Italy Volume II : From Cassino to Trieste
I: The Romagna
I: The Romagna
THE Romagna, the south-east portion of the great plain of the Po valley, spread its snares before Eighth Army. Half-seen through the fine drizzle of 21 September, it offered a dreary prospect of flat, watery and charmless land, receding monotonously towards a grey horizon. It owed its existence to the fact that for thousands of years the rivers had spilled their sediment there, and for 800 years men had laboured to reclaim it from the sea. Its alluvial origins made it a heart-breaking winter battleground for troops entitled to a better reward for their long advance over hill and valley.
A double disillusionment awaited Eighth Army as it broke into the edge of the great plain and prepared to move forward to a line from Ferrara to Bologna. The battle to get there had tired most of its formations, except the New Zealand Division: nearly 500 tanks had been put out of action, half of them irrecoverably, and so heavy had been the drain on infantry that the battalions from the United Kingdom had to be reduced temporarily from four to three rifle companies. But it was not only fatigue and wastage that threatened to cheat the army of its due. The heavy rain that began on 20 September—a fortnight late, the anxious Germans observed— fell upon a terrain that was soon to dispel the dream of mobility regained.
The popular belief—or delusion—was that the Po valley was an armoured playground where tanks could sport at will. In fact it was essentially still a swamp whose major watercourses had been canalised between floodbanks rising in places 40 feet above the page 229 plain. Thirteen such rivers and many more smaller watercourses1 ran into the Adriatic across the path of an Army advancing to Ravenna, and the low-lying land between the embankments was intricately patterned with ditches and canals, many of which could be drained only by pumping. As fords were few, the larger streams were tank obstacles and might even baffle infantry; nor could tanks always cross the smaller watercourses. The roads offered little compensation. Half a mile west of Rimini, at the village of Celle, the two highways, raised safely above the flood level, went their separate ways, Route 9 (the Via Emilia) beside the Apennine foothills direct to Bologna, and Route 16 (the Via Adriatica) beside the coast to Ravenna. Between these diverging highways the axial roads were of limited use: they were ill-formed and narrow and usually cut short by the main rivers. The lateral roads were superior in number and condition, many of them running along the tops of floodbanks, but they were subject to cratering. The roads were as important as they were inadequate, for off them the soil and sub-soil were of clay, which rose in dust in dry weather and in wet weather became first greasy and slippery and then so soft and clinging that men could move only with difficulty, and vehicles, including tanks, hardly at all. The bad going obviously cramped the inventiveness of the Eighth Army planners. In the whole Romagnuol delta, with Rimini for its apex and the Adriatic coast and the Apennines for its sides, only the comparatively firm and high belt of ground on eithe side of Route 9 could sustain a major thrust in weather even moderately wet.
The numerous farm buildings and hamlets gave the enemy a gratuitous defence in depth, blockhouse upon blockhouse. The infantry sections or snipers who occupied them had to be driven out in detail; they could not easily be shelled out en masse, for the collapse of stonework only made strongpoints still stronger. Around these buildings the vineyards made it hard to see and move. The vines were trained on wire between pollarded mulberries or other fruit trees, planted about every 10 feet in rows about 30 yards apart and growing to a height of perhaps 15 feet. In autumn, when vine and tree were in full leaf, the tank commander peering from his turret could see no farther than the next row ahead; and after breaking through two or three trellises a tank might be brought to a stop with track locked or its driver unsighted by trailing festoons of vines and wire. Since the trees were planted parallel with the streams and therefore across the general line of advance, the enemy could enfilade successive rows with machine guns and anti-tank guns.
1 These were named fossa or fosso (ditch), scolo (drain), canale (canal), rio (stream), torrente (mountain torrent) or fiume (river).
In this inauspicious terrain at this late season, therefore, all the odds were against swift advance: water obstacle and easy demolition, high banks, mud and dust, stone barn and leafy vineyard. Only larger numbers of men and heavier weight of metal could help to redress the balance of tactical advantage. As troops tired and the skies became closed to aircraft, nothing but shellfire could be expected to keep the campaign in motion. Ahead of Eighth Army lay dour, leaden fighting in what came to be called ‘the battles of the rivers’. Only in January, after nearly four months, would the army resign the offensive until the return of spring. Meanwhile for the New Zealanders, as for their allies, there would be a grim routine of water crossings, sharp actions fought around farmhouses, dangerous scuffling amid vineyards, quixotic charges against stopbanks, a steady drain of casualties, and nearly always an oppressive sense of slow progress. But on 21 September 1944 all this was locked in the future.
