New Zealand Engineers, Middle East
AtCastellina the engineer companies ceased to be brigaded and reverted to the command of the CRE. It was a period of real relaxation: an hour's route march in the morning to remind the sappers that they were still in the Army, followed after lunch by a little cricket or a sleep in the Italian summer sun. Local leave was available to the many-towered hilltop city of Siena, where the South Africans had opened a restaurant and had hospitably extended its facilities to the Kiwis. And, of course, there was always the chance of six days' leave in Rome.
This idyllic existence was interrupted on 24 August by what 8 Field Company war diary describes as ‘a very long hot dusty and dry experience for us.’
A sapper in 6 Field Company was a little more expansive:
‘All the company were up bright and early for a hot and dusty march for several miles where we lined the road and waited nearly an hour while the sun beat down mercilessly. The occasion was the visit to the NZ troops of Winston Churchill but the Engineers gave him a fairly unenthusiastic welcome. Not so the Maoris, though.’
Generals and chess players have this in common: always, while ending one situation they are working out the moves for the next. Much thought therefore had been given to the position of the Fifth and Eighth Armies before the advance to the Arno River had brought them to the outer fringe of the Gothic Line.
In general this line was situated just forward of the watershed of the Northern Apennines. But there was, along the east coast, a long narrow passage, reminiscent of the Sangro country, of rivers and ridges reaching almost to the sea and a narrow coastal plain.
Tentative plans for a thrust through the mountains on the inland flanks of both armies were discarded when three American and all four French Expeditionary Force divisions were withdrawn for a landing in southern France. It was felt that the best chance of success under the altered circumstances lay in a secret shift of the weight of the Eighth Army to the east coast, to be followed by a pincer movement on Bologna.page 628
There were, of course, to be sundry alarms and excursions designed to confuse and deceive while divisions and regiments moved across Italy to the Adriatic coast, where the Poles and Germans faced each other across the Metauro River. The way back was along two highways towards the recently captured port of Ancona. The Polish divisions which had fought their way the 100-odd miles from Pescara to the Metauro were to mask the entry of the new build-up—eleven divisions with 1200 tanks and 1000 guns—almost half the force in Italy. The New Zealand Division would be in Army reserve, ready to assume its traditional, but so far in Italy, chimerical, role of fast-moving exploitation.
Meanwhile the sappers sat in the sun, drank wine, ate fruit and played cricket. A war diary entry dated 25 August by 8 Field Company reads: ‘Played 6 Fd Coy at cricket; two innings; we won, by 16 runs after a tense and exciting finish. We have now won all our matches in the Engineer games and the celebration in the evening was most fitting.’
There had also been some changes in the sapper command; Major Jones had left 5 Field Park Company and Major Hamilton 8 Field Company and their places had been filled by Majors Goodsir and Clarke respectively. It was soon common knowledge that the Kiwis would shortly be on the move again; paint brushes were obliterating truck markings, there were lectures on security, deficiencies were made up, equipment checked and there were conjectures about destinations. Finally all badges, titles and fern leaves were removed—in fact the only things that remained untouched were the unit signs which indicated the bivouac area. They, as usual, were left in situ as a deception measure and 5 Field Park was always kept busy supplying new signs after a move of this nature. The journey began on 25 August. Major Lindell remembers it well: ‘These night moves into strange country were always a fascination, although rather tiring. A strange feeling moving through dark deserted villages which occasionally came to life when some Provost people emerged at a tricky corner. I remember on this night move in the early hours seeing a butcher shop open for business cutting up a beast with a queue of people waiting to be served—black market I suppose as there was very little meat in Italy then.’
The convoys took the southern route, staging, after 150 dusty miles, for a few hours near the railway junction at Foligno. The second leg, through the Colfiorito Pass and via Macerata, a ridge-top town with a long history but little else of interest, page 629 brought the troops to the Iesi area near the coast. The second day's 80 miles were more trying than the first day's journey for there were many wearying stops on the narrow road which, with the passing of innumerable vehicles, was inches deep in fine dust. The trucks and their passengers might have come through a North African dust-storm. By the afternoon of 29 August all the sappers had settled into the new area.
