbrother6 another long-service officer who had left New Zealand with 20 Battalion. Major Sanders rejoined the battalion about the same time and resumed his duties as second-in-command.
On the 17th 6 Brigade moved back into the line. While the battalion had been resting at Rimini the Eighth Army had resumed its offensive. After 6 Brigade's withdrawal from the Fiumicino on the 9th a regrouping of Corps and divisional boundaries had been carried out, and 5 Brigade returned to the line to take up a position on the Fiumicino, west of that previously held by the New Zealanders. Subsequently, after the ground had dried out, a bridgehead was established over the river, and by the 17th 5 Brigade had reached the next river barrier, the Pisciatello. Sixth Brigade was to launch an attack across this river after dark on the 18th, the assault being made page 455 by 24 and 25 Battalions, with 26 Battalion providing right-flank protection and maintaining a link with the Canadians.
Reconnaissance parties visited 5 Brigade's sector during the 16th, and early the following morning the troops embussed and were carried as far as Gatteo, a village a short distance from the Fiumicino. From this point the men marched three miles to the village of Bulgarno. Battalion HQ was set up in the town and the platoons occupied houses nearby. Some heavy showers about dusk made roads and tracks very sticky. It was fine again by morning, and during the afternoon A and B Coys moved out to take up a position on the right of 24 Battalion and about a mile north-east of the village. Although there was intermittent shelling and mortaring at the time, the two companies had no difficulty consolidating in their new positions. The CO visited them late in the afternoon and gave orders for patrols to establish a link with the Canadians, who were reported to be not far away. By 8 p.m. Maj Murray reported he had established communication, and shortly afterwards Maj Harvey also reported success.
The B Coy patrol had a humorous experience. Several uncleared houses lay between the company and the Canadians, and the NCO in charge decided to make certain they were uninhabited. The first two were empty, but from the third came the unmistakable sounds of footsteps and heavy breathing. The three men stealthily approached the house and, after posting a man to each corner, the NCO called to the occupants to come out or else. Nothing happened except that the noises inside the building continued. A cautious investigation revealed a big white cow unconcernedly chewing her cud.
The Advance to the Savio, 5–20 October 1944
During the early part of the afternoon the CO visited the forward companies and set up his headquarters close to the river. Later Tac HQ moved across the river into the town of page 457 Macerone, where A and B Coys joined it. B Echelon moved from the Torre Pedrara area to Gambettola, a village midway between the Fiumicino and the Pisciatello. While these changes were being made, 24 and 25 Battalions were continuing their advance towards the next river, the Savio. The enemy reacted strongly and shelled and mortared both battalions almost continuously, with the result that at dusk they were still only about a mile and a half north-west of Macerone. As part of a plan to widen the front and cover the assembly of 4 Armoured Brigade forward of Macerone, 26 Battalion was ordered late in the afternoon to move forward on the right of 24 Battalion. It had also been decided that the brigade would not continue its advance after dark.
A and B Coys left Macerone as dusk was falling and by 7.30 p.m. were straddling a lateral road on the right of 24 Battalion. Both companies sent out patrols during the night but none of them encountered enemy troops, desultory shelling and mortar fire being the only signs of the enemy's presence. At 8.30 a.m. next morning, the 20th, C and D Coys were ordered to continue the advance. C Coy, the first to move, had passed through A Coy and reached a lateral road about 1000 yards farther on before a change of plan was ordered by Brigade HQ. D Coy was immediately ordered not to move. Fourth Armoured Brigade, moving through 24 Battalion and sweeping around in a westerly direction, was driving towards the Savio, and in doing so had taken over the greater portion of the 6th Brigade front. The 26th Battalion was now to take over from 25 Battalion and continue the advance, the initial objective being the Rio Granarola Canal.
By 11.15 a.m. Tac HQ had been set up near the village of Gattolino, and the rest of the battalion was deployed along a lateral road linking this village with Calabrina. The canal was about 1000 yards away. A troop of tanks had been allocated to each company. At 1 p.m. C and D Coys, spread out across a 1000-yard front, began to advance. Within thirty minutes the leading platoons were on their objective, no opposition having been encountered. Colonel Fairbrother was about to give orders to continue the advance when Brig Parkinson arrived at Tac HQ and ordered another change in plan. Fourth page 458 Armoured Brigade on the right had already reached the Savio, and Canadian troops on the left were reported to be crossing it. A 2000-yard gap lay between the two; 26 Battalion was to advance through this gap to the river. It was unlikely that serious opposition would be encountered.
