Chapter 18 — The Drive to the Senio
The Drive to the Senio
WHILE 6 Brigade was resting in Forli the Eighth Army had made some progress. On the night oif 3 December 46 Division, operating south of Faenza and Route 9 where the ground was firmer and less affected by the rains, launched an attack on the German positions on the west bank of the Lamone. Despite difficulties of supply caused by the absence of good roads, the British troops gained their initial objectives. By the 7th the bridgehead had been enlarged, although the enemy contested every advance. Two days later the German Commander transferred 90 Panzer Grenadier Division to this sector; its counter-attacks were beaten back, although 46 Division suffered heavily in doing so. The 10th Indian Division and 2 NZ Division, less 6 Brigade, relieved 46 Division, and on the night of the 14th a full-scale attack was launched on the Pergola-Pideura Ridge, which dominated the southern approaches to the next river, the Senio. The fighting was very severe. Fifth Brigade, on the right flank, succeeded in capturing the village of Celle, but the Indians were unable to gain their objectives on the ridge. However, they bypassed it and eventually consolidated on a second ridge, and the Germans were forced to withdraw. This success opened the way for an advance to the Senio. On the right flank 1 Canadian Corps, driving up Route 16, had captured Ravenna and by the 16th was nearing the Senio from that direction.
At this stage the Germans were still holding positions along the west bank of the Lamone north of Route 9. Faenza was still in enemy hands. Plans were made to clear the ground between the two rivers by driving north from the bridgehead over the Lamone towards the Canadians' sector, and so force the enemy back behind the Senio stopbanks. By the 19th 2 NZ Division had crossed Route 9 and forced the enemy to evacuate Faenza. The day before, orders had been issued for 6 Brigade, with 43 Gurkha Brigade on its right, to continue the advance from the main road to a depth of about 3400 yards. The 56th page 471 British Division would then pass through the New Zealanders and link up with the Canadians, who would be making a simultaneous drive for the Senio. After they had cleared the ground between the rivers, 6 Brigade and the British troops north-east of the New Zealanders would turn west and man the eastern stopbank of the river. Sixth Brigade and the Gurkhas were to attack at 9 p.m. on 19 December, and a heavy artillery barrage was to be fired to support the infantry. Aerial reconnaissance and Intelligence reports revealed that the Germans were strongly entrenched along both stopbanks of the Senio, and that approximately a thousand infantrymen of 29 Panzer Grenadier Division, supported by tanks, occupied the ground between the two rivers.
Early on the 19th the battalion moved to Faenza, and early in the afternoon final orders for the attack were given at Battalion
Advance to the Senio, 19–20 December 1944
At 7 p.m. the companies began marching along Route 9 towards the start line. About the same time Tac HQ was set up in a farmhouse on the eastern end of this line, and for a while headquarters personnel became forward troops. At 8 p.m. heavy page 473 mortar fire caused two casualties at Tac HQ, but the companies were ready on the start line when the barrage began an hour later. Assisted by the ghostly glow of artificial moonlight, the troops crossed the start line and began advancing towards the railway and their objectives. They had not gone far before the enemy retaliated. Mortars and field guns ranged on Route 9 and the ground north-east of it, and for the next half hour the fire became steadily heavier. It was during this period that the companies suffered most of their casualties. The house occupied by Tac HQ received several direct hits, and all personnel retired to the ground floor of the building. The line to Brigade HQ was cut in several places and for a while it was too dangerous to attempt to mend it.
At Tac HQ everyone was waiting for word from the companies when, to quote the IO, ‘all Hell seemed to break loose.’ First came insistent hammering on the door and a sobbing voice demanding, ‘Let me in; let me in!’ Within a few seconds some twenty wounded New Zealanders, the bodies of two who had died, and as many others who could crowd into the house packed the room. The scene of orderliness changed to one of unbelievable disorder. First aid was quickly administered to the wounded, seven of whom had been painfully burned by a phosphorus bomb set off by a shell splinter. Ambulance jeeps were sent for and everything was done to make the wounded comfortable. All were from 14 Platoon 25 Battalion, which had been caught on the start line by the enemy's fire and some ‘shorts’ fired by the artillery.
For nearly an hour there was no news of the forward companies. At 9.50 p.m. Maj Hobbs reported that his leading platoons, Nos. 13 and 14, were across the railway line and still advancing against fairly light opposition. By 10.35 p.m. 7 Platoon was in contact with C Coy, and ten minutes later B Coy reported that it had crossed the railway. Shortly after 11 p.m. two men from 18 Platoon, who arrived at Tac HQ with some prisoners, brought word of D Coy. Heavy defensive fire had delayed the company just after it had left the start line and had caused some casualties, but it was now making better progress. During the next half hour several messages were received from the companies, now making faster progress, and by 12.30 page 474 a.m. C and D Coys were in position, A Coy HQ had been set up midway behind them, and B Coy was only 700 yards short of its objective. An hour later Maj Harvey reported he had reached it.
