CHAPTER 20 — The Gothic Line
The Gothic Line
Mild Tuscan weather, balmy and invigorating, pervaded the divisional rest area in the wooded Chianti hill district a few miles above the historic mediaeval town of Siena. Here the Division had been withdrawn from the Arno positions south-west of Florence in mid-August. It passed to the command of Eighth Army on 17 August and remained at Castellina until the 25th, when a general exodus to a new operational area on the Adriatic coast began.
Details of the security measures for the move to the Adriatic coast were published on 22 August, and in due course appeared in a 2 NZ Division signal instruction. Besides the usual precautions which applied to all formations and units, including the removal of all New Zealand titles and badges and the obliteration of fernleaf signs, there were detailed instructions for the operation of a deception wireless network designed to conceal the departure of the Division from the Castellina area.
Main Divisional Headquarters moved out on the evening of 26 August and travelled throughout the night to the staging area at Foligno, where it lay up during the next day, continuing its march in the evening to Iesi, the divisional concentration area, where it arrived early on the 28th. Iesi lies about 15 miles inland from the Adriatic port of Ancona and a little over 200 miles by road from the rest area at Castellina.
Both 5 and 6 Brigades left the Castellina area on the 27th and staged at Foligno; 6 Brigade stayed for a shorter spell than 5 Brigade and arrived at Iesi early in the afternoon of the 28th. Fifth Brigade stayed throughout the 28th at Foligno and resumed its march late that night, arriving at Iesi early next morning.
It was the Allied Command's intention to force the enemy out of these positions and drive forward to the lower reaches of the Po River, the primary object being to inflict the greatest possible losses on the German forces. There were to be two drives, one in the centre north of Florence, where much ostentatious preparation by Fifth Army was planned to deceive the enemy into the belief that a major offensive was to be expected there, and an all-out offensive by Eighth Army on the Adriatic sector, with the object of exploiting to the general line between Bologna and Ferrara in the Po valley.
The Gothic Line, or the Green Line as it was called by the German High Command, followed the barrier of the Apennines which sweep diagonally across the peninsula in a south-easterly direction from the west coast south of La Spezia almost to the small port of Pesaro on the Adriatic. Except for a narrow coastal strip from Pesaro to Rimini, between the Apennine foothills and the sea, the mountains isolate the flat country of northern Italy from the rest of the peninsula. Thus they provided the enemy with a natural 200-mile-long bastion with which to protect the Po valley. The only other point in the whole length of the Gothic Line which promised an opportunity for penetration was a narrow and precipitous pass between Florence and Bologna. Here Fifth Army was to prepare an attack which would be launched as soon as the enemy's centre was sufficiently weakened by the withdrawal of reserves to meet the threat of Eighth Army's drive on the Adriatic coast. Fifth Army's attack, which it was expected would be ready to be launched when Eighth Army's attack was five days old, was designed to carry the Americans through the German Apennine defences on the general line between Florence and Bologna.
Eighth Army's plans for the offensive—produced as early as 13 August—were for a concerted attack by three corps: 2 Polish Corps, a numerically weak formation, on the coastal sector; 1 Canadian Corps in the centre on a narrow front, where a series of difficult ridges in the Apennine foothills stretched to within a few miles of Pesaro; and 5 British Corps on the left, in considerable strength and on a wide front, with the task of page 458 advancing northwards on an axis to the west of Rimini towards Bologna and Ferrara. The New Zealand Division was to remain in Army reserve in readiness to take up its traditional role of pursuit and exploitation as a fast-moving force once the main assault had achieved its first objective, the crossing of the Marecchia River at Rimini, and had gained a foothold on the fringes of the Lombardy Plain.
The enemy was apparently not aware of the Allied regrouping and Eighth Army's offensive gained complete surprise; it was not until the 28th, when leading elements of 1 Canadian Division were still making good progress towards his Foglia River defences, that he realised a dangerous situation was developing quickly on the Adriatic sector. Despite his rapid transfer of the main weight of his reserves from the central sector to the Adriatic to meet this threat, and a series of stubborn delaying actions at several points, the enemy was forced back across the Foglia on the 29th. That night British armoured cars under the command of 2 Polish Corps entered the outskirts of Pesaro, the eastern anchor of the German defence system; next day, however, fierce counter-attacks by enemy paratroops drove them out again.
During the last days of August and the first of September the New Zealand Division waited at Iesi for news of its task. The time waiting for the order to move was spent in the usual nicely proportioned programme of training and recreation. Many bathing parties were attracted to the warm waters of the Adriatic beaches.
Although it was generally understood in the Division that there would probably be no large-scale move forward from Iesi until 7 or 8 September, the Divisional Artillery was ordered on 29 August to support 1 Canadian Division in the central sector of Eighth Army's front. Shortly after noon next day Headquarters Divisional Artillery and the three New Zealand field regiments went forward to Saltara, and that afternoon came under the command of 1 Canadian Corps. Next night, the 31st, 5 and 6 Field Regiments deployed their guns for action near Monte Ciccardo, about 20 miles to the north-west of Saltara, but by the morning of 2 September the enemy troops opposite 1 Canadian Division were beyond the reach of their page 459 guns, and that night both regiments returned to the Divisional Artillery's concentration area at Saltara.
On 31 August 4 Field Regiment, which was to support 46 British Division on the right of 5 Corps' sector, left Saltara and moved to a position near a small village called Montanaro; it did not reach its deployment area near Petriano on the upper reaches of the Apsa River until 2 September, however, and returned to Saltara next day.
During this brief period spent by the New Zealand guns in the attack on the Gothic Line defences, the three signal sections attached to the field regiments encountered no special problems; both wireless and line circuits between regimental headquarters and batteries worked smoothly and without interruption.
By the end of the first week in September the enemy had recovered a little from his initial reverses and seized the opportunity afforded by a pause in the Canadians' attack to readjust his positions north of the Conca River. Here, just to the north of the river, which reached the sea barely three miles above Cattolica, the Coriano feature, one of a series of spurs pointing north from a ridge towards Rimini, formed an outpost of his main defences between Rimini and San Fortunato, a spur which thrust into the coastal plain opposite Rimini.
Early in the month heavy rain had saturated the ground and caused the many streams running down from the Apennines to rise quickly; these conditions, combined with a gradually stiffening enemy resistance, brought about a general condition of stalemate along the whole of the Canadian Corps' front.
On 5 September Main Headquarters 2 NZ Division moved from Iesi to a new position near the coast about seven miles below Fano, eight miles to the north-west of which lay Pesaro. In its Army reserve role the Division enjoyed stable signal communications. There was no wireless, the silence which had been imposed in the last week of August being still in force, but good reliable line circuits to Headquarters Eighth Army, Headquarters Divisional Artillery, the two infantry brigades and the armoured brigade provided all that was needed at this time.
A week later, on 13 September, both Main and Rear Divisional Headquarters moved up to the vicinity of Gradara, near the concentration area of 6 Brigade, which had been ordered page 460 forward to a position in the rear of 1 Canadian Division when 2 NZ Division came under the command of 1 Canadian Corps on the 10th. Both 5 Brigade and 4 Armoured Brigade remained in the Fano area.
A renewal of the offensive was planned by 1 Canadian Corps to break out through the German defences between the Coriano spur and Rimini, and force an entrance into the plain below Bologna and Ferrara by establishing a bridgehead over the Marecchia River, which enters the sea at Rimini. The attack was planned in eight phases, of which the last was to be the reduction of the San Fortunato spur defences opposite Rimini and the crossing of the Marecchia. This river, a sprawling delta of many channels at its mouth, formed the last obstacle between Eighth Army and the northern plain, which the New Zealanders were to enter through the Canadians' Marecchia bridgehead to exploit towards Ravenna, 30 miles farther north.
The Canadian attack commenced on the 14th but made only slow progress against the strong German defences, of which the main concentrations were placed around the Fortunato spur to cover Rimini, the Marecchia River, and the approaches to the plains beyond. On the right of 1 Canadian Corps' front, in the coastal sector, 3 Greek Mountain Brigade, with elements of New Zealand armour and infantry, attacked and captured Monaldini and Monticelli. Early next day the Greeks pushed on to the Marano River and attacked the enemy defences along the southern edge of the Rimini airfield.
The attack by 1 Canadian Division against Fortunato on the 18th did not fare well; there were heavy casualties in armour and infantry, and it was not until the night of 18-19 September that a bridgehead was established across the Ausa River. The Canadians pressed forward slowly on the Fortunato ridge, however, and two nights later the Germans began to withdraw behind the Marecchia. On the Canadians' right 3 Greek Mountain Brigade and the New Zealanders entered Rimini early on the morning of the 21st. That day the Canadians established their Marecchia bridgehead, and this marked the end of the first phase of Eighth Army's offensive to break through into the Po valley.page 461
Wireless silence was still in force within the Division, except for those links in the three field regiments in the Riccione area where the New Zealand guns were still employed in support of the Canadians, so that all communications between Headquarters 2 NZ Division, the brigades, and the administrative services were handled by an extensive system of line circuits.
Although wireless silence was still being observed, every circuit was manned in listening watches and could be brought at a few minutes' notice into full operational use. In the wireless layout the particular operational needs of the moment were met as the tactical situation changed by the simple expedient of adding circuits to or removing them from a basically standard wireless plan, of which the control sets at Main and Rear Divisional Headquarters and the headquarters of brigades provided the foundation. The number of out-stations varied widely from time to time; the permanent members, those at the headquarters of regiments and battalions, remained more or less constant, but were augmented by terminal stations at units which came under the command of the Division for a particular operational task and were for the time being on one of its wireless nets.
Sometimes this sudden accession of numbers to a net caused a slight unbalance, and operators on the control sets were hard put to deal adequately with the large numbers of terminal sets. This happened most frequently on the CRA's forward command net, where the appearance of several attached field and medium regiments sometimes raised the number of out-stations almost beyond manageable proportions. Such was the case on 19 September, the day after Main Divisional Headquarters, 6 Brigade, and 4 Armoured Brigade moved forward from the Gradara area to new locations just south of Riccione in preparation for the Division's attack through the Canadians' Marecchia bridgehead. The wireless diagram drafted for this operation showed no fewer than twenty terminal stations on the Headquarters Divisional Artillery forward command net.
On the rest of the divisional forward command nets there were few important changes from the now familiar arrangements which had been in use, with one or two small but important modifications made from time to time to meet page 462 unusual tactical needs, since early 1942. Indeed, the foundations for the present wireless communication system in the Division had first been laid during the Libyan campaign in late 1941, when the staff was persuaded that in a moving battle command could best be exercised if orders and information were passed between Divisional Headquarters and infantry brigades by radio telephony, modified by a system of prearranged codes to conceal commanders' immediate intentions from the enemy's intercept services.
This was the beginning of new methods of communication which—after a few months when the irritation of staff officers confronted with the unfamiliar jargon of RT codes gradually passed away—almost completely supplanted the old clumsy method of transmitting operational messages in cipher by Morse telegraphy.
Of the various operational groups of wireless stations, the most important was the forward radio-telephony command net with its control set installed in the armoured command vehicle No. 1,1 where the GSO 1, the Division's senior staff officer, was able to speak at will with subordinate stations at the headquarters of the armoured brigade, the infantry brigades, Divisional Cavalry, and the armoured reconnaissance group (usually a squadron of Divisional Cavalry, but sometimes an armoured car regiment temporarily under the command of the Division).
Also in constant wireless communication with Main Divisional Headquarters on the forward RT command net was Tactical Headquarters, where the GOC in his tank, accompanied by his protective troop of armour, moved about between the brigades and other forward elements of the Division, or directed the battle by line and wireless communication from some observation point in advance of Main Headquarters.
The remaining operational nets controlled from Main Headquarters included the CRA's command net—second only in importance to the forward RT command net—and the CRE's command net to his field companies of engineers, which worked well forward on their hazardous tasks of clearing mines and building bridges for the armour and infantry.
Another essential net working forward from Main Divisional page 463 Headquarters was the wireless-telegraphy group, which provided communication by enciphered messages for the transmission of administrative and other non-operational traffic between Main Headquarters and the Division's forward elements—in fact, all those formations already represented on the forward RT command net. Also netted on this group was the Deputy Assistant Quartermaster-General's set at Rear Divisional Headquarters.
Hard by the control set of the WT net in the Main Headquarters' area stood the office vehicle of the Assistant Adjutant and Quartermaster-General, the Division's chief administrative officer, whose wireless set provided communication with the heads of services through the DAQMG's control set at Rear Headquarters, which worked also to the B Echelons of infantry brigades and the DAQMG of the armoured brigade. Elsewhere in the Rear Headquarters' area other wireless nets worked to units and sub-units from the headquarters of the various services. These included the control set of the Assistant Director of Medical Services, which provided communication to field ambulances and the divisional casualty clearing station; a set at the headquarters of the Commander Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, which worked to divisional and brigade workshops and the armoured brigade's recovery section; and a set at the headquarters of the Commander Army Service Corps (installed in an unarmoured command vehicle like those of the ADMS and CREME), which gave communication to ammunition points, the divisional supply units, tank transporter companies, and the two reserve mechanical transport companies.
To complete the divisional system of wireless communication there remained only the various rear links to the next higher formation, which in this case, when the Division was about to re-enter an operational role under the Canadians' command, was Headquarters 1 Canadian Corps. At Main Headquarters 2 NZ Division were two of these rear links to Corps: a radio-telephony and a wireless-telegraphy circuit. Both these sets at Main Headquarters were terminal stations on the Corps' forward RT and WT command nets, and were in lateral wireless communication with terminal stations at 1 Canadian Division, 5 Canadian Armoured Division, and 4 British Division. At page 464 Rear Headquarters 2 NZ Division other rear links were maintained to administrative, medical, electrical and mechanical engineer, and supply and transport services at Rear Headquarters 1 Canadian Corps.
Forward of Main Divisional Headquarters, wireless communications between the headquarters of field regiments and their batteries, and between the headquarters of brigades and their battalions and armoured regiments, were arranged in a similar pattern but on a much more modest scale.
From the foregoing the reader will readily understand how the Division's wireless communication system remained very much the same in basic design throughout a campaign, or even successive campaigns, and that it was modified only in detail to meet the needs of changing tactical situations.
In line communications, which remain the primary means of communication in a division despite the high degree of organisation and training that goes into the provision and maintenance of wireless, the design is much more susceptible to rapid change as new tactical situations develop. In mobile operations or during a pursuit, for example, the scale must necessarily be modest and usually consists of a few ‘local’ lines at Main Divisional Headquarters to the more important offices, and seldom more than one circuit, connected to a main artery laid along the axis of advance, to the headquarters of leading formations. In defensive positions, however, the line network builds up very rapidly and becomes an extensive array of direct and lateral circuits. In such a situation a conventional part of the network is the provision of a signal centre some distance forward of the Division's Main Headquarters. Between these two points several circuits are usually laid, and these constitute the main artery, although the individual lines are along different routes to reduce the danger of damage to cables by shell and mortar fire and the movement of tracked vehicles. From the signal centre, where a ten or twelve-line switchboard is usually installed, direct and lateral lines fan out to brigades and supporting arms. This arrangement of providing forward signal centres achieved considerable economy in the field cable and the human energy expended by linemen—who, according to the graphic definition of Jock Vincent, Signals' indomitable one-time Adjutant, ‘must be able to sweat blood’!page 465
And sweat they did! Even when the front was static and headquarters remained in one position for days or even weeks at a time, they were never still. Laying new circuits, replacing and repairing existing ones, and building them back constantly along their routes to make them more secure against damage from the enemy's shells and the wheels and tracks of their own transport; manhandling their heavily laden cable vehicles by brute strength over almost impassable patches of storm-sodden ground, or, when the wheels spun unresistingly in the soft earth, lugging the heavy cable drums over rock-strewn slopes; tracing faults in the open under observed enemy fire, or stumbling over broken ground or along swollen water- courses in darkness in search of cable breaks: all these were part of the normal activities of a lineman's waking hours; and even when he slept he was likely to be rudely awakened for a task for which no maintenance detachments were available, all probably having been sent off on earlier cable faults.
Then, when the headquarters moved and some of the other tradesmen earned a brief respite from their normal labours, the linemen still worked on. While clerks, orderlies and cooks reclined on their baggage in the backs of office trucks and three-tonners and exchanged blasphemies about the Italian weather, the lack of beer and other hardy annuals of conversation, B (cable) Section had split up into several groups. Some remained behind in the old area to recover cable, often laid out in circuits several miles long over broken country; others were speeding forward to overtake brigades in readiness to lay and maintain new circuits back to Main Divisional Headquarters when they halted; and others were laying lines to whatever formations and units had already halted.
While the Canadian attack was moving towards its last two phases to capture the Fortunato spur and reach the northern bank of the Marecchia, considerable movement was taking place in 2 New Zealand Division. Fifth Brigade moved up to Gradara on the 16th and joined Main Divisional Headquarters and 6 Brigade there. On the morning of the 20th a forward signal office and two line detachments from K Section moved to within a short distance of a village called Casalecchio, four page 466 miles south of Rimini; Brigade Headquarters and the main signal office followed a few hours later, and that evening a signal centre was established four miles to the north-west, near the eastern branch of the Ausa River and quite close to the lying-up areas of 21 and 28 Battalions and 18 Armoured Regiment, which were to lead the New Zealand attack across the Marecchia.
Because of the heavy rain which had turned the ground into a morass, and the dense traffic on the narrow roads, the K Section line detachment, assisted by one from B (cable) Section, encountered great difficulties in laying and maintaining lines forward to the battalions. At this time 5 Brigade had many more line circuits than were usually provided in an infantry brigade, with the result that K Section's cable resources and line detachments, assisted though they were by the B (cable) Section men, were taxed to the limit of their capacity. Besides the usual lines to battalions there were circuits to Divisional Tactical Headquarters and Headquarters Divisional Artillery, both the responsibility of K Section, and an omnibus circuit which served 7 Field Company, an advanced dressing station and an anti-tank battery in the brigade area. That afternoon a second B Section detachment was sent forward from Main Divisional Headquarters to lend a hand.
At dawn on the 22nd 5 Brigade attacked from the Canadians' Marecchia bridgehead, elements of 28 Battalion having passed through during the night. Farther to the right, near Celle, not far from the north-western outskirts of Rimini, 21 Battalion also moved forward from the bridgehead to carry the advance into the plain. On the coastal strip 22 (Motor) Battalion was up to the Fossa Turchetta, towards which it had attacked during the night.
When 5 Brigade had moved up to the Gradara area on the 16th, 6 Brigade was already preparing to move forward from there to the vicinity of Riccione, seven miles to the north-west. OC L Section, Captain Stenberg,2 left that evening with a line detachment for the new headquarters' location, from which he laid line communications to the battalions' positions south of the Marano River. The departure of Headquarters 6 Brigade page 467 for this new headquarters' site, timed for next day, was postponed and did not take place until the morning of the 18th.
It was on the 20th that the Division's original plan for 6 Brigade to lead the New Zealand attack through the Marecchia bridgehead was changed and the task given instead to 5 Brigade, so that 6 Brigade did not move forward from Riccione until the 22nd, when 5 Brigade was already across the river and advancing northwards. The Divisional Artillery, which since the 10th had been continuously under the command of 1 Canadian Corps, assisting the Canadians' advance northwards and the capture of the Fortunato ridge with supporting fire, returned to the Division on the 19th. Next day all three field regiments left the Riccione area and deployed their guns a few miles south of Rimini in readiness to support the Division's attack north of the Marecchia.
On the morning of the 21st 5 Field Regiment, which was to support 5 Brigade's advance right up to the brigade's final objective on the Fontanaccia stream, four miles to the north-west of the Marecchia crossings, moved to a new location near the south-western outskirts of Rimini. By this time, because of the heavy rain which quickly turned the ground into an almost impassable quagmire, movement of transport had become very difficult. While the gun crews laboured in miserably cold conditions to drag their 25-pounders into the gun areas, and the ammunition lorries floundered slowly forward through the mud, F Section laid out its battery lines and fire control circuits with the greatest difficulty. To protect their cable as much as possible from the traffic which traversed the area by any route which offered firmer ground, the linemen often had to erect their cable above vehicle height.
Main Divisional Headquarters left the Gradara area and moved to a new location a few miles to the south of Riccione just before midday on the 18th. A forward signals party had reached the new area earlier in the day, so that Main Headquarters, a very short time after its arrival, had line communication forward to all formations except 5 Brigade, which at that stage was still at Gradara, but which had communication through Rear Divisional Headquarters.
Next day, the 19th, was the busiest that Signals at Main page 468 Divisional Headquarters had experienced since the Division arrived in the Adriatic sector at the end of August. The setting of frequencies on all sets of the divisional wireless nets—changed from time to time for security reasons by the issue of new blocks of frequencies by Eighth Army—was a tedious task which occupied the greater part of the time of A Section at Main Headquarters and R Section at Rear Headquarters; at this particular time it was all the more so because of the strict month-old wireless silence which precluded even the few cautious test calls usually permitted to gauge the accuracy of settings.
While the wireless sections were engrossed with these tasks, B (cable) Section was hard at it laying out new circuits and adjusting existing ones to conform to a new line plan published the previous day in readiness for the coming attack. This plan included four very important circuits: from Headquarters 5 Brigade, from Divisional Main Headquarters, from Headquarters Divisional Artillery, and from Main Headquarters 1 Canadian Corps, all terminated at a tactical headquarters located well forward of Main Headquarters. Early that evening, while this line construction and reconstruction work was still incomplete, rain began to fall again, and very soon interruptions to line communications occurred at more and more frequent intervals. By midnight communications were so badly disrupted by earthing faults and damage to cable from the movement of transport in the forward areas that all detachments of B (cable) Section at Main Headquarters and H Section at Headquarters Divisional Artillery were engaged in tracing and repairing faults, and none was available for laying new circuits had they been wanted at that time.
At 1 a.m. a D (operating) Section detachment sent to operate a forward signal office arrived at Tactical Divisional Headquarters and set up its switchboard, but the line from Main Headquarters was through for only very brief intervals, despite the efforts of a B Section maintenance detachment to keep it intact. Very shortly afterwards communication from Main Headquarters to both Headquarters Divisional Artillery and Headquarters 5 Brigade failed too, and was not restored until over six hours later. During this period, of course, Tactical Divisional Headquarters was out of touch with all New Zealand page 469 formations, and in communication only with Headquarters 1 Canadian Corps.
Soon after midday that day, the 21st, Main Headquarters began to move forward to a new site just north of the Marano River; it arrived early in the evening after a very wet, muddy and unpleasant trip. Throughout the move wireless worked perfectly, but in the new area, because of the incidence of faults which showed no signs of easing, line communications were far from satisfactory.
1 Known as ACV 1.