This proved to be true. At 3.35 p.m. A and C Coys were ready on a start line, both accompanied by a troop of tanks, a troop of six-pounders, and a section of carriers. The objective lay almost due west of the canal and was about 3000 yards away. The CO gave the order to move off, and before an hour had passed the leading platoons were near their objective. Two Germans, thought to be deserters, had given themselves up, but apart from these there was no sign of the enemy. By 6 p.m. both companies were on their objective and had dug in. B and D Coys, which had followed the leaders during the advance, had also dug in. During the night A Coy made contact with the Canadians but B Coy was unable to locate 4 Armoured Brigade.
The next morning, Saturday, 21 October, Col Fairbrother returned from Brigade HQ with the news that 24 Battalion would move up to the river's edge on the right of the battalion. During the night 5 Canadian Armoured Division would relieve the New Zealanders and 1 Canadian Infantry Division would establish a bridgehead over the river. This operation was completely successful, the battalion's supporting arms providing diversionary fire to assist the Canadians. Intermittent shelling followed the action but no casualties were suffered. On the Sunday the companies withdrew to a lying-up area, and on the 23rd moved off in transport to a rest area.
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The convoy headed for Route 16 along roads made slippery by recent rains. On the way it passed two notices erected by the Canadians which read: ‘Cheerio Kiwis! Nice having worked with you.’ Reaching the main road the trucks turned south past Rimini, stopping finally about a mile from Iesi, where the battalion camped until the 25th. An advanced party went ahead to the rest area, which lay about sixty miles inland close to the village of Castelraimondo. The main body arrived page 459 in the village about midday on the 25th and soon afterwards everyone was looking over their new quarters. First impressions of the large unfinished barracks, erected by the Italians to house Allied prisoners of war, were disappointing, but after a few days when amenities had been improved all grumbles ceased. The hutments were of brick with hard, stone floors. Heavy rain fell for the first few days in the area, and during this period wooden beds were made, open windows blocked up, and various types of heating apparatus installed in each hut.
Heavy rain followed by intervals of overcast skies continued throughout the whole of the battalion's stay in this area. Snow fell on one occasion but the rain which followed soon cleared it away. Cold, bleak winds swept down from the high hills which almost entirely enclosed Castelraimondo and the narrow valley in which it stood. As a winter resort the area had little to recommend it. The bad weather naturally curtailed training programmes, but before the companies returned to the line each had trudged for many miles over wet, slushy roads and tracks. Training was confined to the mornings, and whenever the weather permitted small-scale exercises were carried out. Special instruction was given in the use of flame-throwers, the lifting of mines and booby traps. Various means of turning a house into a strongpoint were demonstrated. Range firing completed the syllabus. The arrival of 114 reinforcements brought the unit strength to 765, including 32 officers. Several changes in command took place. Majors Sanders and Smythe left the unit and Maj Barnett became second-in-command again. Major Hunter took command of D Coy and Lt Gwynne7 the Support Group. Captain Cox8 became Adjutant when Capt Palmer was seconded to Divisional HQ. Doctor Fletcher also left the battalion which he had served so well since the closing stages of the fighting in North Africa. His place was taken by Capt Malcolm9
The wintry conditions did not prevent footballers from making use of the level ground near the barracks. Games were played page 460 on it almost every afternoon as soon as the Colonel was satisfied that drains, paths, and roads throughout the camp were in satisfactory order. After a few inter-company games a battalion team was selected to contest the Freyberg Cup. It played five games, winning three and losing the others by narrow margins. The rest of the Division was scattered in the hills around Castelraimondo, and as the valley contained the only level stretch of ground, the battalion was able to watch most of the inter-unit matches. In the evenings there was little to do. The roads were in such a sorry state that few ventured out on them after dark. Card games, arguments, celebrations, debates, quiz sessions and occasional picture shows all helped to relieve the boredom. The Kiwi Concert Party gave two very enjoyable performances, and on another occasion several lorry loads of men went to Matelica to see a performance by an Italian concert party. The village was a small and backward farming centre containing few modern amenities. The villagers were very friendly; at all times they welcomed the troops into their homes, giving freely of their hospitality. The troops reciprocated by sharing with them their cigarettes, chocolate, and foodstuffs.