All four companies had suffered casualties from enemy fire at the start of the attack, but except in one or two instances ground opposition had not been strong. As the leading platoons approached the stopbank they had come under machine-gun and mortar fire which slowed up the advance, but wherever possible company commanders had positioned their men in houses when they had reached their objectives. This lessened casualties when enemy fire began again early in the morning. At 4 a.m. the boundary road was reported clear, and an hour and a half later C Squadron 20 Armoured Regiment left Faenza on the way to support the companies. The Carrier Platoon accompanied it. Ambulance jeeps had reached Tac HQ, and the RAP personnel were fully occupied attending to the wounded, including some Germans, who had been carried back from the forward areas. Towards dawn hostile shelling and mortaring, which had abated for a time, became heavy once more, and the task of stretcher-bearers and ambulance drivers became all the more dangerous as they moved to and from the company sectors.
At dawn the situation was very satisfactory. The companies had consolidated in their new positions, with A Coy in a reserve position behind C and D Coys. Two troops of tanks had reached B Coy HQ, and one troop was with each of C and D Coys. Casualties had been fairly heavy; they totalled 53, including twelve men killed. A Coy reported six men wounded, B Coy two killed and seven wounded, C Coy four killed and five wounded, and D Coy six killed and fourteen wounded. The remaining nine wounded were headquarters personnel. An unusual number of dead and wounded Germans had been found in the new sectors, and after dawn small groups of prisoners began to arrive at Tac HQ. By 10 a.m. the total had reached 70. Later in the morning civilians reported that about forty Germans had changed into civilian clothing in D Coy's sector, and Maj Hunter was ordered to round up all men of military age he could find. Only 17 could be found; they were sent back to Brigade HQ for interrogation.
The winter line beyond Faenza
26 Battalion street, Faenza
At a company HQ before the attack in the Senio battle
The attack everywhere had been a success. Later in the day it was learned that the rest of 6 Brigade and the Gurkhas had reached their objectives. The Canadians, too, had reached the Senio. No New Zealanders had moved onto the eastern stopbank and it was believed that the enemy was still holding it. Proof of this came later in the day when C Coy reported enemy troops in front of its positions. Artillery and mortar tasks were quickly arranged and fired soon afterwards. Enemy mortar fire caused four casualties in A Coy's sector, one man being killed. Two men who went forward to examine a house in front of the company's positions failed to return, and it was later found they had been captured by an enemy patrol. At 5.30 p.m. D Coy called for artillery fire on a party of Germans believed to be east of the river. About the same time a four-man enemy patrol was engaged by 13 Platoon, which wounded one German and took another prisoner, the other two escaping in the bad light. Shortly afterwards 18 Platoon was fired on by an enemy tank believed to be on the east side of the river. The platoon withdrew to D Coy HQ but later reoccupied its former position.
After dusk the front quietened down. A company from 28 Battalion was in close contact with D Coy, and the troop of tanks attached to it was withdrawn to form part of the general reserve with A Coy. The battalion front was shortened, all ground south of the railway line becoming part of 5 Brigade's sector, and Maj Hunter was ordered to sidestep his platoons to the right during the 21st. Arrangements were also made to harass enemy working parties with mortars and Vickers guns during the night. To this fire the Germans replied with interest, using field guns, mortars, nebelwerfers and spandaus. A constant stream of compass bearings was sent back by the platoons and within a short time over came the replies to the enemy fire. Apart from this spate of firing the night passed quietly.
At dawn on the 21st 17 Platoon sent back a wounded German found lying in front of its house. D Coy also reported considerable tank movement around the railway line on the far side of the river. This movement continued throughout most of the day despite the concentrated artillery fire directed on it. Brisk interchanges of fire, during which both sides endeavoured to knock down the houses occupied by the infantry, caused another six page 476 casualties. B Coy, which was in the most exposed position, lost four men. Late in the afternoon a conference was held at Battalion HQ. The CO's intention was to withdraw the forward platoons after dark and form a main line several hundred yards from the river. Standing patrols were to be left in the houses vacated.
