27 (Machine Gun) Battalion
CHAPTER 24 — The Sillaro and Gaiana
The Sillaro and Gaiana
‘The month of April,’ states the war diary, ‘was one of the most significant in the history of 27 BN. It saw the fulfilment of the purpose for which the Bn was reorganised and equipped….’
The battalion left Esanatoglia in the early evening of the 2nd and maintained a steady 20 miles in the hour along Routes 76, 16 and 9 to Forli, where headlights were extinguished before taking a side road north of the town to the Division's concentration area behind the Montone River, which was reached shortly after midnight and where the men slept under canvas for the first time in 1945. The flashes of gunfire could be seen farther to the north.
During the next few days the companies trained with assault bridging equipment on the Montone, a typical Po Valley river between high stopbanks, and with armoured troop-carriers known as ‘Kangaroos,’1
‘As far as I can recall,’ says Maj Bullen, ‘the idea was to have three of these vehicles to a Platoon, and there were two for Coy. H.Q. so that a Kangaroo carried a section of a Platoon. Their cross country performance was admirable and they gave the advancing Infantry an excellent mobility coupled with protection from small arms fire. They were little more than a prototype at this stage and the infantry could be pinned inside by small arms fire and were extremely vulnerable as they debussed, as the only exit was over the top.’ in which they were to make their debut as infantry.
The attack to break through the Senio defences was preceded by one of the heaviest air bombardments of the Italian campaign. Eighth Army was to cross the river with 5 Corps and 2 Polish Corps; 5 Corps (on the right), with 8 Indian Division and the New Zealand Division, was to drive right through the Senio defences and secure a bridgehead over the Santerno River in the vicinity of Massa Lombarda. To neutralise a small pocket between the New Zealand Division (on the left) and the Indian Division, 27 Battalion was to break out of the bridgehead which 5 and 6 Brigades would establish in the initial stages of the attack, and was to capture the village of Cotignola.page 468
From the Senio to the Gaiana, 9–17 April 1945
The Kangaroos arrived late in the afternoon of 9 April; the battalion embussed, and followed by the affiliated tanks of A Squadron 19 Armoured Regiment, moved off at 6.30 p.m. to a lying-up position across the Lamone, where Battalion Headquarters and the Machine Gun Platoon transferred from their trucks to the Kangaroos. The whole battalion2 was then on tracked vehicles.
The order to move was expected about 1 a.m. ‘Everyone was woken up by 0100 but it was still not time to move,’ wrote Moss. “‘Woodville” bridge, the bailey serving 5 Bde was over, but the supporting arms of 21 and 28 [Battalions] had priority over us. Scraps of news coming through indicated that the Div was over the Senio along its whole front and still moving. After a few false starts we finally got moving at five o'clock. Knowing that we would probably arrive on the scene about six, the C.O. gave orders for “Plan White” which was the scheme for doing the attack in daylight…. this meant that on arrival at the assembly position the companies would proceed straight to Cotignola in the Kangaroos and take it. The move up in the ‘roos was bitterly cold and there was a rime of frost on my map board even. We were first held up just over the Naviglio canal, where we struck the tail of a queue of vehicles waiting to cross the bridge. Daylight broke about then, and we could see bunches of Jerries coming back down the road. Some were under escort, some alone and carrying white flags and occasionally odd ones, who hadn't found anyone with enough time to take them officially prisoner of war. As we edged up to the river we saw the much disputed eastern levee of the Senio for the first time. It was pocked with craters and riddled on both sides with the page 470 foxholes of Jerry and us. Bulldozers had torn a hole right through the stopbank and as we went through the gap we could see it was lousy with schu mines. As we crossed the Bailey I think everyone was surprised to see what a miserable little “torrente” had been holding us up all winter. The actual stream ran through a little muddy canyon which could almost have been broad jumped—provided one didn't have to do a preliminary run through a minefield. Across the river we saw the usual scene of desolation which always marks the Jerry lines after he has been in occupation for a while…. On arrival at the assembly position we learned the news that 78 Div observers had seen white flags in Cotignola, and believing it abandoned were sending a coy to investigate. This meant that we could not bring artillery down on the village as the coys were sent in without fire support. I interrogated a civilian who stated that the Jerries had pulled out about seven that morning.’
The tanks formed a screen behind which 1, 3 and 4 Companies (followed by 2 Company in reserve) advanced in their Kangaroos. They collected about twenty prisoners, but did not enter the village, which was already in the possession of troops from 78 Division. On the CO's orders the companies proceeded independently to a crossroads south of Lugo, where they took up positions as right flank protection for 5 Brigade. No call was made on them during the next two days.
Both 5 and 6 Brigades were over the Santerno when the battalion left in the early hours of 13 April for an assembly area south of Massa Lombarda. The Kangaroos had been withdrawn by Brigade Headquarters, so the troops embussed in their own A Echelon transport and a platoon of RMT. ‘I pulled my jeep out onto the road, to lead the column,’ wrote Moss, who ‘found a huge convoy of RHA vehicles coming down it. There was no hope of passing so we just had to wait. After about thirty vehicles had passed, a ham Staghound driver caught the canopy frame of the jeep and tipped it into a deep ditch alongside the road…. Further up the road a distraught Tommy officer was guiding the vehicles round a broken culvert…. The last vehicle was a breakdown which we waylaid alongside the ditched jeep.’
After the jeep had been extricated, the convoy made fairly good time until about a mile from the Santerno, where it encountered tanks and stopped again. The tanks had rutted the road so badly that the first three-ton truck bellied; it had page 471 to be towed back and the crown of the road scraped off with shovels before the convoy could proceed. The companies reached the river after daybreak, crossed by the ‘Spalding’ bridge, debussed and moved on foot to the assembly area, from which they were despatched immediately in rear of Divisional Cavalry Battalion.