Leave parties left as usual for Rome and the new club at Florence. Although the size of the parties was increased, it was never large enough to satisfy those on the waiting lists. Other parties spent three days at a brigade rest camp at Perugia, the university centre of Italy. This city was not far from Lake Trasimene and the camp was controlled by Maj J. R. Williams, who had been evacuated to hospital before Rimini. He did not return to the battalion, but early in January 1945 was appointed to command the Divisional Cavalry Regiment. This was a loss to 26 Battalion for Maj Williams had been one of its most brilliant company commanders.
Mail and parcels arrived regularly and the general health of the troops was surprisingly good. Tremendous interest was taken in the war news, and the Eighth Army News was eagerly scanned for reports of the fighting on all fronts. The successes gained by the Allies in Europe had caused a marked change in the attitude of the men towards the war in Italy. Few had any fear of a German counter-attack and the majority talked only of how long the Germans could last. Both the Fifth and page 461 Eighth Armies were still advancing, but more slowly as the weather became worse. The main thrust of the Eighth Army was now being directed towards Bologna via Route 9, with the Germans slowly retreating under the weight of arms opposing them.
On Monday 20 November came the news everyone had been expecting—the Division was to return to the line within the next few days. At a conference at Battalion HQ during the morning the Colonel outlined probable roles for the Division. The Allied Command hoped that the Germans would be defeated in Europe before the winter was over, and plans had been made to drive the enemy in Italy as far back as possible before that could happen. On the Eighth Army front a four-divisional attack was set down to take place before dawn on 21 November, when it was hoped to penetrate as far as the Lamone River, about ten miles north-east of the Savio. In all probability the New Zealanders would relieve one of the divisions taking part in this attack. There was every indication that the Division's future role would be an attacking one. The battalion was to be ready to move within three days.
More detailed orders were received on the 22nd. The battalion would leave Castelraimondo on the 24th; its destination was Forli, a modern town only recently captured. It was on the main road to Bologna and about seven miles from the Lamone. By 11.30 a.m. on the 24th the long line of vehicles outside the barracks was fully loaded and the convoy set out on the long journey to the front. It was dawn on the 25th before the leading trucks reached Forli and the sleepy passengers tumbled out to move into buildings selected by the advanced party.
Light rain fell during the morning and early afternoon, but as soon as the skies cleared the troops explored the town, part of which had been badly damaged during the recent fighting. Apart from being an important centre, Forli contained a large aeronautical college which was subsequently taken over by the Naafi. It was also very close to the birthplace of Mussolini. While the troops were still roaming through the streets, conferences were being held at Brigade and Battalion headquarters. The Division was to relieve 4 British Division in its sector along the Lamone River during the night of the 26th. Fifth Brigade page 462 would take over the right-hand sector with two battalions forward, while 6 Brigade, with a narrower front to cover, would have only one—to be held by 26 Battalion. The British troops had not quite reached the south bank of the river, and the New Zealanders after taking over would have to breast up to it. This was not expected to cause any difficulty for it was believed that the enemy had withdrawn all his troops across the river.
Plans to secure a bridgehead across the river had already been made, and reconnaissance patrols were to be sent from Forli to find the best crossing places in the sector to be taken over by 26 Battalion. Patrols were also to be sent out after the British troops had been relieved, so that provided the weather was favourable and the river fordable, an attack would be carried out after dark on 27 November.
A successful reconnaissance of the Lamone was carried out that night by two officers, 2 Lts Young10 and Leonard.11 They discovered that the slow-flowing, 30-foot-wide waterway had muddy banks and that thick mud also covered the bottom. The water was waist deep and was bounded on both sides by stopbanks about 25 feet high and 10 feet wide across the top. On the extreme left of the battalion sector across the river was the town of Faenza. Sounds of troops moving about, the clatter of picks and shovels, and bursts of spandau fire revealed the presence of enemy troops along the north bank. The southern stopbank appeared to be unoccupied for occasionally the enemy sprayed it with machine-gun fire. Both officers considered that the river could be forded by infantry without undue difficulty, provided there was no more heavy rain.