Snow was falling and conditions were cold and unpleasant when these adjustments were carried out. Later 14 Platoon withdrew to 15 Platoon's area when the enemy set fire to a haystack adjacent to its house. At midnight an enemy fighting patrol armed with a bazooka attacked 13 Platoon. Pickets posted at upstairs windows gave warning of the Germans' approach and they were given a hostile reception. For a few minutes grenades and bullets flew in all directions before the enemy withdrew. Two deserters who surrendered to the platoon volunteered valuable information on enemy troop dispositions and minefields along the Senio. Two reconnaissance patrols sent out by A Coy in the early hours of the morning added to this data. The first, led by Cpl Wilson,2 was fired on when it was within 30 yards of the stopbank but, taking refuge in a ditch, remained long enough to plot the positions of several spandau posts. The second, led by Sgt Brady,3 located a gap in the minefield below the stopbank. All around were various types of mines, including Schu, Teller and concrete mines, some connected to trip wires. The stopbank was only about fifteen feet high and was roughly sown with mines easily discernible in the poor light.
Although the snow had ceased the weather had not improved a great deal at daylight on the 22nd, and it seemed that the state of the ground was going to impede operations along the front. Brigadier Parkinson called at Battalion HQ during the afternoon and laid down a patrol policy of probing the stopbank to confirm the existence of gaps in the minefield and gauge the strength of enemy troops on it. Four patrols were sent out that night, two by B Coy and two by C Coy. Only one succeeded in reaching the stopbank without encountering mines or drawing page 477 enemy fire. Later patrols were delayed by a typical enemy practice of setting fire to haystacks in the platoon areas. One of these, a three-man patrol led by Cpl Silver,4 ran into an enemy patrol. The New Zealanders went to ground immediately and opened fire, wounding one German and driving the others back to the river. Shortly before dawn snow began to fall again, and the forward platoons reported that the enemy seemed to be digging in along the stopbank. Artillery fire was directed on these areas, but the German working parties ceased work only while the fire continued. Enemy artillery retaliated, and platoon houses suffered severely although nobody was hurt. To deny the enemy observation of the battalion sector, it was evident that the near stopbank would have to be dominated.
To test the enemy's reaction to such a move and prepare the way for a general advance onto the stopbank, Brig Parkinson gave orders for a small-scale attack on the most prominent bend of the river. It was to take place before dawn on the 24th and would be preceded by a heavy artillery programme designed to saturate the enemy's defences. No. 8 Platoon, commanded by 2 Lt Rogers,5 with a section from 9 Platoon, was chosen for the task, and during the afternoon of the 23rd all details of the plan of attack were discussed and settled. It was known that the bend of the river was held by No. 1 Coy, 15 Panzer Grenadier Regiment, 29 Panzer Division, with No. 2 Coy south of it and No. 4 Coy in reserve along the western stopbank. Two-men weapon pits had been dug every 40 yards along the west bank, and it was likely that further tunnelling had been completed along the east bank. Several belts of minefields lay between the battalion lines and the river, and to overcome this difficulty patrols from B and C Coys were to try to find gaps which the attacking party could use.
As it was expected the enemy would react strongly to the platoon's attack, heavy support was arranged. The 5th and 6th Field Regiments were to fire a barrage behind which the A Coy men would advance; afterwards the field guns would concentrate on selected targets. The 4.2-inch mortars of 34 Battery, 25 and 26 Battalions' three-inch mortars, and a platoon of page 478 Vickers gunners were to give flanking fire. B and C Coys were to fire all platoon weapons on either side of 8 Platoon's objectives, for it was realised that the success of the operation depended on the effectiveness of the supporting fire so that the attackers would be able to consolidate on the ground they had won. In the plan 8 Platoon was given the main task of capturing the stopbank while the section from 9 Platoon, commanded by Sgt MacKenzie,6 carried out the more dangerous role. They were to ascertain the height and slopes of both stopbanks and the approaches to them, and to test the depth, width, nature and flow of the river. The section's task was an unenviable one for it promised to be another bitterly cold night.
The afternoon and evening passed without incident except for interchanges of artillery fire. D Coy was relieved by a company of 2/6 Gurkha Regiment and withdrew into reserve behind A Coy. The B and C Coy patrols located tracks leading to the river in front of the houses occupied by 14 and 11 Platoons. They appeared to be free of mines. At 6 a.m. the attacking party began moving through C Coy towards the start line. Forty-five minutes later the artillery opened fire, and the infantrymen began to advance cautiously along a rough road which led three parts of the way to the stopbank. At the end of it was a demolished house which Maj Murray proposed to use as a control post. From this point two sections of the platoon were to move north-east towards the stopbank, while the other two branched west.