The Division remained around Iesi for a week; the single men of the 4th Reinforcements left for Egypt and furlough, after suitable if hurried send-offs; officers and sappers who had returned from furlough were marched in.
Engineer training took the form of dozing the shingle bed of the Iesi River and, with the spoil, making a dam so that there was sufficient of a lake for practising with pontoons. Everybody knew the offensive against the Gothic Line had begun, for all the security measures in the world could not prevent soldiers and civilians from noting the intense activity at the nearby airfield nor from seeing the constant two-way movement of bombers in the air lanes; and with only one main road from the supply port of Ancona to the Metauro the traffic and the dust never ceased.
Sunday, 3 September, the fifth anniversary of the war, was a day on which the springs that make a division tick over were wound up a little. Formations were warned that, with 3 Greek Mountain Brigade under command, 2 NZ Division would move a little closer to the battle, so that if the occasion for a breakthrough presented itself there would be no delay.
The new locality was between Senigallia, where 1 NZ General Hospital took over what had previously been a children's health resort and more recently a German military hospital, and Fano on the north side of the Metauro River. Ten of the thirty-miles-deep Gothic Line had been secured at the Adriatic end with the capture of Pesaro by the Poles; the Canadians had swung around that seaboard town with their sights set on Rimini, the end of the mountain corridor, the last of the Gothic Line defences and the gateway to the wide Po valley. For the moment they had stopped for a breather at Cattolica just short of the Conca River, another ten miles or so nearer Rimini.
It was only a short move of between 30 and 40 miles according to the destination of the companies. Seventh and 8th Field Companies were located near Fano, 6 Field Company back near the hospital and 5 Field Park at Mondolfo.page 630
The check, for in plain language that is what it was, to the drive for Rimini was the continued enemy occupation of the highest of three spurs pointing towards the objective town and jutting from a ridge forming the north side of the Conca River watershed. This spur, the Coriano ridge, extends almost to the coast and is part of the watershed of the Marano River. Higher country farther inland afforded the enemy good observation and so dominated the area that extensive operations were necessary before further penetration along the coast was possible.
On 7 September General Alexander announced the plans for carrying on the offensive. The high ground west of Coriano was to be captured, the spur itself occupied and a bridgehead secured over the Marano River. The Eighth Army would then be in a position to tackle the last obstacle—the Rimini line—at that moment being feverishly strengthened by every means possible.
Sufficient of the general picture has been sketched to appreciate the significance of the New Zealand Division's move forward to the Fano area.
There were signs that autumn was just around the corner; the temperature dropped a little and there were showers heavy enough to make the ground sticky and for drivers to remember the advantages of a metalled road. The GOC warned his brigade commanders that it was possible—just barely possible—that they might have to fight for the break-through. The strength of the Gothic Line had not exactly been underestimated nor the fighting capacity of 1 Canadian Corps overestimated, but the timetable was a little behind schedule. The contingency was probably too remote to be taken seriously, but what was not remote was the fact that the area where the Division was likely to be operating was highly malarious and that September was the height of the season. Would they take all the usual precautions?
The Greek Brigade was sent forward for a little real battle training under the aegis of 5 Canadian Armoured Division. Again there was no real significance in the transfer—merely a toughening-up exercise for the Greek soldiery who had not yet been under fire. But the gravity of the situation was apparent after the announcement on 8 September that rugby practice matches for the purpose of selecting a team to represent 2 New Zealand Division would, for operational reasons, be indefinitely postponed.
Brigadier Parkinson had already been informed that if the Division was thrown into the battle 6 Brigade would lead. Water page 631 in the shape of lakes, rivers, estuaries, or even the open sea might be encountered; while, therefore, the balance of the sapper strength rested, 8 Field Company formed an access road to the lagoon at the mouth of the Metauro and an indent was placed with ‘Q’ Company, RASC, for storm boats, assault boats, motor tugs, Bailey raft and pontoon equipment.
The Metauro flooded and ruined the lagoon as a training area before the indent arrived, whereupon the company worked on the open coast under the instruction of a detachment from ‘Q’ Company until 11 September, when the New Zealand Division came under the command of 1 Canadian Corps. Orders were received by 8 Field Company to move on the morrow and to hand over the equipment to 7 Field Company; 6 Brigade Group was moving to an advanced concentration area in readiness for the resumption of the offensive that same day.