The weather was dull and overcast when, at 1 p.m. on the 26th, the troops boarded trucks and set out along Route 9 towards the Lamone. About three miles from the river the convoy halted and the men continued the journey on foot. The had not gone far before heavy rain began to fall. Soon everyone was cursing the Army, the weather, the Italians and their slushy roads. Even the drivers bringing up the rear with stores page 463 trucks and the like were forced to drive very carefully. Two of the trucks slid off the road into a ditch and their passengers, instead of having a dry ride, found themselves joining those marching to the sector.
By 4.30 p.m. the British troops, the 2nd Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Battalion, had been relieved and A, B, and C Coys were moving on towards the river. By dusk all three companies had cleared the approaches to it and the platoons were in houses not far from the high stopbank. No trace of the enemy had been found, but the civilians in all the houses searched were plainly pleased to see Allied troops, and they offered glasses of wine to all comers. Not even the wine could keep out the chilling rain!
On the other hand the enemy could use the tall buildings and towers of Faenza for observation. Intelligence reports estimated that three enemy battalions of a total strength of about 570 were dug in opposite 26 Battalion's sector. Opposite A Coy was a battalion of 992 Regiment, 278 Division, and alongside it two battalions from 67 Regiment, 29 Panzer Division. These units were known to be plentifully supplied with automatic weapons and had been given strong artillery support. The strength of the enemy reserves in the area was not known.
The battalion did not move from this sector until 2 December. On the night of their arrival A and B Coys sent patrols out to test the river's depth and locate suitable crossing places. Rain was still falling, and these parties spent several uncomfortable hours before their tasks were finished. Altogether nine patrols were sent at differing times, and their reports confirmed and added to those of 2 Lts Young and Leonard. The Lamone was fordable in places, but the muddy ledges between the near stopbank and the river were very slippery and were covered by spandaus mounted on the crest of the far stopbank. Most of the patrols were prevented from making a detailed examination of the river because of fire from these guns. For the rest of the page 465 battalion the night passed uneventfully, with only intermittent shelling and mortaring to disturb the peace. A steady stream of compass bearings was sent in from platoons and companies to Battalion HQ. They covered a wide range—from gun flashes and suspected machine-gun posts to sounds of tank and troop movement. So that the supporting arms could deal with these reports more quickly, fire tasks were drawn up and the enemy section of the line divided into targets, each with a different code-name.
Early on the 27th A Coy reported that enemy troops were occupying a house directly opposite 9 Platoon. Heavy artillery scored several hits on this building and then concentrated on demolishing a number of houses nearby, also thought to be occupied. Rain continued throughout the day, and soon after midday came advice that the crossing of the river had been postponed indefinitely. During the afternoon the New Zealand artillery programme was stepped up and by dusk several fires had been started on the north side of the river. Patrols sent out after dusk to test the depth of the river encountered increased machine-gun fire, and the slightest noise was sufficient to bring down fire from spandaus and rifle grenades. None of the patrols was able to test the river, but all reported that it seemed to have risen considerably. During the night A Coy was harassed by machine-gun fire, and the forward platoons reported the location of 15 spandaus firing on their front. When 8 Platoon, firing Brens, engaged these posts, the enemy reacted swiftly, and for a while the company was subjected to very heavy mortar fire.
The weather cleared on the 28th, and Maj Murray reported that any movement in his sector brought down hostile fire. The house occupied by his headquarters had already received a direct hit, and he believed the Germans were using the towers and steeples in and around Faenza as observation posts. Brigade HQ arranged for rocket-firing Typhoons to demolish the towers, but before they could arrive the weather had deteriorated and the project was temporarily shelved. During the day General Freyberg, Maj-Gen Barrowclough, and Brig Parkinson visited Battalion HQ. Orders were given to increase the harassing of the enemy defences across the river, and every effort was to be page 466 made to force him to disclose his defences along the northern stopbank. Enemy aircraft made one of their rare appearances just after 5 p.m. One plane flew low over the sector and dropped its bombs in the rear. About an hour later an enemy tank sheltering behind a house on the north side of the river opened fire on a tower alongside 14 Platoon's house. Until the artillery succeeded in silencing this tank, the platoon spent a very uncomfortable time.