Ninth Brigade had relieved the 5th and (with 6 Brigade on its right) was to gain a bridgehead over the Sillaro, another canal-like river flowing between stopbanks. In the lead were 22 Battalion and Divisional Cavalry; 27 Battalion was to follow Divisional Cavalry (on the left) with the role of protecting the exposed left flank and also mopping up any pockets of resistance that might be bypassed.
This flank ‘was horribly open, the Poles being miles back and hardly over the Santerno. The job was made easier by the fact that our left boundary ran along the Molini canal, a tank proof ditch with high stop banks. A check to Div Cav up ahead, halted our companies who dug in and watched the left to see whether Jerries or Poles would appear…. The companies received some fairly heavy stonking through the day, both shells and nebelwerfer rockets, but were well dug in against it.’ This was the recent reinforcements' first experience of shell and mortar fire.
Divisional Cavalry and 22 Battalion had reached the Sillaro by early evening; the 27th set off on foot shortly after midnight and by daybreak had taken up flank-protecting positions, again behind Divisional Cavalry and about 2000 yards back from the river. The first fatal casualty occurred during this advance. ‘Moving along the road we ran into mortar stonk,’ wrote Corporal Butt (8 Platoon). ‘Lost Andy Sinclair3 … & Doug Thomson4 was badly wounded.’ The companies were harassed by intermittent shell and nebelwerter fire, which slackened off in the afternoon.
The attack over the Sillaro, at first intended for the night of 14–15 April, was postponed twenty-four hours to give more time for the artillery preparation. The Division was to break the line with two brigades, which were to exploit from their bridge heads as soon as the armour was across the river. Ninth Brigade (still with the 6th on its right) was to make the assault with 22 and 27 Battalions; Divisional Cavalry, through which the page 472 27th was to pass, was to take over the latter's role of the previous two days and cover the left flank.
The company commanders visited Divisional Cavalry early in the afternoon to get information about the depth and width of the river and the nature of its banks, and to arrange for their men to pass through. The companies formed up behind the near stopbank late in the afternoon; Battalion Headquarters and Support Group stayed a little farther back, ready to go quickly into the bridgehead when the Bailey bridges had been erected. ‘Our gun line is some 500 yds behind the stop bank,’ wrote Sherlock, of the Machine Gun Platoon. ‘Aircraft straffed and bombed the hun at last light [after pounding him most of the day], which gave us ample time to dig good pits…. we open up with 14 belts per gun from this position.’
The barrage began at 9 p.m. and half an hour later, when it started to lift forward 100 yards every five minutes, the leading infantry of 1 Company (on the right) and 3 Company began to advance.
‘As soon as the barrage lifted,’ writes Lieutenant Nicol,5 of 1 Company, ‘we moved over the top [of the stopbank] and as the assault bridges had not been laid on for us we ploughed across through the water which was about 3' 6? deep. Luckily Jerry was not waiting for us over the other bank so forming up once again under cover of this we headed off towards the centre of the village [Sesto Imolese]. By now Jerry stuff had started to mix in and was making things confusing. However we reached the village without any trouble….
‘Sesto Imolese was a single street village in the form of a semi-circle with the two ends touching the river and an open space in the centre. Our line of advance passed through the centre of this village which was our first objective and although the open space was reputed to be mined we decided to go straight through (we did not strike any as it happened)…. We stopped on the far side to reform and wait for the barrage to lift. While waiting word came over the 38 set that Ken Frazer [the OC] had been wounded. I handed over the  Platoon to my Sergeant and moved back to Company H.Q. which was a couple of houses behind us. Found Ken sitting on a table nursing a nasty face wound, and although he insisted he was alright, I made him stay where he was and leaving an R.A.P. wallah with him collected the rest of H.Q. and headed off to start the show cracking again.page 473
‘The line of advance was reasonably well marked by Bofors tracer but as usual we were moving obliquely through grapevines and their fences slowing things down and causing much cursing when shovels and picks kept getting hung up in the wires. Other than mortaring and shelling we struck nothing until after we crossed a road just short of our objective. When moving to a casa we intended to make Coy H.Q. we ran into a tank parked in the yard. In the heavy fog I actually walked into the side of it without seeing it. Just as I hit it, its motor started up with a roar and it took off in a tearing hurry out onto the road and disappeared off towards Fred Allen's6 platoon. Called him up on the blower to warn him but it changed direction again before he could get at it.
‘I sent a section of chaps around one side of the casa while I took another section around the other. While moving round heard a grenade go off and then a burst of Tommy. Found that twelve Teds had walked out of the house with their hands up but one of the last ones had thrown a grenade killing one of our boys. The burst of Tommy I had heard had settled him.
‘In the meantime Fred Allen's and Doug Powell's7 platoons had struck real trouble and were surrounded by a ring of Spandaus. This kept them busy for some time. The rest of the night was fairly quiet. At first light three of our Shermans joined us and made everything much happier. During the night and early morning several more lots of paratroop prisoners were brought in and despatched to Bn. H.Q. carrying our wounded. Around 0800 Capt. Gar Blue came up & took over the Coy.’
‘Everything went according to schedule and at about 9.30 p.m. we crossed the bridge placed there by 4 Coy,’ writes Major Bell, OC 3 Company. ‘We advanced very close to the barrage, a policy which later paid a handsome dividend in that the Jerry tanks as soon as the barrage passed over them opened their turrets not expecting us to be anywhere near them…. Shortly after crossing the River a shell in the barrage fell short wounding 3 men of 14 pn….’
