Italy Volume II : From Cassino to Trieste
II: The Capture of Faenza
II: The Capture of Faenza
Because the Lamone River downstream from Faenza flows between stopbanks rising 15 feet above the level of the surrounding country, where the approaches deteriorate rapidly in bad weather, it was decided to launch 5 Corps' attack over the upper reaches of the river, where the stopbanks are smaller and the water channel is comparatively narrow. Quartolo, about four miles from Faenza, is about the most southerly point from which the Pideura ridge, descending from the Apennines west of the Lamone, could be climbed fairly easily; farther south the high ground is broken by steep escarpments. The very narrow sector of reasonably favourable ground over which the attack could be made, therefore, was limited on the right by the difficulty of crossing the river near the enemy-occupied town and on the left by the rough country farther upstream. There was no permanent road bridge in this sector; in fact the only bridge for several miles south of Faenza was within a few hundred yards of the town and completely dominated by it.
In the second phase of the corps plan the New Zealand Division was to pass through 46 Division and cross the Senio River on Route 9 to Castel Bolognese, a small town about four miles beyond Faenza, and then swing north; 10 Indian Division and 56 British Division were to relieve the 46th. In the third phase it was intended that the corps should advance with the New Zealand Division north of Route 9, 56 Division astride the highway, and 10 Indian Division south of it; all three divisions were to be prepared to swing to the north once Castel Bolognese had been captured.
Low cloud and fog obscured the battlefield on 3 December, and the visibility was so poor in the afternoon that the tanks of A Squadron, 18 Regiment, had to stop shooting at the towers of Faenza. At 7 p.m., when 128 Brigade of 46 Division began to cross the Lamone page 300 at Quartolo, 169 Brigade (from 56 Division but temporarily under the command of the 46th) began a feint towards Faenza from the south, and simultaneously the New Zealand Division and 43 Indian (Gurkha) Lorried Infantry Brigade simulated attacks across the river north of the town. The New Zealanders were to deceive the enemy with tank and infantry movements, artillery, mortar and machine-gun fire, bogus wireless traffic, and by assembling bridging material and smoking bridge sites if necessary.
These feints provoked an immediate and satisfying response, and for some time 128 Brigade advanced almost without opposition. In answer to the barrage the enemy brought down concentrated defensive fire, not only on the New Zealanders' side of the river, but also on his own bank where assaulting troops might be expected, and most violently in the vicinity of the Ronco bridge site on 5 Brigade's sector. One of 22 Battalion's outposts complained ‘most bitterly’ of smoke shells (fired by a New Zealand battery) landing among its positions. Divisional Cavalry, which had relieved 26 Battalion in 6 Brigade's sector on the 2nd, threw large stones into the river to give the impression that assault boats were being launched.
The German Commander-in-Chief reported to Berlin that ‘the enemy tried to cross the Lamone, both north and south of Faenza,’1 and the Berlin radio proudly announced that ‘strong attacks opposite and just North of Faenza were beaten off with heavy losses to the enemy, including losses of AFVs and trucks.’2
As the night wore on the enemy's reaction to the feint abated and he turned his attention more to 46 Division's front. The New Zealand Division, therefore, repeated its diversionary programme early in the morning of the 4th, and again the enemy took the bait: he threw a very heavy bombardment into the area screened by smoke on the approaches to Faenza and the Ronco bridge site. Obviously Ronco would have been an unhealthy place to have attempted a crossing of the Lamone.
Better visibility on 4 December allowed the Allied aircraft to support 5 Corps' offensive: fighter-bombers attacked German gun and mortar positions, strongpoints on 46 Division's front, and targets north of Route 9—where 22 Battalion admired excellent strafing by rocket-firing aircraft on the opposite bank of the Lamone—and medium and light bombers also concentrated on gun and mortar positions. The German artillery fire dwindled under this onslaught.
1 C-in-C SW Daily Report to Oberkommando des Heeres, 3 Dec 1944.
After crossing the Lamone in the vicinity of Quartolo, where only scattered German outposts were met, 128 Brigade came up against the main line of resistance on the bare ridges south-west of Faenza, and could get no farther during the day. The New Zealand Division made another feint in the afternoon, and again the enemy reacted vigorously on 22 Battalion's front, especially in the Ronco area, but only for five or 10 minutes.
By this time, however, the feints had served their purpose. The enemy, having sited his main positions back on the ridges above the river instead of along its winding bank, with the intention of counter-attacking as soon as he located the main Allied bridgehead, had hesitated in concentrating his reserves, with the result that 46 Division had driven a salient on to the high ground beyond the river before he was ready to counter-attack. On 7 December the British captured Pideura, the dominating village on the ridge.
Although 46 Division's crossing of the Lamone threatened Faenza and the German positions along the lower reaches of the river, the capture of the town and the breakthrough to the Senio River had not yet been achieved. Communications within 5 Corps' bridgehead were tenuous and in danger of being severed by a rise in the Lamone, and the roads south-east of the river were not capable of carrying more than a few tanks and self-propelled guns. After four days' fighting 46 Division was tired. The corps plan, therefore, would have to be modified, but without departing from the original intention.
The capture of Faenza was still to be 46 Division's task before the New Zealand Division (on the right) and 10 Indian Division passed through, but 25 Indian Infantry Brigade was to relieve a brigade of 46 Division immediately, and 5 NZ Infantry Brigade was to be ready to move two battalions into the bridgehead at six hours' notice if the capture of Faenza proved difficult. If General Weir considered he had sufficient troops, he was to attack Faenza with 25 Indian Brigade and 169 British Brigade, but if he needed additional troops, he was to use the two battalions from 5 Brigade. The New Zealand Division was to bridge the Lamone into Faenza as soon as the situation allowed. The 43rd Gurkha Brigade, which had been made responsible for the right of 5 Corps' sector on 4 December, was to extend its front progressively southward to relieve the New Zealand units as they were required.
On the night of 7–8 December 25 Indian Brigade relieved 128 Brigade, and 169 Brigade moved completely into the bridgehead. A battalion (2/10 Gurkha Rifles) of 43 Brigade took over from page 302 22 NZ Battalion next day, and the latter, now in reserve, went back to billets in Forli. Preparations were begun for assembling 23 and 28 NZ Battalions in 46 Division's sector over the Lamone.