A cautious passage through belts of wire and gapped minefields, over lately cratered crossroads and past concrete gun emplacements brought the company to Gradara, a small village with a large, ancient and picturesque castle. They were just beyond enemy field-gun range.
No. 2 Platoon (Lieutenant Smith) reported to 24 Battalion and No. 3 Platoon (Lieutenant Farnell) went to 25 Battalion. No. 1 Platoon (Lieutenant Warrington) remained in reserve with Company Headquarters. The strength of 8 Field Company was increased the next morning by the attachment of 2 officers and 30 other ranks with two D8 and two D6 dozers from Mechanical Equipment Platoon, plus 27 sappers and the Divisional Bailey set from Bridging Platoon. The men and equipment were distributed thus:
To No. 2 Platoon—Lieutenant Gowan, one D8, one D6 and seven trucks of Bailey, 14 Mechanical Equipment and 13 Bridging sappers.
The Coriano ridge fell to the assaulting Canadians and the sappers waited the word to go. There was, however, the need for reliefs before the battle, the bloodiest in the Italian campaign to date, was resumed. The objectives now were the capture of the San Fortunato ridge, the occupation of Rimini and the forcing of a bridgehead on the Marecchia River. Sixth page 632 Brigade would then push along the coastal plain to Ravenna—a job similar to that envisaged for it in the opening stages of the Sangro River crossing, and with the same result.
Sixth Brigade and 8 Field Company were still waiting on the 15th. It had been appreciated that the Canadians might not be able to move the enemy from the San Fortunato ridge without the help of fresh troops. If the situation developed so, 5 Brigade was to establish the bridgehead and 6 Brigade would carry on.
Seventh Field Company had trained in watermanship, played football, held a race meeting and generally enjoyed itself until 5 Brigade Group, in readiness for the possible entry into the battle, moved forward during the 16th to a position near but in advance of 6 Brigade. The Company was joined there by Lieutenant Foster with thirteen sappers from Mechanical Equipment plus two D6 dozers.
Sixth Field Company, after a week of pontoon training and lectures to the armoured regiments on mines and the use of detectors, packed up and moved northwards to within three or four miles of Cattolica, but inland. ‘Our new area is a very attractive spot with hills all around us. Cooked breakfast for the whole section—gave them oyster fritters’.
The 17th was another day of standing by. Sixth Brigade had been warned to be ready to move at any time from the afternoon of the previous day. Actually the only move was made by the remainder of 5 Field Park, which shifted to a bivouac area on Route 16 some eight miles north of Pesaro.
With the Greek Brigade working along the coast, assisted by elements of armour and 22 (Motor) Battalion, and British and Canadian divisions slowly and bloodily grinding their way forward, 1 Canadian Corps was now ready to make a direct assault on the ridge of San Fortunato lying between the Ausa and Marecchia rivers. San Fortunato, like the Coriano ridge, slopes north-east and covers Rimini and Route 16.
The battle for Rimini began on the morning of 18 September with a terrific programme by guns, including New Zealand field regiments, and bombers. While the assault, first to the Ausa River and then to San Fortunato, was being made, 2 New Zealand Division took its stance for the break-through.
Sixth Brigade Group got on to its mark on Route 17 between Riccione and the Marano River. It should be noted that the Italian conception of the importance of a river does not quite coincide with ours; the name Marano creek would be more to our way of thinking.page 633
On the 18th 8 Field Company's strength was further increased by taking under command a Corps convoy of 37 vehicles loaded with bridge components and assault boats. Fifth Brigade Group made preparations but did not actually move closer to the fighting. The fortunes of the day changed so often that a chapter would be needed to detail the movement orders that were issued and cancelled.
Next morning (19th) the ridge was still far from won and 6 Brigade Group was told there would be no move that day. Eighth Field Company, from a hill handy to its lines, watched the ebb and flow of the fighting. The Company diarist wrote—under date of the 19th—‘No movement today. Whole Coy are getting grandstand view of the battle. The Canadians got onto their objective just before dusk.’