The second stage of the operation, consolidating the newly won positions, was much more difficult. Not only had the sections become somewhat disorganised through casualties, but the enemy was tossing grenades across the river and directing small-arms fire on those attempting to dig in along the crest of the stopbank. From positions on both flanks the Germans were also page 480 able to bring enfilading fire to bear on the platoon. At 7.30 a.m. the platoon came under fire from field guns, mortars, and nebelwerfers. So intense did this become that at 8.15 a.m. 2 Lt Rogers advised Maj Murray that the stopbank positions could no longer be held. Almost half the attacking party had become casualties, three men being killed and eleven wounded. Under cover of smoke laid down by the mortars the platoon withdrew, carrying as many of the wounded as was possible. The approach routes used earlier were under heavy fire and it was decided to head direct across the minefield towards the battalion lines. Prattley went ahead cutting trip wires so that the party could get through the minefield more quickly and in safety.
Although 8 Platoon had been forced off the stopbank, the 9 Platoon section had succeeded in making its river reconnaissance. While the fighting was at its height the section had reached the foot of the stopbank. Choosing a suitable moment Sgt MacKenzie, an expert swimmer, crawled up the 15-foot stopbank in the half light and let himself down into the river, which was running high between snow-covered banks. Two yards out into the stream he was forced to swim. Half-way over he submerged to find the depth of the river. Gaining the west bank, he climbed the 25-foot stopbank and from the top of it surveyed the reverse slope and the well-prepared German defences along the 12-foot-wide crest, even though he was only a few feet away from one of the dugouts. A shout from one of the Germans in it warned him he had been seen; quickly sliding down the slope, he slid into the icy water again. The Germans came over the top but in the poor light were unable to make out the swimmer, who later gained the opposite bank and returned to the battalion lines with his valuable information. Sergeant MacKenzie's exploit was particularly daring and courageous and won him the MM. Very shortly afterwards he was re-commissioned in the field; he had earlier held a commission in New Zealand.
Later the same morning an incident occurred which gave an insight into the better nature of the Germans. Stretcher-bearers returned to the foot of the stopbank where several of the A Coy wounded had been left. They found that German stretcher-bearers had already bound up the New Zealanders' wounds and moved them to a safer place, although the area had been under page 481 fire from both sides. A short truce was declared when the two parties met. Cigarettes were exchanged and, after some discussion, the enemy offered every facility for the removal of the wounded to the battalion lines.
All ranks were by this time reconciled to spending Christmas Day in the line. Although troubled by shelling and mortaring, the platoons were fairly comfortable in their houses. Wherever possible fires were lit in the ground-floor rooms, and all except those on picket or out on patrol collected around them. Meals were brought forward morning and night by jeep from B Echelon at Faenza. On Christmas Eve this town was shelled by long-range guns and the battalion lost three men, including one killed. Behind the battalion lines artillery officers were getting ready to give the enemy a warm evening. Before dawn on the 25th, 25 Battalion reported that the Germans had vacated the eastern stopbank opposite B Coy, and Brigade HQ ordered the CO to send a section forward to occupy the area. This section, commanded by Sgt Williams8 and drawn from B Coy, reached the stopbank at 4.30 a.m. and moved into the empty dugouts. There it remained until intense mortar fire forced it to withdraw to the lines again. The section leader was badly wounded and had to be carried out.
Christmas Day 1944 was just like any other day, with periods of shelling and patrols after dusk. Pickets had to be maintained as usual. Boxing Day and the day after were little different. Patrols tried to find out if the enemy was working on his minefields or strengthening his positions along the river. Occasional mortar and artillery concentrations caused a few casualties and more of the platoon houses received direct hits. Fine weather on Boxing Day allowed Allied fighters and bombers to harass the enemy. That night the companies and their supporting arms engaged in a ‘brassing up’ of enemy positions, but their fire drew such a strong response from the Germans that 25 Battalion asked Battalion HQ to ‘lay off’ as the enemy fire was causing casualties.
At 6 a.m. on the 27th a strong enemy patrol attacked the house occupied by 7 Platoon. The upstairs pickets had hardly page 482 had time to give the others warning of the Germans' approach before three bazooka bombs exploded inside the building. This was a signal for the enemy to rush the back door, but two men on duty there opened fire and killed the leading German. Everyone inside the house was firing by this time and the Germans were forced to vacate their positions near the house. Grenades were tossed into the outbuildings, and the whole area was brought under intense LMG fire which induced the enemy to retire. One NCO, Cpl Gregg,9 hearing sounds of movement by a nearby haystack, crept cautiously over and almost tripped over a man stretched on the ground. The NCO gave the password but the German reached for his gun, whereupon he was killed. A quick survey of the area revealed that the rest of the enemy patrol had withdrawn, leaving its commander, an officer wearing the Iron Cross, and another man lying dead near the house. Battalion HQ, which had been advised of the enemy raid, arranged a quickly laid on ‘stonk’ which caught the Germans as they recrossed the stopbank. Subsequently it was learned that the patrol consisted of 45 men, equipped with blankets and spare ammunition; its intention had been to occupy and hold the house as a strongpoint. The stonk had caused many casualties.