At this stage, however, the enemy counter-attacked. Having decided where the greatest danger to his defence lay, he prepared to break into 5 Corps' bridgehead south of Faenza, where he had brought the British to a halt. On 46 Division's right 169 Brigade was unable to close in on the town; in the centre, south of the hamlet of Celle (about two miles west of Faenza), 138 Brigade was confronted by strong concentrations of German tanks and infantry; on the left 25 Indian Brigade could gain no ground beyond Pideura.
On 9 December the enemy began ‘one of the heaviest bombardments of the winter’1 and attacked along the whole of 46 Division's front, with his main weight against 138 Brigade south of Celle, where 200 Regiment of 90 Panzer Grenadier Division ‘attacked with tanks and infantry and high hopes and pressed forward regardless of loss’.2 Fifth Corps' artillery, including New Zealand guns, ‘put down an unceasing curtain’ of defensive fire, and Allied aircraft bombed and strafed the German concentrations. The British inflicted ‘extremely heavy losses’3 on 200 Panzer Grenadier Regiment.
The enemy reported to Berlin that ‘after hand-to-hand fighting fiercer than any yet seen we succeeded in reoccupying a considerable tract of ground…. Our losses were considerable. The enemy … had enormous casualties.’4 The counter-attack, however, had failed: the enemy reverted to the defensive, with the regiments of 90 Panzer Grenadier Division deployed on the northern and western sides of 5 Corps' bridgehead and 305 Infantry Division around Pideura.
It was now apparent that 46 Division alone could not accomplish the first phase of 5 Corps' plan, the capture of the whole of the ridge at Pideura and the cutting of Route 9 west of Faenza, with the object of taking the town and reopening communications along the highway; also, the relief of 46 Division could be postponed no longer. The offensive was halted, therefore, while the remainder of 10 Indian Division and part of the New Zealand Division were brought into the bridgehead.
3 Ibid., p. 130.
4 C-in-C SW Daily Report to Oberkommando des Heeres, 9 Dec 1944.
While Faenza was still in German hands and Route 9 closed to traffic, the maintenance of the troops on the far side of the Lamone was most difficult. A seven-mile one-way track, known as the ‘Lamone road’, between Route 9 and 46 Division's crossing at Quartolo so far had proved adequate only because of the great exertions of the British and New Zealand (8 Field Company) engineers who had built it and daily repaired it, but obviously was incapable of coping with any additional traffic.
It was decided, therefore, that 5 Corps should operate a road circuit with an ‘up’ track from Route 9 over a bridge across the Marzeno River to the Lamone and a ‘down’ track in the opposite direction over another bridge, and that traffic on the circuit should be regulated by a series of control posts. Because of the slowness of movement on this circuit, however, the New Zealand Division decided to maintain its troops in the bridgehead by a jeep train using a small part of 5 Corps' ‘up’ track and another route opened by the Division's engineers over the Marzeno and Lamone rivers.
Consequently, on the night of 9–10 December, 7 Field Company built a 100-foot Bailey bridge over the Marzeno close to a brickworks about a mile south of Faenza. This task took over nine hours, of which five were spent in carrying the components the last 60 yards to the site. ‘It was a cold starlight frosty night and the clanking of the Bailey parts probably caused the stonk [by nebelwerfers] –the enemy was rather close to us and we had … a covering party dug in around the bridge site.’1 Poplar poles were stuck in the ground to help conceal or camouflage what became known as the ‘Brickworks bridge’ and its approaches.
Fifth Brigade entered the bridgehead on the night of 10–11 December, the night after the Brickworks bridge was completed, and on the same night 6 Field Company, with an RASC platoon under command, assembled the components for a bridge in Cardinetta village, about two miles from Faenza, preparatory to constructing access for vehicles to 5 Brigade. A platoon under Lieutenant Hunter2 built a 110-foot Bailey with two sets of timber cribbing (for eight-foot piers) in daylight under the cover of smoke supplied by the artillery.
The sappers toiled with corduroy, debris from houses and road netting laid on straw to make the two-mile track between the Brickworks and Hunter's bridges ‘into something resembling a road’,2 which was used by the jeep train and later by tanks. In spite of these efforts, however, the jeep drivers were not favourably impressed. ‘Some drivers who had known the Terelle “Terror Track” declared they preferred it to the one they now had to use to supply 5 Brigade…. Whereas at Terelle they could and did move at full speed, this was quite impossible in the mud. Thus, it often took the jeep train with rations twelve hours to get from Forli to 5 Brigade Headquarters. Harassing fire was a trouble but was nothing compared with the condition of the roads. On the night of 12–13 December, for instance, out of a convoy of twenty-six jeeps with trailers, two jeeps crashed over a bank, six trailers had to be temporarily abandoned beside the track and only sixteen won through to Brigade Headquarters. …’ The supplies were then delivered to the companies by mule train or jeep. ‘If jeeps had accidents, so, too, did mules.’3
This road also made a strong impression on the New Zealand tank crews when they moved into 5 Brigade's sector: ‘All up and down Italy the Division had struck all types of roads, some good, some indifferent, some downright dreadful; but this road to the Lamone was the champion of the lot. It startled even the oldest hands. In a desperate, urgent effort to keep supplies up … the engineers had hacked the road out of cattle tracks, fields and river marshes. They had blown down houses and dumped tons of brick and rubble on top of the mud; they put down hundreds of tree trunks; they had built Bailey bridges under Jerry's nose. They had shored up the ditches beside the track, and still these caved in under the weight of passing trucks. Sappers had to toil continuously to keep the road open.’4
The Gothic Line in September 1944: a dug-in German tank
Refugees making their way along the beach near Viserba
Every man lends a hand to extricate a vehicle from the mud near Gambettola
Crossing the Lamone River into Faenza
Germans from 90 Panzer Grenadier Division captured in the vicinity of Faenza
Men of 28 (Maori) Battalion going into position near the Senio River
A mortar crew in action close to the Senio stopbank
On the eastern stopbank of the Senio River
3 23 Battalion, p. 409.