Seventh Field Company was still standing by at Gradara, 6 Field Company and 5 Field Park Company still near Pesaro. Something of the battle could be seen from the beach near by, according to Sapper Thornton's private diary:
‘From the beach we had a marvellous view of the three-fold attack on Rimini, a few miles up the road. A British cruiser and two destroyers are lying offshore and pouring shells into the town. Spit bombers and Mitchells are going in to bomb continuously and the artillery keeps up a deadly rain of shells.’
It was still not certain whether 5 Brigade would be needed to force the bridgehead over the Marecchia River, but it was moved in readiness to an area between the Marano River and the Rimini airfield which the Greek Brigade had previously cleared. The final instructions were for 5 Brigade Group to pass through the Marecchia bridgehead as soon as possible after first light on the 21st. In anticipation for what lay ahead, 100 feet of double-single Bailey components and accessories were detached from 8 Field Company and joined 7 Field Company late that afternoon.
As soon as Rimini was occupied and the Marecchia River that flowed through the centre of the town rebridged, the broad and flat Po valley lay open to our armour. At least that was the pleasing conceit widely held in the upper brackets of command; how it worked out is the province of the rest of this chapter.page 634
The 5 Brigade Group orders were now (21 September) to enlarge the Canadian bridgehead and advance to the Scolo Brancona, a minor waterway about two miles beyond the Rimini-Cesena railway. The Group would also, if possible, carry on to the more substantial Rio Fontanaccia, but otherwise 6 Brigade Group would take over from the Scolo Brancona. There was jocular argument as to whether the troops would stop for a breather in Venice or push straight on into Austria.
A new enemy, or rather an old enemy who had been forgotten, now entered the battle on the side of the Germans. Rain fell in torrents while 5 Brigade Group waited and the Greek Brigade, still assisted by tanks and 22 Battalion, occupied an evacuated Rimini from whose cellars 30,000 inhabitants slowly emerged; it continued to fall while Canadian brigades moved up to the Marecchia and forced a bridgehead; and the foul weather and ground conditions so delayed 4 British Division that it was well into the morning before it was on its objectives. Eighth Field Company's diary sketched the day's happenings:
‘Cold and showery. D8 and operators sent from No. 3 Pl to repair dem near Rimini. Lost the rest of our Bailey bridging Pln—to 7 Fd Coy, who have a job on northern outskirts of Rimini. No move today; just as well as ground is wet and greasy and some trucks could not move. 6 Bde said we won't move before 0700 hrs on 22nd.’
While 7 and 8 Field Companies were trying to keep dry until it was necessary to get wet, No. 2 Platoon of 6 Field Company was called forward to do a job for 4 Armoured Brigade, which felt it would like to be in the race for Venice and other points north. To make what follows clear it is necessary to explain that there are in reality two Marecchia rivers; the original river mouth had been converted into a small harbour and, to prevent silting, the river had been diverted by means of a canal. The old river mouth was now the Porto Canale and the new Marecchia was about a half mile to the north.
Major Lindell made a reconnaissance into Rimini as far as the Tiberius bridge over the Porto Canale and found that this stone arch bridge built by the Romans of an earlier day had not been blown—a few of the heavy paving stones forming the roadway had been removed, but apparently there had been no time to lay charges and it was captured intact.
The commander of 4 Brigade had obtained permission to thrust into the area north of Rimini via this bridge instead of page 635 adhering to the original plan, which had been to use the muddy and damaged Fortunato track to a bridge being repaired by the Canadians.
The tanks shot their way up to the new Marecchia, which they found had concreted banks. The bridge there was blown and the engineers' job was to break down the concreted banks for the tanks to ford the knee-deep river.
It was the first time the sappers had had the advantage of driving up to a job without headlights and of still being reasonably sure of not getting ditched en route. A method of providing ‘artificial moonlight’, that is indirect illumination from antiaircraft searchlights, had been perfected during the summer and was being used by 1 Canadian Corps. The essence of the idea was to converge the beams of several searchlights over the selected area and the downward glow provided the artificial moonlight. The advantages to drivers, and indeed to all arms, are obvious. But the enemy was rather disconcerted.
