27 (Machine Gun) Battalion
CHAPTER 22 — The Romagna
Another secret move. On 27 August 2 Company departed with 6 Brigade and 1 Company with the 5th; the rest of the battalion followed next day. They went back through Siena, did a dusty trip to Castiglione, skirted Lake Trasimene, silver in the moonlight, and branched off on a highway that led through the university city of Perugia to Foligno, where they rested before setting out on the second stage of their 220-mile journey, through wooded gorges and over a 3000-foot saddle in the Apennines; on the Adriatic side they turned north to their destination, a mile on two beyond Iesi and not far from the coast.
The Allied offensive against the Gothic Line had begun. Obviously something was under way: the roads were crowded with vehicles, and aircraft passed back and forth continuously from dawn to dark. ‘There are a number of Greek officers about, exchanging battle notes with our chaps … the prophets reckon we are to make a landing in Greece … there hardly seems to be a job for us at present.’
The divisional artillery and units of 4 Armoured Brigade assisted 1 Canadian Corps (which also included 3 Greek Mountain Brigade) in a highly successful drive up the narrow strip between the mountains and the sea to Rimini. The only machine-gun company with a task in this phase of the offensive was 3 Company, which was placed under the command of 28 British Brigade to lay smoke on tracks and bridges near the front.
This was 3 Company's second experience of ‘smoke duties’, and ‘remembering our experiences of Cassino,’ says Captain Halkett, ‘we were not particularly pleased.’ The company was provided with 10,000 drums of smoke and a Canadian transport platoon consisting of twenty-eight jeeps and trailers and four three-tonners, and was organised in three mobile groups equipped with extra wireless sets.
‘On the 17th we did our first and only smoke job. The area of 28th Bde HQ and the approach routes to it. Jerry had been doing some accurate shelling in this area and we were to deny page 438 him observation. We had two interruptions, first in the morning when the 5.5 heavy arty complained that the trig points they were using were obscured and later in the afternoon when 28th Bde and our Coy HQ were heavily shelled. Of course our smoke was to blame. After each interruption we received frantic orders to carry on from a higher authority. By the end of the day we were nicely browned off. Had we not been interrupted we would have done a good job. As it was our transport was not caused any real bother.’
A few days later the company came under the command of 12 Canadian Brigade. ‘The platoons were moved forward to an area just behind the Canadian Infantry and preparations were made to support their third attack with smoke. Smoke is a tricky thing especially when used from drums which burn for 20 minutes and cannot be controlled once lit. From our previous experience we knew that we could use smoke for this purpose only if the wind was blowing in the correct direction and in this case the wind would not oblige so we just sat.’
Eighth Army broke through the Gothic Line and entered the broad and level Romagna plain, closely cultivated country which was to suit the enemy's purpose of delaying the Allied advance just as well as had the mountains in the south. A dozen or more rivers, confined in places between high floodbanks, were separated by low-lying ground cut by innumerable irrigation canals, drains and ditches, and the many farmhouses and villages could be used as strongpoints and snipers' posts. Rain dissolved the Romagna soil into a morass in which men sank to their boot- tops and vehicles to their axles. The enemy's staunchest ally was the weather: already it had begun to rain. Route 9 (the Via Emilia, the old Roman road, which ran as straight as a die from Rimini to Bologna) and Route 16 (the coastal highway from Rimini to Ravenna, Argenta and Ferrara) were on embankments and safe from flooding, but the other roads of the Romagna plain were little better than cart tracks.
When the Canadians reached the Marecchia River on 21 September, it was time for the New Zealand Division to embark upon the pursuit. The 22nd Battalion and tanks of 4 Brigade pushed about a mile along the coast from Rimini, at the mouth of the river, and at short notice 4 Company was sent into the deserted, wrecked town, where it was on call but did not do any shooting. Fifth Brigade's leading infantry (21 and 28 Battalions, supported by 3 and 2 Platoons respectively) crossed the page 439 narrow, shallow river farther upstream. When 5 Brigade had reached the Scolo Brancona (a watercourse) and 4 Brigade had progressed farther along the coast, 12 Platoon went to a ridge beyond the Brancona, where it was able to shoot (expending about 30,000 rounds in two days) in front of 6 Brigade, which passed through the 5th to exploit to the Rio Fontanaccia. At that stage 4 and 5 Platoons (with 24 and 25 Battalions) came forward to take over 2 and 3 Platoons' role. Two men were injured when one of 2 Platoon's trucks was blown up by a mine while withdrawing.
The artillery and the machine guns of 12 Platoon and 22 Battalion—which also had Vickers—harassed targets at the mouth of the Fontanaccia stream, as well as on 24 Battalion's front, Route 16, tracks and the railway. The 24th and 25th Battalions attacked astride Route 16, while 22 Battalion conformed on the coast. They met stiff opposition from the start and were hindered by many ditches and other obstacles; only the 25th reached its objective, about a mile beyond the Fontanaccia. The guns of 4 and 5 Platoons shot at targets selected by the infantry, and 6 Platoon came up into the line with 26 Battalion. The enemy then retired, and 6 Brigade advanced almost without opposition to the meandering Uso River (reputed to be the Rubicon), but did not get far beyond it.
‘Arrive at house & put in guns,’ wrote Private Ross (5 Platoon) on 24 September. ‘Our billets full of Ities. Cow of a night with Itie women nattering & two kids howling. Not much sleep. The other section have a quieter night but our medical orderly brings a kid into the world. Dr. came in morning & said he'd made a good job.’
The Greeks, who came up on the coastal flank, were assisted by 10 Platoon. ‘After lunch we received orders to move forward behind the Greek infantry,’ wrote Private Sherlock on the 27th. ‘Our trucks were loaded in quick time and we were on our way. This is excellent country to move into the F.D.L.'s by M.T. as there are high trees and the ground is flat. We crossed the river USO and moved into Bellaria, a small inhabited place. The Greeks seemed amazed as we drove up in our 15 cwts. We moved in behind the forward tanks and decided it was far enough. Greek infantry are still fighting small arms fire a few hundred yards in front. Mac [Second-Lieutenant McCracken1] contacted the forward Greek Coy commander and we moved our guns into two high buildings, which are practically on the page 440 water's edge of the Adriatic coast. Our section placed our guns on the second floor, with guns mounted out the windows. No. 2 Section have their two guns on the top of the block of flats on our left. Platoon Headquarters occupy a garage and our trucks are able to be housed there. We are only two hundred [yards] to the road and we are doing our best to convince ourselves that it is the road that he is endeavouring to shell and not us. We fired three times during the night on the F.D.L.'s at ranges from 1700 yds–2000.’