Once the Rimini line had been forced, the time had come to execute Eighth Army's plans for the pursuit into the plain. On the right 1 Canadian Corps was to thrust out two armoured spearheads: one of them, 2 NZ Division, after passing through the bridgehead formed by 1 Canadian Division, was to drive along the coastal route towards Ravenna, 32 miles distant from Rimini; farther inland 5 Canadian Armoured Division was to advance through 4 British Division's bridgehead towards Castel Maggiore, a few miles north of Bologna. Meanwhile, on the left, 5 Corps, wheeling to the north-west, was to make for Bologna astride Route 9.
The enemy's intention was to delay these plans as long as possible. His great strategic need was to maintain in the east a pivot upon which he could, if necessary, withdraw his Army Group C to a line guarding the exits from Italy. This pivot would not be endangered in the coastal sector until he fell back as far as the lagoons of the Valli di Comacchio, north of Ravenna. He therefore had ground to sell, but having forced the Allies to consume the late summer and part of the autumn in reaching the edge of the plain he could now expect to ask a high price, for he could count on the attrition of numerous river crossings in weather that would quickly deteriorate. General Herr, whose 76 Panzer Corps held the line opposite 1 Canadian Corps, assured his immediate superior, General Vietinghoff, on 21 September that his corps was ‘trying to hold firm as far forward as possible for as long as possible’. Vietinghoff ordered page 231 the corps to ‘strain every muscle to get depth in its dispositions and avoid everything being smashed up in the front line.’1
Herr had only motley resources at his disposal. His Adriatic flank, facing the New Zealanders and astride Route 16, was held by the renowned 1 Parachute Division (Lieutenant-General R. Heidrich), but the coastal front itself, although under paratroop command, was in the nervy hands of 236 Reconnaissance Battalion and 303 Grenadier Regiment, both remnants of 162 (Turcoman) Infantry Division. Although well armed with automatic weapons, this division was known by the Germans to be untrustworthy; it had a name for desertions, and the Turcomen who did not desert seem to have been stirred into half-hearted activity only by their German officers and NCOs. In order on the paratroops' right were 29 Panzer Grenadier Division (Major-General Dr F. Polack) and 26 Panzer Division (Major-General E. P. Crasemann), the latter strengthened by three battalions of 20 GAF Field Division. Both were seasoned formations of good repute, but the panzer grenadier division, much below establishment, was hardly more than a battle group, and the panzer division was without either of its infantry regiments. Herr's main problem—a shortage of infantry and anti-tank weapons—was in part eased by the existence of field works covering water crossings and built-in defences such as Panther turrets at other strategic points.
When the Greeks and New Zealanders entered Rimini on the morning of 21 September, 4 Brigade group was lying up behind San Fortunato ridge waiting to move into the Marecchia bridgehead and thence to launch Operation CAVALCADE, the advance to Ravenna. Bridging troubles at the Canadians' crossing, however, delayed 5 Brigade's start until well after the planned time of dawn. General Weir was anxious, too, about the muddy tracks over San Fortunato and was thinking of diverting the brigade group through the outskirts of Rimini. When Brigadier Pleasants sought permission for 4 Armoured Brigade to exploit the capture of Rimini by pushing on over the Marecchia, Weir therefore agreed readily. By opportunism and flexibility the Division would make its entry into the plain not through the Canadians' bridgehead but through its own. Reinforced by a machine-gun company and a platoon of sappers, 4 Armoured Brigade during the 21st assembled 19 Armoured Regiment and 22 (Motor) Battalion in the Rimini area ready for the chase; and at 6.15 p.m. it superseded 3 Greek Mountain Brigade in command of the sector from the coast to Route 16, with orders to establish and develop a bridgehead across the westerly branch of the Marecchia.page 232
As early as 7 p.m. the motor battalion opened a silent attack between the sea and Route 16, sending 2 Company up the coastal flank and 1 Company up the left. Many of the seaside villas on 2 Company's route were fortified and protected by minefields against a landing from the sea, and the men of the Turcoman regiment, if lukewarm, were more numerous than the New Zealanders. The area of Celle and Route 16 bristled with dug-in Panther turrets mounting 75-millimetre guns, machine-gun posts and infantry strongpoints, all formidably manned by paratroops. The New Zealand companies' objective was the Fossa Turchetta, a watercourse about 1500 yards beyond the Marecchia. Once the engineers had cleared a ford across the river, the tanks of C Squadron of 19 Regiment would go forward in close support.
In the pitch darkness of a cloudy evening both companies crossed the river in safety, 1 Company, choosing a point where the water was nowhere deeper than two feet, in comparative comfort. Men could walk across without wading, and by jumping from boulder to boulder could even keep their feet dry. On the right, between two railway bridges, the men of 2 Company made for a point where the concrete retaining wall was breached and made negotiable by bombing, only to find that the same bomb had torn a hole in the riverbed, where they suddenly floundered in water up to their armpits. Having rounded up two spandau teams on the northern bank, 2 Company pressed on quickly towards its objective, overrunning enemy posts in fortified houses or leaving them to be mopped up in daylight. As 10 Platoon lost two men killed and seven wounded in a minefield, Major K. R. Hutcheson halted his company 200 or 300 yards short of the Fossa Turchetta, whence they could dominate the objective without risking further casualties on mines.
Two more tasks completed a satisfactory night's work: three troops of C Squadron, 19 Regiment, crossed the Marecchia ford and came up in support of the infantry; and the 48th Highlanders of 1 Canadian Brigade, on the motor battalion's left, took possession of Celle. But the Marecchia exacted one more exertion: the Route 16 bridge had been so wrecked by the demolition that the stretcher-bearers had to form a kind of human rope to cross dry-shod, hauling themselves up like gymnasts from the near bank and easing themselves down to the farther.
While 22 Battalion was exposing its flank in a shallow salient, 5 Brigade's group1 was moving into 1 Canadian Division's bridgehead. Its orders were to take two successive water lines—the Scolo Brancona, about two miles beyond the Rimini-Cesena railway, and the Rio Fontanaccia, half a mile or more farther on. Capture of the first objective would be the signal for 6 Brigade group to begin moving forward to pass through the 5th. Brigadier Burrows's brigade was first to enlarge the bridgehead with 21 Battalion group (Lieutenant-Colonel Thodey) on the right and 28 (Maori) Battalion group (Lieutenant-Colonel Young) on the left, and then to launch them by two bounds to the Scolo Brancona and finally to the Fontanaccia, where 6 Brigade would take up the running.
Fourth Brigade had expanded its bridgehead on the coastal front as far forward as the Fossa Turchetta, and 19 Regiment's tanks were moving to its support. West of Route 16, 5 Brigade had four companies of infantry across the Marecchia—C and A Companies of 21 Battalion on the right between the river and Route 9, and A and D Companies of 28 Battalion on and around Route 9—as well as two squadrons of 18 Regiment. South of the river the two reserve companies of each battalion and the third squadron of the 18th waited to support the advance. Fifth Brigade's reserve battalion, the 23rd, had been instructed to pass into the bridgehead near the coast. Sixth Brigade and Divisional Cavalry were to concentrate south of Rimini. Having completed its work of breaching the Marecchia, 1 Canadian Division, with 3 Greek Mountain Brigade under command, relinquished its sector to the New Zealand Division at 8 a.m. on 22 September and reverted to corps command. The concern which the New Zealand command had felt for the security of its left flank lessened as the situation became known. By the night of the 21st 4 British Division had cleared its front up to the Marecchia, although it still had to cross the river and release 5 Canadian Armoured Division for its drive across the plain.
The opening of Operation CAVALCADE on 22 September was an exercise in disillusionment. At the end of a day of hard fighting the codename was seen to be a deceiver: there could be no light-hearted scamper across the Romagna. Handicapped by the ground and cover, the Division did well to carry its front forward a mile or more to the Canale dei Molini, though this was only the nearer of two report lines on the way to 5 Brigade's first main objective, the Scolo Brancona. The main burden of the day was borne by 21 and 28 Battalions, but the 22nd, setting out from its overnight position on the Fossa Turchetta, kept the line moving on the seaward flank. Originally given no role in the advance, the motor battalion was not provided for when boundaries were allotted, and it now had to make room for 5 Brigade by contracting its front so as to extend only about 600 yards from the coast. On this narrow sector, what was to have been an armoured dash slowed down to a systematic infantry advance. In the heavily built-up area of Viserba, 2 Company on the right and 3 Company on the left soon found that they had to precede their supporting tanks, C Squadron and A Squadron respectively of 19 Regiment.page 235
All buildings and strongpoints had to be thoroughly searched on foot, and the tanks followed up in bounds of about 800 yards on being signalled that each bound was clear of anti-tank weapons. The troops continued past Viserba against the yielding front of the Turcoman regiment until by late afternoon they halted just south of the Canale dei Molini, where a squall of mortar and anti-tank fire foretold a hardening of resistance and probably announced the arrival of paratroops hurriedly switched to the coastal strip. The enemy complaint that the Turcoman regiment had been ‘more or less scattered to the four winds’1 has some statistical support: the day's count of prisoners was 123, mostly Turcomen taken in mopping-up just beyond the Marecchia; and perhaps another 30 had been killed in the advance. Since crossing the Marecchia 22 Battalion had lost six killed and 24 wounded, and 19 Regiment one killed and one wounded.