Later the same morning Col Fairbrother was advised that the Divisional Cavalry would again relieve the battalion, which would return to Forli for a short spell. The relief was carried out without incident during the late afternoon and evening of he 27th, and the troops lost no time in marching to the point where lorries were waiting to carry them to their destination. By 9 p.m. everyone had arrived, and all ranks settled down to untroubled sleep in buildings set aside for the battalion. Casualties for the fortnight totalled 93, including 19 men killed and two taken prisoner. More than two-thirds of these casualties had been suffered during the attack of 19–20 December and in A Coy's abortive assault on the stopbank on the 24th.
* * *
Although a little late, the Christmas festivities were celebrated in the usual manner on 29 December. Officers and NCOs page 483 served the meal and Brig Parkinson visited each company. Beer, cigarettes, parcels and mail were distributed and the festivities continued until a late hour. The bars and cafés of Forli were crowded with thirsty soldiers seeking relaxation. On the 30th and 31st the Kiwi Concert Party gave performances at one of the local theatres. A small rotary pump found by Col Fairbrother in the Lamone sector had been incorporated into a battalion-built shower unit, an asset for which all ranks were grateful.
On the last day of the year came the news from Brigade HQ that 26 Battalion was to prepare to move back into the line on 1 January, and that in the meantime all ranks were to remain in their billets. This did not prevent the New Year being celebrated in the usual boisterous army manner, platoons gatherin around a fire or heater with a good supply of liquid refreshments nearby. In the morning there was the usual hustle and bustle before the lorries set out along Route 9. By midday the battalion was concentrated in Faenza, each company occupying buildings in the town. Four days elapsed before the unit moved again, and the troops had plenty of opportunity to examine the town which was to serve as a base for the Division during the next two months. Parts of the town had been badly damaged by shellfire and bombing, and the civilian population was swelled by refugees from outlying districts, where the fighting was continuing.
On the 5th the battalion relieved 21 Battalion on the north- eastern sector of the reserve defences covering Faenza. The companies moved out of the town during the day and immediately began digging weapon pits and general defences. Next morning the Colonel received orders to take over 24 Battalion's sector on the Senio. The Divisional Cavalry Regiment was to relieve 26 Battalion. The companies continued to work on the defences during the morning, and an A Coy man was wounded when an undetected Schu mine exploded. Snow began to fall late in the afternoon and continued throughout the night. On the 7th the men lined up in their mess queues in six to nine inches of snow, with a bitterly cold wind still blowing.
Shortly after midday the companies marched out of Faenza, past the grotesque, snow-covered ruins of buildings, along slushy page 484 and slippery roads which led to the Senio. Jeeps, light trucks and motor cycles, loaded with all manner of gear and those fortunate few who did not have to walk, drove carefully past. The new sector lay north of the one previously occupied by the battalion, the left flank extending into ground captured by B Coy on the night of 19 December. A and B Coys, which were to hold reserve sectors, were in position by 3.30 p.m., but the other two companies were unable to move forward until after dark. By half past six the relief was complete. Twenty-four hours later the battalion frontage was extended to the right when A Coy relieved D Coy 25 Battalion. D, C, and A Coys were deployed across a 1400-yard front, with B Coy in reserve around Battalion HQ about a mile to the rear. No. 3 Coy 27 (MG) Battalion, 31 Anti-Tank Battery, and B Squadron 20 Armoured Regiment were under command.
The 26th Battalion remained in these positions until 17 January, when it was relieved by 24 Battalion. The weather was wintry and cold. Snow fell on the 8th, and the light frosts which followed it made the snow crusty. On the 13th and 14th it rained and the ground became very slushy. The next three days were overcast, with heavy fogs morning and night. Throughout the period the forward companies maintained outposts forward of their positions. These were usually manned by a section which was relieved every 24 hours. A constant check was kept on enemy movement in the vicinity of the stopbanks, and all platoons took compass bearings on gun flashes, machine-gun posts, etc., and these points were harassed by the supporting arms. Three patrols were sent out, their mission being to determine if the enemy was strengthening his defences east of the river. None was able to reach the near stopbank. All three patrols were equipped with snow clothing—hooded cotton jackets, trousers, breech and rifle covers. The first two were held up near an enemy-occupied house near the river, and the third, under orders to ambush the enemy along one of the tracks used by him when patrolling, saw nobody.
To discourage enemy patrols trip flares and Hawkins mines were laid around platoon houses, but these failed to stop the Germans although they often gave the platoons warning of their approach. About 10.30 p.m. on the 8th three Germans, dressed page 485 partly in white clothing, approached 15 Platoon. The sentry allowed them to move within twenty yards of the house before opening fire with his Bren gun. The Germans fled, and in the morning the platoon found a blood-stained pair of gloves, a boot, some grenades, and a bazooka in some saplings nearby. The following night an enemy patrol became entangled in one of its own minefields, for an explosion was followed by the sound of several men beating a hasty retreat to the river. During the next two nights trip flares were set off at various times, but these were thought to have been ignited by stray dogs, cats, and rabbits which roamed the area. From that time onwards there was an open season on such animals.
About 8.30 p.m. on the 12th A Coy's outpost, which was only about 100 yards from the river, was attacked by an enemy party of about eight men. The Germans took advantage of the cover provided by nearby rows of trees to approach the back of the house unseen. It was not until shadowy figures were noticed alongside some outbuildings that a sentry became awar of the danger and warned his mates. As the Germans attempted to rush the house they met a hail of small-arms fire and grenades. A bazooka bomb crashed into the building but nobody was hit. While all this din was going on the wireless operator was reporting to Maj Murray, who immediately arranged for a concentration to be laid around the house and the paths leading to the river from it. Within a few minutes mortars, tanks, artillery and machine guns were firing within a small target area. The enemy soon had had enough and they left, taking their wounded with them. Four nights later A Coy HQ was visited by a small enemy party, which succeeded in getting within thirty yards of the house before being sighted by a sentry. The enemy fired a bazooka into the roof of the building and then made off, pursued by hot but wild firing in the dark.
Throughout the ten days the enemy continued to shell and mortar the sector at frequent intervals, concentrating mainly on roads and buildings. Some of the latter received direct hits, one man being killed and six others wounded. On many occasions the Germans brought a nebelwerfer or a self-propelled gun close to the stopbank. It usually fired only a few rounds before moving to another position, for the New Zealand artillery was very page 486 quickly on the mark. Tanks, artillery, mortars, and Vickers guns were given plenty to do attending to the various reports sent back by each platoon and outpost. The Germans were working hard to improve their positions along the river, and these working parties were the targets for frequent mortar and artillery concentrations. The tanks, two of which were stationed at each company's headquarters, were very useful for they could fire within a minute or so of a message being received.
Heavy mortar fire delayed the relief which took place during the afternoon and evening of 17 January, but by 6.30 p.m. 24 Battalion had taken over and the troops were on their way to Forli for a few days' spell.
The battalion remained at Forli until 21 January, when it moved to Faenza to take up position again in the reserve defence line. A day was spent improving these defences, after which companies carried out some training. This extended over the next four days and took the form of a three-hour route march, followed by instruction in the use of flame-throwers, wireless operating, and the lifting and laying of mines. The training was not very arduous, and for the greater part of the day and night the men were left to their own devices. The weather continued to be cold and unpleasant. Several inches of snow fell on the night of the 25th and intermittent rain next day turned it to slush. Fifty reinforcements joined the battalion on this day and were posted to companies. Some changes in command took place during the week. Three long-service officers, Maj R. Hunter and Captains F. S. Hallett10 and J. I. D. Fraser, left to return to New Zealand on furlough, and Capt Humphries was seconded to Divisional HQ. Capt Gwynne became OC D Coy, Capt Boyd OC HQ Coy, and Lt Milne OC Support Group.
On the 26th orders were received to return to the line—the Winter Line as it had come to be known. At hourly intervals from midday on the 27th the companies marched out from Faenza; A Coy to relieve B Coy 24 Battalion, D Coy to relieve C Coy of the same unit, and C Coy to take over from B Coy 25 Battalion. B Coy 26 Battalion was already in the line, having relieved D Coy 25 Battalion the night before. For the second page 487 time the battalion occupied a short stretch of its previous sector and ground lying to the north of it. By 7.30 p.m. the relief was complete. Tank support was again provided by B Squadron 20 Armoured Regiment, and the three forward companies—D Coy on the left, A in the centre, and B on the right—maintained outposts forward of their sectors.
The battalion held these positions until 10 February. The weather continued to be cold and wintry with occasional rain. Heavy cloud and early morning fogs prevented air operations. The melting snow filled streams and ditches and the tracks leading to outpost positions became very muddy. Conditions generally were not much different from the the earlier spell in the line. Both sides continued to batter each other's houses and lines of communication, with the enemy making much more use of his nebelwerfers and self-propelled guns. Little patrolling was carried out, a policy which had the hearty approval of platoons. The enemy was still working on his stopbank fortifications despite the heavy fire brought to bear on them by mortars and field guns. Several times the cries of wounded were heard after a concentration had been fired.
Three reconnaissance patrols were sent out during the fortnight, all from B Coy. The first, drawn from 12 Platoon, was fired on as it neared the river, but after a pause it moved forward and climbed the stopbank. Several Germans were seen moving along the reverse slope and, deciding it was too risky to stay, the patrol withdrew to the lines. The second patrol sent out twenty-four hours later followed the same path but got no farther than a ruined house near the foot of the stopbank. No Germans were seen but they could be heard talking not far away. On 4 February the enemy breached both stopbanks of the river opposite B Coy, and there was some conjecture as to the reason for this. Flooding the battalion sector, a bridge site, or a fire position for a self-propelled gun were some of the theories advanced. Eventually, to settle the matter a patrol was sent out by 10 Platoon early on 5 February. The three men got close to the demolition, but a heavy ground fog made them uncertain of their whereabouts and they withdrew. Men could be heard working in the area, and later a mortar concentration was laid down on it.page 488
About the same time as the 10 Platoon patrol was nearing the demolition an enemy patrol was approaching 12 Platoon's outpost. The sentry allowed the four Germans to come close before he opened fire. The enemy immediately scattered, but one later surrendered to the platoon. That night about half past nine the A Coy outpost manned by eight men from 7 Platoon found itself almost completely surrounded by Germans. The enemy had again succeeded in approaching the house through lines of trees without being seen by the sentries, and had one of the Germans not tripped over a discarded bully-beef tin, the outcome of the action might have been much different. Instead the sentries, hearing the noise, saw the shadowy outlines of several of the enemy and immediately opened fire. Within a few minutes the rest of the section had joined them. Two bazooka bombs crashed through the walls of the building but the holes were immediately covered by small-arms fire. The wireless operator called A Coy HQ for help and within ten minutes shells and mortar bombs were crashing down all around the house. A pre-arranged concentration, in which tanks, mortars, field guns, and machine guns all fired within a restricted area, was laid on, and it had the desired effect for the Germans quickly withdrew, taking their wounded with them.
During the fortnight another attempt was made to secure a lodgment on the eastern stopbank, for it was believed that the Germans were reducing their forces along it. The forward battalions of both New Zealand brigades all sent platoons or sections forward. Colonel Fairbrother decided to send D Coy forward, although only one platoon was to take part in the actual assault. The plan was somewhat similar to that used a few weeks earlier. No. 16 Platoon, commanded by 2 Lt Brent,11 would move forward early on the evening of 31 January and occupy the D Coy outpost. As dusk fell two sections would go forward, one as far as a demolished house and the second onto the stopbank. Whether the lodgment could be enlarged chiefly depended on the enemy's reaction to the move.
After a mild harassing of the near stopbank and adjacent areas by the battalion mortars, the sections began to cross the page 489 muddy, half-frozen ground. To create a diversion A Coy's outpost opened fire with Brens and rifles and the tanks attached to that company also opened fire. Within an hour Brent tersely reported that all objectives had been taken without much opposition. The section on the stopbank, led by Cpl Cocks,12 had engaged one spandau post and with grenades and small-arms fire had succeeded in wounding and capturing both its occupants. One Bren gunner had been mortally wounded. The section's trials were only just beginning, for soon afterwards it came under heavy fire from all sides except the rear. Its plight became worse when the second Bren gun was damaged and two of the tommy guns jammed. The men made desperate attempts to dig in but the frozen ground was too hard. They had only scratched the surface when enemy troops attacked from the right. The Germans closed in, but concentrated fire from the section's still serviceable weapons killed two and drove the others back. The enemy fire increased; under cover of it another assault party prepared to cross the river. Mortars and field guns fired several concentrations on the area but the enemy succeeded in getting his men across the stream. Enemy mortars ranged on the section's position and, realising the situation was hopeless, 2 Lt Brent gave the order to withdraw. Covered by Cpl Cocks the section withdrew, taking their wounded and the prisoners with them. At 8.45 p.m. the Platoon Commander reported that the operation had failed. All along the front it was the same story, and it was apparent that an attack on a much bigger scale would be needed to gain possession of the near stopbank.