‘Most of our casualties were from our own shellfire,’ says Lance-Corporal Tanner,8 of 14 Platoon (on the left flank). page 474 ‘… we ran into the German infantry screen, who were completely caught with their pants down, and were just beginning to dig in. They seemed to be stupefied, partly with the barrage, and partly with the shock of seeing us emerging almost out of the barrage itself. They took a lot of moving. Very sullen and stubborn. No wonder, they were one of Hitler's parachute divisions…. They were well armed and fanatical types, as we had seen to our sorrow in earlier battles. However after a lot of shouting and cursing in Italian and German, we managed to bustle them off and left them in charge of two or three men till the reserve platoon [13 Platoon] came up….’
After an advance of about 1500 yards the company halted on a pause line for twenty minutes until the barrage lifted forward again. A narrow road ran towards the front between 15 Platoon (on the right) and 14 Platoon and joined a lateral road a short distance ahead; near the junction of these two roads was a small group of houses. From the vicinity of another house, now in the rear of 14 Platoon, came the sound of a tank engine.
Major Bell describes an encounter with what he is convinced was a Panther tank. ‘Coy HQrs,’ he says, ‘were immediately opposite a barn just passed by 14 pn. I heard the characteristic “whirr” of a tank starting up….’ Private Ness,9 one of the men with him, says ‘we were close to the road [between 14 and 15 Platoons] where the Panther was making a turn, and one of the crew was visible standing up in the turret…. Major Bell moved towards the road leaving us to follow.’ Bell claims ‘I managed to get in 3—77 [phosphorus] grenades and I am reasonably sure I scored hits.’ The tank made off, followed by Bell and his companions. In a few minutes they encountered some 14 Platoon men, who threw phosphorus grenades at the tank as it passed.
‘When we first heard the staccato whirr and clatter of a track vehicle starting up,’ says Tanner, ‘we thought it may have been a Red Cross Bren carrier coming up to pick up our wounded from the barrage. Our doubts were rudely dispelled when we saw the huge bulk of a Jerry tank, seemingly right on the top of us. It turned abreast of us with its 88 M.M. gun pointing straight at us, and very slowly made to cross a paddock to the road….
‘We acted very quickly. First thing I remember was Tucker asking me for a Piat bomb…. I suddenly realised with some shame, I had left the bracket of 3 bombs back at the starting page 475 point. Tucker immediately suggested phosphorus grenades. All this happened in a matter of seconds…. Tucker, myself and [one or two others] threw our first salvo of 77s…. At least 3 hits were registered on this tank [which Tanner thought was a Tiger10] …. The rubber tracks held the phosphorus and we were awestruck at the way it seemingly burst into flames….’ The tank headed towards a house near the crossroads.
Tucker reconnoitred towards this house, and on his return Lieutenant Sneddon11 and McIntyre12 went forward with him along a hedge and a ditch. Sneddon worked his way round to the left-hand corner of the house, while McIntyre took up a position behind the right-hand corner and Tucker behind a tree. After a few minutes Tucker crept over to McIntyre to tell him that there was a tank on the other side of the road about thirty yards away. By crouching down the two men could see its superstructure silhouetted clearly against the sky. They could also hear German voices. When a man raised himself above the turret, Tucker fired his Tommy gun and McIntyre his rifle. The German screamed and slid back into the hull of the tank.
While McIntyre kept up a steady covering fire, Tucker dashed forward along the hedgerow to where a path led from the house to the road. At the gateway he found a second Panther, which previously had been hidden from view by the hedge; it was less than twenty feet from him. He tossed a high-explosive grenade through its open hatch, and also threw a phosphorus grenade at the tank on the other side of the road. Flames immediately shot from the latter, and the crew of four or five rushed from it towards the house. ‘Tucker and I,’ writes McIntyre, ‘went to where I saw them, and came across a dugout. Tucker called on them to come out but getting no response blasted it with HE grenades. It was then that about 8 Italians came out, we questioned them where the Huns were, but they were very hazy about everything. T'was then we heard another tank start up for a getaway. Tucker said to me keep them covered while I have a look. He immediately raced towards page 476 the crossroads and attacked it [this was another Panther]…. at the time concentrated Spandau fire was raking the area from a criss cross angle.’
Apparently Tucker's first phosphorus grenade set fire to the rubber on the tank's bogies, for it made off along the lateral road whirling smoke and flame like a Catherine Wheel. By this time 14 Platoon and also 13 Platoon, coming up on the left, had reached a very deep ditch alongside this road. When the tank approached, Walker,13 who had brought up 13 Platoon's Piat, fired a bomb at it. He says the Panther was ‘only about 30 yds away or less when I fired scoring a hit just below the turret…. Lt Sneddon was knocked out by the blast. He was just behind me and he rolled back down into the ditch.’ The tank continued down the road and disappeared in the dark ness. It was discovered after daybreak in the ditch in front of a house.
Sergeant Ward,14 Tanner and McCoy15 went to a house on the far side of the crossroads, where they found another tank, probably a Tiger. ‘It seemed to be smoking and appeared to have engine trouble, which led me to believe it had already been attacked,’ writes Tanner. ‘We hit it and it tore off…. It stopped, we made another strike, whereupon it staggered off as we pursued it with the last of our phosphorus grenades. It took a desperate zigzag course across country and eventually burst into a great sheet of flame, where it could be seen next day, a gutted wreck….
‘We returned to the last house to find Tucker…. He gave me instructions to make a quick search of the outhouses. His last words to me, or anyone else for that matter, were “Dont be more than a minute or two”. So the 3 of us made a quick round while Tucker walked back to the platoon, via the Xroad. In a minute or two we followed. The Jerry's were more active now and several Very light flares caused us to duck as we reached the crossroads. It was here that Sgt Ward noticed a man lying right in the middle of the Xroad. I thought it was just another Jerry, but Ward insisted it was a Kiwi, so by the light of another flare I dragged the body off the road into the roadside ditch.’