The infantry of 22 (Motor) Battalion leading the attack waded across at 7 p.m. and the first tanks were over by 2.30 a.m. The ford was then improved with three truckloads of Somerfield track obtained from 8 Field Company. The area around the ford, a deviation on Route 16 and the highway itself as far as the Celle crossroads were searched for mines under desultory shellfire but there were no casualties. The searchers, however, ran into a scuffle between Canadians and Germans near Celle:
‘Our section swept across the river and the approaches. In the early hours we swept for mines up Route 16 to the fork, being covered by a Canadian infantry party. Quite an exciting time as Jerry heard or saw us and opened up with spandaus. However the Canadians silenced them…. We returned to platoon in Rimini about dawn and found them working on a low level Bailey bridge.’
The forward battalions of 5 Brigade Group also got away late in the afternoon of 21 September. They were using roads and crossings prepared by Canadian engineers, so the sapper platoons previously allotted to them improved the secondary roads into Rimini and, with 5 Brigade Headquarters, moved into the southern outskirts of the town on the 22nd.
At 8 a.m. that day 2 NZ Division took over operational responsibility from 1 Canadian Division, which with 3 Greek Mountain Brigade went into Corps reserve. The position was that, from Route 16 to the coast, 4 Armoured Brigade had a page 636 mile-deep bridgehead over the Marecchia, 5 Brigade was on its start line and 6 Brigade was standing by for the break-through. Operation CAVALCADE it was called.
The first task was to secure a crossing over the Rio Fontanaccia, a fair-sized creek running across the plain four miles forward of Route 9. The infantry were operating in a densely populated area of small fields, with line after line of grape vines growing along wires which had been fastened to pollards, behind which the enemy disappeared as the advance went on. Ditches which served the dual purpose of drainage in the winter and irrigation in the summer provided ready-made trenches for the astute enemy, with the consequence that by nightfall only about one-third of the proposed advance, to the line of the Canale dei Molini, was possible.page 637
During the day 5 Field Park Company shifted to the northern outskirts of the Rimini airfield; 6 Field Company went into Rimini, where 1 and 3 Platoons put a 50 ft single-single Bailey over the Marecchia and 2 Platoon, less a couple of armoured cars detached to 22 Battalion, worked on road improvements.
Seventh Field Company, under 5 Brigade command, was not involved. Company Headquarters moved into Rimini and the platoons opened roads through the town up to Route 9.
Sixth Field Company advanced with 6 Brigade Group to the southern outskirts of Rimini under orders to be on wheels by 7 a.m. the next day (23 September), half the bridging column returned from 7 Field Company and additional Corps equipment and personnel were marched in. The equipment consisted of three mobile bridges, three armoured bulldozers and three armoured troop-carriers besides the usual personnel trucks.
The Army names of the new apparatus were not very descriptive: an Ark (mobile bridge) was a Sherman or Churchill tank less its turret and with steel channels fitted along each side of the hull to form a roadway. Hinged ramps attached to each end of the channels could be spread to extend the length of the roadway. The tank was driven into an obstacle and, in effect, became the centre pier of a bridge which could bear the weight of other tanks. They had their drawbacks but were invaluable under favourable conditions, for it was possible to place them end on end or even one on top of the other.
A Sherman dozer (armoured dozer) was, as its name implied, the answer to the need for a bulldozer that could be used under fire. It was in effect a tank with a dozer blade attached. It also had its limitations for the operator had a very restricted field of view and had to be guided in his work by wireless instructions.
The third new amenity was a method of getting sappers through areas swept with fire and on to the job. It was known as an ‘AVRE’, short for Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers, and as well as the sappers, carried fascines for use in soft-bottomed canals.
The three were complementary; the Sherman dozer made the approaches to and from a crossing site, the AVRE brought up the fascines for soft ground and the men to do the necessary work, and the Ark provided the means of crossing. None of this equipment had yet been issued to the New Zealand Division.page 638
Fifth Brigade attacked again that night (22–23 September), progressing as far as the Scolo Brancona, about one and a half miles. Seventh Field Company was not engaged apart from routine mine checking.