On the night of 10–11 December, therefore, 28 (Maori) Battalion relieved a battalion of 169 Brigade, 56 Division, on the right, and 23 Battalion relieved two battalions of 138 Brigade, 46 Division, in the centre; next night 22 Battalion relieved the third battalion of 138 Brigade on the left. Meanwhile 21 Battalion was replaced north of Route 9 by the Gurkhas and went back in reserve to billets in Forli.
The Maoris, ‘muffled to the ears’ on a cold winter's day, were put down from their trucks near the Marzeno and marched two miles across muddy creeks and the Lamone to the headquarters of 2/5 Queens, in a large building, where they stayed until night. They completed the changeover ‘with some care and in extreme silence for, according to the guides, “Jerry was very trigger happy and at the slightest sound they would know all about it.” It was a matter of crawling to the most forward casas and, as the ground was very muddy, some of the Maoris soon got careless and began to walk. A stream of tracer about waist-high decided for them that perhaps crawling was the better method.’1
The battalion was disposed in the vicinity of a road junction— which became known to the Maoris as ‘Ruatoria’—a little more than a mile from the outskirts of Faenza. Two roads and a railway led into the town and a third road north-westward to the hamlet of Celle. Houses occupied by the enemy were only 150 yards away. Sergeant Cullen2 took a patrol of 11 men of 8 Platoon to investigate one of these houses, and discovered ‘a real hornets' nest. Three well-hidden tanks were behind the building. The patrol was detected and a battle royal ensued in the darkness while the patrol withdrew with four wounded. The medium and heavy mortars were turned on to the locality and the tanks were heard moving back towards Faenza, whereupon Cullen returned with his patrol and killed six Germans who were still in the house.’3 The Maoris were preparing to settle in when the tanks returned and shelled the house. Again the patrol withdrew, this time with four more wounded.
Harassing fire and patrols caused a few casualties. Two stretcher-bearers and another man, sent to collect four wounded from B Company of 23 Battalion, went in error to the wrong house and were taken prisoner. This might have been the enemy's first evidence of the New Zealanders' presence. Later 90 Panzer Grenadier Division fired into 5 Brigade's lines shells containing leaflets which proclaimed how the ‘boys of the 2nd NZ Division’ invariably were needed ‘when the going becomes rough…. Now, on the eighth day of the Battle for Faenza, after the British 56th Division failed with tragic losses, you are called to save the situation. You may reach Faenza, but every yard towards that town must be paid for with the life blood of hundreds of New Zealanders….’1
The enemy in slit trenches and dugouts at Casa Colombarina could be seen clearly by C Company of 23 Battalion from the Ragazzina ridge, and was harassed by artillery, mortars and snipers. ‘It was rather unique for us to hold the high ground from the outset, and from an excellent O.P. a murderous fire was directed on this strongpoint,’ Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas wrote. ‘The Hun sustained casualties, stretcher bearers and ambulance being seen from our O.P.’2
The relief of 2/4 King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry by 22 Battalion, on the left of the 23rd, was completed on the evening of 11 December. In this position most of 22 Battalion could look across a steep, bush-covered descent to a sharp rise, near the top of which ‘stood the pocket-fortress of Casa Elta.’3
While 5 Brigade replaced 46 Division in the bridgehead west of Faenza, 6 Brigade side-stepped to the left on the other (south-eastern) side of the Lamone. On 10 December its boundary with 43 Gurkha Brigade was brought southwards to the railway, which placed two squadrons of Divisional Cavalry immediately opposite Faenza, D between the railway and Route 9 and C near the confluence of the Marzeno and Lamone just south of the town and the highway. The other two squadrons were farther back. On the left of Divisional Cavalry, 24 Battalion replaced 44 Reconnaissance Regiment (under the command of 46 Division but from 56 Division) between the Marzeno and Lamone.
2 War diary, 23 Bn.
3 22 Battalion, p. 395.
The tanks of 18 Armoured Regiment and A Squadron of 20 Regiment entered the bridgehead and came under 5 Brigade's command on 13 December. They were weighed down with extra ammunition and fuel, and 18 3-ton lorries also carried fuel. The move took all day. ‘The convoy crept along at walking pace, past dozens of trucks lying forlornly with wheels in the air, past gang after gang of workers … for at the soft places every tank left its quota of damage. By the Lamone, where the road came into Jerry's view, the unit went through a smoke screen specially laid for it, a thick grey fog that blotted everything out except the few yards immediately round you. Not a shell came near throughout the move, and everyone breathed freely again, for that road had an evil reputation.’1
The anti-tank batteries brought forward M10s, 17-pounders and heavy mortars. The artillery was able to support both brigades. Three companies (36 Vickers guns) of 27 (MG) Battalion were placed where they could harass the enemy at night.
Fifth Corps was now ready to begin the second phase of its offensive, which had for its object the capture of crossings over the Senio River south of the Rimini-Bologna railway and about three and a half miles beyond the Lamone River. Faenza, the objective of the first phase, was to be cut off and secured as the advance progressed.
The corps' plan was to attack with the New Zealand Division on the right and 10 Indian Division on the left. The first objectives, which were to be captured by dawn on 15 December, were for the New Zealand Division Point 54, 1000 yards north-west of Celle, and for the Indian Division the ridge and road 1000 yards north of Pergola and the high ground nearly a mile north and north-west of Pideura. Both divisions, after taking these objectives, were to cross the Senio. At the same time 56 Division, on the right flank was to simulate an assault across the Lamone in the vicinity-of the Ronco bridge site. On the other flank the Polish Corps, co-ordinating its attack with 5 Corps, was to strike for the rising ground beyond the Senio west of Riolo del Bagni, about six miles north-west of Castel Bolognese.
The plan for the capture of Faenza depended on whether or not the enemy still firmly held the town after the New Zealanders had reached their objective beyond Celle. If necessary, a Faenza Task Force (43 Gurkha Brigade with tank, artillery and engineer support) was to cross the Lamone and clear the town while the New Zealanders continued their thrust towards the Senio.
A divisional operation order issued in the evening of the 13th said 5 Brigade was to advance at the rate of 100 yards in seven minutes to the first objective, and then continue to the bridge over the Senio on Route 9 and the high ground overlooking the river farther west at Casale. Sixth Brigade was to take over the sector held by 28 Battalion and protect the right flank during 5 Brigade's advance. If the enemy remained firm in Faenza in spite of the attack, the Faenza Task Force was to clear the town. The engineers were to construct a bridge over the river in the vicinity of Faenza.
