New Zealand Engineers, Middle East
CHAPTER 22 — To the Senio
To the Senio
The Canadians expressed regret that they and 2 NZ Division were parting company, for several signs appeared on the exit route worded, ‘Cheerio Kiwis all’ and ‘Nice to have worked with you’.
A day or so earlier Brigadier C. A. Campbell, Chief Engineer 1 Canadian Corps, had written to Lieutenant-Colonel Anderson, CRE New Zealand Division:
As you are about to leave our Command I take this opportunity of expressing our feelings towards you and all your sappers.
I congratulate the NZ Sappers on their efforts and appreciate very much the co-operation you have given me during the past few weeks. It is with some regret we lose you but I hope that the future may bring us together again.
With the very best wishes to all NZ Sappers from the Cdn Sappers.
Kindest personal regards.
C. A. Campbell,
CE 1 Cdn Corps.
The route back lay through Rimini, Pesaro, Fano to Iesi, then along valleys that wound into the heart of the Apennines. Every engineer company war diary mentions a day of waiting at Iesi because the Fabriano road was blocked. Seventh Field Company, which was attached to 5 Brigade for the move, knew only too well what caused the delay. Its war diary gives the essentials:
Here is a more elaborate description by a sapper involved: ‘It was a 120 ft T/S and a bigger bastard of a bridge I've never met. Everything that could possibly go wrong with a bridge went wrong with it including pushing out the bank seats and an unsuccessful jacking down. No. 2 had laid the foundations page 652 and set the bridge out and I think they hadn't laid them level for we had Hell's own job getting the third truss on. Moreover the Div set had all been dumped on the near bank but we were still 7 bays of nose short. We scrounged around and borrowed from some Tommies but they were on the far bank and couldn't get those 14 panels to us. So we had to launch as a D/S, carry the panels over—a Hell of a job—delaunch, put the third truss on and launch again. We started at 2000 hrs and finished at 1000 next morning—14 hours! What a job. We moved immediately to a new area in a village called S. Saverino, just getting on to the road ahead of 6 Bde2 transport which had been held up behind us.’
All sapper units reverted to the command of the CRE and were billeted in San Severino. They were the first troops, Allied or German, to live in or possibly even to visit the area, which was far off the lines of communication.
It was a countryside of soft, rolling, cultivated hills with winding lanes and tree-lined roads, picturesque homesteads and busy streams set against a background of gaunt mountain tops. The inhabitants were a pleasant simple folk. It was a place where one could forget the war and the Army—if the Army would let one forget it.
But the Army did not let the sappers forget it; there were roads to be kept in order because of the unusual traffic and 5 Field Park Company had litle rest from carting and spreading metal. Bridging Platoon vehicles required a lot of attention owing to the heavy loads they had had to carry over potholed and broken-up roads; Workshops Platoon kept long hours on the hundred and one repair jobs saved up for when units came out of the line.
The Field Companies held parades in the mornings and in the afternoons played, with varying fortunes, each other, the infantry and the Italians at rugby and soccer. There was a Divisional boxing championship tourney; the heavyweight title going to Sapper Hepburn3 of 7 Field Company; each company organised dances which were held in the Opera House at Matelica and attended by the local girls (and their mamas) in large numbers.
In addition the Kiwi Concert Party entertained and Mr J. Meikle, the Engineers' YMCA Secretary, was indefatigable in page 653 organising table tennis, card tournaments, cinema programmes, race meetings and concerts, the last with a liberal sprinkling of local talent.
The reorganisation of the Division took place during this period. It had become increasingly clear that the Division, built up by experience for a war in North Africa, was not properly balanced for a war in Italy. The crying need was for more infantry units and provision was made for a third infantry brigade by converting the Divisional Cavalry and 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion into infantry and reverting 22 (Motor) Battalion to a straight infantry unit. The whole programme was not carried out at once, but both three-battalion brigades had a fourth unit attached by marching 22 Battalion and Divisional Cavalry Battalion into 5 and 6 Brigades respectively for indoctrination. In addition, reductions were made in selected artillery, Army Service Corps and medical units.
The existing furlough arrangement was also abolished and in its place was instituted a replacement scheme whereby long-service personnel would be returned to New Zealand and directed into essential industry. Third Division, which had served in the Pacific, and men released from essential industry would supply the reinforcements needed to implement the new plan.
In general, it meant that the 5th Reinforcements, men who had served in Fiji and the three furlough drafts that had returned from New Zealand would now go home. A proportion of officers and NCOs would have to remain until their places could be suitably filled and the whole scheme would be progressive.
The sappers acclaimed the news, for rightly or wrongly it was generally felt that the ‘essential industry’ excuse to avoid being called up was, to say the least, overdone. Pessimists who wanted to know when the scheme would start operating were answered by General Freyberg; it would start early in January at the latest, for the first replacement draft would be ready to join the Division by then.
A month passed very quickly and happily. Towards the end of November a round of smoke concerts suggested that the holiday was nearly over. On the 24th the sappers packed for an early move on the morrow.
While the New Zealanders rested in their mountain valleys the enemy had been pushed from the Savio River to the Ronco, page 654 to the Montone, to the Lamone—20 miles farther along Route 9 but still nearly 40 miles from Bologna. Ravenna, the other objective city, was almost within reach.
Allied strategists, bent on ending the war by continuing the offensive throughout the winter in Western Europe, considered that the best way the Fifth and Eighth Armies in Italy could help to bring about a German collapse would be to continue their offensive operations as long and as intensively as possible—to the limit set by exhaustion and material shortages.
The Kiwis were to relieve 4 (British) Division during the night 26 – 27 November and the axis was still Route 9.4
The engineer companies, after a 150-mile drive, were billeted just east of the Montone River in Forli, a city of some 80,000 inhabitants. Seventh and 8th Field Companies took stock of their brigade communications while the infantry reconnoitred for assault crossings over the Lamone River, ‘a formidable obstacle indeed, a dirty big ditch running between 20' stop-banks and the Hun is obviously going to defend it stubbornly.’5
It was not an inviting prospect, for heavy rain had begun on the 26th and the roads were noticeably breaking up under the pounding of tanks, artillery, and Divisional transport.