Fifth Brigade had been battling forward farther from the coast. The stiffest task fell to 21 Battalion, which advanced along both sides of the obvious and therefore heavily defended axis of Route 16. Drains and ditches, many of them deep and interconnected like a ready-made trench system, and clustered vines, farm buildings and houses along the highway offered unlimited weapon sites; and these, easily missed by the first wave of attackers, often came to life at unexpected times and places. Both infantry companies—C on the right of Route 16 and A on the left—and the supporting tanks of B Squadron were so fiercely opposed that for most of the morning they lagged behind the flanking units. Paratroops and Turcomen had to be driven off embankments, flushed out of cellars, attic windows and trenches. To blot out an observation post a tank gun was used to decapitate a tall church tower.
The Germans, resisting mainly with mortars, machine guns and small arms, gave ground grudgingly, sometimes only in the face of acts of individual bravery. Sergeant Hunt,2 of B Squadron, venturing up Route 16 in his light reconnaissance tank without escort, startled about 40 Germans out of their slit trenches with the fire of his weapons. As they ran away, he manoeuvred his Honey tank into their midst, wounded a few and dismounted to take 20 prisoners. Hunt disarmed his captives; enemy mortar bombs and small-arms began to cause casualties among them, but he carried on undeterred and ordered them into a ditch, where he covered them with his tank until New Zealand infantrymen came to his aid.
The Maori Battalion, using D Company on the right and A on the left, and supported by tanks of A Squadron, 18 Regiment, had a less difficult advance. On this inland flank there were fewer houses to give defence a refuge, the distance to the objective was shorter, and the enemy made an orderly withdrawal by firing his spandaus until the Maoris drew near and then pulling back to open up again at longer range. Sergeant McCowatt's1 tank ‘stumbled into a nest of bazookas just short of Orsoleto, and had a close-range running fight which ended in the Germans departing in a hurry.’2 At this stage, however, the Maoris began to take real punishment from persistent and accurate shell and mortar fire. Two Tiger tanks entered Orsoleto, a hamlet about half a mile beyond the Canale dei Molini, and began to shoot up the houses occupied by the Maoris, whose casualties at the end of the day were five killed and 25 wounded. The 10 prisoners taken were fewer than on other fronts, but brought 5 Brigade's tally for the day to 92 and the Division's to 215.
Although the day had been strenuous and costly, the Division had done little more than nibble at the edge of the enemy's Po valley defences. The imperturbable Heidrich was bringing up reserves to give depth to 1 Parachute Division's positions and was confident of being able to seal off the penetrations in the coastal sector. Senior German officers, more anxious than the men on the spot, expected a major attack, ‘a push to the Po basin’, but were not sure when it would come. The comparative weakness of the Allies' gunfire and the need for more time to deploy their artillery pointed to a few days' respite; but reports of heavy traffic movement that evening inspired thoughts of greater urgency. The truth was that Eighth Army—and the New Zealand Division at the right of the line—being ignorant of where the enemy would stand, was content to press forward until compelled to fight a set-piece battle.
The night held fewer terrors than the preceding day, and 5 Brigade made its ground with little trouble. Advancing at midnight astride Route 16, with B and D Companies now in the lead, 21 Battalion had covered the 2700 yards to the Scolo Brancona by 2.40 a.m. without suffering a casualty or even meeting a German. The Maori Battalion was less fortunate. D and A Companies, which were still leading the advance, made a good start but later lost direction. They had no straight road such as Route 16 to guide them in the dark and they were temporarily disorganised by the loss of both company commanders, Major Te Punga1 (D Company) and Major Mitchell2 (A Company), who were together surprised and killed by spandau fire from a house apparently reported by civilians to be free of the enemy. The Maoris dealt promptly with the occupants and moved on slowly against opposition, but it was not until after Colonel Young had come up to redirect them that they reached the Brancona.