Fifth Brigade's first objective was a shallow inverted V about two and a half miles in length, which began on the right at a road and rail crossing near the outskirts of Faenza, passed north of Celle to a road and track junction about half a mile beyond the hamlet, and then continued south-westward to the junction of a lateral road ascending the ridge west of Celle and a road running north from Pergola. The Maori Battalion, on the right, was to attack with half of A Squadron, 18 Armoured Regiment, in support, and would have to fan out slightly to reach its objectives; 23 Battalion, in the centre, supported by B Squadron, would be attacking where the enemy was expected to be the strongest—the hamlet of Celle, the flat ground beyond it and the edge of the ridge, 22 Battalion, on the left, with the other half of A Squadron in support, would be attacking in the most difficult country, where its objectives would be on the lateral road on the ridge west of Celle and (in co-operation with the Indians) the high ground on the left flank.
1 GOC's papers.
On capture of the objective 5 Brigade was to consolidate, M10s were to take over from the tanks of 18 Regiment in 28 and 22 Battalions' sectors, and 23 and 28 Battalions were each to release a company to support 18 Regiment, which was to be prepared to exploit at dawn to the bridge at the crossing of Route 9 over the Senio and establish a bridgehead over the river. For this purpose an Ark bridge, an armoured bulldozer and other mechanical equipment were placed under the regiment's command. When a bridgehead had been established, 28 Battalion was to be prepared to cut Route 9 and protect the right flank. The 22nd Battalion was to continue its advance northward to the high ground south of Casale.
Sixth Brigade's orders were for two companies of 25 Battalion to cross the Lamone by Hunter's bridge and relieve two companies of 28 Battalion on the evening of the 14th. Other troops were to simulate a crossing south of Faenza. After 5 Brigade's attack, the 6th was to adopt one of three courses. The first of these was for 25 Battalion to complete the crossing of the Lamone and prepare to take over 28 Battalion's bridgehead, and for 24 Battalion to cross and, together with the 25th, to attempt to outflank Faenza; the second plan was for 6 Brigade to clear Faenza with Divisional Cavalry, 24 and 25 Battalions, if the enemy vacated the town; the third plan was for 6 Brigade to advance north-westwards from 5 Brigade's bridgehead, if the enemy defended Faenza, while the Faenza Task Force took over on the right flank and assaulted the town.
1 Units under 5 Bde's command for the attack were the Bays, 18 Armd Regt, half-squadron of 9 Lancers, 32 A-Tk Bty, 151/93 A-Tk Bty RA, half 34 Hy Mor Bty, 6 Fd Coy, detachment 1 Aslt Regt RAC/RE, 4 MG Coy, and a company of 5 Fd Amb; in support were 5 Fd Regt and 27 (MG) Bn less two companies. Units under 6 Bde's command were one squadron of 20 Regt, 33 A-Tk Bty, half 34 Hy Mor Bty, 2 MG Coy and a company of 6 Fd Amb, and in support 6 Fd Regt, one squadron of 20 Regt and 8 Fd Coy.
2 In addition to the regiments of 2 NZ Div Artillery, 1 RHA was under command, and four regiments of 46 Div, 1 Army Group RA, one Polish medium regiment and 40/14 Lt AA Regt RA were in support. The Bofors of 40/14 Regt were to mark boundaries by firing bursts of tracer.
3 With a range of 4500 yards, compared with the 2800 yards of Mark VII ammunition.
The planning also provided for aircraft to attack defined targets and to co-operate with the ground forces. If the weather permitted, in fact, 5 Corps was going to do everything in its power to capture Faenza and cross the Senio River.
At zero hour (11 p.m.) ‘to a second, the horizon behind us blazed with the flashes of the artillery…. Looking back towards the gunlines you see the skyline dancing with flashes—fan shaped radiances from the decrested guns and the intense white spots of those whose actual muzzle flash is visible. They flicker back and forth so swiftly they leave you bewildered. … The shells whizz overhead, not whining or whistling at this stage, but cracking in the air like whiplashes as they hurtle upwards towards the top of their trajectories. The air literally vibrates with the passing of each projectile and … every loose shutter and window pane rattles continuously. Where the shells are bursting, if it is visible to the observer, he sees myriads of winking pin pricks of light, looking very small and insignificant, but in reality each one an expanding shower of deadly splinters. If the shells are bursting well ahead, the explosions all blend into an insistent rumbling like distant thunder or the boom of surf when heard inland from the beach. Even miles back from the barrage, the earth is continually shivering with tremors from the hundreds of explosions….
That was how the attack on the night of 14–15 December appeared to a New Zealander near the Lamone River.
Lieutenant-Colonel Awatere's plan for the Maori Battalion was to attack some houses within a triangular area between the railway (the branch line from Faenza through ‘Ruatoria’) and the road to Celle: C Company, on the right, was to capture Pogliano and another locality near the road parallel to Route 9; D Company (with a platoon of B under command), on the left, was to capture Casa Bianca and other houses north-east and north of Celle, and Villa Palermo (short of Celle); A Company, in support of C, was to seize buildings about midway to C's objectives; B Company, in support of D, was to occupy houses near ‘Ruatoria’.
‘The great and unavoidable weakness of the Maori position … was the lack of an axis road; on the right was the embanked railway line, but on the left the only road was in 23 Battalion's area and that was useless until Celle was cleared.’ Awatere warned his officers that ‘the presence of enemy armour might influence the fortunes of the attack. Provided the tanks and anti-tank screen could get forward at the earliest possible moment, he considered the Maoris need have no fear of the outcome.’2
From the steeple of the church at ‘Ruatoria’ Awatere had a final look over the flat country towards Celle and Pogliano. Small, fallow paddocks were separated by single rows of mulberry and poplar trees, which in season would support the trellised grape vines. The rows of trees ran in the same direction as the advance and would have been no obstacle to the passage of tanks if the ground had been firm—but it was not firm. Awatere's descent from the church tower was hastened by shells, the third of which brought down the whole structure.