Sixth Brigade was relieved by the 5th, which pushed on to the line of the Fiumicino River in heavy, penetrating rain on 28 September. Most of the tanks became bogged, and even jeeps were hopelessly stuck. Consequently there was little activity in the next few days except by the artillery, mortars and machine guns of both sides.
The Vickers expended so much ammunition that the NZASC was hard pressed to meet their demands. They harassed targets along the line of the Scolo Rigossa (a canal beyond the Fiumicino) and the roads and tracks leading down to the river, including one which the enemy was suspected to be using at six o'clock each evening to bring up rations; they also helped to beat off patrols which attempted to penetrate 5 Brigade's front. A shell which landed two or three feet from the front door of the house occupied by Headquarters 1 Company wounded Major Luxford, who was standing in the doorway.
When an enemy force attempted to penetrate 23 Battalion's front, 1 Platoon gave excellent support. ‘The radio link with the Inf was very good and I had a complete running commentary and targets from both forward company commanders,’ writes Second-Lieutenant Knowles, who ‘opened fire with all 4 guns—under control Pl HQ even although separated by half a mile. Targets were worked individually and fire concentrated. Time was approx. 2300 hrs. The attack was finally beaten off some time after 0100 the next morning and the inf sent a “thank you” message. In the approx 2 hrs I recall our ammunition expenditure was 89,000 between the four guns and all were still working perfectly. Keith Watson2 [the platoon sergeant] had delivered a fresh supply of amn at 2100 that evening and as things started he returned for a second load—arrived back about 0030 hrs. I later checked casas etc in the target areas and found page 441 evidence of Mk VIIIZ bullets. Both Jack Wooffindin3 and “Hori” Spence4 [the two section leaders] did a great job— especially the latter who had barely been placed on the ground [after a move] and who was working short handed while amn was being carried forward. I can thoroughly recommend the use of an artillery table and artillery No. 9 protractor. I was as busy as a one armed paper hanger. All my figures were checked by orderly Tom Scott 5 to ensure that we didn't shoot the inf … in the hurry.’
Still at Bellaria, 10 Platoon was cleaning its guns when two civilians put out to sea in a small boat. ‘The three guns with the exception of mine that was not ready for firing opened fire … with a range of 2000 yds and caused the occupants to evacuate the boat,’ says Sherlock. ‘It was a regrettable show as they turned out to be two Italian Partisans making their way out to rescue an airman that had crashed out to sea…. Fortunately they were not harmed and returned to the shore thinking that the hun had opened fire on them. The plane survivor was picked up by a flying boat.’
Eighth Army intended to reduce the German defences on the other side of the Fiumicino as soon as the weather permitted. Sixth Brigade, which was to make the assault on the New Zealand front, relieved the 5th on the night of 5–6 October, and 2 Company took over from 1 Company, which had fired a quarter of a million rounds since crossing the Marecchia. Wilderforce (Divisional Cavalry and anti-tank gunners as infantrymen), which came into the line between the Greeks and 6 Brigade, was supported by 11 Platoon.
The attack was postponed and the plan modified because of the sodden state of the ground. The first objective was to be the Rio Baldona (between the Fiumicino and the Scolo Rigossa), and the second the crossing of the Rigossa. After further torrential rain, however, not even this modified wet weather plan could be put into operation.
‘While in this position,’ says Second-Lieutenant Newell6 (6 Platoon), ‘we were kept well occupied with “defensive tasks” & harassing fire tasks in the area around Sant’ Angelo. Our infantry showed great confidence in our shooting, as they would page 442 not hesitate to call on us to engage targets & enemy posts along the front. We had a lot of attention from Jerry's mortars & the Nebelwerfer at times gave us some anxious moments, one night the corner of the house we were occupying was blown off. We were in this area for about ten days & expended 160,000 rounds of ammunition.’
Although the Canadian Corps had come to a standstill on the waterlogged plain, 5 British Corps was still making progress in the foothills south of Route 9, where the rains had less effect. This British corps was to continue its outflanking advance which would loosen the enemy's grip on the lines of the various water obstacles on the plain. After the Canadian Corps had regrouped and extended to the south, 1 Canadian Infantry Division was to attack astride Route 9 in the direction of Cesena, with the New Zealand Division as its flank guard in the poorer going on its right, and Cumberland Force (3 Greek Mountain Brigade, Wilderforce and the Royal Canadian Dragoons) watching the flooded country nearer the coast.
Sixth Brigade, therefore, was relieved by the Royal Canadian Dragoons, with whom 4 and 5 Platoons remained, while 10 Platoon stayed with the Greeks in the coastal strip, and 11 Platoon with Wilderforce. Fifth Brigade, accompanied by 1 Company, entered what was now the central sector, just north of the Rimini-Cesena railway.
During its first night (10–11 October) in this sector 1 Platoon opened fire on Gatteo, across the Fiumicino, but was ordered to stop because infantry patrols had crossed the river in several places. The lack of hostile fire against these patrols, the sound of traffic and an increase in nebelwerfer fire (presumably to cover this noise) indicated that the enemy was pulling out. This was confirmed next morning when 5 Brigade established bridgeheads over the Fiumicino without opposition.
The weather was fine and warm. The tracks dried out quickly, and the vehicles began to raise the dust. The 28th and 23rd Battalions advanced to the Scolo Rigossa, and the artillery, mortars and machine guns harassed Gambettola, across the canal on 23 Battalion's front. Captain Dixon formed a gunline with all twelve Vickers of 1 Company and engaged all the tracks leading to and from the village. When a strong German patrol penetrated 23 Battalion's front in the evening of the 13th, the Vickers laid down a heavy concentration where the patrol was believed to be, and the infantry later reoccupied the ground.page 443 page 444
At 5 Brigade's request 4 Platoon, which was in the Cumberland Force sector, harassed Sant’ Angelo, on the brigade's right flank, where a company attack by the Maoris had been repulsed. Next night Dixon's twelve Vickers—which fired 214,000 rounds in two days—harassed the roads north and west of the Rigossa canal; together with the other supporting weapons they were intended to give the impression that an attack was going in towards Gambettola while the Maoris were making their second attack on Sant’ Angelo. The German guns searched for Dixon's gunline but could not pinpoint it; they succeeded only in slightly damaging a truck. The Maoris captured Sant’ Angelo and a patrol from 23 Battalion entered Gambettola, from which the enemy had gone.