With the British division far outrun and a tank alarm on the left, Young appealed for precautions on his open flank. An anti-tank strongpoint was established in the Maoris' rear near San Martino, 32 Anti-Tank Battery contributing two 17-pounders, 23 Battalion four six-pounders and D Company, and the sappers a supply of anti-tank mines. Brigadier Burrows also sent A Squadron of Divisional Cavalry to guard the Maoris' left wing. By this time, however, the neighbouring formation was beginning to conform. The 5th Canadian Armoured Division (Major-General B. M. Hoffmeister) replaced 4 British Division in command of the sector and began to push troops forward of Route 9. Fifth Brigade was ordered to stand firm on the line of the Brancona, where 6 Brigade was to take the lead at dawn.
This was the area into which the fresh troops of 6 Brigade group now advanced. Organised originally to exploit the breakthrough into the plain, the group had been held back during the probing advances of 4 and 5 Brigades. Now it was launched on 5 Brigade's front in two highly mobile forces: 24 Battalion group or Red Force (Lieutenant-Colonel R. L. Hutchens) on the right and 25 Battalion group or Green Force (Lieutenant-Colonel E. K. Norman) on the left.2 The Rio Fontanaccia was the immediate goal. Operating on the Route 16 axis, 24 Battalion group by dark had established itself within easy reach of the Fontanaccia east of the main road, but not so far forward on the west. Following the roundabout Black Diamond route, 25 Battalion group had passed its forward company through the Maoris and occupied the ground a few hundred yards north of the Brancona.
2 Red Force: 24 Bn, C Sqn 20 Armd Regt, platoon 2 MG Coy, platoon 8 Fd Coy, 6 Bde Hy Mortar Sec, 105-mm. battery 24 Army Fd Regt (SP) RA, troop M10s 31 A-Tk Bty. Green Force: 25 Bn, A Sqn 20 Armd Regt, platoon 2 MG Coy, platoon 8 Fd Coy, troop 17-pdrs 33 A-Tk Bty, two troops 39 Mortar Bty, 105-mm. battery 24 Army Fd Regt (SP) RA, troop M10s 31 A-Tk Bty.
The 1st Parachute Division could count the day well spent. It still held a continuous line, despite strong pressure by tanks and infantry and shellfire which it rated as of ‘barrage intensity’1 — a comprehensible description of the 20,406 rounds fired by the New Zealand field regiments in the 24 hours. Even the Turcomen of 236 Reconnaissance Battalion, sustained between two paratroop battalions, won Vietinghoff's praise for a sturdy showing against 4 Brigade on the coast. The enemy had resolved to hold on doggedly to the line of the Fontanaccia. The limited withdrawals already made persuaded Vietinghoff to tell Kesselring on the morning of 24 September that 76 Panzer Corps needed reinforcements ‘because the situation in its centre is not very flash.’ Kesselring said he had been told that 1 Parachute Division had withdrawn, but Vietinghoff replied, ‘That was a trifle…. There was a penetration of 700 metres in the centre, but the wings are still holding firm….’2
The enemy had shown his determination during the night, when 25 Battalion and its supporting tanks, ordered to square up to the Fontanaccia south-west of Route 16, had had only partial success. On the right A Company reached a lateral road 200 yards or so from the objective, and two patrols were successively driven back from the stream; on the left C Company, having consolidated in houses short of the stream, was harassed by snipers who seemed to be everywhere.
The Division's loss of five tanks and of more than 50 casualties on 24 September was sufficient testimony of the enemy's liveliness and alertness along the front. In the evening 1 Parachute Division claimed to have beaten off 27 attacks in strength in the last 36 hours. Even if this was an exaggeration, it confirmed what was now evident, that the jabbing, unconcerted attacks of the last two or three days had exhausted their usefulness, and that the time had come for an assault by the collected strength of a brigade.
Weir's plan for that night was to launch the two forward battalions of 6 Brigade with tank support behind an artillery barrage in an attack across the Fontanaccia that would take them 2000 yards forward and about half-way to the River Uso (probably the Rubicon of classical history1), which meandered north across the plain in many loops before flowing into the sea at Bellaria. The objective was a 25,000-yard stretch of the lateral road running north-east to the coast through the village of Bordonchio. While 22 Battalion conformed in the narrow strip beside the sea, 24 Battalion was to advance along and east of Route 16, and 25 Battalion on the left flank between lanes to be indicated by tracer from the Bofors guns of 14 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment.