Tucker had been killed by a bullet which had pierced a nail file, his paybook and a notebook. ‘We couldn't believe it. page 477 Tucker seemed to lead a charmed life…. It was a very sore point with the men of 14 Platoon that this quiet spoken, dauntless, slim built, unassuming man of few words was not awarded the highest decoration for his unprecedented action in sealing the fate of three of these so called invincible steel monsters and their crews.’
Company Headquarters was established in the house along side the lane where Tucker had disabled the two Panthers. ‘The C.O. brought down the emergency S.O.S. arty fire on our immediate front and from then on we had no further enemy activity from that direction,’ says Bell. ‘However a casa on our extreme left … was pestering us with sporadic spandau fire. … Lieut. Hayes,16 of 13 pn, took a recce patrol to investigate this enemy position. He reported back in due course that he considered it very strongly held.’
Men from 14 and 13 Platoons attacked two spandaus dug in under haystacks near the house in front of which the Panther had gone into the deep ditch. Lance-Sergeant Burton17 remembers ‘using up all the H.E. grenades we had between us, in order to silence the two “spandaus”…. It was very open ground, and it was a matter of wriggle on one's stomach to within grenade range, as the intermittent fire from Jerry was only inches above the hair on the back of one's neck. It was so dark at that hour that all you could see from ground level was the outline of the haystacks and the house behind.’ At dawn about twenty-five prisoners were taken from the house without much opposition.
Bell had been unable to make contact with Lieutenant Smith18 (15 Platoon) on the right flank. ‘This at the time was most disturbing as I was being asked by 2 Coy [which was following 3] for the “O.K.” to piat a casa somewhere on their right flank. I could not possibly give such an O.K. as Smith would be some where in the locality. Some time afterwards Sgt Ward did a good job in locating this pn.’ It had met little opposition and had pushed on to the objective and dug in, but Smith had been separated from his wireless set and unable to report his position.
The company's casualties had been remarkably few: one killed and six wounded; on the other hand it had accounted for many Germans, and had captured three tanks and destroyed a fourth.page 478
A Bailey bridge was completed over the Sillaro and the armour began to roll across at 4 a.m. The tanks were followed by the RAP carriers and the other supporting arms. ‘It was a hectic crossing as by this time the bridge had been taped by his mortars & shells,’ wrote Sherlock. ‘Our 15 cwt trucks bedded down in the loose earth and we had Gods own job to get them out—it was a miracle that we had no casualties in our M.G. Platoon.’
About five o'clock the CO, who had gone ahead in a tank sent back word for Battalion Headquarters to follow. Moss, who was leading in his jeep, wrote: ‘Sesto Imolese was still smoking from yesterday's air attacks and a single German gun was sending one shell at a time into it. We drove through as fast as we could…. As it was we coincided almost perfectly with the arrival of one shell…. We fairly hurdled our way out of the village, over shellholes and charred beams…. The new HQ consisted of the command Sherman and the tottering shell of a casa behind which it was hiding. The place was still blazing merrily…. Damp mist lay about, and it was impossible to tell whether we would be under observation or not from some distant church tower, so we dispersed the vehicles rapidly. The sigs were driven back behind the house by a spandau which was splattering round the truck from well back.’
The advance was continued by 2 and 4 Companies. When 3 Company's attack came to a halt, Major Titchener obtained the CO's approval for 2 Company to pass through. ‘It was necessary for my Company to turn left before we advanced because 3 Company's front had not been properly covered and we had gone a very little distance (it was now daylight) when we encountered the enemy on our right flank. The opposition was fairly strong.
‘A daylight attack was necessary and after a barrage we took about 100 paratroopers as prisoners…. Those whom we encountered had plenty of fight…. Bill Fuller19 was killed by a sniper before the paratroopers surrendered and was actually standing up directing operations when he was hit.’
Against scattered resistance 4 Company pressed on up the Sesto Imolese-Medicina road. ‘We married up with a troop of tanks,’ says Major Bullen, ‘took formation and had the pleasure of doing a real copy book tank-inf attack across flat ground, against a company of Germans, holed up in defensive position, page 479 astride a lateral road…. Good tank support, and the fact that the “Teds” hadn't had breakfast, contributed to a very tidy little victory, with a few dead enemy and about a hundred captured. We pressed on about a mile, and then dug in and had the extraordinary experience of watching battles going on in our left and right rear, while the tanks in support of the Coy. put down harassing fire as they pleased until a couple of 88's got our range at which stage tanks and infantry alike took up “hull down” positions.’
During this advance ‘we could see a Red Cross flag being waved from a hole in the centre of the track some 300 yards distant,’ Sergeant Saunders recalls. ‘When we were up level with it Jim Quaid20 went over and came back with the news that the Hun said “Well, you guys, this war is over for us!” in very New York city accents.’
By this time the battalion had taken about 300 prisoners altogether, mostly from 4 Parachute Division. Its own casualties were less than thirty, including five killed.
The attack had passed right through the Sillaro defences and the enemy had disengaged. Half a squadron of Kangaroos arrived in the afternoon and were allotted to 1 and 3 Companies, which were to take the lead again; 2 and 4 Companies rode on A Squadron's tanks or on Battalion Headquarters' Kangaroos. The rate of advance was limited only by the time it took the accompanying engineers of the Assault Squadron to provide crossings over the many canals and ditches. By sunset the battalion was on the outskirts of Medicina.