By the evening of 16 October the leading troops of 1 Canadian Division were close to the Pisciatello River, and those of 5 Brigade a few hundred yards short of it. Next day 5 Brigade, after a week in the line, was relieved by the 6th, with 3 Company under command. It was intended that 4 Armoured Brigade should advance from the bridgehead which 6 Brigade was to secure across the Pisciatello.
The Canadians crossed the Pisciatello that night, and 6 Brigade launched its attack the following night (the 18th–19th). Five field regiments fired a creeping barrage for the two assaulting battalions (24 and 25), and a great number of medium guns assisted with concentrations and counter-battery tasks. With their eight Vickers in line 7 and 9 Platoons harassed the roads and crossroads on 24 Battalion's right flank, and 8 Platoon's four guns did the same on 25 Battalion's left; altogether they fired over 57,000 rounds.
The infantry won a bridgehead, and in the morning 18 and 20 Armoured Regiments, with 22 (Motor) Battalion in support, crossed the bridges erected by the engineers and began their drive north-westwards over the flat farmlands dotted with houses and crisscrossed by narrow lanes. They made good progress until near the Cesena-Cervia road, about two and a half miles beyond the Pisciatello. In the afternoon 12 Platoon, under 22 Battalion's command, went into position behind the armour to shoot on call at selected targets. After joining 6 Brigade's infantry across the Pisciatello, 3 Company expended another 50,000 rounds on harassing tasks.
The Germans disengaged along the front from Cesena to the sea, and on 20 October the New Zealand tanks headed westwards towards the Savio. They made slow progress over boggy page 445 ground and by evening were a few hundred yards short of the river.
The Division occupied a four and a half mile front with 22 Battalion and the three battalions of 6 Brigade. In support of a Canadian attack across the river on the night of 21–22 October all the available artillery, tanks, mortars and machine guns put down diversionary fire; 7, 8, 9 and 12 Platoons fired more than 90,000 rounds. Shell, mortar and spandau fire came back, but decreased as the Canadians won their bridgehead over the Savio.
Meanwhile the Vickers of 2 and 4 Companies with Cumberland Force harassed roads and houses in the enemy lines across the Fiumicino, quietened enemy machine-gun posts, helped to repel enemy patrols, and gave covering fire for the patrols sent out from their own side.
With its guns in houses 10 Platoon was more fortunate than 11 Platoon, which on one occasion after heavy rain had to bail out its gunpits every hour, but 10 Platoon, like the others, was shelled and mortared from time to time. ‘Just before lunch we got it good and proper,’ wrote Sherlock on 11 October. ‘Shells and mortars burst about the house. A shell missed my gun upstairs by a few feet and scattered our ammunition everywhere … we retired to the cellar until the commotion had died down…. During the evening [three days later] a strong patrol of huns attacked the Greek forward company on our right— the Greek Coy commander took it to be a full scale attack and called on us for an all gun stonk Artillery mortars and M.G. fire. We really went to town on our F.D.L. tasks. Our signal line from Platoon Headquarters was cut by shelling and we were a little late in getting the word…. Bill J— almost tossed a grenade at our Platoon Sgt Tom Doyle, when he arrived with news to fire…. The guns went well and we soon received word that all was well.’
‘Jerry gets stuck into us & shells our house for over an hour,’ wrote Ross (5 Platoon). ‘Three direct hits…. One lands six feet from [No. 4] gunpit. None of us hurt…. Three cows wounded & we have to shoot them … if we stay here a few days we will have to bury them.’
The Royal Canadian Dragoons, with covering fire from 4 Platoon, closed up to the Rigossa canal when the enemy fell back, but the enemy still held his Fiumicino line opposite the Greek brigade in the narrow coastal strip. The Greeks, who were required for service in their own country, were replaced page 446 by the Governor-General's Horse Guards (a Canadian armoured reconnaissance regiment) and by 27 Lancers (which also took over from Wilderforce); 10 and 6 Platoons then served the Horse Guards, and 11 Platoon the Lancers.
The Dragoons and Lancers reached the Pisciatello River on the 19th, and the Dragoons, advancing up an inland route, were just beyond the Cesena-Cervia road next day. Before 4 Platoon could support with harassing fire, its trucks had to be towed over several demolitions and the guns carried the best part of a mile.
Crossing the Fiumicino near its mouth the Horse Guards entered Cesenatico, which was found clear of the enemy. Demolished bridges, road craters and soft, marshy ground hindered the advance; Route 16 was impassable to vehicles. and even jeeps were unable to cross the Fiumicino. At the suggestion of the Guards' CO, McCracken decided to take 10 Platoon's equipment by sea in two DUKWs.7
The gun gear, 15,000 rounds of ammunition and a day's rations were loaded on the DUKWs, and two men accompanied each gun; the rest of the platoon crossed the Fiumicino by a demolished pipeline and walked up the coast. The amphibians took to the water, and favoured by a clear, fine evening and a calm sea, completed the five-mile trip in about an hour and a half. The plan was to enter Cesenatico by a canal, but the retreating Germans had left a sunken craft at its entrance, so an attempt was made to land on the north of it. There, however, the leading DUKW stuck in the mud. The other DUKW found a suitable landing place on the other side of the canal and drove into the town, where it unloaded. It then returned to the first DUKW, which was carrying most of the equipment, and eventually everything was taken ashore.