‘What a mess,’ Lieutenant O'Reilly wrote. ‘Our infantry had moved up by this time and our tanks churning through, literally cut the roads to ribbands. The roads here are all sunken with deep drainage ditches down both sides and they act as a drain for all the surrounding country. Of course with shell fire and tanks chewing across ditches the drainage is all messed up and the rain water just flows straight into the road.’
Main Headquarters, 2 New Zealand Division, was most anxiously concerned about its communications and informed all units that, in view of the deterioration of the roads in the area, it was imperative that they be used only by essential and maintenance traffic.
On the night 29 – 30 November, the road-cum-river leading to the forward troops near the Lamone stopbank became flooded and eroded a deep gap which blocked all traffic. Major Lindell's citation for the award of an immediate DSO mentions inter alia that ‘It was very important that ammunition and supplies should go forward before first light. Major Lindell appreciated page 655 the seriousness of the position and, under extremely difficult conditions of weather and approach road, quickly organised a bridging party. Every noise and movement of bridging vehicles immediately brought down enemy mortar and fixed line machine-gun fire. Though … two loaded vehicles were knocked out Major Lindell, with energy and inspiring leadership rushed an eighty foot bridge to completion in sufficient time to allow the ammunition to go forward before dawn.’
For a fortnight the full Engineer strength of the Division worked on traffic circuits, particularly the axis route branching from Route 9 near Cosina northward to La Viola. Referring to this stretch, the CRE instructed that: ‘It is vitally important that the road shall be kept open. Since it must be used for 2 way traffic (under Div Pro) it is very desirable, if at all practicable, that some passing places should be constructed. Small parties with perhaps a winch truck to be kept at bad points throughout the night. Report progress as opportunity offers.’
Fifth Field Park Company, which had to supply the means of carrying out the work, had under command a detachment some sixty strong of 240 (Italian) Pioneer Company who were employed in cutting trees for corduroy. Mechanical Equipment Platoon was also augmented by a party with tip-trucks from 131 Corps Troops Company, RASC, and armoured dozers from 1 Assault Squadron, RAC, RE.
The Engineers had discovered by trial and error that laying corduroy from 10 to 12 feet long and 4 to 6 inches in diameter was the best method of overcoming the problem of constructing roadways to bridges and around demolitions. A hundred yards or so could be laid rapidly, and when covered with three or four inches of earth or sand would bear the weight of all types of traffic, including tanks—for a period.
Road metal did not exist in the area but a substitute was provided by gathering up the wrecks of brick houses with tiled roofs that had been destroyed in the fighting and spreading the debris in lieu of more orthodox materials. Undamaged houses conveniently situated were evacuated and demolished for the same purpose. It was no time for kid gloves.
The neighbouring 46 Division, which, after heavy fighting, had made a small bridgehead beyond the Lamone, was even worse off for communications, and to assist it 8 Field Company with Mechanical Equipment dozers and trucks spent a week building up a seven-mile artery from Route 9 south to Quartolo. It was called the Lamone road, really a courtesy title for most page 656 of it was one-way only and the whole length was closed for twelve hours daily for maintenance; during the open twelve hours movement was rigidly controlled.
On 9 – 10 December 7 Field Company put a 100 ft double-single Bailey over the Marzeno, a tributary of the Lamone. It crossed the road that 8 Field Company was working on and the bridge site was close to a brickworks, a natural target for trigger-happy German gun or mortar crews. The job took nine hours, five of which were spent in carrying the components the last sixty yards to the site.
‘At 23.30 hrs. the site was stonked by Nebelwerfers, 8 barrelled rockets—from Faenza,’ Major Lindell wrote. ‘It was a cold starlight frosty night and the clanking of the Bailey parts probably caused the stonk—the enemy were rather close to us and we had a platoon of Div. Cav. as a covering party dug in around the bridge site. During the night we were hailed from the opposite bank and it turned out to be a Tommy officer wanting to know what was going on—so much for letting your neighbour know what is happening.
The bridge cost only two casualties, neither serious, but during the day a working party was ‘stonked’ off the job while laying 400 yards of corduroy approaches.
The work was finished by Lieutenant O'Reilly and the balance of the platoon after dark ‘without any trouble in the way of enemy interference. Dacey brought me up 20 new blokes about 2000 hrs. They are 13th Reinforcements and had arrived at Coy Hq at 1630 hrs that afternoon. The Major shoved them straight up on to the job and what a grand initiation they had. A few mortars and a bit of spandau flying about but no one hurt.’
The Brickworks bridge, as it was called, and the approaches thereto were partly concealed from the view of the enemy by planting lines of poplar boughs as a screen.
Fifth Brigade entered the bridgehead on the night 10 – 11 December, the night after the Brickworks bridge was built and the same night that 6 Field Company, with a platoon of RASC under command, assembled the components for a 110 ft double-single Bailey and timber cribs in Cardinetta village preparatory to providing vehicle access over the Lamone to 5 Brigade.
This crossing, built by No. 2 Platoon (Lieutenant Hunter), was done in daylight under cover of a smoke screen supplied by the artillery, for it was only two miles south of the enemy-held town of Faenza and a few hundred yards from the German FDLs.page 657
‘I selected an approach road site and kept all traffic off it,’ Lieutenant Hunter wrote later, ‘got the bridging to the site and we got stuck into it by mid morning the day after arrival. CRE wanted only a double single which we built and had across late in the afternoon. Had a straight go with only the occasional shell none of which landed too close to stop the job. Used half a dozen Itie haystacks for the wheeled vehicle road (no tanks on this route) and covered it with reinforced mesh … and put houses on top of the mesh—quite a tidy job it looked when pure and undefiled. I had just got a section on the far bank with crib timber and was starting on the pier (about 8 ft high) when we got a message that CRE wanted it triple single as it was the only heavy bridge over the Lamone. Simple enough to do when launching but a pig of a job when the bridge is launched and seated. However we plugged along and finished it late in the evening…. A heavy day's work for my gang and I can't speak too highly of my platoon. Even though I say it, I reckon they were the best Bailey platoon in 8th Army and put up over 1,000 ft of bridges in the Po area before I left them.’