The cloudy weather and wet conditions grounded Allied aircraft, and the enemy was quick to take advantage of their absence to harass the battalion sector with various types of field guns and mortars. Although at times this fire became heavy, few casualties resulted despite more direct hits on houses. By the 10th they totalled twelve, including two men killed. An indication that the stalemate would end as soon as the weather permitted was the work done by several minesweeping parties in the area. An armed party was always sent along to guard page 490 the sweepers, who were clearing a wide path through to the river. On one evening the minesweeping party was heavily mortared and suffered casualties. No. 9 Platoon, which formed the covering party, later returned to find its headquarters on fire. The men fought the flames but saved little of their gear; after the fire was subdued they spent the night in a nearby vino factory.
On the afternoon and evening of 10 February the battalion was relieved by 25 Battalion, and by 8.30 p.m. all ranks were back in Faenza, glad their spell in the line was over and ready to enjoy themselves.
* * *
After six days of light training combined with plenty of relaxation, the battalion returned to the line to take over a sector on the northern end of the Division's boundary. The relief took place during the afternoon and evening of the 17th and was completed during a period of heavy mortar fire. Trucks had carried both 24 and 26 Battalions part way in to the line during the afternoon and it was thought that the noise had attracted the attention of the enemy gunners. However, nobody was hurt. C, D, and B Coys held the forward sectors, and A Coy was in reserve not far from Battalion HQ. C Coy, on the left flank, was almost opposite the enemy-held village of Felisio on the western bank of the river. Except for a line of slit trenches manned by 16 Platoon, the troops were all under cover. Some of the houses were badly knocked about and were to receive a further battering during the battalion's stay in the area, 13 Platoon's receiving two direct hits on the night of arrival.
Off duty in Trieste
The weather steadily improved, and for the most part the days were fine and sunny. Allied fighters and bombers became active again and the platoons were not often troubled by hostile fire during the daytime. Towards evening and after dusk it was the turn of the enemy artillery, particularly his mortars, which harassed the sector at frequent intervals. Several times the enemy fired airbursts over the company areas, wounding several men.
On the evening of the 23rd a ‘Chinese’ attack was staged. This was arranged partly to divert attention from an assault on the stopbank by 56 British Division and the Gurkha Brigade on the right flank, and also to test the enemy's reaction. The Mortar Platoon engaged many targets, most of them known enemy positions, while Vickers gunners sprayed a road over the river known to be extensively used by the Germans. The forward companies opened fire with all weapons and the tanks fired their Brownings. Heavy mortars and M.10 self-propelled guns joined in. The enemy's immediate reaction was to send up flares. Then followed light mortaring and machine-gunning. As the mock attack eased off the intensity of the enemy fire increased, and for an hour guns and mortars of all calibres pounded the battalion sector.
Two nights later mortars, acting on information sent back by C Coy, fired several bombs into Felisio. From the noise that went on and the fires started it was clear that some damage had been caused. Later field guns and mortars fired a concentration on the village and caused more damage. On its second last night in the line the battalion staged another mock attack. page 492 More weapons were brought into play and the display was much more impressive, but the enemy showed no reaction other than to send up flares. Advanced parties from 17 Battalion, 6 Lwow Brigade, 5 Kresowa Division arrived during the 3rd, and the following afternoon the battalion was relieved.
The Division was being withdrawn to train and prepare for a spring offensive. The third period in the line had not been unpleasant; casualties had been light, ten men being wounded. In addition, one A Coy man had been killed and another wounded in an accidental grenade explosion. Since its departure from Forli on 18 December the battalion had lost 123 men, including 22 killed and two taken prisoner. Most of these casualties had occurred during the first period in the line when the Division was thrusting towards the Senio stopbank, and the casualties during the two months in holding positions had been relatively light. Contrary to expectations and hopes the Germans had lasted out the winter, but all ranks knew that the fighting was unlikely to extend into the summer and that before then the Senio would have to be crossed.
1 Appointments were:
CO: Lt-Col M. C. Fairbrother
2 i/c: Maj A. W. Barnett
Adjt: Capt K. F. S. Cox
QM: Capt B. Boyd
Padre: Rev. J. A. Linton
MO: Capt D. S. Malcolm
OC A Coy: Maj G. A. Murray
OC B Coy: Maj D. P. W. Harvey
OC C Coy: Maj K. W. Hobbs
OC D Coy: Maj R. Hunter
OC HQ Coy: Capt P. J. Humphries
IO: Lt S. M. Shuttleworth