Next morning (21 October), when the Canadians continued their advance towards Cervia, 10 Platoon again found a novel means of getting its guns forward in support. A gharry ‘after a few repairs including the replacement of a wheel, was made sufficiently serviceable to carry guns and ammunition … power was provided by gun numbers operating on the shafts and two ropes.’ The platoon went into position some 3000 yards short of Cervia, but in mid-afternoon was ordered to leave the Canadians and return to its own unit.page 447
The Division was withdrawn from the Savio front and went back to rest near Fabriano, in the Apennines. For the move Major Blair,8 who acted as CO while Lieutenant-Colonel Steele was away on a fortnight's leave following his marriage to a New Zealand nursing sister, commanded a divisional troops group which included the machine-gunners, Divisional Cavalry, engineers and a field ambulance. They drove past notices erected by the Canadians: ‘Kiwis—Goodbye all of you’ and ‘It's been nice working with you’; they followed Route 16 down the coast to the mouth of the Esino River, turned off on the highway through Iesi, staged at Fabriano and two days later reached their allotted place in open farmland between Matelica and Castelraimondo.
Much of the ground had been ploughed and was a quagmire after rain. There were few houses, and most of these seemed to be occupied by at least two families. Appalled by the prospect of spending a month in this locality, parties searched the countryside for suitable billets. Lieutenant Blue discovered Pioraco, a mountain village of 1200 inhabitants, and Lieutenant Ross (who was to be the town major), Private Hodge (the escaped prisoner of war, who was to be interpreter) and the Intelligence Section organised the billeting.
Pioraco, wrote Moss (the Intelligence Officer), was ‘tucked into the gorge of the Fiume Patenza, a lusty torrent which has been harnessed to provide electric power for the village and the local paper factory. Beetling grey stone cliffs rise sheer from the town, on all sides save the west where the sun sets at the head of a narrow valley…. The village is exceptionally clean, with two neat little gravelled piazzas and a small tree lined park towards which face the cinema and the Gentlemen's Club…. The paper mill is a vast affair to find tucked away in a mountain gorge.’
Ross, who was seen from time to time ‘striding swiftly along, or brandishing his stick or haranguing in English crowds of stupefied Italians', annexed the former fascist headquarters for Battalion Headquarters. As the livelihood of most of the villagers centred round the paper mill, no troops were accommodated there. Eventually 1 Company occupied the lower floor of the school, 3 Company the upper floor, 2 Company a disused page 448 granary, and 4 Company a large house. All quarters had electric light and running water. ‘The Bn is now established in the best area we have had since being in Italy.’ The Gentlemen's Club was taken over as a canteen and YMCA, and the cinema, which showed Italian films twice weekly, was available the rest of the time for films and concerts, including a performance by the ever popular Kiwi Concert Party; church services and several dances were held there too.
The whole battalion paraded together for the first time in Italy. The training, in the mornings only, kept the troops fit and prevented them from going rusty in their machine-gun work. Mountaineering enthusiasts made assaults on the nearby 4083-foot Monte Prima. A boxing ring was erected in one of the piazzas and a tournament organised. Inter-platoon and inter-company football led to the choice of a battalion fifteen which had a couple of wins before being defeated by Divisional Signals.
‘Yesterday and the previous evening there has been the first fall of snow in the area for the winter and has it been cold,’ Private Sherrard wrote in a letter. ‘Fortunately the snow didn't settle for long on the flats but the hills still have a good covering…. Yesterday the Battalion football team played a team of Engineers…. However just after the commencement of the game down came the snow once more and continued to do so until both teams agreed to call off the game just after half-time when it became so cold that the players could scarcely feel the ball and many were beginning to get cramp….
‘Now all the locals are preparing hard for the worst of the winter and are laying in great stocks of firewood and fodder for the animals which will be kept under cover and hand-fed all the time. The lambing season is just about over now. Seems a queer time of the year but that's the way here. The lambs will be carefully housed indoors over the coldest months.’
Some very happy occasions were reported in the battalion newspaper, which reappeared under the title of the Vickersville Verita, incorporating the Posta Pioraco. On Friday evening, 3 November, ‘the glass doors of the Camera del Lavoro swung open & in poured an eager throng. At the door, list in hand, cane laid aside on this solemn occasion, stood the TM (Town Major or Toast Master). Passing beneath his scrutiny was like being X-rayed. In one lightning glance he noted Africa Star (faded), service chevrons (molti) and regimental number (piccolo). [About sixty] 1st Ech men were present and visitors page 449 included five 2nd & 3rd ech men and 7 ex-members of the Bn now in other NZEF units….
‘The tables groaned (one even shrieked) under a load of delicacies produced by the cunning arts of Sgt Holmes 9 whom everyone agreed excelled himself on this occasion. Oyster patties, hot dogs, sausage rolls so light they had to be tied down, scones, sandwiches and savouries formed a mouthwatering array….
‘As the evening wore on, the Grim Digs, now only faintly discernible by the light of their Africa Stars, fought again the battles of old. Tebaga Gap was opened and closed, Alamein was broken thru, the Kaponga box was nailed down…. By 0200 hours the desert was swept clear of the enemy and a most enjoyable evening was brought to a close.’
Next day, the Italian Armistice Day, the battalion posted a guard at the war memorial and at eleven o'clock, while a guard of honour composed of the battalion's tallest men stood at the present, the mayor and Major Blair laid wreaths. This was appreciated by the Italians, who invited six officers to a reunion of their First World War veterans. Blair, with dictionary in hand, expressed the battalion's pleasure in being among such a happy and co-operative people. The Italians sang some of their First World War songs and two current partisan songs, and the mayor made a speech (in Italian): ‘Pioraco's returned soldiers of the war 1914–18 salute with great enthusiasm the young fighters from New Zealand. In the present war, which you are fighting with faith and tenacity, the spirit of the Italian forces, reborn after many years of repression under the Fascist regime, takes and has been taking an active part in the form of Partisan activities. Today 4 Nov. finds the old and the new united in one faith in the promise of a new and just social order. Towards all the Allied forces that fight for this ideal we extend our wishes for success and a rapid and complete victory.’
At first the villagers had been apprehensive about their young women, whom they had kept well out of sight. ‘Anxious parents were not prepared to trust any troops and a certain amount of credence had been given to the enemy propaganda on our cannibalistic characteristics,’ wrote Moss. ‘It was not long however before the population was reassured and later there were few families in the village who did not have soldiers sharing their kitchen fire on most evenings. Many personal friendships were made and when the time came to leave again for the line the population was quite mournful. It is certain page 450 that the people were sorry to see us go as we were regretful to leave them, and we departed assured that the prayers of the Piorachese would accompany us through our next action.’
Lieutenant-Colonel Steele, who was to return to New Zealand, relinquished command to Lieutenant-Colonel Sanders, 10 who came from 26 Battalion. The new CO addressed and inspected the machine-gunners on 22 November, and Padre Finlay, who was also leaving, held his last service with the battalion in the evening. Warning orders were received of an imminent move, and in the next few days advance parties left to reconnoitre staging sites near Cesena; 1 and 2 Companies pulled out to join 5 and 6 Brigades, and Battalion Headquarters and 3 and 4 Companies joined the anti-tank gunners' convoy at Matelica as part of the divisional reserve group. At the end of the 130-mile journey 1 and 2 Companies went into the line with the brigades, and the remainder of the battalion, after a night in the concentration area, moved into better quarters in Forli, the next large town beyond Cesena on Route 9.
While the Canadian Corps (on the right) was to seize Ravenna and continue its advance towards the Santerno River, and the Polish Corps was to press on through the foothills on the left, Fifth Corps, which included the New Zealand Division, was to continue its attack along Route 9 and secure bridgeheads over the Lamone, Senio and Santerno rivers.
The Division faced the Lamone on the right of Route 9, which crossed the river just before entering the town of Faenza. Sixth Brigade, next to the highway, held a narrow front with one battalion (the 26th) forward and the whole of 2 Company in support; 5 Brigade, on the right, had two battalions (21 and 22) forward, served by 1 Company. The first Vickers to open fire across the Lamone were those of 3 Platoon (with 21 Battalion), which began a shoot in the evening of the 26th and continued throughout the night; among its targets was a track which the enemy was believed to be using as a supply route. Spasmodic shell and mortar fire came back. Two nights later 2 Platoon harassed troops who appeared to be carrying out a relief in the enemy line.page 451
It rained steadily. The machine-gunners lived in houses. ‘There were times,’ writes Captain Frazer (OC 1 Company), ‘when Gerry would plaster one or other of the houses with heavy shellfire, particularly at the beginning of our stay in this locality. The occupants aroused from their slumber by the crash of a direct hit on the wall or roof would marvel that they were only pelted with lumps of concrete or tiles, while no shell splinters came in. Perhaps the most discomforting thing was when a gaping hole would appear in a hitherto raintight roof, necessitating a profane withdrawal by the occupants to the still dry parts of the house.’
Before its first shoot 2 Company built up its positions with ammunition boxes filled with mud and covered the gunpits with bivvies. After a visit to 4 Platoon Moss wrote: ‘Jack Freeborn has a medium sized house which shelters his 38 chaps and another 18 Italians. It is not a bad location but is rather close to a troop of 4.25 which Jerry has taped to an inch. Fortunately the Jerry counter mortar fire is so accurate that 4 Platoon does not have to worry about overs, though they get plenty of shrap. Jerry is doing a great amount of harassing with automatics and most of our platoons have experience now of getting small arms fire round their positions.’
Two platoons of 2 Company and all three of 1 Company continued the harassing programme each night on the known positions of the enemy and the roads and tracks thought to be his supply routes. They engaged any movement heard on the far side of the river, often with effect: the New Zealand infantry reported shouts and cries from enemy working parties and supply parties when the Vickers opened up.
Frazer says that the platoons ‘had alternative positions, at reasonable distances from the houses, so that Gerry would have to search the vineyards and orchards with his retaliatory shelling instead of dropping it in the bully beef stew back at the casa. When firing our normal harassing tasks we usually timed each platoon's shoot to start at least fifteen minutes after the previous platoon had finished its task. With platoons shooting in no particular order of rote and shifting two or three times a day between their alternative gun positions, Gerry seldom managed to locate them accurately with his artillery and mortars. We later saw one of his intelligence summaries, in which he observed that our HMGS (he always upgraded us from medium to heavy!) were obviously mounted on bren carriers, which changed their positions so frequently in the course of a night page 452 that it was difficult to locate and deal with them by counter battery fire. There were numbers of occasions when we did two- or three-platoon combined shoots, or with 2 Company as well, even more, but Gerry did not attempt to explain this phenomenon in his report.’
Because of a shortage of Mark VIIIZ ammunition, much of the harassing fire had to be done at shorter ranges with Mark VII. Although there were thirty Vickers (including six in 22 Battalion), the CO considered bringing another company into the line to thicken up the fire on the Division's 7000-yard front. The Intelligence Officer drew a map showing the arcs and coverages with Mark VIIIZ and Mark VII of 1 and 2 Companies’ six platoons, which ‘looked like the track system of a shunting yards.’ It was decided that these two companies could carry out any tasks that might be called for.
The two companies in reserve at Forli, about five miles behind the line, did some limited training and made the most of the entertainments the town had to offer, which included three picture theatres. Four or five German fighter-bombers paid a fleeting visit one evening and dropped a few bombs, which caused about forty casualties, nearly all civilians.
When 46 British Division, on the left of Route 9, attacked over the Lamone on the night of 3–4 December, the New Zealand Division assisted by simulating a crossing on its own front. The 25-pounders fired a creeping barrage on the enemy side of the river; tanks, anti-tank guns and mortars lent a hand; the infantry opened up with small arms, and the Vickers of 1 and 2 Companies fired belt after belt. Dummy wireless messages were passed between units and sub-units. The enemy retaliated vigorously with shell, mortar and small-arms fire. Messages were intercepted reporting that he was being attacked, and later that he had beaten off the attack. The British division secured its bridgehead, and two more feints were made next day while it extended and consolidated its gains. The Poles also crossed the Lamone, and the Canadians captured Ravenna and continued their advance towards the Senio.
Fifth Corps regrouped: 10 Indian Division (on the left) and the New Zealand Division relieved 46 Division. Fifth Brigade, brought around from the right flank, crossed the Lamone south-west of Faenza, which was still held by the enemy; 6 Brigade, after side-stepping across Route 9, was on the other side of the river and south of the town. While 2 Company remained with page 453 6 Brigade, 4 Company replaced 1 Company in close support of the 5th, and 3 Company also came forward to support this brigade from across the river.
Because of the churned-up state of the side roads and tracks, jeeps and trailers and Bren carriers were used to take 4 Company's guns into the line. ‘It was a long day waiting around and it was not until five o'clock in the afternoon that we set off,’ wrote Sherlock (10 Platoon) on the 11th. ‘After travelling some eight miles we were held up owing to a one way road— odd shells fell over us and short of us throughout the trip—we arrived at our area at 12 o'clock in support of 23 Btn.—bedded down in a house for the night and at first light we set out to our gun line a half mile distant…. A slight drizzle fell all day [the 12th]. We are to have eight men and a section sgt at the gun line all the time. After breakfast we finished off the pits…. After dark the guns fired six belts per gun at 3000 yds. From the house we could plainly hear No 11 & 12 rattling away…. We are having difficulty in carrying ammunition to the gun line over muddy ground. It is not possible to procure a jeep as the ground has not been cleared of mines.’
Battalion Tactical Headquarters, which was to co-ordinate the machine-gun fire plan for the forthcoming attack, moved into a house a couple of miles south of Faenza. The gunlines of both 2 and 3 Companies were closer to the town.
5 Brigade's attack, 14–15 December 1944
The artillery barrage began at 11 p.m. on 14 December. ‘I went outside to watch … and to a second the horizon behind us blazed with the flashes of the artillery of 5 Corps,’ wrote Moss. ‘We had 450 guns doing the barrage on our narrow front alone…. The shells whizz overhead…. The air literally vibrates … every loose shutter and window pane rattles continuously … the earth is continually shivering with tremors from the hundreds of explosions ahead….page 455
‘When the barrage lifts and begins to creep forward the infantry come to grips and then all the smaller signs and sounds begin. Wavering yellow flares hover briefly over the front, necklaces of tracer curve thru the blackness, single red sparks of our own red recognition climb vertically, red globes of Bofor speed out and then slow down before finally winking out, haystacks here and there become lit and blaze brightly for an hour or so illuminating the smoke above them and then smouldering redly for the rest of the night. Pauses in the barrage are generally filled by the insistent chattering of the Vickers guns, and here and there at scattered intervals one hears the smooth even BURRRR of the spandau, nearly always followed swiftly by a short stutter of bren or the clicking of tommy gun. Grenades pop, tank engines are roaring, Jerry mortar and shellfire crunches down, and every now and then the giant retching of a nebelwerfer is heard, followed by the moaning of the rockets before they explode in rapid succession.’
For the attack 290,000 rounds of Mark VIIIZ ammunition had been released to the battalion, of which 170,000 was allocated to 4 Company and 60,000 each to 2 and 3 Companies. All three companies opened fire when the barrage began; while 2 and 3 Companies paid special attention to the roads to and from Faenza and the enemy's known positions, 4 Company, conforming with the creeping barrage, harassed the ground over which the infantry was to advance. When this programme was completed, the platoons stood by ready to give defensive fire on request from the infantry. The ‘enemy's known positions' engaged during the barrage included houses which were visited during the subsequent advance. The machine-gunners found them ‘well and truly shot up with Mk VIIIZ bullets lying around in the rooms.’
Fifth Brigade, attacking with 28, 23 and 22 Battalions, pushed out a salient and captured the village of Celle, a mile or two west of Faenza. Throughout the morning 4 Company fired continuously on pockets of resistance to assist in the mopping up. All the guns engaged a counter-attack at 9 a.m., and the brigade commander (Brigadier Pleasants12 congratulated the companies on the part they played in breaking it up.
Altogether the Vickers expended 310,250 rounds of Mark page 456 VIIIZ in the attack, more than half of which 4 Company fired in twelve hours. The Quartermaster (Lieutenant McLennan) recorded that between 26 November and 15 December the battalion had shot away 795,750 rounds of Mark VIIIZ and 887,750 of Mark VII, a total of 1,683,500 in twenty days.
The enemy withdrew on the night of 15–16 December, and next day, while the Indian Division secured some ground on the left and a battalion of a Gurkha lorried infantry brigade cleared Faenza, the New Zealanders closed on the line of the Senio.
After twenty days with 6 Brigade, 2 Company was relieved by 3 and went back to Forli. Still with 5 Brigade, 4 Company, carrying its guns and equipment in jeeps and trailers and a half-tracked vehicle, moved up to the vicinity of Celle. ‘It was truly a battle ground that we passed over—the dead lay where they had fallen—the infantry certainly bear the brunt of this war.’ The shell holes were only a few paces apart and in some places the craters overlapped. Whole fields of maize had been cut down to little more than ground level. Celle was a shambles of turned earth, tottering houses and branchless, splintered trees.
Battalion Tactical Headquarters entered Faenza, which had also been severely damaged, especially around the railway station. The towers or spires of nine churches which the Germans had used as observation posts had been shot to pieces. Shortly after the headquarters was established in a large building a counter-attack on the northern side of the town was halted only a few hundred yards away.
As the enemy still held the ground north of Faenza and could bring Route 9 between the town and the Senio under fire with all types of weapon, 6 Brigade and the Gurkha brigade were to advance about two miles north-eastwards from the highway. Sixth Brigade (on the left) would have an open flank alongside the Senio, and for this reason 1 and 4 Companies were to be employed solely on harassing and defensive fire across the river, while 3 Company was to support the brigade with fire on the roads which ran parallel with the line of advance. Before the attack 3 Company went into position between Faenza and Celle, and 1 Company near 4 Company between Celle and the Senio. All three companies began firing with the artillery barrage at 9 p.m. on 19 December, and by daybreak had expended 193,250 rounds. Sixth Brigade advanced with 24, 25 and 26 Battalions aligned from right to left in that order. At page 457 the outset one of D Company 24 Battalion's platoons ran into a minefield and suffered fifteen casualties; its place in the line was taken by the reserve platoon (No. 18) under Lieutenant Titchener, a machine-gun officer temporarily attached to the battalion for instruction in infantry tactics. With the dash that might be expected of him, Titchener entered a house, killed a German with his tommy gun and chased out the others.
The attack was a success everywhere: both 6 Brigade and the Gurkha brigade reached their objectives.
