2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
The Senio Crossing
The Senio Crossing
H-hour was 7.20 p.m., and the programme was to open at H-hour minus 240—3.20 p.m. By noon all was ready and, as the 4th Field diary states, ‘an air of expectation settled over the front’. Then heavy ack-ack guns began to fire a line of airbursts, high in the sky, to mark targets for the 500 heavy bombers, Flying Fortresses and Liberators, which began to drop 20-pound fragmentation bombs in the enemy's rear areas. The line of airbursts passed directly above 34 Battery, fragments of shell casings began to fall like rain, and the mortarmen had to put on their steel helmets. This they did not like. But their attention was soon caught up with a throbbing in the air and the glinting silver high overhead of the heavy bombers, awe-inspiring but uncomfortably reminiscent. Those who had served at Cassino kept within a handy distance of their slit trenches. A few bombs fell behind them; but none came near. Medium bombers dropped patterns of bombs as they had done in the desert campaigns. Fighter-bombers dive-bombed and machine-gunned closer at hand and some of them fired rockets. The heavies reappeared and a solitary parachutist descended, having fallen out of his rear turret. Along the whole front the ground erupted into brown dust which rose like a fog.
All that could be had from the ground was a limited and local view; but from the air all the many pieces of the com- page 700 plicated supporting programme fitted together like a huge jigsaw puzzle and the picture they made was dramatic indeed. A New Zealand pilot ‘saw a dense mass of dust arising from the heart of the defensive positions across the Senio. Stretching right back to the coast was a double line of white smoke flares, the final of the two just on our side of the river being orange, with Lugo a mile or so beyond…. Flame-throwers … leaning against the Senio stop-banks, poured a grim barrage of flame at the hapless enemy in dugouts. All along the line, little page 701 flashes of flame flickered through the evening haze…. It was awe inspiring….’19
The last meteor telegram did not arrive until quite late and caused last-minute scribblings and corrections. Then the first of the gun attacks began, together with CB and CM tasks and timed concentrations fired by all natures of equipments up to the huge 240-millimetre guns of the 54th Super Heavy, as well as two kinds of 4.2-inch mortars. The heavy mortar company of the 1st Kensingtons of 78 Division, with eight American 4.2s, had come under the command of 34 Battery for this purpose. The noise of the guns going off, of the shells and mortar bombs in the air, and of the explosions on the stopbanks and beyond, the shuddering of the ground, and the thickening of the curtain of smoke and dust over the river, though not nearly so spectacular as the bombing and shelling of Cassino, were impressive in other ways and far more effective.
The mediums as well as the 25-pounders in the gun attack opened on the line of the river and picked it out, as a Divisional report says, ‘With superb accuracy’ and ‘with an intensity which came as an appalling shock to the enemy troops manning the F.D.Ls’. For 27 minutes the ground and air vibrated as a greater weight of shells fell on the Divisional front than along the whole of the Eighth Army front in the Alamein bombardment. An equal weight was at the same time falling on the front of 8 Indian Division to the right and also on that of 3 Carpathian Division to the left.20
The end was not quite so abrupt as the beginning. One or two guns fired after the rest and their shells seemed to swish lazily overhead and there was a pause until the sound of the bursts came back. Then, for 10 minutes, every gun was silent and the fighter-bombers and rocket-firing aircraft wheeled— slowly as it seemed—and strafed the stopbanks. For the watching gunners this was a dramatic interlude. A medium and a field page 702 battery and a squadron of tanks then began to enfilade the river defences, picking out in particular targets such as dug-in tanks, previously located.
The same pattern followed for the four remaining gun attacks (though each was in detail different) and the intervals between them. The last one ended with smoke from one gun per troop, a signal to the waiting flame-throwers—‘Crocodiles’ and ‘Wasps’ —and infantry. Then, after four hours, the guns paused and for two minutes the fighter-bombers made dummy runs to keep the heads of the defenders down.