1 Diary, B. C. H. Moss.
Meanwhile D Company sent two platoons (including the one attached from B) to Casa Bianca, and the other two to Villa Palermo, and by 2.30 a.m. held both places. At least 20 or 30 Germans were killed at Casa Bianca. German tanks could be heard moving along Route 9, and later a number of them appeared to be about to counter-attack from a road junction about half a mile north-east of Casa Bianca. Although the medium and heavy guns fired ‘murders’ and the field guns brought down several defensive stonks on this target, the Maoris, who were isolated and had no tanks or anti-tank guns at Casa Bianca, were compelled to withdraw to Villa Palermo when the enemy counter-attacked.
A Company discovered that La Morte, which had not responded to fire from C Company's men when they passed it half-way to their objective, was occupied by the enemy, but captured it after negotiating a minefield. B Company took possession of the empty Case Ospitalacci, a short way along the road to Celle.
The Maori Battalion's left flank was now on the ‘Ruatoria’–Celle road, but its right flank was most insecure. Mahuika decided to withdraw C Company. The men of 13 Platoon (Lieutenant Hogan1), told to go first, crawled along a ditch by the railway until they thought they could safely leave its shelter, but walked into a minefield. Some mines were exploded, and the enemy opened fire from the railway embankment; he was aided by the light of two haystacks which began to burn. Very soon there were not enough men to carry away the wounded. The survivors made for La Morte, though not sure whom they would find there; Hogan went forward alone and when within hailing distance identified himself in Maori. As La Morte was overcrowded, he took his men to Casa ‘Clueless’, near Case Ospitalacci. A party went back to bring in the wounded men who had been left behind.
2 2 Lt S. Paniora; born NZ 18 Feb 1918; labourer; three times wounded; killed in action 15 Dec 1944.
The attack on Celle ‘brought to an angry head the feud between the senior officers of 18 Regiment and 23 Battalion that had been simmering since Florence.’3 This time the squadrons of the regiment were not under command of the battalions of 5 Brigade, but in support, ‘a change welcomed by squadron and troop commanders after their experiences at Florence and the Rubicon [Fiumicino]. Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas of 23 Battalion, in particular, was said to demand impossible feats from his tanks, forgetting that their crews were not superhuman or the tanks lightweights like jeeps.’4 Thomas and his company commanders, on the other hand, ‘felt strongly that the operation would have been more successful if the armour had been placed under command, as requested.’5
The battalion was required to advance about 2000 yards on a two-company front over broken, undulating ground on which the defences centred on houses. The plan was for B Company to attack on the right and C on the left; A Company was to follow 200–300 yards behind B and mop up posts bypassed by the leaders, collect prisoners, evacuate wounded, and if necessary assist in the final assault on the objective; D Company was to be in reserve and available to assist the tanks in the exploitation next day.
Before the attack began, 12 Platoon, which had entered the line 22 strong, came under severe tank and mortar fire, which reduced it to seven fit men; it therefore was replaced in B Company's attacking force by 7 Platoon of A Company. The first shells of the barrage fell on 23 Battalion's tactical headquarters—sited right on the start line—in a hilltop house which shook as it received several direct hits, but no casualties occurred among its occupants, most of whom sheltered in an underground cellar.
4 Ibid., p. 594.
5 23 Battalion, p. 423.
The battalion captured the houses more or less according to plan. On the right of B Company, 7 Platoon, after a brisk encounter, took 20 prisoners at its first house, half-way between the Celle road and Casa Colombaia, but was left with only enough men to guard the captives, so was replaced by 9 Platoon of A Company. The rest of B Company (10 and 11 Platoons) saw a surprising number of Germans on the Celle road. Some were already dead, killed by the barrage; the others were either shot or forced to surrender. Near Celle ‘the artillery and heavy mortars had wrought frightful havoc, but some determined enemy survived to give fight. B Company was now hard on the heels of the barrage…. The softening-up process had its effect…. Celle was occupied soon after 3 a.m.’1
The company commander (Major McArthur2) left 9 Platoon in Celle (which was a church with a few houses clustered around it) to hold the road junction, and pushed on with the rest of his force—about 28 men—to a cemetery, which they reached safely. Two Germans unsuspectingly sauntered down the road and were captured, but three enemy tanks and some infantry soon opened fire. McArthur left eight men (from 11 Platoon) to dig in at the cemetery and established a strongpoint with the remainder of his party at the northernmost house in Celle.
C Company, on the left, also made good progress. The officer commanding 14 Platoon was wounded at the start, but Sergeant Batchelor3 led the assault on the first house, Casa Colombarina, which was recognised as a strongpoint. The 10 Germans who survived were sent back with the walking wounded. Batchelor's men took two more houses and were approaching the final objective when they heard two tanks close at hand and, as they were separated from the rest of the company, decided it would be wise to withdraw. They were surprised to find Germans in Casa Bersana, west of Celle, but promptly attacked and occupied it.
The shells of the barrage were still hitting the top storey of Casa Canovetta, south of Celle, when 15 Platoon attacked it. The first of two Piat bombs fired through the front door failed to explode but wounded the commander of 1 Battalion, 200 Panzer Grenadier Regiment; the second bomb exploded and shook part of the building. Some of the platoon dashed inside while others shot or captured the Germans who emerged. Thirty-nine prisoners were marched away; about a dozen dead or wounded Germans remained.
1 23 Battalion, p. 416.
A Company, reduced at this stage to 8 Platoon and Company Headquarters, passed a row of burning haystacks short of which some tanks of B Squadron of 18 Regiment were halted, and came under mortar, tank-gun and machine-gun fire, but managed to get into Celle and link up with B Company. A Company's commander (Major Brittenden3) and Major McArthur decided to form a firm base in the church, where they found 9 Platoon.
By 4a.m. on the 15th 23 Battalion had gained Celle but was still nearly half a mile from the final objective. At the cemetery just beyond the hamlet the eight men of 11 Platoon came under tank and machine-gun fire and, realising that they would be unable to fend off the tanks, withdrew to rejoin the rest of B Company in Celle. About this time Major Low4 was establishing C Company's headquarters in Casa Camerini, on the road west of Celle, and his men also could hear tanks moving out in front. Tank-gun fire came from Casa Gessa, north of Celle, and the enemy appeared to be ready to launch a counter-attack. Both B and C Companies, therefore, called for tank support.