The offensive was brought to a halt for the winter on the line of the Senio, which flowed between stopbanks twelve feet high. The enemy still held the bank on the New Zealand Division's side of the river, where he was dug in securely on the reverse slope, had observation over our positions, and was protected by a minefield.
Snow began to fall a couple of days before Christmas. Christmas Day 1944 was fine though very cold, and exceptionally quiet. The machine-gunners in the line—4 Company near Celle with 5 Brigade and 3 Company with 6 Brigade north of Faenza— celebrated as fittingly as they could under the circumstances; their cooks rose splendidly to the occasion. Those behind the line—1 Company had moved into Faenza and 2 Company had been brought up to that town from Forli—had as merry a Christmas as any spent overseas. An extra issue of beer was supplemented by generous quantities of wine and vermouth.
‘Rather good tactics were used by the driver of the water- cart and his mate,’ writes an officer. ‘They were doing a recce with a view to acquiring “Plonk” for Xmas. They found a Vermouth factory, but to their disgust the Red Cap were there first. So while one engaged the Red Cap at the front door in conversation, the other drove the watercart to the rear of the building. No door, just one small barred window high up in the wall. Standing on the water cart he could just see down into a large vat of vermouth. In went the 3 inch hose connected to the pump for drawing water out of wells etc. He started up the pump and very soon reported back with a cartload of vermouth, picking up his mate, who was still arguing with the Red Cap, en route.’
Each night the two forward companies expended altogether 80,000 to 100,000 rounds, using almost entirely Mark VII ammunition. They harassed the stopbanks, the roads and tracks page 458 leading to the river and in the vicinity of Castel Bolognese, a mile or two the other side, and the houses occupied by the enemy; they also covered the patrols sent out by our infantry, and fired on enemy patrols.
Towards the end of the year 1 Company relieved 4, which went back to Forli, and 2 Company changed over with 3. On the night of 30–31 December 1 Company fired 100,250 rounds (including only 500 Mark VIIIZ), mostly in support of the Maori Battalion, which called for fire to assist in driving off a strong German patrol. A few days later the ammunition shortage was so acute that the Vickers were permitted to fire only on call by the infantry and on special defensive-fire tasks. For the rest of January the total daily expenditure seldom exceeded 15,000 rounds and was often very much less.
Captain Frazer recalls a shoot 1 Company had during this period. ‘A standing patrol of 23 Bn was occupying a house, normally denied to us in daylight hours by virtue of its position in “no man's land”, but very useful to us as a listening post at night. A strong Gerry patrol came over one night and attacked the post with grenades, small arms and bazookas. By an oversight they omitted to cut the telephone wire and Battalion H/Q was treated to a ringside description, round by round, of the ensuing 10 minutes. An Arty, Mortar and M.M.G. stonk was called down on the house at the request of its inhabitants, who then lay very low in the rubble of the semi-demolished building and waited, while Gerry prepared to rush them from all sides (anxious note in the telephone operator's voice). Within 5 minutes bullets from 1 Company's guns were singing and chirping among them, bringing Gerry to ground, blasphemously seeking cover. Within another minute the 25pdr shells and mortar bombs came down, around and on the house (telephone communicant from within the house jubilant, almost inarticulate: “Hells teeth its bloody perfect—you ought to hear the flap Gerry's in!”). Within another two or three minutes Gerry was gone, with casualties, leaving a collection of hastily discarded schmeisers and a bazooka.’
The Division took precautions against a surprise counter- attack: front-line and reserve units were constantly on the alert. The machine-gunners (3 Company) at Faenza dug gunpits in the outskirts of the town and were placed on two hours' notice by day and one hour's notice by night to occupy these positions for defence in depth. Demolition charges were placed on bridges, and the civilians were evacuated from the forward localities. page 459 Some of the Italians were taken out in army trucks and some on ox carts; others, carrying as much of their property as they could on their backs, had to walk.
After several heavy falls the snow was reported to be a foot deep. Some of the gun positions had to be built up above the ground, and only jeeps and half-tracked vehicles could negotiate the tracks to the platoons. Frequent gun breakages were attributed to the colder weather, and the shortage of spare parts caused much anxiety. To prevent breakages the gunners removed the locks from their guns after firing, and even took their guns to bed with them.
After a week at Forli 4 Company changed places with 3 Company at Faenza; about a week later 3 Company went forward again to relieve 2, which in turn went back to Forli, and 4 Company relieved 1, which returned from the line to Faenza.
When 2 Platoon (which had been supporting the Maori Battalion from positions about half a mile from the river) was about to be relieved about daybreak on the 15th, ‘our arty started a mild stonking which must have got Gerry out of bed in a bad mood,’ says Gladstone. ‘Counter battery returns from his side of the Senio were fairly heavy and retaliatory measures were taken by our guns. Gradually the whole thing built up until in an hour or so there was a real “Chinese War” going on. Naturally the roads and crossroads around our area got their share and the changeover was delayed some hours in consequence.’
Actually German infantry, probably a strong patrol, did appear on 5 Brigade's front that morning. When 1 Platoon was loaded up on its trucks and ready to depart, a call for defensive fire came from one of the infantry battalions on its right. ‘We debussed—put the guns on the ground and opened fire using battle sights,’ says Lieutenant Knowles. ‘Range shortened to from 200 to 400 yds—but coming at a beautiful right angle to our [enfilade] fire…. a light fog covered his attack…. Situated as we were on the ground firing through light cover of a hedge, the tanks [probably our own] worried me—but the fog became a two edged weapon—our smoke was covered completely. The boys had the range—number one of No. 1 gun Ian Cruickshank13 was whooping like a redskin—the air was full of an electric hilarity—it was I think reaction to the “sack”. [This was the platoon's last shoot before the page 460 battalion was converted into an infantry unit.] The attack was beaten off and we loaded up again—without a single casualty— and moved off. Sgt Mick Ball passed the remark “what a swan song”.’
The relieving company (4) was to spend a fortnight in the line before it and 3 Company were also withdrawn.