The job earned the warm commendation of General Freyberg, and was noted on the maps of the area as Hunter's bridge.
All the following day the whole company toiled with corduroy, demolished houses and road netting laid on straw to make the two-mile track between the Brickworks and Hunter's bridge into something resembling a road. It was used by a jeep train to service 5 Brigade in the first place and later to get tanks up. According to the official history of 23 Battalion its jeep drivers, in spite of these efforts, did not think much of this road:
‘Some drivers who had known the Terelle “Terror Track” declared they preferred it to the one they now had to use to supply 5 Brigade across the Lamone west of Faenza. Whereas at Terelle they could and did move at full speed, this was quite impossible in the mud. Thus, it often took the jeep train with rations twelve hours to get from Forli to 5 Brigade Headquarters. Harassing fire was a trouble but was nothing compared to the condition of the roads. On the night of 12 – 13 December, for instance, out of a convoy of twenty-six jeeps with trailers, two jeeps crashed over a bank, six trailers had to be temporarily abandoned beside the track and only sixteen won through to Brigade Headquarters.’page 658
Twenty-seventh Machine Gun Battalion, with trucks carrying ammunition and rations to its forward guns, did not like the road much either. Lieutenant Moss,6 the Battalion IO, paints a sympathetic picture of the sappers' difficulties in his private diary:
‘This area is very badly served by roads and over the last week we have had four different road traces adjusting routes as different tracks became U.S.7 With only one up and one down route there is such a volume of traffic that engineers are compelled to do road repairs with vehicles passing the whole time. It means that they are unable to put down a solid foundation and perpetual maintenance is necessary to keep the road in a useable state. Literally hundreds of casas have found a last resting place on the road surface and any house which had been badly damaged is liable to be knocked flat by a bulldozer, loaded into trucks by a mechanical shovel and spirited away. As the battle moves on, the returning Ite is liable to find a rectangular patch of brick chips and cement rubble the sole reminder of his former castle. Abandoned property left in casas chosen for road metal goes on the road just the same, and sections of the strada are a mosaic of umbrellas, pottery fragments, pictures, the odd frying pan, perhaps a dead rabbit or fowl and so on….’
Sixth Field Company, less four ‘recce’ parties (Lieutenant Jackson) with 18 Armoured Regiment, maintained Hunter's bridge approaches and tested the 5 Brigade axis for mines.
Lance-Corporal Thornton, working up to 23 Battalion's FDLs, confided to his diary:
‘In the evening [12 – 13 December] Frank's depleted section and I were sent to sweep the road up to the forward infantry platoon. Trouble with the infantry covering party, detectors, jeeps, mines, Jerry spandaus, mortars, nebelwerfers and shelling. Unbeknown to us 100 Jerries were attacking the platoon ahead of us8 so we had some close calls—only located two teller mines. Arrived back with no casualties much to Mike Andrew's amazement. Told him the job was not completed.’
Seventh Field Company spent its time between Route 9 and the Brickworks bridge spreading ‘metal’ provided by Mechanical page 659 Equipment Platoon. To quote 5 Field Park Company's war diary, ‘All tippers working all night metalling approaches to 7 Fd Coy br at M 317220’.
A week without rain had dried out the roads sufficiently for some eighty-odd New Zealand tanks with lorries hauling extra fuel to move into 5 Brigade bridgehead and ruin the road that the jeep drivers had to traverse nightly.
Lieutenant Brown was patching up a bad break at Princes Cross9 when he had his dozer knocked out by shellfire. He sent for an armoured Sherman dozer, which, though not so mobile as its thin-skinned relative, could stand up to more punishment but necessitated Brown's staying out in the open to direct the work so that the jeeps could get through.
Eighth Field Company maintained the road between the other two units.
With the New Zealand tanks in the bridgehead, 5 Corps was able to reopen the offensive, which so far had failed to push the Germans out of Faenza and behind the River Senio, the next of the innumerable stop-banked watercourses—ready-made anti-tank ditches and parapets for the enemy.
Shortly put, 2 New Zealand Division was to attack through the crossroad village of Celle, then with 10 Indian Division was to force a crossing of the Senio. Faenza would thus be out-flanked, but should the garrison still refuse to move it was to be thrown out by a further attack.
The CRE was responsible for the Divisional road network forward of the Brickworks bridge and for the eventual bridging of the Lamone River, which was still in enemy hands on the direct Route 9 highway into Faenza, to replace the original bridge on that route. This job was given to 7 Field Company and will be dealt with later.
The night previous to the resumption of the offensive, a working party (Lieutenant Whiteacre) started on a bypass around Princes Cross by way of a jeep track of corduroy brought up in armoured cars but was twice chased out by close and personal enemy fire.
Soon after the 400 guns opened the attack on 14 – 15 December and the support arms commenced moving up, a bad patch developed on the road between Hunter's bridge and Princes Cross where a deviation had been made around a demolition.page 660
No. 3 Platoon, 6 Field Company, trying to lay corduroy there, lost its stores truck to an enemy shell, and when both a Sherman and a D6 dozer bogged down in the deviation, it was decided to use a Bailey. No. 1 Platoon was called out for the assignment and had to carry the components for a 40 ft single-single bridge some 200 yards to the site.
‘We were still struggling when daylight came and Jerry opened up with minewerfers (7? multi-barrelled mortars). Sgt Roberts10 wounded. After this he scored a direct hit with a shell and wrecked all our work. Darkie Mudford11 (a new reinforcement of three days standing) was badly wounded. Helped to carry him out to the RAP but never realised how long and hard a mile could be.’