That night at eight o'clock the forward companies sent a platoon onto the southern stopbank, where the men dug in. For over an hour they harassed the enemy, using all infantry weapons. There was little reaction to this or to the concentrations fired by the three-inch mortars. The skies were overcast on the 29th. No rain had fallen during the night but the companies reported little change in the level of the river. Very little happened during the day. Early in the afternoon guns of 32 Heavy Battery, Royal Artillery, opened fire on enemy-occupied houses and gun positions, and later the forward platoons reported that several houses had been levelled. Colonel Fairbrother decided to repeat the fire plan of the night before and send parties from each company onto the stopbank again. Unfortunately the C Coy party encountered mortar fire as it moved forward, and one man was killed and the Platoon Commander wounded. From 10 p.m. to 11.30 p.m. the troops on the stopbank fired all their weapons, but this time the enemy's reaction was much different. He retaliated by engaging them with spandaus and rifle grenades, besides harassing the battalion sector with mortar and shell fire. This lasted for over an hour, and after a short silence his tanks began firing high explosive shells.
By 3 a.m. the front had quietened down considerably, but suddenly enemy tanks ranged on the house occupied by 15 Platoon. Within a few minutes it had received ten direct hits, but fortunately only one man had been wounded. The telephone line to C Coy went dead; the next news came from the Mortar Platoon which reported that an enemy patrol had been sighted by the company. The telephone was soon in working order again and a regimental concentration was laid down by the 25-pounders forward of the company. The next report from page 467 Maj Hobbs stated the enemy patrol had been sighted only 200 yards from 15 Platoon. Ten minutes later the company's standing patrol was attacked by an enemy party of eight or nine men. There was a vigorous exchange of fire during which one of the patrol was wounded, and then the enemy withdrew across the river. C Coy remained on the alert for some time afterwards but nothing further happened.
The troops awoke on the morning of the 30th to the thunder of heavy artillery on the right flank. Fifth Brigade and the Indians on the right of it were attempting to clear the approaches to the river. The brigade encountered some opposition but succeeded in drawing level with 6 Brigade. Throughout the morning a thick ground mist hung over the sector, and Shermans which came forward to harass spandau posts were unable to fire. During the afternoon a conference was held at Battalio HQ. The 46th Division on the left flank was to establish a bridgehead over the river on the night of 1 December, and if it was successful 26 Battalion would follow through. In the time left before this attack every effort was to be made to find a suitable crossing place. It was decided that two volunteers, both strong swimmers, should test the river after dark.
About 5.45 p.m. Pte Martin12 left A Coy HQ and set out towards the river. A few minutes later incendiary bullets set several haystacks alight in the company area. This delayed Pte Watson,13 the second swimmer, for nearly an hour. The tension increased when C Coy reported that an enemy patrol had crossed the river forward of 15 Platoon. For the second time within twenty-four hours a regimental concentration was laid down in front of the company. Afterwards Maj Hobbs sent a fighting patrol towards the river but it found no trace of the enemy. As a safeguard the Colonel ordered D Coy to provide a fighting patrol in the area until dawn.
In the meantime the two swimmers had reached the river, Martin directly opposite A Coy HQ and Watson not far from the house occupied by 8 Platoon. Martin climbed the stopbank and, unable to retain a foothold as he descended the other side, page 468 slid down to the water's edge and found himself knee-deep in silt. Five paces out into the stream the water lapped his chin, so he returned to the bank and made his way back to A Coy HQ. Not far away Watson was in a sorry position. Crossing the crest of the stopbank, he had stumbled and fallen head-first down the 11-foot bank into the stream. He was able to right himself by grasping some shrubs on the water's edge, but found it impossible to retain his balance against the fast current. Shivering with the cold, he returned to A Coy HQ to report and seek dry clothes. It was obvious that 26 Battalion would not be able to cross the Lamone until the river dropped considerably.