‘Our trucks left [Faenza] at quarter hour intervals commencing at nine o'clock,’ wrote Sherlock (10 Platoon) on the 15th. ‘[We] proceeded up the main highway until we read a prominent notice “No vehicles past this point, Gerry can see you.” We then turned right and relieved No. 3 [Platoon] without incident. Snow lies thick on the ground and it is necessary to bale the pits out as they are full of water. A heavy shelling stonk was laid down on the cross roads behind us soon after we were in position…. Gathered [fire] wood about the area and set out trip flares about the house. Our house is quite a secure one of two stories. Installed a fire place in our section's room…. Harassing task at 3-30 in the morning [a day or two later] at a range of 2000 yds…. we receive spandau fire in reply—Gerry was too soon in his reply as we had not time to get out of our pits and thus we were not caught in the open. … Checked 16 belts per gun and at seven o'clock we fired eleven belts per gun in a mock attack. The idea was to find out where his defensive tasks are concentrated. We heard little in reply…. Checked 12 belts per gun and at seven o'clock in the evening we fired in another mock attack on a large scale— Mortars, Artillery—Piats—Brownings—Brens opened up with us—it was a real fire works but all in vain as Gerry remained very quiet only replying with the odd shell.’
The enemy was believed to be holding his front with a screen of machine guns backed up by some of his artillery.
‘No 9 pln encountered enemy patrol at gun line at approx 0230 hrs,’ reported 3 Company's diary on 19 January. ‘Engaged enemy with Tommy gun, nothing more heard and pln understood patrol had made off. Warned neighbouring units. At 0440 hrs patrol once again encountered at gun line. After exchanging shots enemy patrol made off setting off one trip flare in their flight causing neighbouring units to also fire on them. First light revealed enemy's abandoned weapons in vicinity of gun line. 2 Bazookas 1 Schmeiser. Gun line of 9 pln shifted back 200 yds….’ It was about half a mile from a bend in the river.page 461
‘This is our last day and night in the line as a machine gun Bn,’ the diary stated on 31 January. ‘Machine Gunners, old and new find this a sad day indeed…. However 3 Coy have decided not to bow out without paying its due respect to friend Gerry and particularly the weapon he compares with our Vickers, the Spandau. A careful study of Sit-reps, reports from Inf Bn etc., since we have been in the line has enabled us to plot Gerry's spandaus etc. and these will be dealt with to the extent of 50,000 rounds of Mk VII. The program commences from 1000 hrs 31st and finishes at 0430 on the 1st…. All firing was carried out throughout the period with only one incident. Gerry stonked 9 pln at approx 2200 hrs wounding Lt Howe14 and Pte Watts15—Fortunately not serious.’
These were 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion's last casualties in the Second World War. Two officers and eighteen other ranks had been wounded since the battalion first entered the Romagna in September.
All three platoons of 4 Company were also in action during the last night in the line. ‘We really went to town and played all the latest tunes on them,’ wrote Sherlock. ‘Spandau fire fell about the area.’ Next morning: ‘Rolled up gun gear and withdrew the guns from the pits—our trucks arrived at 10.30 and we set off back to CESENA via FAENZA and FORLI…. Cleaned gun equipment ready to hand in as we are now just P.B.I.'s.’
|Sangro and Orsogna||997,000|
|Terelle, Cardito, Balsorano||592,750|
The battalion spent a week in the Savio River valley near Cesena, where it was scattered over several miles of rather page 462 miserable country. The weather was bitterly cold, and a dank mist hung over the river flats; patches of partly thawed snow lay about and the roads were in a shocking state. The troops' chief concern was to keep warm in their billets.
On 3 February the battalion had its ‘official’ Christmas dinner, for which sixty-two turkeys were sacrificed. Many of the veterans were about to leave with the tongariro furlough draft. ‘We had a final party…. It was the last occasion for all the officers of the bn to be together,’ wrote Moss on the 4th. ‘The party went very well…. Dinty for the last time gave us his famous rendition of “Dangerous Dan McGrew”…. Bill Ross also put over his equally famous hard luck tale of “Tony” trying to get a square meal in Dallas, Texas. It always brings the house down.
‘Mon 5 Feb.—The boys leaving on the Tongariro scheme are away this morning. The General gave them a very good short farewell address beforehand.’
‘On this parade Col. Sanders gave me—as senior officer of the Tongariro draft—the job of O.C. parade,’ says Moore. ‘Getting these fellows into a more or less tidy array was one of the most difficult tasks of the war. For the previous four or five days and nights they had been steadily working through a considerable quantity of assorted liquor…. With Bill Ross's assistance I was able to gently ease those returning into line a minute before the Gen. arrived. Whew! Any sudden order and I am sure a goodly proportion of them would have fallen on their faces. However the General's inspection passed without incident and he turned to me and said, “Your men had been in action a long time. They look very tired.” I agreed, thinking of the casualties of the previous few days. After his address the General said he would like to shake hands with some of the old hands. When dismissed the whole group lined up to shake hands with the General. This was I think a little more than he bargained for.’
7 DUKW: amphibian built around a 2 ½-ton six-wheeled truck chassis.
8 Blair was chief instructor of the MMG Wing of the Middle East Weapon Training School (where many of his suggestions were adopted and later incorporated in training pamphlets) before becoming a company commander in the Desert and Italy.
10 Col G. P. Sanders, DSO, m.i.d.; Fiji; born England, 2 Sep 1908; Regular soldier; GSO 3 2 NZ Div1940; BM 4 Bde 1940–41; GSO 2 2 NZ Div 1941; instructor Staff College and Army HQ (in NZ) 1942–44; CO 26 Bn Jun–Jul 1944, 27 (MG) Bn and 27 Bn 20 Nov 1944–9 Oct 1945, 27 Bn (J Force) 9 Oct 1945–16 May 1946; Director of Training, Army HQ, 1949–53; GSO 1 NZ Div 1954–55; Commandant Waiouru Camp 1955–56; Commander Fiji Military Forces 1956-.
12 ) Brig C. L. Pleasants, CBE, DSO, MC, ED, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Halcombe, 26 Jul 1910; schoolmaster; CO 18 Bn and Armd Regt Jul 1942–Mar 1944; comd 4 Armd Bde Sep–Oct 1944, 5 Bde Nov 1944–Jan 1945, May 1945-Jan 1946; twice wounded; Commander Fiji Military Forces 1949–53, Northern Military District 1953–57, Central Military District 1957-.
16 27 Bn's Victory Souvenir, p. 7 (published in Sep 1945).