Twenty minutes before zero hour at 8 p.m., the three New Zealand field regiments and 17 Canadian Field Regiment were to lay the opening line of their barrage along the Fontanaccia and then lift their fire ahead of the infantry, who were set the fairly brisk pace of 100 yards in five minutes. Concentrations would be fired by 4 Medium Regiment in support of 6 Brigade and by 24 Field Regiment, RA, in support of 22 Battalion. The silencing of the enemy batteries was to be the work of the Canadian Army Group, Royal Artillery. The assaulting battalions were to construct tracks forward for their tanks and the engineers were to clear Route 16 for wheels as soon as possible.
Sixth Brigade was set an advance of about 3000 yards in two and a half hours. If not entirely vindicating the plan, the brigade showed that it was far from illusory. The enemy seems to have been taken unawares: on one part of the front the attack disturbed a relief of troops, and a ration truck, a doctor and his orderly, and an ‘elderly soldier’ delivering mail in a horse and buggy in turn drove blithely into captivity. The darkness—only imperfectly dispersed by artificial moonlight—grape vines, undergrowth and ditches, and the occasional failure of a wireless set made it difficult for the assaulting companies to keep in touch; in some places the enemy was well dug in along the Fontanaccia, and machine-gun posts, disposed in depth, fought back from time to time throughout the advance; but they could often be bypassed by the first wave, and the Tiger and Panther tanks prowling among the defences showed on the whole more anxiety to retire to safety than to risk a short-range surprise coming out of the night.
The 24th Battalion, attacking along and east of Route 16, found the going harder and slower than did 25 Battalion on the inland flank. A Company led off on the right and C Company on the left, with D and B Companies respectively mopping up behind them. After advancing unopposed for 600 yards, A Company lost the shelter of the barrage through having to delay to clear out strongpoints. Besides harrying the company with small arms and gunfire, the enemy was leaving a few troops behind to send up signals calling for mortar fire as soon as the New Zealanders approached. The company had to patrol to right and left for reassurance about its flanks, but just before daylight it was within 200 yards of the objective, where it dug in, in the face of stiff resistance on the right, to await the assistance of the supporting tanks.
By this time C Company was established in neighbouring posts on the left, also about 200 yards from the lateral road through Bordonchio, having had bloodless encounters with three Tigers on the way there. The two mopping-up companies had to crush spandau posts bypassed by the leading companies before consolidating about half-way to the objective. The tanks of C Squadron, 20 Regiment, followed up, successfully negotiating the waterway, and soon after dawn one troop made a welcome junction with A Company, which it helped to evict a German platoon from a high-walled graveyard in Bordonchio.
Three companies were used by 25 Battalion on its front west of Route 16. There, in spite of an early flare-up on the Fontanaccia, where both sides lost men, the pace was swifter. D Company (on page 242 the right), moving beside the highway, was on its objective by 10.20 p.m., still close up behind the barrage. It was joined 40 minutes later by A Company (in the centre), and with the arrival of a weakened B (on the left) about 3.50 a.m. the battalion was in firm possession of its goal, the road running south-west from Bordonchio, and had thrown out some posts beyond it. The presence of tanks of A Squadron, 20 Regiment, strengthened its hold.
Meanwhile 6 Brigade's open left flank was being screened, and by dawn the combined force of infantry and armour, disposed in groups composed of a platoon and a troop, was filling part of the gap between 25 Battalion and the Canadians to the south-west. The advance had cost 6 Brigade 57 casualties, all wounded infantrymen.
In its conforming attack on the coastal strip, 22 Battalion, with tanks from B Squadron of 19 Regiment, met stiff resistance and was brought to an abrupt halt a few hundred yards beyond the Fontanaccia and about 2500 yards short of the objective, the southern half of the seaside village of Igiea Marina. Spandaus and mortars concealed in the low sandy ground north of the Fontanaccia troubled 1 Company on the right and 3 Company on the left from the outset. Without the benefit of an artillery barrage they made slow progress to the stream, and not far beyond it were pinned down by steady fire. Nor could the tanks give much help, for enemy infantry posts were hard to locate and the mines laid on the coastal road were covered by fire, which frustrated the efforts of engineers to lift them. Two plans for speeding up the advance were suggested during the night. One was reinforcement by 26 Battalion, and the other the diversion of 1 and 3 Companies through 6 Brigade so that they might attack farther north from the left flank rather than continue their frontal pressure. More cheerful reports, however, caused both plans to be abandoned and by the time the hard truth was known it was too late.