Early on 1 December Sherman tanks opened fire on the troublesome towers in Faenza. Later the same morning the CO was advised that the Divisional Cavalry Regiment would be relieving the battalion after dark on the 2nd. This was good news, but the two days passed slowly. The tanks continued to fire at intervals during the 1st, and at 2 p.m. C Coy reported that one tower had collapsed. No. 8 Platoon was playing another type of game. Early in the morning one of the pickets noticed a spandau lying in a weapon pit on the top of the far stopbank. A careful watch was kept in case the enemy attempted to retrieve it. Late in the afternoon the platoon's patience was rewarded, and the two Germans who came over the crest were both hit by fire from a Bren gun.
After dark platoons were sent forward to the stopbank to dig weapon pits near the crest. There was a good deal of spandau fire, and all ranks were glad when at 10 p.m. they were ordered to return to the lines. Enemy tanks were much more lively about this time, and B Coy was harassed by high velocity shells for over an hour. Enemy mortars too were very active. At 11.15 p.m., when things had quietened down, a B Coy sentry saw several shadowy figures approaching from the river. Within a few seconds the men in the section with him were on the alert. The Germans came closer; then, unaccountably, a white flare shot up into the air from the north side of the river. The German party dived to cover but not before the section had wounded one of them. This man was taken prisoner.
Very little happened during the 2nd. The day was fine and Spitfires and Thunderbolts passed overhead to attack targets on page 469 the north side of the river. While they were overhead enemy guns were silent. The forward platoons reported targets which were relayed to the Allied pilots, who scored some direct hits. No. 8 Platoon was on the lookout to repeat its success of the day before and by nightfall three ‘kills’ had been claimed. The Divisional Cavalry began to arrive about 4.30 p.m., and by 8 p.m. the relief was completed and the battalion was on its way to Forli, where it was to spend the next 16 days.
During this period the weather was generally overcast with occasional rain and bitterly cold winds. Often at dusk a damp mist enveloped the town, and sometimes there was a sharp frost. Training was chiefly confined to route marches and practice in different forms of river crossings. By the end of the fortnight all ranks knew something about kapoc bridges, assault bridges, Mae Wests, and various types of ferries. Even six-pounders were taken across the streams. This training lent itself to many unrehearsed incidents, and almost every time one or two unlucky ones fell into the ice-cold water. Unit drivers practised towing six-pounders behind the Weasel, a new type of carrier.
There was plenty to do when the day's training was over. Most of the shops in the town were closed, but a Naafi was operating and films were being screened in several theatres. Some of the civilians had abandoned their homes and businesses during the battle for the town, and amongst these were several wineshops and distilleries. In no time these were located; company canteens sold little wine afterwards. Impromptu sing-songs and parties helped to pass the time during the cold evenings. Another 73 reinforcements joined the unit, which at this time had a total strength of 760, plus 31 officers. Casualties during the recent spell in the line had been very light—one killed and six wounded. This brought the total casualties since the middle of September to ten killed and 31 wounded. Captain Humphries returned from hospital and was given command of HQ Coy.
During the second week in December it became apparent to the men that something was afoot for a series of conferences was held at Battalion and Brigade headquarters. On the 16th the battalion was placed on four hours' notice to leave—its destination was the next river, the Senio.
1 Maj-Gen C. E. Weir, CB, CBE, DSO and bar, m.i.d.; Wellington; born NZ 5 Oct 1905; Regular soldier; CO 6 Fd Regt Sep 1939–Dec 1941; CRA 2 NZ Div Dec 1941–Jun 1944; commanded 2 NZ Div 4 Sep–17 Oct 1944; 46 (British) Div Nov 1944–Sep 1946; Commandant, Southern Military District, 1948–49; QMG Army HQ Nov 1951–.
2 Appointments were:
6 Col M. C. Fairbrother, DSO, OBE, ED, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Carterton, 21 Sep 1907; accountant; BM 5 Bde 1942–43; commanded in turn 21, 23, and 28 (Maori) Bns, Apr–Dec 1943; CO 26 Bn 16 Oct 1944–1 Sep 1945; Associate Edito, NZ War Histories.