This was at 7.20 p.m., just before dark. ‘By this time Jerry's lines presented an awesome spectacle’, according to the 27 Battery diary. ‘Against a great high wall of smoke glowed a line of “brew ups”, the red flashes of air bursts and the streaming smoke canisters.’ The infantry were moving forward with their various burdens—boats and kapok bridges—and in front of them the Crocodiles and Wasps. It was the climax of the assault. ‘Finally as the fighters made their dummy runs and the guns commenced to hammer away in earnest, the great gushes of flame from the flame-throwers added the last wrathful touch to a panorama of destruction.’ So the diarist and many others with him saw it. They saw the sun sink quickly and the pinpoints of flame get brighter. They saw the searchlights create artificial moonlight. On the field guns they saw the flickering of the layer's torch, they heard the oddly musical sound of empty cartridge cases, and they smelled pungent burnt cordite—all familiar to old hands, but in combination a powerful drama to the newcomers.
The flame-throwers could not curl their flames down to the far side of the stopbank and they did not disable many of the enemy. But with the shelling they demoralised him and there was negligible opposition. Prisoners were soon filing through the vineyards towards the guns. The heavy mortars fired for 90 minutes after H-hour, mainly at points in the village of Cotignola on the right flank. Then G Troop of 34 Battery ‘stood at the gate for a while’ and were pleased to see ‘large bunches of Jerry prisoners already beginning to come in’.
Eight field regiments fired the 24-lift barrage on a frontage of 3000 yards, a 25-pounder to every 15 yards, and their fire was thunderously augmented by concentrations from five medium regiments and a heavy regiment, as well as by a 25-pounder regiment, a 105-millimetre SP regiment and two troops of 3.7 heavy ack-ack guns all on CM tasks. Very few shells came back; page 703 but F1 of 47 Battery suffered a bad premature which blew away the muzzle brake and the end of the piece, though no crew member was badly hurt. By 11 p.m. it was all over. Not a single DF or any other task was called for in the night, and that in itself was testimony to the extraordinary effectiveness of the artillery support.
For some hours FOOs and LOs with the infantry worried about tanks reported at various points on the front; but the infantry dealt with them, the sappers bridged the river, and tanks crossed in the early hours, with the M10 and the 17-pounder troops of 32 Battery. The M10s of 33 Battery crossed at 6 a.m. on the 10th and the 17-pounders followed. A and B Sub-batteries of heavy mortars established themselves well forward across the river by 8 a.m. in support of 5 and 6 Brigades respectively.21 The SP 105s of the 142nd Field were also across the river and the 4th Field prepared to follow, though they did not get across until the late afternoon. By nightfall another field regiment, the 1st RHA, with SP 25-pounders, was also across. The New Zealand sappers had done their work well and their bridges carried not only New Zealand traffic but also Polish fighting vehicles on the left. The Indian division on the right and the Polish one on the left had a much harder time. They first had to reach the stopbank. The Poles failed at the outset to effect a river crossing and the Indians, though they succeeded, lost many men in bitter fire fights.
19 Quoted by Wing Commander H. L. Thompson, New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force, Vol. III, Mediterranean and Middle East; South-east Asia (War History Branch, Wellington, 1959), p. 238.
The coloured smoke was used to mark targets for aircraft. Some were opportunity targets engaged by the ‘cab-rank’ of fighter-bombers called by ‘Rover Paddy’, ‘Rover Jack’, etc. Some were ‘Timothy targets’—areas marked by coloured smoke at prearranged times to coincide with the scheduled arrival of fighter-bombers or medium bombers. Some were nighttime targets for medium or heavy bombers.
20 The corps plan allowed a maximum of 400 r.p.g. for field guns for the five gun attacks and for the barrage at night there was no restriction at all. But the NZA field guns fired between 550 and 650 r.p.g. all told and it proved ample.
21 The heavy mortars fired 3072 rounds in two hours to cover the river crossing. The 4th Field fired 13,480 rounds in 24 hours, the 5th 14,897, and the 6th 14,509 (a new record for the regiment). The total of 42,886 rounds of 25-pounder ammunition was easily the largest number ever fired by the three NZA field regiments in a 24-hour period.