Patrols who returned just before daybreak next morning (the 17th) reported that they had not seen the enemy. The tanks, which had retired during the night to replenish fuel and ammunition and to do the maintenance necessary to keep them in running order, returned ‘all anxious for an advance,’ writes Major Wiseley,21 their OC, ‘but delay with much bustle ensued owing to the late delivery of maps and codes and the necessity of getting such a large number of Kangaroo, tank and Inf [wireless] sets satisfactorily on link. The Battn. moved out an hour after first light with two troops of tanks leading, each with a company of Infantry in support in Kangaroos and the page 480 remainder of the tanks following Inf. and Tank H.Q. All but the two leading troops carried a smothering array of Inf.’
The next bound brought the battalion to another canal, the Torrente Gaiana, which (unlike the others crossed since the Sillaro) ran between stopbanks rising about twenty feet above the plain.
Titchener had taken a foot patrol to the Villa Fontana railway station, where he ‘could clearly observe that the stopbank in front was held by the enemy. There was a perfectly flat approach with no cover ranging from 600 to 1000 yards. I had heard Bullen talking on the radio and he expressed quite rightly some doubts…. My observations were that the enemy was holding the stopbank but not very strongly. My guess was probably influenced by the general impression that the enemy was withdrawing fast….’
Titchener says that he told the CO that ‘I was prepared to go (I did consider the chances good)….’ His intention was to secure the far stopbank.
Just before midday, therefore, 2 Company Headquarters and 10 Platoon advanced parallel with the railway embankment, with a troop of tanks leading on their left flank. ‘The plan was that provided we reached the stopbank successfully, I would call up the remaining two Platoons when we would proceed to cross the stream. We moved fast and undoubtedly surprised the enemy. In fact Company Headquarters and the Platoon arrived complete. The Platoon Commander (Burgess) was wounded shortly after we arrived. The remaining two Platoons were called up and they also arrived intact. In fact the only casualty apart from the tanks up to this stage was Burgess. I contacted the CO and was told to stop.’
The tanks held the enemy at bay while the infantry debussed from their Kangaroos. Second-Lieutenant Vasey22 left his tank page 482 and dashed to the intersection of the railway embankment and the stopbank, made his observations under fire, and returned to direct his troop's shooting on the German positions until his own tank was knocked out by bazooka and mortar bombs and he was seriously wounded. The tanks remained about 100 yards behind the infantry with their guns trained on the stop- bank. ‘Vasey's work was of a very high order and the action was really a text-book move of infantry and tanks,’ says Titchener.
The infantry debussed under the shelter of the stopbank. The enemy, who had dug in on the crest and the other side, threw grenades or rolled them down from the top. Lance-Corporal Hutchison,23 a section-leader in 10 Platoon, which was near the intersection of the railway embankment and the stopbank, decided to attempt to silence some enfilading small-arms fire from a party of Germans on the left flank. He climbed the bank, and after throwing a couple of grenades, rushed over the top. The Germans retired to their side, but one stayed behind a telegraph pole, apparently as a sniper. ‘I was lucky enough to get him with a burst of Tommy gun fire. The rest of his section got clear without loss. As I was alone and finding that fire was now pretty hot plus the fact that I was by now on the edge of Jerry's side of the bank I thought it would be easier to take cover in one of his slit trenches than to try and dash back.
‘I dropped into a slitty and noticed a Jerry in another a few feet away. I rolled over a grenade after letting it detonate first in order to cut down the time fuse. I followed it over and found he was badly wounded. In the next slitty again was a Jerry with a pistol and assuming that he might be an officer because of this fact, but being out of grenades I turned the tommy gun on him and jumped in beside him. He surrendered but didn't want to come back over the bank to our side because he said his friends would shoot him. The distance separating us from my platoon was the width of the stopbank—about 12 feet or so. However I threatened to shoot him there if he didn't dive over and so we both shot back over the bank where we arrived safely. He was right about his cobbers—they did have a crack.’ Hutchison's prisoner was a cadet-officer from a regiment of 1 Parachute Division (this regiment was under the command of 4 Parachute Division).page 483
The men had left their digging tools in the Kangaroos ‘on my instructions as we expected to attack the far stopbank,’ say Titchener. ‘The Kangaroos had wisely departed and the question of digging tools then arose as it appeared that all was not going well on the right flank [where 4 Company was attacking]. … A fairly hectic argument developed with the Kangaroos regarding returning the digging tools but eventually they did bring them. The Germans had now reacted to the situation but not too violently in my sector. I reported the code word for my arrival but this was not given to our tanks on the left flank [where the Gurkhas were] who proceeded to shoot us up from the rear. The Germans then became more active and I instructed the Artillery Officer to bring the D.F. tasks closer and unfortunately there was somewhere a rogue gun. Also the barrage was so close that we had to accept the possibility of casualties. Most of our casualties at this stage had come from our own tanks and Artillery.
‘It was at this stage that our sector should have been reinforced and I am quite convinced that if this had been done the far stopbank would have been secured. The position developed into a stalemate and continued for the rest of the afternoon. I tried to make contact with 4 Company and I think I collected at least two members one of whom Bob Steel had been wounded. The attack as such had completely stopped and the enemy seemed to be diverting his whole attention on 4 Company who unfortunately had been forced to use the road as an axis.’
Colonel Sanders says that 1 or 3 Company, or both, did not follow up 2 Company's success and go through to secure the far stopbank because ‘the job would have been beyond them. … as soon as [2 Company] got there it was obvious that the enemy was holding the Gaiana in such strength that a coordinated divisional attack would be necessary to secure both stopbanks and beyond. The battalion's intention was to secure the near stopbank as a spring-board.’