The total result of the Division's attack on this night of confused fighting on 24–25 September was to thrust 6 Brigade forward in a salient 2000 yards deep. At the tip of this salient the brigade was on its objective (the lateral road through Bordonchio) on the left and very near it on the right. The long right flank which the brigade showed towards the sea was due to the check which had arrested 22 Battalion a short distance beyond the Fontanaccia. The left flank was being watched by a small force of tanks and infantry, while farther to the south the Canadians were still probing towards San Vito and the Uso.
The obvious next move was for 4 Brigade to square up so that the Division's right flank should rest entirely on the sea. The sound page 243 of explosions in Igiea Marina and reports by civilian refugees drifting southwards suggested that the enemy, having held his ground stubbornly overnight, was now on the morning of the 25th retiring upon a new line along the Uso. When 1 and 3 Companies of 22 Battalion and their supporting tanks resumed their advance up the coast about 8.30 a.m. this seemed to be the case, for they advanced unchallenged. Ahead of them fighter-bombers, favoured for once by the weather, bombed and strafed; the artillery bombarded key points; and by early afternoon, after some delay in crossing the Rio del Moro, the infantry were on the southern edge of Igiea Marina and had drawn level with 6 Brigade's front.
The time had come to relieve 22 Battalion. Temporary relief was given by A and B Companies of 26 Battalion, which had been launched that morning in an attack across the line of advance to seize a length of the embankment on the inter-brigade boundary between the Fontanaccia and the Moro. From there they went forward to the railway line, before wheeling left to come up behind 22 Battalion. The relief was completed by late afternoon, but the two 26 Battalion companies were themselves replaced two or three hours later by D Company, 24 Battalion, released from its mopping-up task on the left. The whole of the Division's front, stretching 2000 yards inland from the southern limits of Igiea Marina, was now in the hands of 24 and 25 Battalions, with support from 20 Armoured Regiment. The only other New Zealand troops in even spasmodic contact with the enemy were the left-flank protection force, which had had brushes with German tanks and infantry during the day, and patrols of the Divisional Cavalry still farther south.
As the New Zealand intelligence had predicted, defence of the Uso was no part of the German plan, and of all the many watercourses that confronted the Division, few were less obstructive than this circuitous stream. Barely opposed advances during the day and night of 26 September took the New Zealanders across the Uso in two places with bridges behind them, so that, in conformity with the Canadians on their left, they were ready on the 27th to strike towards the next main obstacle, the Fiumicino River.
A swift breakthrough to the Uso on 25 Battalion's front early on the 26th strengthened the evidence of an enemy withdrawal, and Weir instructed Parkinson to push his brigade up to the river with all speed. The 26th Battalion was brought in on the left of the brigade, between 25 Battalion and the Canadians, and was to press on to the Fiumicino. At the same time, so as to keep one battalion in reserve, 3 Greek Mountain Brigade would come into the line on the coastal sector, relieving 24 Battalion.
Meanwhile 25 Battalion was on the move. Preceded by patrols which reported that the way was clear, D Company made a dash to the Uso and reached it before 8 a.m. A patrol which explored 300 yards beyond the river found no enemy. A thousand yards farther south, A Company was slower and was not in position on the river before early afternoon. The infantrymen were escorted by two troops of A Squadron, Divisional Cavalry, and by tanks from A Squadron, 20 Regiment. Just as the commander of one of the troops of armoured cars joined a group of a dozen infantry and tank men conferring beside the river bank, a shell fell among them, killing an officer and seven men—a costly lesson in the need for dispersion.
In compliance with brigade orders to establish a bridgehead across the Uso overnight, 25 Battalion made its crossing under the protecting fire of field and medium guns and of heavy mortars. The guns also fired to drown the noise of 8 Field Company's bulldozer, which was assisting in the erection of an Ark1 bridge to enable the tanks to cross to the western bank. The night brought no setbacks, and by dawn on the 27th D, C and B Companies were about 1000 yards beyond the river along the next ditch, the Fossa Vena, guarded by the tanks.