While 5 Brigade was consolidating and patrolling beyond the Scolo Brancona, 4 Armoured Brigade was slightly ahead on the coastal route to Ravenna and 6 Brigade was moving up preparatory to passing through 5 Brigade.
During 6 Brigade's move, 25 Battalion Group took the Maori access road as far as the Scolo Brancona, but at that point the leading tank troop, followed by a sapper ‘recce’ party, made a wrong turning and cut across 21 Battalion right into the German defences on Route 16. The two leading tanks were brewed up and the third retired to the cover of a convenient house. The sapper ‘recce’ scout car was hit and two men killed, while the wireless car had to be abandoned. A regular mortar battle ensued between the enemy and 25 Battalion while the sappers took what cover they could. Corporal Horsfall2 distinguished himself by bringing the wireless crew back to cover and then returning for the maps and codes that had been abandoned. Twice after last light he again returned to the car, and on the second occasion managed to start the engine and drive it out through enemy fixed-line small-arms fire. He was awarded an immediate MM.
The enemy still confronted 2 NZ Division with an unbroken line and lapped dangerously around the inland flank, so the crossing of the Rio Fontanaccia was postponed until nightfall. Meanwhile the sappers, with sweepers and dozers and often under artillery fire, tidied up behind the leading units. The infantry brigades changed over and 7 Field Company went back to Rimini; it was still warm enough for swimming and the beach was handy.
The enemy was induced to pull his forward posts back behind the Rio Fontanaccia which, in spite of its imposing ‘Rio’, was actually an irrigation canal carrying, at that date, about a foot of water. The Rio Fontanaccia was, however, a satisfactory defence line, or at least the German generals considered it so and were reluctant to depart from it until obliged to do so.
The final arrangements were for 6 Brigade to force the canal line along the axis of Route 16 on the night 24–25 September to a depth of two and a half miles, with 4 Armoured Brigade conforming on the coastal sector.page 639
The dozer with No. 2 Platoon, 8 Field Company, got the tanks over the canal on the right of Route 16 and the sappers were not further called on. There were two sapper casualties, neither serious.
The armour required no assistance in crossing the Rio Fontanaccia on the western (left) side of Route 16 but called for a dozer to fill a drain that blocked the track it was following. The main job for No. 3 Platoon that night was to make a detour around two knocked-out tanks, which was done without loss. Sixth Brigade stood fast during the day (25th) and 4 Armoured Brigade, after the enemy had got rid of shells which he was probably unable to shift, moved up to complete the line along a lateral road north of the Rio del Moro.
The main tank force stayed south of the Rio del Moro, and that evening the 6 Field Company reconnaissance party with 19 Armoured Regiment had a look at a partly blown bridge in the sector but decided that it was not worth repair and called forward a dozer to help in establishing a ford close by. In point of fact 4 Armoured Brigade's proposed jaunt to Venice was postponed at this point and its front was covered by 6 Brigade.
There were no special sapper tasks for the night 25–26 September, when 6 Brigade reconnoitred towards the knee-deep 24-ft-wide Uso River about a mile ahead. The German rearguard had already withdrawn and the infantry had no trouble in advancing its line to the south bank of the river.
Sixth Brigade orders for the night 26th–27th were for a firm bridgehead to be established across the Uso in readiness for an advance at first light to the Fiumicino River, something under two miles and three irrigation ditches to the north. By this time the unit of length seemed to be no longer the mile but the number of watercourses between two objects. And the word ‘break-through’ was being dropped in favour of ‘limited objective’.
The vital question of getting tanks and support arms across the Uso was dealt with by putting down an Ark at a suitable point on 25 Battalion's front. As soon as the material was at the site a company of infantry formed a protective screen and the artillery laid on harassing fire, both to cover the noise of the working dozer and to protect the infantry screen.
On 26 Battalion's front a suitable ford had been located, and after the banks had been dozed to get the tanks over, Somerfield track was laid for wheeled traffic. The company war diary mentions that there were no casualties but some lucky escapes. page 640 Sapper Armstrong3 could fairly be included among the latter. He was the dozer driver who broke down the riverbanks preparatory to the track being laid. There was no covering party for this job and not sufficient artillery fire to drown the noises of the dozer, which attracted considerable mortar fire. An enemy party got close enough to use their pistols, whereupon Armstrong retired to the cover of some trees until the patrol's departure, when the work was resumed. He received an MM for his tenacity and devotion to duty.