Titchener reorganised his company into two strong platoons, one with Company Headquarters based on a house in a bend in the stopbank near the railway and the other on the stopbank farther to the right. From the upper windows of the house, which commanded the banks on both sides of the canal for some distance, Titchener and two or three others retaliated against the German snipers, who already had killed or wounded several men. Hultenburg24 accounted for at least five before he page 484 himself was killed while using a Bren gun as a sniping weapon. ‘I cautioned him on several occasions to be more careful but unfortunately his enthusiasm and courage overcame his judgment. There certainly was some good shooting that afternoon. The rest of the afternoon we spent trying to keep the enemy from using the stopbank as an observation point. We used Artillery, 2? mortars, small arms fire, and also called in the Air Force who did particularly good work with close support bombing…. It was only by the grace of God and a lack of aggressiveness on the enemy's part that 2 Company was not overrun. We were stretched in a thin red line along the stop- bank with both flanks open and a determined assault may have dealt with us very quickly. In fact I do not think the enemy realised we had one Company in that sector.’
The straight, dusty road (the road to Budrio) led to the canal about 600 yards to the right of the railway embankment. ‘On rounding the right flank of Villa Fontana,’ says Major Bullen (4 Company), ‘we were confronted with a flat expanse of field overlooked by a large stop-bank, and it was probably 4 Coy's bad luck to be about opposite the road that ran up to the centre of the bank.
‘Things just looked too quiet and the troop leader of the Kangaroo that was carrying Coy. H.Q. agreed with me that it looked mighty bad.
‘I was ordered to make a reconnaissance of two houses to the right of the road leading to the stop bank,’ says Whitelaw. ‘One house was built partially on the stop bank & the other was a few yards away.’
Sergeant Saunders says ‘we had been told by the Ities that there were “Molti Tedeschi” at the river and that they had been digging all night. In two Kangaroos we went fairly briskly down the road and when about 250 yards from it came under fire, we got the lot from small arms to the big Faust Patronen26 bazookas thrown at us and were pleased to turn to the right off the road behind a casa right at the stop bank and de-buss.’page 485
Several men were wounded while getting out of the Kangaroos. These included Whitelaw's wireless operator, who returned to Battalion Headquarters with his wireless in one of the Kangaroos. The other Kangaroo, its crew killed or wounded, remained by the houses for the rest of the day with its engine still running.
‘We investigated the houses and were then pinned down by mortar and rifle fire,’ Whitelaw continues. ‘There was some exchange of fire…. I myself had a go at a few German heads about 100 yards away, with a machine gun. I don't know if I scored any points but the heads were not again visible…. My platoon suffered heavy casualties—one killed and many wounded —only a very few were unwounded—while in these houses.’
Bullen says that ‘the enemy who had appeared to have concentrated his force further to the right, opposite the approaching 22 [Battalion] column, did a quick switch of Infantry to the 27 front, and through my glasses I could see them diving across the gap in the bank where previously the [demolished] bridge crossed. With 16 Platoon out on a limb, the only thing left was to get my other two platoons to the bank and restore the position.’
Only 17 Platoon reached the stopbank and successfully dispossessed the enemy. While on top of the bank it was enfiladed from both flanks. ‘Our only alternative to remaining there,’ says Lieutenant Jessup,27 ‘was to retire [to the nearer side of the bank] where we were covered from enemy fire but decimated by ill-directed fire’ from the supporting tanks and 25-pounders. The men had left their entrenching tools in the Kangaroos, and a most unfortunate stonk which was laid on while they were still within the beaten zone reduced their effective strength to three or four. Jessup himself was wounded, but after a period of unconsciousness continued the fight until much later, when he and the other wounded were carried to the RAP.
Meanwhile 18 Platoon, says Bullen, ‘had been forced to ditch about 150 yards from the bank and was obliged to take shelter in a lateral ditch, which the enemy managed to range rather well with his mortars.’ This platoon also had many casualties; its commander (Lieutenant Brigham28 was among those wounded.page 486
‘Coy H.Q. meanwhile had joined Whitelaw's Platoon of whom the vast majority were wounded and all that could be said of the Coy's accomplishment was that we had mostly reached the bank and very precariously were holding our side.
‘The right flank was wide open and remained so until 22 came up under cover of 25 pdr. smoke. Bren gun fire and the aid of a supporting tank had enabled me to subdue this flank meanwhile but it certainly wasn't neutralised.
‘By the time Kangaroos had removed the wounded we found ourselves theoretically occupying 350 yards of stop-bank with a coy. H.Q. and remnants of 16 Platoon, totalling 9 or 10 men on one flank and about 3 in Jessup's position on the other…. all the platoon cmds. were wounded; one sergeant wounded and the other two dead….’
The evacuation of the wounded had not been possible until late in the afternoon. The RAP man, ‘Doc’ Flaherty,29 had been ‘the only bright spot in 4 Coy's day…. On foot and carrying a pint sized red cross flag, he tended the wounded throughout the day, seldom under cover and more than once caught in the mortar stonks, which were accorded us at regular intervals throughout the day. His preservation that day was amazing, and his work in the highest traditions of the flag he carried.’
For the first three hours of the attack Battalion Headquarters was in a Kangaroo on a lateral road just beyond the village, where it was under heavy shell and nebelwerfer fire. So accurate was this that the presence of an observation post in the village was suspected, but a thorough search by 3 Company failed to discover anybody who could be assisting the Germans, ‘so we had to accept the shooting as predicted, too damn well predicted we thought.’
The headquarters moved to the stable of a large house, but the German guns scored direct hits on the house almost at will. In the late afternoon, when the CO had been called away to a brigade conference, a shell came into a room, completely wrecked all communications, mortally wounded the Adjutant (Captain Ross) and injured several others.
No news had been received from 4 Company, which had gone off the air during the advance to the stopbank; no runner had reported back, and there was no hope of putting a line through to Company Headquarters. Obviously the company had run page 487 into serious trouble. The Intelligence Officer (Moss), sent in a Sherman tank to get information, arrived at the ruins of Company Headquarters' house to find ‘Major Bullen surrounded by about nine of his boys…. He reckoned that the company would have to be relieved…. I went back flat out to report.’