Batchelor (14 Platoon) set out from Casa Bersana with three men to find C Company headquarters, which he thought Low might have established at Casa Salde, farther north, but this house was still held by the enemy. Undeterred by or unaware of the occupants' superior numbers, Batchelor and his companions attacked, killing five and capturing 19 Germans. Batchelor located the company headquarters at Casa Camerini. Shortly afterwards 15 Platoon was counter-attacked by German infantry supported by tank fire, but beat off the assault. Low ‘adopted the somewhat desperate expedient of calling down artillery fire on the house occupied by his own men in order to break up the worst counter-attack.’5
1 23 Battalion, p. 418.
5 23 Battalion, p. 422.
Second-Lieutenant Paterson1 took a section of D Company to the northern end of Celle, from which McArthur had withdrawn his B Company men. After 8 a.m. two German Mark IVs, accompanied by infantry, came down the road. Paterson's men had no Piats or other anti-tank weapons with which to offer a fight. Some ran back into the hamlet, but five men remained flat on the floor of a house while armour-piercing shells penetrated the walls. One man, caught in the open, was captured. The enemy approached the centre of Celle, but was forced to ground by artillery concentrations and then withdrew.
As long as German tanks remained outside Celle, 23 Battalion could not feel secure. Colonel Thomas, who asked the B Squadron commander (Major E. C. Laurie) ‘to get his tanks forward, and later personally appealed to the tanks crews,’2 reported that ‘it was extremely disappointing that our tanks were not able to give battle.’3 Major Low also referred to their ‘most ineffectual and disappointing support. … At no time did our armour move out to engage the enemy who was dive bombed both morning and afternoon and repeatedly stonked by Mediums and Field whenever we saw him move…. Our troops, who had been halted by the tanks alone, were greatly disheartened at seeing German tanks advance, force back our right flank troops, withdraw and then manoeuvre throughout the day only 300 yds to 500 yds from our positions whilst our armour sat back evidently unable to compete.’4
2 23 Battalion, p. 421.
3 Ibid., p. 423.
Of 5 Brigade's three assaulting battalions, the 22nd (Lieutenant- Colonel O'Reilly), on the left, had the most difficult country to cross: to reach its objective west of Ferneto, in the vicinity of the road running westward from Celle, it had to descend into the valley of the Ianna stream, climb the steep ridges on which stood Casa Ianna and Casa Elta, and descend again to the Camerini stream, beyond which the ground rose once more. Casa Elta was a two-storied farmhouse on a spur flanked by steep gullies and protected by many well-placed machine-gun posts and thickly-sown minefields; Casa Ianna was in a similar position about a quarter of a mile to the east.
The advance began with A Company on the right and C on the left, supported by D and B respectively. The enemy reacted almost immediately to the barrage with artillery, mortar and machine-gun fire. The right-hand platoon of A Company (No. 7) suffered so many casualties, first from shellfire and then in a minefield, that its place had to be taken by the reserve platoon (No. 8). The left-hand leading platoon of A Company (No. 6) passed safely through an undetected minefield in front of Casa Ianna and was in possession of the house by 3 a.m. Corporal Clark1 silenced a spandau post with hand grenades and tommy-gun fire. The platoon set alight the nearby haystacks, which drove out the enemy who were occupying pits underneath, and altogether captured 17 Germans.
As radio contact had been lost with A Company early in the attack, 16 Platoon was sent from D to follow A and keep in contact with C on the left by radio. This platoon found A Company in possession of Casa Ianna, and the rest of D was then guided to the house. The two companies investigated other houses in the vicinity and, while D was left in occupation, A went on to Sebola, near the Camerini stream, which brought it into line with 23 Battalion on its right.
B Company, having passed through C Company's area before the capture of Casa Elta, climbed a steep ridge slightly behind and to the west of it, and had casualties while the men were silhouetted on the skyline by the artificial moonlight. After a sharp engagement the company captured Casa Mercante, which yielded 40 prisoners, soon after dawn. Five tanks from A Squadron of 18 Regiment helped to consolidate.
There was no threat of a counter-attack on 22 Battalion's front, where a quiet day ensued, marred only by the bombing and strafing of Battalion Headquarters by ‘friendly’ aircraft in the afternoon. As well as killing many of the enemy, 22 Battalion had taken over 100 prisoners, most of whom were from 361 Regiment of 90 Panzer Grenadier Division. The battalion's own casualties were seven killed and 30 wounded.
The members of 23 Battalion who were so critical of the support given by 18 Armoured Regiment (Lieutenant-Colonel J. B. Ferguson) probably had little idea of the appalling difficulties the tank crews had to contend with that night.
‘Celle … looked a potential bottleneck, for 28 and 23 Battalions' tanks would all have to go that way before fanning out to join the infantry. It was on C Squadron's road forward too. More than that, the whole regiment had only one road to move up, and a mere lane at that, winding up and over a [Ragazzina] ridge and diagonally down to the flat below, then coming out on to another road that ran dead straight for Celle church. Those who had been up to the top of the ridge for a cautious look reported that this lane (what they could see of it) looked churned up and exposed and generally undesirable.’1
Both B Squadron, which went first, and A Squadron began badly. The troop of tanks leading up the Ragazzina ridge, west of ‘Charing Cross’ (known to the Maoris as ‘Ruatoria’), ‘was at once caught in a torrent of shells, apparently ours.’2 An officer was killed, a tank was damaged, and it was some time before any could move. Another B Squadron troop took a wrong turning and had to back along a narrow road. A Squadron's commander (Captain Passmore3) was wounded, and when a 17-pounder tank was hit and went over a bank, three of its crew died. The tanks edged around a large crater in the road half-way up the ridge, and slowly groped ahead in single file, while their commanders, despite the shellfire, walked ahead to show the way. They kept strictly to the lane because the fields were boggy and mined.
2 Ibid., p. 595.
When the fires in the haystacks died down about dawn, the tanks continued on to Celle, where McMaster's pulled in behind the church. Kendall's went past it, but suddenly came face-to-face with a German Mark IV, which fired a round or two into the air and then hastily retired along a side road and behind some trees. Kendall's troop pulled in behind a ruined house.
Two Mark IV tanks, accompanied by German infantry, came towards Celle and fired into the houses. ‘The Sherman crews knew nothing of this until it was all over…. Our guns were still thundering, wireless reception was bad, there were buildings in the way, German shells were dropping, battle smoke hung over Celle.’2 When McMaster finally learnt of the presence of the German infantry, he moved his tank round the church and ‘knocked big chunks off a house at the far end of the village, striking some panic into the enemy, who left smartly. About the same time the Mark IV tanks went too, urged on by a huge artillery “stonk” that fell just in the right place.’3
The enemy did not counter-attack again, but continued to shell Celle. A direct hit immobilised McMaster's tank. Towards midday three tanks of 5 Troop went through the hamlet to the cemetery and in the afternoon B Squadron's 17-pounder tank also came through and joined 23 Battalion's leading platoons. By this time, however, there was not much for the tanks to do, ‘except just to be there. The Air Force was all over the sky, swooping on any movement in the enemy lines. A house 500 yards past the cemetery [probably Casa Gessa], which had been the headquarters for Jerry's counter-attacks, was “done over” by the 17-pounder tank, and the Kittybombers came down and bombed it almost to the ground. This support was a bit close for the boys' liking, but they appreciated it later, when a self-propelled gun, burnt out and still smoking, was found in the ruins.’4
2 Ibid., pp. 596–7.
3 Ibid., p. 597.
4 Ibid., p. 598.
The other half of A Squadron did not have to go through Celle because the route to 22 Battalion turned off near Gavallana and climbed another ridge rising westwards. ‘This was a road only by courtesy, narrow and nasty like all the others, sown with mines along the edges, but farther from the storm centre, and not such a favoured target for Jerry's shells.’2 By dawn 1 and 3 Troops were well along this ridge and ‘married up’ with 22 Battalion. They were followed by 10 Troop of C Squadron, to add extra fire power from a position which gave a commanding view into enemy territory beyond Celle as far as the Senio River. Enemy activity intensified in that region as the day progressed; he tried to get his tanks and other vehicles away to the north but was hampered by the ever-watchful Air Force. A Mark IV tank which appeared on a low rise ahead was promptly knocked out by some of A Squadron's Shermans, and from time to time they engaged vehicles beyond Celle which B Squadron, although much closer, apparently could not see. One of their more successful shoots finished off a self-propelled gun.
Fifth Brigade's attack had dented but had not breached a strongly defended line. It was clear before daybreak on the 15th, therefore, that C Squadron of 18 Regiment would not be able to burst through, as intended, to the Senio River.
Early in the afternoon, however, General Freyberg advised 5 Brigade that there were indications that the enemy was withdrawing from Faenza. Brigadier Pleasants told 23 Battalion that the enemy was expected to retreat across the Senio that night, and warned the battalion to be ready to advance along the road, which crosses the Celle stream beyond the hamlet, to the junction with Route 9 near Pieve del Ponte, where the highway crosses the Senio.
2 Ibid., p. 599.
The New Zealand Division was to advance north-westward with 6 Brigade on the right and the 5th on the left. Already 43 Gurkha Brigade (Brigadier A. R. Barker) and 48 Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment, had been placed under the Division's command, and 20 Armoured Regiment and a troop of Crocodiles (flame-throwers) of 51 Battalion, RTR, under 6 Brigade's command. Sixth Brigade was to extend its left flank north of the Lamone River that night. Fifth Brigade was directed to the Route 9 crossing of the Senio, and also was to be responsible for opening the road from ‘Ruatoria’ through Celle to Route 9 for the passage of 20 Regiment. A battalion (2/10 Gurkhas) of 43 Brigade was to come under 6 Brigade's command for the clearing of Faenza, and the remainder of the Faenza Task Force was to be at three hours' notice to leave its base at Forlimpopoli.
That evening A and B Companies of 23 Battalion were replaced at Celle by D Company; B Company of 28 Battalion left Case Ospitalacci and dug in near the Celle church to reinforce D Company of the 28th at Villa Palermo; B and D Companies of 25 Battalion were to be prepared to move up to Route 9, and 24 Battalion was to be ready to cross the Lamone River and close up on the right flank of the 25th. With Route 9 as the axis of advance, 6 Brigade was to face up to the Senio River with 24 Battalion on the right and the 25th on the left; both battalions were to have a squadron of tanks in support.
When the moves and reliefs were completed on the night of 15–16 December, four battalions held the New Zealand bridgehead, the 25th on the right flank from the Lamone River through La Morte to the vicinity of Casa Colombaia, the 28th at Villa Palermo and Celle, the 23rd westwards from Celle to Casa Bersana, and the 22nd on the left at Sebola, Casa Mercante and Casa Elta.
West of the New Zealand bridgehead 10 Indian Division's role had been to clear the ridge from Pideura to Pergola and the high ground farther to the north. The attack by 10 Indian Brigade towards Pergola made little progress at great cost, but farther west 25 Brigade captured houses just short of 5 Corps' objectives and at dawn beat off a counter-attack. The Pergola ridge, therefore, was threatened on both sides—by 5 NZ Brigade on the east and 25 Indian Brigade on the west—and the enemy's withdrawal was inevitable. Consequently 90 Panzer Grenadier Division pulled back towards the Senio River while 26 Panzer Division prepared to evacuate Faenza and form a switch-line between the Lamone and Senio rivers north of the town.
Thus the enemy had suffered a decisive defeat. Fifth Corps had attacked in greater strength than he had expected; evidently page 325 he had not appreciated that such a build-up of forces could be achieved in a short time on the atrocious road system south of the Lamone. The fighting had fallen mostly on five battalions of 90 Panzer Grenadier Division, three of 305 Division (west of the 90th) and on one battalion of 26 Panzer Division. By the end of 16 December the New Zealand Division had taken 300 prisoners, killed at least 200 Germans, and wounded many more, while its own casualties were about 200.1 In addition 10 Indian Division had taken nearly 100 prisoners and probably killed and wounded a greater number, but its own casualties were not light.
General Freyberg, having decided at 3 a.m. on 16 December that his men had had sufficient rest, told 5 Brigade to get moving again. Brigadier Pleasants therefore ordered 23 and 22 Battalions to continue their advance towards the Senio River and the 28th to push out towards Route 9.
Before dawn D Company of 23 Battalion sent a platoon along the road beyond Celle to the crossing of the Celle stream, where it appeared that a Bailey bridge would be required. German tanks were seen milling about near the road junction on the far side. Shortly after 7 a.m. an explosion was heard at the Route 9 crossing of the Senio. Air observation confirmed that the bridge there, as well as two over the Celle stream, had been demolished. The infantry of 23 and 22 Battalions and the tanks of 18 Regiment made some progress towards the Senio during the day, but the General directed that no attempt was to be made to cross the river, although patrols were to reconnoitre for suitable places and other information.
The engineers repaired and cleared the roads of mines, including the road from ‘Charing Cross’ (or ‘Ruatoria’) to Celle, which opened the way from Hunter's bridge for support weapons and supply vehicles. The M10s followed the tanks through 22 Battalion's sector and deployed not far from the loops of the Senio south of Castel Bolognese.
2 War diary, HQ 5 NZ Inf Bde.
Sixth Brigade's sector had been shelled, mortared and machine-gunned during 5 Brigade's attack on the night of 14–15 December, with such effect that two or three houses had to be evacuated, but subsequently this sector was quiet. It appeared to 25 Battalion's troops near Faenza that the enemy had gone before dawn on the 16th. An attempt to draw fire brought no response. Brigadier Parkinson told the battalion commander (Lieutenant-Colonel E. K. Norman) to send A and C Companies along the roads leading into the town from the west. The two companies entered isolated houses, capturing a mere handful of Germans, and continued as far as a cemetery just outside the town. Meanwhile B Company patrolled to Pogliano (one of the Maori Battalion's objectives during 5 Brigade's attack), and D Company to a more distant house; these two companies, B on the right and D on the left, then pushed onward to Route 9 north-west of Faenza.
Divisional Cavalry Battalion, facing Faenza across the Lamone River, heard the movement of vehicles in the town shortly after midnight on the 16th, and explosions an hour or two before dawn. Sergeant Flynn1 of C Squadron crossed the river on an improvised footbridge, went into the town on his own, and brought back a prisoner from whom useful information was obtained. Flynn then led a fighting patrol into the town to capture several snipers.
After daybreak B Squadron men on the stopbank of the Lamone saw civilians waving white flags from houses on the other side. Divisional Cavalry crossed the river on the debris of the Route 9 bridge, and entered the town without opposition, except from a house which was soon demolished by fire from M10s. There was little evidence of mining and booby-trapping, which might be explained (as it was by a prisoner) by the explosion of a large dump of mines outside a church by artillery fire. The bombing and shelling of the town before the enemy's departure had resulted in the exodus of most of the population, some to the south but most to Castel Bolognese or Lugo and the surrounding district beyond the Senio. Only an estimated 4000 remained of the original 40,000 inhabitants, and most of these had spent the last few days in cellars, where they had taken food and clothing; they had had comparatively few casualties. The Germans, however, had looted Faenza thoroughly. No fighting occurred in the streets, but some sniping and mortar fire came from the direction of the railway station, on the northern fringe of the town.page 327
Some time before the German withdrawal 7 Field Company had been advised that it was to bridge the Lamone at the entrance to the town. The water gap was known to be from 60 to 70 feet wide, and the shelving banks were bounded by high stopbanks between 150 and 200 feet apart. The bridge was to be 350 yards south of Route 9, at one of two sites selected from a study of aerial photographs; an estimate had been made of the equipment and materials required, and careful thought given to the loading of the 40 trucks of the bridging column so that there would be the least possible delay.
The engineers began work soon after Divisional Cavalry began to enter Faenza. Their tasks included the construction of a 30-foot and a 100-foot span, the clearing of mines and the preparation of the approaches to the site, the filling of two bomb craters, the erection of a crib pier on one bank and a crib abutment on the other, and the demolition of a three-feet-thick brick wall and a house.
The bridge was opened to a long line of traffic about midday on 17 December, by which time 27 Mechanical Equipment Company had bulldozed a route through Faenza, despite the damage done by the Allied bombing and enemy demolitions. The total time taken for the completion of the bridge was 16 hours, which included less than 11 hours for the construction of the 130-foot of Bailey bridging. This, the Lindell bridge, carried all the traffic into Faenza during the next eight days while a high-level bridge on Route 9 was being constructed.
New Zealand patrols reached the Senio south-west of Castel Bolognese on 16 December, but in some places the enemy was still on the near side of the river, especially in the vicinity of the Route 9 bridge site. He showed no intention of falling back to the Senio on the right flank, where he had reacted vigorously to 56 Division's deception scheme and had resisted all attempts to cross the Lamone north-east of Faenza. The intention of securing a bridgehead about a mile downstream from this town had been abandoned.
Early on the morning of 17 December General Freyberg visited Faenza, where it had been decided to move Divisional Headquarters from Forli. The headquarters offices were set up in the centre of the town in the afternoon, probably little more than half a mile from the enemy, who was presumed to be farther away. About 4 p.m. ‘British tanks supporting Gurkhas passed through Div HQ … and came into action from the area marked Visitors Car Park. We are at least thankful for a good solid casa…. GOC insists upon sleeping in caravan which [is] on Route 9, the only place we could get. A considerable flap in the evening owing to reports of counter-attack on Gurkhas which appears to have driven them back from the Scola [Scolo Cerchia] to the railway. Certain amount of shellfire in the town and tracer to be seen above the buildings. Much tommygun and machine-gun fire to be heard. Div HQ spent what might be called a somewhat disturbed night. Alarums and excursions increased later in the evening and we passed to the 18th in a state of disquiet.’ Next morning people were ‘astir early owing to apparent proximity of machine-gun fire. … As Div HQ really too far forward, decision was taken to move it back across the river to the outskirts of Faenza…. New buildings not nearly so luxurious, but adequate, it is hoped.’1 Divisional Headquarters was then located in Borgo Durbecco, but re-entered Faenza on the morning of the 20th.
1 GOC's diary.