On the southern side of a line of electric power pylons which ran in a north-westerly direction and served as an inter-battalion boundary, 26 Battalion also made satisfactory use of the day and night. In the wake of B Squadron, 20 Regiment's tanks ‘beating up anything that looked suspicious’,2 first C and then B Company closed up to the Uso, and each pushed two platoons across the river. Mortars and snipers then imposed a halt, but the advance was resumed by moonlight and the battalion was soon on its objective along the line of the Fossa Vena. The sappers bulldozed a ford under fire and the tanks crossed the Uso before daybreak.
1 A turretless Churchill tank to which were attached fore and aft American treadway tracks. The Ark was used to span narrow water passages with deeply cut banks by driving it into the bed of the stream and opening out the tracks to reach both banks.
2 26 Bn report.
Burns's assumption that the Germans were making a general withdrawal covered by rearguards was a little too sanguine. The enemy had every intention of holding his ground, or at the worst of exchanging it only for satisfactory payments in time, men and material. Vietinghoff told Kesselring on the morning of the 27th that ‘the rear units in the main defence zone will hold.’1 Boundaries had been moved north to reduce divisional sectors; 100 tons of high explosives were on the way for demolition work; and in the meantime bridges, culverts and roadways could be wrecked by the improvised use of aerial bombs and shells as demolition charges. The declared intention of 76 Panzer Corps to hold the present line and Kesselring's anxiety about the adequacy of its reserves showed a determination to stand firm.
General Weir, fully in accord with General Burns, was impatient to press on, and that day ordered an advance to the Fiumicino on the whole divisional front. At dawn on 28 September 5 Brigade group would pass through 6 Brigade and, with the Greek brigade conforming on the right, would make for the next objective, the road linking the coastal town of Cesenatico with the Route 9 town of Cesena. Fourth Armoured Brigade would follow up along the Black Diamond route, prepared to refuse 5 Brigade's left flank against any threat from the inland sector.
First, however, the ground had to be cleared up to the Fiumicino, through the buildings of Bellaria and the vineyards west to Route 16. Two companies of Greeks on the coastal strip worked methodically. Like the two troops of Staghounds which went ahead, they were harassed by skilful delaying tactics. Having blown culvert, bridge or stopbank, often by obsolete or improvised explosives, the German rearguard would surprise attacking troops with mortar or small-arms fire as they came forward to inspect the demolition—a ruse which made the advance a canny, probing business. In the afternoon of the 27th the infantry and armoured cars got within 700 yards or so of the Fiumicino, but there they had to halt. From its mouth inland to the railway the river was protected by prepared obstacles— a concrete pillbox, ‘dragon's teeth’, anti-tank rails and wire—and these in turn were screened by watchful defenders, only 100 or 200 yards ahead of the Greeks' foremost positions. The day's advance had cost the Greeks 23 casualties.page 247
Farther inland 6 Brigade, with the support of 20 Regiment's tanks, felt a similar hardening of opposition when making for its objective, a road running almost parallel with the Fiumicino and from 700 to 1000 yards short of it. On the right 24 Battalion, passing through the 25th, attacked with three companies and supporting arms, but in a dusk made lurid by burning haystacks the lateral road was still approximately 300 yards ahead of them. The way forward had been hotly contested by Germans manning spandaus in houses used as strongpoints and by persistent shellfire.
An Italian and his wife wormed their way under shellfire along a ditch to report that the Germans had withdrawn from a house which was said to be sheltering 100 civilians. When the New Zealanders occupied the house and converted it to their own use, it came under artillery and mortar fire, which wounded soldier and civilian alike.
South of the power line 26 Battalion had to contend with spandaus and the fire of mortars or guns controlled sometimes by observation posts mounted on pylons. The enemy retired only under pressure, hindering the advance with heavy automatic fire and then falling back two or three lanes of vines to caches of ammunition, where he renewed his defiance. By dusk C Company, in the centre of the three attacking companies, was the only one in 6 Brigade to reach the lateral road before the order was given to consolidate.
The casualties in 24 and 26 Battalions were eight killed and 34 wounded. The armoured regiment also paid a price: A Squadron, for example, had lost nine killed and nine wounded; four tanks had been set on fire and another destroyed. It was an enervating kind of warfare, nagging in its demands and niggardly in its rewards. In this typical day's work the Division had made another mile of ground. When General Weir heard at 5 p.m. that 6 Brigade had not taken its objectives, he ordered the battalions to consolidate for the coming relief. The initiative passed to 5 Brigade.