The CO returned from Brigade Headquarters and called an orders group conference at which he announced the plan for an attack that night through 27 Battalion, but this was postponed until the following night. Brigadier Gentry explains that the Gurkha Lorried Infantry Brigade, which was under the Division's command for the attack, had ‘tried to cross the Gaiana in daylight…. It sustained rather heavy casualties and had to withdraw disorganized with only one fresh battalion available for the next operation. In the late afternoon Brigadier [Barker], the Brigade Commander, came over to see me and said he felt that his Brigade could not carry out the attack that night. … After some discussion I agreed to go to Division to tell the Divisional Commander the story myself as I was convinced by this time that it would not be a good attack…. I arrived to find the General having dinner…. He accepted my advice to call the attack off for 24 hours.’
Meanwhile it was decided to send 1 Company to relieve 4, but before that could be done Bullen arrived at Battalion Headquarters to report that his men were all out of the line except for the dead left on the ground and the two or three who had joined 2 Company. ‘Just on dusk,’ he says, ‘the enemy proceeded to bazooka the casa and in fact set it on fire. The complete absence of orders from Bn. since the attack started and the non reply to any messages relayed through my 38 set through the Arty., coupled with the total ineffectiveness of the Coy. as a fighting unit, persuaded me that there was little purpose in being cooked, so I gave orders for the remaining few troops to make a run for it. Which they did.’ Bullen did not know until he arrived at Battalion Headquarters that 1 Company had been ordered to relieve 4.
The CO directed 1 Company—which had been in reserve to the right of the village, where it had been severely shelled and mortared but did not have any casualties—to go forward to occupy the stopbank when darkness fell. Apart from two casualties from a mine explosion on the way the company reached the stopbank without interference. Two platoons were established right on the bank, one each side of the road. Nicol page 488 says he sent out a two-man patrol from 7 Platoon (on the left) during the night: ‘they returned with the information that the enemy was digging in around the bridge, and on the far side of the canal.’ It was a comparatively quiet night.
Altogether the battalion's casualties on 17 April were nineteen killed and sixty-six wounded (two fatally); of the seventy-eight men of 4 Company who had gone into the attack on the Gaiana, ten had been killed and thirty-six wounded.
The RAP carriers toiled unremittingly and much of the time under fire. Private Morris30 ‘again and again drove through the mercilessly shelled streets to bring out our wounded and later went right up to the forward troops at the stop-bank under heavy mortar and machine-gun fire thence evacuating across open country to the RAP. He continued until the early hours of the morning and after short and twice interrupted rest was on the job again the following morning…. Though on occasions he was advised to wait until things were quieter he always went immediately, with determination and complete disregard of his own safety.’
Battalion Headquarters moved back into Villa Fontana at dawn on the 18th. ‘The other place was getting too hot…. The spot [in the village] wasn't altogether peaceful however as Jerry commenced a continuous harassing programme, just one shell at a time on the village.’
An enemy observation post at the corner of the stopbank and the railway embankment could not be dislodged by 2 Company's weapons and was too close to be shelled by the artillery. Titchener's sharp-shooters continued their duel with the German snipers and by the end of the day had claimed thirteen of them.
The tanks supporting 1 Company shot up an enemy-occupied house just across the canal and completely destroyed the upper part of the building. It was a difficult shoot because only the roof was visible and the clearance above the bank where the company was dug in was only about three feet. About an hour later (in mid-afternoon) the enemy was so quiet that a two-man patrol was sent out to investigate. This patrol crossed the stop- bank near the demolished road bridge and went 250 yards along the reverse slope in 2 Company's direction without seeing the enemy but finding trenches that had been recently vacated.page 489
A larger patrol was then sent out by 2 Company. Hutchison says he ‘was ordered to take a fighting patrol of 10 men and cross the canal, taking note of grenades, land mines, water depth-breadth, canal bottom etc and hold the far side of the river so that the company could cross. My patrol crossed the water breast high and we were just climbing [the bank on] the far side of the canal … when Jerry opened up with small arms and mortars. I ordered a withdrawal and [we] were fortunate in being covered in our retreat by 2 Brens which I had left on our side of the canal. We arrived back without casualties.’ After that the paratroopers were alert.
When darkness fell the two companies were withdrawn 500 yards so that the barrage for the attack that night could fall on both banks. While 1 Company completed its withdrawal without incident, 2 Company did not escape detection in the half light. The enemy brought down several stonks but no small-arms fire. The company went back by a devious route, and on the way found the bodies of Captain Young (the second-in-command) and Private Carswell31 (his driver) in a ditch. They had been shot by snipers earlier in the day.
The attack over the Gaiana was made by 9 Brigade and 43 Gurkha Lorried Infantry Brigade. The 27th Battalion was to follow in the rear of Divisional Cavalry Battalion (which was on the right of the 22nd) and was to prevent infiltration on the brigade's right flank.
The German strength was estimated at a maximum of 1000, against whom 192 field guns (not including the medium artillery) were to fire 100,000 rounds—a hundred for each paratrooper. This barrage opened at 9.30 p.m. and lifted half an hour later to a line 500 yards ahead. The flame-throwers (Wasps and Crocodiles) then crept up to within striking distance of the canal. ‘A huge red glow surged up into the sky all along our front as they opened up simultaneously,’ Moss observed from an upstairs window. ‘The fearful molten streams curved through the air and slobbered all over the river. Soon the levees were outlined in sizzling, licking fire and looked like walls of hot lava. At every fresh spout of the flaming fluid, the glare would light up the pillaring clouds of smoke giving the sky the appearance of a display of the southern aurora.’page 490
‘Despite all this,’ wrote Geoffrey Cox,32 ‘the parachutists did not give up easily. Though the prisoners who came back were dazed and horrified, they totalled less than 200. Their casualties on the ground appeared, in the dark, not very numerous…. It was only when I went forward to the river line itself early the next day that I realised…. the first count of enemy casualties had been too low. Along these banks in the stream, in their trenches, in houses and holes behind, lay the massed dead. Few battlefields in this war can have presented the picture of carnage which the banks of the Giana showed that day.’
When each canal in the open flat country beyond the Gaiana was captured, a company of 27 Battalion went out to seal it off on the exposed flank. The first to go, 4 Company, set off along the road shortly after midnight and followed the Gaiana north-eastwards for about a kilometre, where it made contact with the enemy. The next to leave, 2 Company, crossed the Gaiana by a freshly erected Bailey bridge, and without making contact, took up a position facing north-eastwards astride the next canal, the Scolo Acquarolo.
With the farthest to go, 1 Company turned off to the right just short of the Torrente Quaderna and went across country to a group of houses. ‘Saw a Jerry dive into a house whereupon the boys opened up with everything, Brens, rifles, Tommies, Piats and 2 inch mortars,’ says Nicol, whose 7 Platoon was on the left. ‘Practically blew the casa to bits. One undersized young Jerry came out. Picked up some more prisoners at a house further along but struck nothing very solid. While digging in there was a bit of Spandau & mortar but it was fairly long distance I think. My left flank was on the stop bank & the boys there spent all day firing the Bren at parties of Jerries dashing across the canal about 600 yards away…. six more Jerries were found in the attic of the house we had as H.Q.’
During the morning Captain Blue decided to attack a group of houses 200 or 300 yards away, from which the enemy was firing small arms and bazookas. Shellfire from the supporting tanks forced fifteen Germans to bolt for the stopbank, and two Wasps then rushed up to flame the bank. This caused the Germans in the vicinity to panic. For 100 yards or so on each side of the flamed ground they discarded their weapons and page 491 fled into the open. A prearranged 25-pounder stonk was then brought down squarely among them. Later a paratroop captain walked in and gave himself up.
The enemy did not counter-attack, but stonked the whole battalion area. The tanks with 2 Company harassed the disorganised enemy parties who were trying to regain their own lines. A self-propelled gun and some mortars firing persistently from beyond the Quaderna were engaged twice by the tanks and finally quietened by the medium guns. By 3 p.m. all hostile fire had ceased.
Less than an hour later the reconnaissance group from the Maori Battalion arrived to arrange the relief of the 27th. Guides from each company—including 3 Company, which had gone forward to the Scolo Acquarolo in reserve—met the Maoris at nine o'clock and led them to their positions. The whole battalion then went back in trucks to a rest area near Medicina, where it was to spend the next couple of days under canvas.
Some reorganisation was necessary: since the start of the advance three officers and thirty-one other ranks (including nine NCOs) had been killed and six officers and 106 other ranks (including twenty-six NCOs) wounded.
1 These were cut-down Sherman or Cromwell tanks with the turret removed and mounting two machine guns, one on a swivel and the other firing straight forward through an aperture. The crews of the Kangaroos attached to 27 Bn were from 4 Hussars.
2 The officers of the battalion were:
CO: Lt-Col G. P. Sanders
2 i/c: Maj J. H. R. Luxford
Adj: Capt M. W. J. Ross
IO: Lt B. C. H. Moss
QM: Lt I. McLennan
TO: Lt J. F. Wade
MO: Capt E. K. McLeod
Padre: Rev J. Sands
OC: Maj K. J. Frazer
2 i/c: Capt G. F. R. Keith
7 Pl: Lt W. S. Nicol
8 Pl: Lt F. R. Allen
9 Pl: 2 Lt D. G. Powell
OC: Maj G. H. Bell
2 i/c: Capt E. Sanders
13 Pl: 2 Lt K. J. Pogmore
14 Pl: Lt B. R. Sneddon
15 Pl: Lt R. L. Smith
OC: Lt M. T. Wilson
Sigs Pl: Lt E. T. Couch
MMG Pl: 2 Lt J. R. Gordon
Mortar Pl: Lt C. V. Martyn
Carrier Pl: Sgt A. W. Gadd
A-Tk Pl: 2 Lt P. Webb
OC: Maj W. F. Titchener
2 i/c: Capt A. J. Young
10 Pl: 2 Lt N. J. Fuller
11 Pl: 2 Lt N. G. Tracey
12 Pl: Lt P. H. Warner
OC: Maj A. B. Bullen
2 i/c: Capt N. G. Blue
16 Pl: Lt P. E. Whitelaw
17 Pl: Lt R. W. Jessup
18 Pl: Lt R. C. Brigham
Capt A. E. Muir was OC Support Gp (which included the MMG, Mortar, Carrier
and A-Tk Pls) for movement and operations.
10 The Tiger (Mark VI) tank weighed over 60 tons and mounted an 88-mm gun; the Panther (Mark V) tank weighed about 50 tons and mounted a 75-mm gun. Tanner believes that the tank Maj Bell describes is the one that he and the other 14 Pl men attacked with 77s.
22 Lt R. A. Vasey, MC; Awanui; born Awanui, 15 Oct 1917; driver; wounded 17 Apr 1945.
24 Pte G. Hutenber; born Carterton, 5 Nov 1920; farmhand; killed in action 17 Apr 1945.
26 The Faustpatrone was a 44-mm recoilless anti-tank grenade launcher. The German weapon similar to the American bazooka was the Offenrohr, which fired a hollow-charge rocket projectile.