The infantry moved off in heavy rain towards the Fiumicino and No. 3 Platoon, 8 Field Company, worked on the main sapper job, which was to replace the Ark with a 50 ft double-single Bailey. The enemy had confined his demolition activity, in the absence of other main roads, to Route 16 and craters up to one hundred feet across abounded. They were attended to by 3 Canadian Field Company which was under the New Zealand Division's command, while No. 3 Platoon, 6 Field Company, decked a steel girder bridge which the enemy had left standing between Route 16 and the coast.
The infantry brigades changed over again; 8 Field Company diarist summarised 28 September thus:
‘We had no sapper tasks and we are out of action until 5 Bde have had it. The heavy rain has bogged everything.’
The Company went back to Rimini and cleaned the mud off its vehicles and itself while 7 Field Company began work on the rapidly deteriorating forward road network.
The sappers spent the night keeping the roads, which were breaking up under the weight of traffic and the persistent rain, open for the battalion support vehicles. The Medical Officer caring for the sappers had no casualties to attend to but was nevertheless not idle, for the Company war diary ends the résumé of the day's activities thus: ‘OC conference at Bde at 1500 hrs. RMO delivered a child at 1400 hrs.’
The weather worsened on the 29th with winds of gale force and driving rain. The infantry dragged themselves up to the objective river, beyond which the enemy had got his forces safely arrayed again.
By evening 7 Field Company had the Uso in high flood behind it and the Fiumicino a roaring river in front; filled demolitions were breaking up, artillery pits were flooded and tanks were stuck like flies on a treacle paper. It was still raining twenty- page 641 four hours later and the offensive had to halt until conditions improved. Canadian Corps Headquarters could almost hear the sighs of relief being sent up by their opposite numbers on the stand-fast line beyond the Fiumicino.
The position was virtually unchanged a week later, though plans were made and altered and dropped as the rain promised to stop but did not do so for more than a few hours at a time. The sappers' biggest worry was water removal, which meant culverts, water-tables and drains; traffic was not very dense for the simple reason that the heavy vehicles were mostly still bogged down. All 5 Field Park Company tipper trucks were carrying metal, or more properly rubble, from stricken houses to the harassed roadmenders. The enemy, on balance again, reinforced with men and material and, comfortably ensconced in selected buildings, had very definitely the advantage of the situation. Even 7 Field Company headquarters back at Rimini had a taste of long-range shelling.
Sixth Brigade went into the line again during the night 6–7 October. Major Clark's instructions were for 8 Field Company to ‘recce’ the Fiumicino the following night for assault crossings. Tanks could move only with the greatest difficulty and in second gear and the operation did not get beyond the operation order stage. By this time all idea of break-throughs had been abandoned; Eighth Army was virtually bogged down and the Fifth Army machine was grinding to a halt among the mountain peaks still far from the city of Bologna, its proposed destination. The official plan was now to push the enemy as far north as possible before winter arrived. The sappers would have taken some convincing that it had not in fact already come.
Further instructions were issued concerning an advance across the Fiumicino which was to go through irrespective of the weather, and which was then postponed because of the weather. A sapper's view of the situation, as seen by 8 Field Company and entered in its war diary, reads:
9 October. Weather—Dull and showery in morning; cleared up and fine later with light wind.
Ground—Worst conditions yet experienced. Much surface water due to blocked drains.
Uso River—Rise of 12 feet during night—All Bailey bridges OK—D/D and D/S on Route 16 have logs and fishing vessels swept against piers: D/S at 763064 has debris in panels and page 642 fishing vessel against abutment. Water level now 5 Ft below bottom chord; bridge at 760055 put across by 6 Fd Coy closed due to work on West approach road.
In more elevated circles the decision had been taken to alter the direction of the attack from Ravenna to the slightly higher country along Route 9 leading to Bologna. Orders for the regrouping of Eighth Army contained, inter alia, the following: