Italy Volume II : From Cassino to Trieste
III: The Assault on the Senio Line
III: The Assault on the Senio Line
Fifth Corps sent out the order late in the evening of 8 April: ‘subject to last minute changes timings for BUCKLAND will be as follows. D day 9 Apr. H hr 1920 hrs.’ At daybreak it was obvious that there would be no postponement because of the weather: the sky was bright and almost cloudless; there was a light breeze from the west. The ground was dry and firm after weeks unusually free from rain. And there had been sufficient activity on the far bank of the river during the night to confirm that the enemy was still there.
The great fleet of four-engined heavy bombers, 242 Flying Fortresses and 583 Liberators, came into view shortly before 1.50 p.m. and during the next hour and a half ‘carpeted’ their target areas in front of the Polish Corps and 5 Corps with 5171 100-pound and 143,385 20-pound fragmentation bombs. Subsequent investigation revealed that this blitz did not inflict many casualties on the enemy because of the shelter given by his well prepared positions, but it disrupted his communication system. The medium bombers of the Tactical Air Force concentrated on the areas near Route 9 where guns might interfere with the Polish Corps' assault, and later in the afternoon medium bombers of the Desert Air Force page 413 attacked a gun area north of Lugo, opposite 5 Corps. Fighter-bombers strafed a wide variety of targets west of the Senio.
The inaccurate bombing of Cassino the previous year had caused hundreds of casualties among Allied troops and civilians, many of them far from the town. Some aircraft had bombed Venafro, 10 miles from Cassino but similarly situated near high hills. To guard against the repetition of such an error (for the Lamone River might be mistaken from the air for the Senio), and also because there was a very narrow margin of safety between the target areas and the foremost troops, Eighth Army employed navigational aids for the bombers, such as ground indicators and bursts of anti-aircraft fire over prearranged points. Nevertheless a Polish battalion was bombed, and 40 men killed and 120 wounded. On 5 Corps' front most of the bombs were dropped as intended, between the Santerno River and the Canale di Lugo (about two miles from the Senio), but at least one aircraft released its load on the wrong side of the Senio, in the New Zealand sector. The ‘explosions thumped and thundered just down the road behind us…. As it happened, the bombs, though they fell right in our dumping area, caused no casualties and did very little damage.’1
The bombing beyond the Senio raised a thick cloud of yellow dust. At 3.20 p.m., when the troops had moved back from their positions near the river, the artillery and fighter-bombers began their elaborate timed programme to neutralise the foremost enemy defenders and their supporting weapons. ‘We prepared our ears for the guns, but before we heard them the patch of the stop-bank ahead seemed to be lifted in the air. Black earth, grey smoke, yellow dust, red and ochre flames suddenly rose along its edge. Then, and then only, came the sound of the guns, roaring and baying and clamouring one after another, until the whole eastern horizon was solid sound….’2
2 Ibid., pp. 79–80.
3 In addition to 4, 5 and 6 NZ Fd Regts and 7 NZ A-Tk Regt, the Division had under command three self-propelled regiments (1 RHA, 11 RHA and 142 Army Fd Regt) and 78 Div's 17, 132 and 138 Fd Regts; in support was 2 AGRA with three 5.5-inch gun-howitzer regiments (5, 74 and 102 Med Regts) and two 4.5-in. gun regiments (73 and 76 Med Regts); also in support were 307/55 Hy AA Regt, 195/52 Lt AA Regt, and eight 81-mm. mortars of 1 Sp Gp Kensingtons. The artillery operation order was the most complicated prepared by the NZA during the war.
For the first 10 minutes of each interval between the bombardments all the guns were silent while the fighter-bombers raked the stopbanks with bombs and cannon and machine-gun fire. During the remainder of each interval the enfilading guns fired along the line of the stopbanks so that their shells fell upon the weapon pits and shelters dug in the reverse slopes which escaped most of the fire from the guns shooting frontally, and other guns harassed the defences and ground beyond the river. Supplementing them were mortars, tanks (C Squadron, 20 Regiment) and machine guns. The enemy replied with spasmodic shell and mortar fire, with a lack of co-ordination which gave the impression of weapons shooting in isolation.
In the last few minutes of the fifth bombardment the artillery fired smoke on a line beyond the river, and for the next two minutes (7.20–7.22 p.m.) all guns were silent while the fighter-bombers, flying low along the river without strafing and bombing, simulated a repetition of their previous attacks to keep the Germans down in the trenches during the critical interval between the lifting of the artillery bombardment clear of the objective and the arrival of the assaulting troops. Already, shortly before 7.20 p.m., the Crocodile and Wasp flame-throwers and the leading infantry with their boats and kapok bridging, their rifles, shovels, packs and all the gear they carried, had come as close to the river as the bombardment would allow.
While the fighter-bombers were making their dummy run the flame-throwers and infantry surged forward to the river. ‘And then, quick and red and evil, came the first streak of flame, like a whip-lash between the trees, a streak of red marked in abruptly on a green canvas. The first Crocodile was hosing the stop-bank. The black smoke of burning oil rose straight up against the pale sky. Then another to the right, and others, and others—brief as the spurt of a match but, even at this distance, full of awe. One by one, like funeral pyres, the smoke rolled up. Then the orchards shook again, and the noise of the guns came back. The protective barrage was going down…. It marked the start of the infantry assault….’1
While the New Zealanders rushed to the water with their boats and kapok bridges, the troops of 8 Indian Division on their right stormed the near stopbank. The advantage of having already cleared the enemy from the first bank enabled the New Zealanders to get across the water and among the warren of defences on the far bank within five minutes. Meanwhile the artillery barrage stood for 10 minutes on a line 400 yards beyond the river and conforming with the shape of its course, and for the next 15 minutes on a similar line 500 yards beyond the river.
Technically the flame-throwers had been only partly successful. Because the bombardment had destroyed the prepared ramps from which they were to direct their flame, many of the Wasps had to fire at a high angle and consequently failed to reach their target. Where the flame did not come into contact with the far bank, however, the ground was charred. This did not inflict many casualties on the enemy who sheltered in dugouts on the reverse slope, but coming as it did after the Air Force and artillery bombardment, the flame-throwing seemed utterly to demoralise him. He offered little resistance other than scattered grenade-throwing and machine-gun fire. The use of flame-throwers, in fact, ‘provided the junior leaders with soldierly excuse for surrendering. Who could resist in the face of such attacks? Again and again the N.C.O.s asked as that question.’1
The Division attacked with four battalions, the 21st and 28th of 5 Brigade and the 25th and 24th of 6 Brigade, in that order from right to left.2 In the first stage—the assault crossing of the Senio and mopping up of resistance as far as the start line for the set-piece advance, 300–600 yards beyond the river-21 Battalion had three companies forward, while the fourth company and also the Surreys of 78 Division gave covering fire; the other battalions had two companies forward, covered by men on the near stopbank.
2 For the attack 5 Inf Bde had under command 18 Armd Regt, a troop of C Sqn 51 R Tks (Crocodiles), 32 A-Tk Bty, a company of 5 Fd Amb, and in support 5 Fd Regt and half of 34 Mor Bty; 6 Inf Bde had under command 20 Armd Regt, a troop of C Sqn 51 R Tks (Crocodiles), 33 A-Tk Bty, a company of 6 Fd Amb, and in support 6 Fd Regt and half of 34 Mor Bty.
A and B Companies of 28 Battalion, the same two companies of 25 Battalion, and C and D Companies of 24 Battalion (one of whose platoons found a footbridge intact) all swiftly crossed the Senio and, meeting little resistance—none in places—gathered prisoners on the far side. They had remarkably few casualties.
While the infantry closed up to the start line for the set-piece advance, the artillery lifted to the straight opening line of the barrage, 600–900 yards from the river. At 8.5 p.m. this barrage, in which eight regiments—one 25-pounder to every 15 yards—participated, began to lift forward at the rate of 100 yards in five minutes; an hour later it paused for 35 minutes 300 yards in front of the infantry's intermediate objective, and after lifting at the same pace for another 50 minutes, stood for 25 minutes (until 10.55 p.m.) on a line 300 yards beyond the final objective, approximately 3000 yards from the river. The barrage was augmented by concentrations from five medium regiments and a heavy regiment, and by counter-mortar tasks by a 25-pounder regiment, a 105-millimetre self- Propelled regiment and two troops of 3.7-inch heavy anti-aircraft guns. During the first 24 hours of the attack the New Zealand field artillery fired 42,886 rounds of 25-pounder ammunition, which was easily the largest number fired by these three regiments in that length of time.
The artificial moonlight of the searchlights and the tracer fired by the Bofors guns to mark boundaries were so obscured by the dust and smoke that, despite the constant use of compasses, the infantry found it hard to keep direction in the north-westward advance which diagonally crossed roads and vineyards instead of following the grain of the country.
The leading companies of 28 Battalion (A and B) met only scattered fire. During the pause at the intermediate objective they occupied a schoolhouse, with sections dug in around the building. Rather than reduce their fighting strength by providing escorts for the many prisoners they had collected, they disarmed them and locked them in the school—where the Germans probably did not remain very long.
C Company of 28 Battalion, following A, had to contend with resistance on the right which had not been eliminated by the leading infantry. Corporal Rakena,3 who took control of 15 Platoon when its commander and several others were wounded, charged two spandau posts and killed both crews single-handed, and also killed the crew of a bazooka. C Company took some 60 prisoners, and together with D Company, which had a comparatively easy passage following B on the left, stopped at the school where the two leading companies had paused on their way to the final objective.
2 21 Battalion, p. 422.
The leading companies of 24 Battalion (A and B) had such difficulty in keeping direction that they changed places without colliding with each other before they reached the intermediate objective. They took up their correct positions during the pause before going on to their objective, close to the Canale di Lugo. Patrols found the canal undefended and its bridges intact.
1 Eyewitness account quoted in 25 Battalion, p. 593.
Anticipating that the Poles might not be able to catch up with 6 Brigade's leading infantry, which consequently would be left with an open left flank, Brigadier Parkinson had ordered 26 Battalion to be prepared to despatch companies there when needed. The battalion was committed to this task shortly after midnight. A and B Companies went into position facing west between the river and Barbiano, and C and D also crossed the river.
The engineers, who began work at the bridge sites on the Senio soon after the advance began, completed six crossings: a scissors bridge, three low-level Bailey bridges, which were open in time for the tanks and support weapons to reach the infantry before daybreak, and two high-level Bailey bridges.
The sites for these bridges had been selected beforehand with the aid of aerial photography.2 Despite shell and mortar fire, which knocked out several vehicles and caused others to be ditched on the way, the lorries carrying the bridging materials arrived on time and were unloaded in the correct sequence. The sappers cleared the banks of mines and wire and blew charges to assist the bulldozing of the approaches.
2 Useful information had been provided by the Mediterranean Air Interpretation Unit (West)—familiarly known as ‘Mae West’.
The newly formed 28 Assault Squadron completed the laying of the scissors bridge before 1.30 a.m., but because of a series of accidents, including the blowing up of a bulldozer, a Sherman dozer and a Kangaroo troop-carrier on mines, this crossing place was abandoned. ‘The scissors remained as a standby and a monument to gallant work by a squadron out on operations under difficult conditions for the first time.’1
The Poles on the left had not been able to make the same progress as the New Zealanders. They had to cross extensive minefields under fire before reaching the Senio, and had not completed one bridge before daylight. They therefore sent some of their tanks across the river through 6 Brigade's sector.
The river-crossing technique devised by the New Zealanders had proved highly successful. ‘For the type of river and canal encountered from the SENIO to the PO,’ Colonel Hanson later claimed, the low-level Bailey built in situ at the bottom of the riverbanks, only a few feet above water, was by far the speediest means of getting tanks and Divisional transport forward. These low level bridges were invariably completed in half the time required to build and launch by orthodox means the 100 to 150 feet Bailey bridge at natural (not flood) bank height above water. Furthermore, owing to the greatly reduced span length at the bottom of the banks, a great deal less Bailey bridging was expended, a very important factor when supplies are short and replenishment difficult.
‘Another advantage of the low level Bailey is the fact that down at the bottom of the river banks there is considerable cover from enemy fire; there were occasions when work would have been interfered with and delayed had a high level Bailey been under construction whereas on the low level bridge the work went ahead comparatively smoothly.’2
At daybreak on 10 April, therefore, 21 28, 25 and 24 Battalions were on the Division's objective, 26 Battalion had gone into position protecting the left flank, and the tanks, M10s, 17-pounder anti-tank guns and heavy mortars were across the river in support of the infantry. During the day the self-propelled 105s of 142 Army Field Regiment, the 25-pounders of 4 Field Regiment and the self-propelled 25-pounders of 1 Royal Horse Artillery completed the crossing.
Everywhere could be seen the evidence of the violence of the bombardment: ‘blackened stretches of stopbank scorched by the flame-throwers. … in the fields beyond [were] thousands of black shell holes with jagged edges, mutilated trees, damaged casas…. Even so, the tempest of fire had left many deep-dug positions in the stopbank intact.’1
The Canale di Lugo, to which the Division was to exploit, ran diagonally from south-west to north-east across its front. Consequently 24 Battalion, on the left flank, had only to pivot to conform with the line of the canal, while 21 Battalion, on the right, had to advance up to about 2000 yards. A and B Companies of the 21st, accompanied by the tanks of C Squadron, 18 Regiment, but without an artillery barrage, set out about 6 a.m. and, meeting only slight opposition on the exposed right flank, in mid-morning reached the Lugo – Massa Lombarda railway a quarter of a mile from the canal. Italians said the enemy had gone from Lugo during the night. A patrol from 15 Platoon entered the town and found that a group of partisans had taken charge. They handed over 11 Germans. Meanwhile A and B Companies and the tanks pushed on to the Canale di Lugo, and were established across it well before midday.
With less distance to go, 28 and 25 Battalions, also with tank support, began their exploitation about 8 a.m. and were reported on the canal about an hour later; 24 Battalion, pivoting on its B Company, conformed by bringing A Company to the line of a track which ran south-westwards from a right-angle bend in the canal.
In the small pocket between the bridgeheads won by the New Zealand Division and 8 Indian Division, 9 Infantry Brigade had been given the task—its first assignment—of capturing the small town of Cotignola. The attacking force of 27 Battalion with Kangaroos and tanks2 was unable to cross the Senio until after daybreak because the support weapons of 21 and 28 Battalions had precedence, and by the time the 27th had assembled on the other side of the river it was no longer required. The 78th Division, opposite Cotignola, had seen white flags in the town and had sent troops to investigate. The enemy had gone.
The near stopbank of the Senio was still smouldering from the flames of the Wasps and Crocodiles when the infantry of 8 Indian Division stormed it at the same time as the New Zealanders began their assault.
On the far right 1 Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of 19 Indian Infantry Brigade overcame opposition on both stopbanks and by mid-morning on the 10th had also crossed the Canale di Lugo. The 6/13th Frontier Force Rifles of 19 Brigade had harder fighting. One company quickly secured a foothold on the near stopbank, and another company, passing through, ‘discarded their boats and jumped into the water which was four feet six inches deep at this place. In spite of a withering but somewhat wild fire coming from the far bank, they, too, secured a crossing.’3
3 Official History of the Indian Forces in the Second World War 1939–45, The Italian Campaign 1943–45, p. 621.
The 21st Indian Infantry Brigade, on the left of the 19th, ran into stiff opposition and suffered many casualties.1 The enemy had survived the bombardment in deeply dug defences and, ‘though badly shaken, was nevertheless very much alive. Too soon a shower of mortar bombs was falling between the floodbanks and close range machine gun fire met the Indians from every quarter.’2 Nevertheless men from both 1/5 Mahratta Light Infantry and 3/15 Punjab Regiment succeeded in wading to the far side, where ‘the most vicious fighting in which 3/15 Punjab [on the left] had ever been engaged took place. … on both banks of the river the Punjabis were storming dug-out after dug-out with hand grenades, and tommy-guns, whilst the Germans made desperate sorties to drive them off the banks.’3
When the survivors of a Mahratta company were compelled to withdraw to the shelter of the near stopbank, Sepoy Namdeo Jadhao carried back two wounded men from the far bank through the deep water to a place of safety, and then alone charged and wiped out three German posts, which silenced the machine-gun fire on the near bank and enabled his company to cross again and secure the far bank. Namdeo Jadhao was awarded the Victoria Cross.
By daybreak the Mahrattas had advanced beyond the river, the Punjabis had made some progress towards Lugo, and 1 Jaipur Infantry had completed the clearing of the enemy from the near stopbank.
3 Official History of the Indian Forces in the Second World War 1939–45, The Italian Campaign 1943–45, p. 627.
Undoubtedly 8 Indian Division had far more numerous casualties and took longer than the New Zealand Division to cross the Senio because the enemy had not been cleared from the near stopbank before the attack started.