Captain Andrew sent for an Ark to replace the ruined Bailey. It was put down by 9 a.m., and although it was not possible to work in the open until the afternoon, essential vehicles got through before the approaches cut up too badly. Lieutenant Lewis12 and a few sappers were able to finish the jeep track at Princes Cross for the evacuation of casualties. The Company diarist must have been involved, for he feelingly entered in the day's events:
‘This Cross was one Hell of an unhealthy place to work as the enemy was determined to prevent any repair work being done there which would open the road to Faenza.’
The detachments with 18 Armoured Regiment spent the day clearing the brigade area of mines and placing notices and mine signs. In the evening the rest of No. 3 Platoon joined them in general mine-clearing and heard of Sergeant Farnham's exploits as a fighting tank commander. He was travelling in a Sherman during the advance when the commander was wounded and evacuated, and with the consent of the crew Farnham took command although fighting a tank is not included in the sapper training syllabus. They located a German Mark IV Special and immediately engaged it. The gunner got two direct hits on the enemy tank but apparently did not do much damage, so a Sherman with a heavier gun was called up. Farnham fought his tank until the reinforcement arrived and the Mark IV Special was knocked out, whereupon the sapper-cum-tankie page 661 went on with his job of searching out routes for the supporting armour. He later received an award of an immediate Military Medal.
The infantry were consolidating when 5 Brigade was advised that the enemy was probably withdrawing from Faenza and that the road should be opened as soon as possible from Princes Cross through Celle to Route 9 for the passage of 20 Armoured Regiment. The advance to the Senio River was resumed at daylight (16 December) and 6 Field Company was deployed as follows:
No. 3 Platoon mineswept through Princes Cross to Celle. According to the Company war diary, ‘3 Pl located and lifted quite an assortment of mines, including Topf, Tellers plain and done up nasty, Schu, Improvised mortar mines, “R” mines, and two prepared demolition charges.’
No. 1 Platoon opened a corduroy track for wheels around the craters at Princes Cross. Lieutenant D. F. Brown took a D6 dozer through the Cross to make good the craters and demolitions while the sappers put in timber revetting where the shelling had broken the shoulders of the road. Brown meanwhile had had his dozer shot up, the second in twenty-four hours. When an armoured dozer arrived to replace the thin-skinned casualty, the sapper officer directed its operations from the exposed open road. In due course Lieutenant Brown was awarded an MC for these and other instances of determination.
As soon as the road was cleared to the outskirts of Celle, No. 2 Platoon was to build a 60 ft double-single Bailey across a stream. Lieutenant Hunter, in charge of replacing the demolished bridge, was twice knocked down by the blast of exploding mortar bombs before he had examined the bridge site. There were no casualties, but one truck of equipment was ruined and two trucks badly ditched. Hunter's MC citation concludes: ‘Lieut Hunter quickly obtained reserve parts and under his cool and inspiring leadership the bridge was completed to allow support weapons so urgently needed to move forward.’
A letter from Lieutenant Hunter describes inter alia the Kiwi method of unloading bridge components in a sticky situation:
‘… consider my decoration as recognition of the fine job those fifty blokes did over a period. Had quite a battle on this job with the RASC sgt and officer of the bridging platoon about how to and how not to unload bridging. Told them I had handled tons of the stuff and that they would do as they were page 662 told. Method was to back the trucks flat out with all ropes undone then jump on the brakes—result one hell of a bang and all the bridging was unloaded—no squashed fingers and very quick. Spasmodic mortar and machine gun fire so I wasn't very interested in arguing…. persuaded them down the road to the accompaniment of loud threats as to whom they would report me to—couldn't care less at that stage. The old Pom loved to work by the one stop two methods laid down in “the book” and was outraged by our heathen methods.’
Seventh Field Company had been advised that it would put the bridge over the Lamone into Faenza as soon as the enemy, willingly or otherwise, had departed. The information available was vague, but it was known that in the vicinity of Route 9 the wet gap was between 60 and 70 feet wide and that shelving banks were bounded by high stopbanks about 200 yards apart. Forty trucks of components would be needed and San Giorgio village, one kilometre from the river, was inspected for a possible parking area. Major Lindell then called a conference of his platoon officers to work out details, so that there would be the least possible delay once the job started, for big issues depended on getting an all-traffic bridge into the town, not the least of which was the prospect of eliminating the precarious supply route via Hunter's bridge and Princes Cross.
Two possible sites, one 150 yards and the other 350 yards south of the demolished Route 9 bridge, had been selected from aerial photographs, and at midday on 16 December, following reports that Faenza was clear of enemy and that a patrol of Divisional Cavalry Battalion had crossed the river farther upstream, the forty-truck bridge train left for San Giorgio. Major Lindell, Major Armstrong (Mechanical Equipment) and Lieutenant Annabell13 reconnoitred the river and decided that the upstream site selected by the CRE from air photographs was the most suitable.
The whole company, plus two dozers and eighteen tipper trucks from Mechanical Equipment, were concentrated on the job. No. 3 Platoon (Lieutenant Annabell) searched for mines, filled bomb craters and broke down the stopbank to give a turn on to the bridge; No. 1 Platoon (Lieutenant O'Reilly) built crib piers and abutments, demolished a three-foot-thick brick wall on the far side and removed with explosives a house that was in the way. No. 2 Platoon (Lieutenant Veart) built the bridge, one 30 ft and one 100 ft continuous triple-single.page 663
The work was set out by 4.30 p.m., the crib piers erected by 11 p.m., and the bridge jacked down and the ramps completed by 9 a.m. on 17 December.
The enemy, with accuracy but complete lack of imagination, shelled and machine-gunned the site of the original bridge all night. Their industry was commended by all for the site was sufficiently removed from the scene of active work to avoid both casualties and stoppages. General Freyberg was an interested spectator and was the first across the Lindell bridge as it was named. Further work was necessary on the approaches before the banked-up stream of vehicles could cross but traffic was flowing at midday, by which time Mechanical Equipment had dozed a route into Faenza and 6 Field Company had opened the access road.
Faenza is a ramparted city much smaller than Forli and famous for its majolica ware, many specimens of which found their way from deserted buildings into the keeping of individual sappers. The enemy, loath to leave Faenza, was holding on in the vicinity of the railway station on the northern outskirts of the town. Divisional Headquarters discovered this when it moved into the town as soon as the Lindell bridge was open. Incidentally, it moved out again fairly smartly back to Borgo Durbecco on the safer side of the Lamone.
For the next two days 7 Field Company carried on at Hunter's bridge and on the road into Faenza while 6 Field Company maintained the highway from Princes Cross to Celle and tidied up the brigade area until the 19th, when it relieved 8 Field Company for operations with 6 Brigade. That brigade was to advance at right angles to Route 9, clear the country up to the Senio north of Faenza and thus extend the Divisional sector on the right of 5 Brigade.
The infantry left their start line about midnight 19 – 20 December and made steady progress. No. 2 Platoon, 8 Field Company, with the job of searching the secondary road from the railway line to the village of San Pietro, found to their satisfaction that the German sappers had missed their cue and Sergeant Barbour14 removed their charges from two culverts. Support arms were through well before first light but misfortune overtook a reconnaissance party between San Pietro and the Senio River. They were ambushed by a party of Germans page 664 hidden in a ditch, four sappers were taken prisoner and their car had to be shot up by our tanks to prevent the removal of the codes, maps and call signs.
The rest of the Company had an average night of minor demolitions with some narrow escapes but no casualties, and with the enemy now at a safer distance Divisional Headquarters resumed its interrupted occupation of Faenza.
At last light on 22 December the infantry were firm on a line from the La Palazzo crossroads to Casale, while the enemy occupied strong posts ensconced in a sea of mines along the near bank of the Senio.
The first winter snow fell that night and sappers who remembered what frost, thaws and melting snow could do to nondescript roads did not regard the prospects of a white Christmas with any enthusiasm.
The engineer companies were at this date all located in Faenza; 6 Field Company was maintaining the supply route via Celle to Casale and 8 Field Company was taking care of the other roads and tracks in the Celle–Casale area. Mechanical Equipment Platoon was, as usual, spread about as needed and 5 Field Park Company was, as usual, operating water points and issuing stores. Seventh Field Company, engaged in constructing a road across the much bombed railway station, had the good fortune to find a dump of about five tons of good quality coal, whereupon they viewed the snow-covered countryside with more tolerance.
Colonel Hanson15 and his staff were holding conferences with the company commanders on the problems involved in getting bridges over the Senio when the time came; enemy vigilance prevented a close look at the sites chosen from the map and the low cloud ceiling prevented the Air Force from helping with photographs. No division was better served by its sappers, but the stark fact was that the bridging of obstacles was still not quick enough to help the infantry maintain its rate of advance once a watercourse divided it from its support weapons.
The Operations staff also had their worries, not the least of which was an extreme shortage of ammunition. This was because priority was given to the fighting in France—the concentration of effort in the decisive theatre, a military maxim not to be disregarded but very frustrating to the planners in the Italian area. In any case the operations of Eighth Army were bound page 665 up with the situation in Fifth Army, which in turn was concerned about a likely enemy counter-attack against the vital supply port of Leghorn. Finally, the enemy had built up such a concentration to fend off the penetration of his left wing that a counter-offensive was not beyond his capacity.
Generals conferred and staffs worked on plans, but the net result was that both Fifth and Eighth Armies were instructed to go on the defensive for the time being, so annulling the earlier decision.
The sappers, with a break for Christmas dinner that neither the Italian winter nor the malice of the German Army was permitted to interrupt, carried on with the never-ending task of keeping communications open in spite of snowstorms, frozen slush and thaws. On 28 December 7 Field Company was moved to work on an access route the Indian division was making towards the Senio if the spring offensive took that direction. They had an Indian pioneer company under command for widening and metalling, with Italian casas, the Pideura road, which ran along a ridge, and for the formation of a new road down the ridge to the Senio. The route, known as Armstrong's track because of the dozer work done and the two hundred-odd loads of corduroy Mechanical Equipment Platoon cut and delivered, was in full view of the enemy-held village of Cuffiano, necessitating all work being done at night and carefully camouflaged before daylight. Some eight hundred yards of camouflage netting had to be lifted each night before operations could proceed on the lower portion, which was not under enemy view. A length of both the Pideura road and Armstrong's track was revetted with seasoned mahogany and oak from a furniture factory in Faenza. Finally the track was covered with a thin coating of demolished casas. A great advantage of working with an Indian unit was that Indians are not beer drinkers and it was possible to make an arrangement about their rations of that commodity.
The sappers on the eight to midnight shift of New Year's Eve were treated to as colourful a display of German flares as ever the Western Desert could produce.
Sixth Field Company went back to Forli for a rest on New Year's Eve—‘Shifted to Forli. All platoon in one casa. Our section arrived first to prepare the billet. Most of the platoon “ubriaco” from late afternoon onward. At midnight sampled some Chartreuse 200 years old.’page 666
Forli had changed a lot since the sappers were last there. It was then a front-line town and was still under occasional shell-fire, but now there were theatres, NAAFIs, shops, bars, ENSA parties and streets full of civilians.
On 3 January 1945 a lamp post in Forli was decorated with floral emblems, and the reason is given in Lieutenant O'Reilly's private diary:
‘I have been reading today's summary about the exploits of the partizans of Faenza. The most picturesque of course was Corbari, famous as the Robin Hood of the Campagna and immensely popular among the Ites. He was captured some months ago and hanged in Castrocaro di Forli and later hanged (again) in the main square in Forli. Some of his exploits were rather amazing and the Hun went to great lengths to catch him. Today the lamp post in Forli from which his body hung is kept bedecked with flowers and wreaths and everywhere one sees little posters on the walls—“Viva Corbari”. He was only 22 when he was hanged.’
The 10th January saw the birth of a new sapper company in 2 New Zealand Division when the Mechanical Equipment Platoon became 27 Mechanical Equipment Company, with an establishment of 7 officers and 150 other ranks organised into Company Headquarters and two working platoons. Fifth Field Park Company then reverted to its traditional formation of Company Headquarters, a bridging, a workshop and a stores platoon.
Official records show the new unit as coming into existence on 1 December 1944, to which time its formation was back-dated. Twenty-seventh Mechanical Equipment Company was commanded by Major Armstrong, recently returned from furlough, with Captain Faram as his second-in-command. The platoon commanders were Lieutenants D. F. Brown and A. A. Keller; Lieutenant N. A. Bannantyre16 completed the original complement of officers. Regarding its formation and early days Major Armstrong wrote:
‘The Coy was organised as a HQ including the admin. part of the show and the repair and maintenance sections and two working sections. Each Platoon had 3 dozers, 1 shovel, 1 compressor, 6 tip trucks and four transporters together with the usual personnel trucks, cook truck, fuel truck, jeep, etc. HQ included a workshop truck, a truck to carry spares, a compressor, a grader and the usual HQ vehicles.page 667
‘Each platoon was organised to be able to run all machines continuously on two shifts. It was usual on operations to have two operators out with each dozer.
‘Had additional officers and men been available a 3rd platoon would have been added to enable a platoon to work with each of the three Field Coys when required. We undertook our own running repairs and normal servicing work and depended on a British Non Div Mech Equip Coy located as a rule near Army HQ for arranging replacements. They held a plant pool and when any of our machines were damaged beyond repair we simply loaded them on a transporter and sent it off to get a replacement. Some of the tractors in Italy at that time had had a hard life. Many had been in salt water at Anzio and Salerno and getting a good machine for a replacement was not always easy. S/Sgt Allen Morgan looked after this for us.’
It was about this time that General Freyberg had a brief encounter with Sapper ‘Porky’ Neale, who had gained some fame by winning boxing championships for the engineers, beginning when the First Echelon was en route from New Zealand to Egypt. Colonel Hanson relates the incident:
‘It was somewhere around Faenza that the General saw Sapper Porky Neale after his return from furlough. The General knew him quite well from his part in various boxing tournaments. At one of the early morning conferences the General announced that Porky Neale was back. He saw him the previous day operating a bulldozer. When the General drove up Porky was wearing a straw panama hat. The General said Porky didn't know whether to salute or raise his hat, so he compromised by nodding his head and saying “Good day”. My comment was—“The young devil.” The General immediately replied, “Now Fred, don't you say anything to him.”’
Engineer activities during the first three months of 1945 are to be envisaged against a background of maintaining roads, mostly corduroy tracks covered with a thin layer of demolished house rubble. More particularly, there were periods of snow clearing, drain revetting with timber or sandbags, and throwing more and more corduroy into patches where foundations softer than usual were periodically ruined by gun tractors and tanks.
The decision to go on the defensive included making dispositions to withstand a hostile counter-attack should one be mounted; the sappers' part therein consisted of preparing page 668 bridges for demolition in the case of an enemy advance. This was done in three stages, only two of which were to be carried out immediately:
The preparation of a scheme of demolition for each bridge.
The collection and preparation of accessories.
The burying of cable and the preparation of a suitable site for the accommodation of the firing party.
The fixing of charges and the laying of firing circuits, less the necessary detonators.
Insertion of detonators.
The demolition of bridges forward of the Lamone was the responsibility of 5 and 6 Brigades and those in rear that of 4 Armoured Brigade. Twelve bridges under the control of the Division were at Stage 2 on 19 January, eight of which were prepared by 6 Field Company, which on 12 January had returned from Forli and relieved 8 Field Company. A week later, when the Divisional boundary was altered so that the left flank was just south of the railway line near Route 9 and 6 Brigade relieved troops of 56 Division, eight more bridges already prepared for demolition by RE sappers were taken over.
Seventh Field Company stayed on Armstrong's track until 24 January, when 8 Field Company relieved it and the weary 7th moved back to Forli for a rest. Some enthusiasts had tried to vary the monotony by practising with skis made from the furniture factory timber, but interest waned markedly when they found themselves in areas marked ‘Minen’ and with other suitable warnings of a minefield.
Twenty-seventh Mechanical Equipment Company remained in Faenza, for the most part procuring and carting road metal. The method was for a dozer to push a house over, then to gather the rubble in a heap so that the shovels could transfer it to the tipper trucks.
The replacement of long-service sappers and other arms promised for early in January, and which the pessimists averred would never happen, had been the subject of anxious consideration by the CRE and General Freyberg. The scheme had been predicted on the assumption that adequate numbers would be arriving from New Zealand in the 14th Reinforcements to enable the return to civil employment of returned furlough men, 5th Reinforcements, and 6th and 7th Reinforcements who had served in Fiji. In the engineer companies the number page 669 involved was about 400 all ranks, including the line-of-communication troops, i.e., Works Sections at Maadi Camp, Advanced Base, etc.
To replace these 400 there were fewer than 200 arriving with the 14th Reinforcements—and they would need at least three months' training before marching into the field companies. General Freyberg was therefore forced to explain that the promise he had made could not be wholly fulfilled. The best that could be done was to put approximately one hundred on the New Zealand roll and work under strength to that extent, plus any casualties or evacuations through sickness, until the new men came up from the training camps.
Line-of-communications personnel were not to be included in the ballot and 5 Field Park Company, which contained a proportion of men who did not go into battle to the same extent as the field companies, received a lower quota. The sappers, both officers and other ranks, who missed out in the ballots were, as far as possible, to be transferred to unit headquarters, line-of-communication units, or 5 Field Park Company and replaced by sappers who had not had forward company experience.
The results of the draw were announced on 2 February. The earlier furlough drafts had meant time off from the war, but this was a farewell to arms for those drawn in the ballot, with the reasonable possibility of attaining the Psalmist's three score years and ten. The celebrations were in keeping with the occasion and the draft left in the morning for Forli en route for New Zealand and civilian life.
The break with the old hands was easiest in 7 Field Company, for it left the following morning for 15 Army Group Bridge Camp on the coast at the mouth of the Tiber near Rome—Lido di Roma—where in company with two Canadian field companies it settled into excellent quarters and went through a ten-day course of watermanship, bridging and rafting, followed by three days' leave in Rome before returning to Forli on 19 February.
Eighth Field Company remained on Armstrong's track until it handed over the area on the 9th to the Polish Corps. The Company thereafter maintained the roads in the Divisional area with two platoons, while the third did routine training in field company work. The day before 7 Field Company returned from its bridging course, No. 3 Platoon, 8 Field Company, which was training with mines in Forli, experimented with 27 Mechanical page 670 Equipment Company in cutting a sidling on a 1 in 8 grade up and down a 20-foot-high stopbank on the Lamone River. It took an hour and a half to cut out a track that a loaded 3-ton truck could easily negotiate.
Twenty-seventh Mechanical Equipment Company carried on with the delivery of house rubble as well as opening up and working a quarry discovered near Princes Cross.
Sixth Field Company, with Major P. W. de B. Morgan now in command vice Major Andrew, marched out to NZ Roll, was mostly employed in bridging experiments under the direction of the CRE. They were in general a continuation of the lessons learnt on the Volturno before the Cassino battles, but the sappers who had been involved there were now either casualties or on furlough, recently departed for New Zealand or transferred to headquarters duty. In their places were men newly arrived from training camps or line-of-communication duties, and not conversant with the capacity of dozers to haul built-up bridge sections across country.
Typical of the experiments was one in which 6 Field Company proved that it took four and a half hours to sledge the components for 100 feet of single-single Bailey a distance of 250 yards across open ground, then manhandle them on to a 20-foot-high stopbank. It will be noted that engineer thinking was in terms of stopbanks; in particular the Senio stopbanks.
The bridge had then to be assembled and the far stopbank tracked before the tanks and anti-tank guns could support the infantry against a counter-attack. It was assumed that 100 feet would be the minimum length of a high-level bridge, which meant in turn that 200 feet of components must be got on to the site. The reader will remember that as the bridge is pushed forward over the rollers a corresponding length must be built behind to balance the portion passing over the river, and so preventing it from tipping into the water. Finally, with the shorter nights approaching, not more than five or, at the most, six hours of darkness could be counted on after the infantry commenced the assault.
The suggestion was advanced that building time could be cut by removing a section of stopbank. As these were about 20 feet high and 75 feet wide at the base, and as at least 25 feet of bottom clearance was desirable, it meant that the top width of the gap would need to be about 60 feet across, which represented a very considerable amount of spoil to be shifted.page 671
The idea was to tunnel or drill the bank and place in it some two tons of ammonal a night or two before the attack. The charges would be fired as soon as the infantry had crossed the river, whereupon the dozers, held some half a mile in the rear, would advance and clean up the gap while the bridging train was coming up and the far stopbank being checked for mines. The far bank would then be blown or graded by a dozer as the conditions permitted.
An exercise designed to test the calculations involved was carried out by 8 Field Company on 22 February. The sappers were required to clear the approach route of mines, blow a 30 ft gap in the stopbank, and build 30 feet of bridge on skids. It was then to be hauled by tractors 700 yards to the site and the balance of the components sledged in for 100 feet of single-single Bailey, which was to be built and put down ready for traffic.
Everything went well until the sledging of the built bridge was attempted, when it was found that the ground was too soft, which caused the bridge to belly. The whole project was not persevered with.
What did not help much was the knowledge that among the spectators were General Freyberg and the Corps Commander. Sappers have a rich and varied vocabulary and it is probable that the visitors remained at a discreet distance, for the remarks page 672 querying both the ancestry of the recalcitrant bridge and those responsible for the ordering of the exercise would have had quite an edge to them.
Further demonstrations were given to the same audience on 26 February, when 5 Field Park Bridging Platoon launched a ‘Canadian’ footbridge across a 45 ft wet gap in nine minutes, which time included carrying it over the stopbank, and 7 Field Company built a 150 ft high-level bridge with two crib piers from components towed to the site 300 yards across country by dozers. Both were more or less routine jobs, but the third was something special.
A method to be tried out was believed to be quite new to military assault bridging and the product of much thought by the New Zealand engineer command; it required no launching nose, no tail, no counter-weight and no jacking down. The idea was, briefly, to use a folding boat as a movable platform from which to build each transom separately in situ and then join them to the rest of the bridge. The operation was a success and the crossing was ready in half the time required for a high-level Bailey. Everybody concerned with bridges went away to think out means of avoiding the snags which did crop up. The only major alteration to the idea was in the blowing of the near bank; the resulting spoil was so loose that it occupied more dozer hours to clean up than it would have taken to cut down the unblown bank.
Thereafter for low-level assault bridges graded roads generally ran over both stopbanks, and for the high-level crossings part only of the bank was blown and the bridge launched through the gaps. The width of the wet gap and the height and distance back of the floodbanks determined the policy as each river was studied.
There was no doubt that both high- and low-level bridges were necessary; the high-level to provide crossings safe from floods and to allow the rapid and free flow of transport; the low-level to get the tanks across as soon as possible and at the same time afford some protection to the sappers while working in the open. One field company could build both bridges and clear the route beyond the river, and on a two-brigade front one bridge of each category per brigade was a reasonable requirement. A full-scale exercise on a selected length of the Lamone to represent the Senio, with infantry crossing on kapok bridges and folding boats, the engineers following with high- and low- page 673 level bridges and the tanks crossing into the bridgehead, was staged on 3 March 1945 before a large audience of Corps, Divisional and unit officers.
The real-life Aldershot Tattoo was staged in brilliant sunshine. On a signal the demonstrating infantry swarmed over the near stopbank and across the river, the bridging gaps were blown and, almost before the rain of debris ceased falling, the sappers were at work.
While the audience discussed a morning tea of New Zealand ham and cheese sandwiches reinforced by sausage rolls and cakes from Eighth Army Cookery School, 8 Field Company worked on its 100 ft double-single high-level bridge, 6 Field Company on a 50 ft single-single low level and 7 Field Company on a 60 ft single-single low-level assault bridge, while 27 Mechanical Equipment tidied up with bulldozers and graded a track to the high-level bridge.
These low-level bridges were constructed on an entirely new principle, the brain child of the CRE, and a major contribution to the practice of military assault bridging where speed is essential. The details were worked out in collaboration with his officers. Major Morgan describes how the idea took form and substance:
‘The CRE rang me at lunch time one day and said, “Can you not build a bailey off a F.B.E. raft?” I could immediately visualise what he had got hold of so I asked if I could come down and discuss it. While we had lunch Morris, Hunter and myself worked out the method and drill required to build an “in situ” bridge using a F.B.E. raft as a building platform. It is all so simple once somebody had produced the basic idea.’
The assault bridges were constructed by slightly differing methods known in the sapper units as 6 and 7 Company styles respectively. The 6 Company style bridge—using a bay of folding boat as a building platform—was across in one hour and fifty-six minutes. Ramps were dozed down to bridge level and a track made up and over the far floodbank; support weapons were across the river less than four hours after the infantry.
Seventh Company's method of assembling one bay at a time and booming it out on a pier built on a folding-boat raft went amiss owing to a jammed roller tipping the pier and swamping the boat. The time for completion was five and a quarter hours but it was estimated that, all going well, three and a half hours would have seen the bridge ready for traffic. This was considered satisfactory because a very bad site had been purposely chosen page 674 to determine what was possible in making quick approaches and exits. The high-level bridge was put across in six hours twenty minutes.
‘It was a brilliant scheme and as far as I know was Brig Hanson's own, though no doubt his Company Commanders assisted. At the time I was a 2/Lieut in his HQ. Strangely enough the RE officers invited to witness the experiments were unimpressed and never adopted it, yet subsequent events proved it was unequalled. On the Senio neither the Poles on our left nor the Indians on our right managed any crossings (the Indians had one shaky double decker Ark) and used our bridges and similarly in the attacks following other Divs used our bridges. All NZ Div B Transport even was across in 24 hours. I was amused at a Corps report (RE) of that time commenting on the impossibility of maintaining all the bridges the Kiwis built. Again they failed to realize that it was the number of crossings that enabled not only 2 NZ Div, but the adjacent ones to get rolling north. Thereafter only one “up” and one “down” should have been necessary and the other bridges could have been removed.’
The New Zealand bridge-building theory must have made some impact on Authority, however, for it is thus commented upon in an official RE publication:18
‘The New Zealanders developed a very rapid method of constructing low level Baileys across small rivers with high floodbanks. New Zealand practice was to dump bridging equipment on the near side of the floodbank, carrying it over the floodbank as soon as conditions allowed. Single single girders were then assembled, leaving out the bottom pins securing the end panels; and the girders were launched by supporting them on a folding boat raft. When across the gap the girders were lifted to the horizontal by manpower, and the bottom pins inserted. Transoms were then positioned and the bridge decked down, the complete construction of bridges forty or fifty feet long taking only between thirty five minutes and an hour. The blowing or page 675 dozing of the near floodbank progressed while the bridge was being built, and the first vehicle to cross was an armoured dozer to prepare an exit on the far bank.’
The command of the New Zealand sector near Faenza passed to the Polish 5 Kresowa Division on 6 March, and the brigades and regiments of 2 New Zealand Division turned their backs on the Senio for the time being. They were going into the foothills again, this time to train for the spring offensive. The area allotted to the engineers was in the vicinity of the walled hilltop city of Macerata, 22 miles south of Ancona, to which district, less 5 Field Park Company and Headquarters 2 New Zealand Divisional Engineers, they departed on 5 March. The others followed two days later. ‘A lovely area and we are quartered in a huge mansion with electric light and central heating. Lovely view of the Apennines which are only a few miles away.’
The training directive specified a week to rest, refit and clean up, followed by three weeks' solid training in all branches of sapper work. Practice with mines and mine detectors, plus route-marching and smartening-up drill, had their places in the syllabus, but the greater part of the time was spent in low-level bridging by both 6 and 7 Company methods, predicted on the proposition that building would not be possible before 11 p.m. and must be finished by 4.30 a.m.
It is, of course, vastly different building bridges in daylight to building them at night, for at night the fitting together of equipment and the working of mechanical equipment must be done by feel instead of by sight. Artificial moonlight was helpful for general movement, but for detailed work the sense of touch had to be relied upon. In planning the schedule for a bridge-building operation it was considered necessary to double the time if the job was to be done after dark. So, naturally, most of the bridge training was done by night.
The composition of the sapper platoons had been so altered by the departure of the Tongariro draft and the allocation of front-line men to headquarters staffs and other rear area echelons that those who remained, plus the 13th Reinforcements, were in much the same position as the engineer companies on the Sangro a year earlier. Almost nightly then, wet or fine, they assembled components and built bridges by sense of touch across suitable lengths of sunken road. After the first few days it was certainly no holiday for the sappers nor for the officers and NCOs who, after each exercise, rebuilt the bridges in the page 676 Orderly Room, suggested short-cuts, improved techniques and changes of position in the bridging teams. There were water-courses almost ad infinitum between the Senio and the Po rivers—and Venice beckoned.
On 24 March 6 and 8 Field Companies and a detachment from 5 Field Park Company went to the Lido di Roma bridging camp for a week's training on the same syllabus as that followed by 7 Field Company the previous month.
Another engineer unit was formed during this period. Consideration had been given by the CRE ever since the opening of the winter campaign to the formation of an Assault Squadron to operate armoured equipment in place of the soft-skinned dozers, for use in situations where 27 Mechanical Equipment Company could not work. Twenty-eighth Assault Squadron came into being on 21 March 1945 under the command of Major J. Brooke-White. The establishment consisted of 7 officers and 156 other ranks organised into a Squadron Headquarters and two troops to operate 21 tanks—3 Stuarts, 2 Sherman troop carriers, 4 Sherman dozers, 4 Churchill AVREs, 4 Churchill Arks and 4 Valentine bridge-layers (Scissors). Much of the equipment, however, did not arrive until the first week in April, which meant that the operators were not very well acquainted with it when they took over their duties.
The personnel of the new unit came from several sources—signallers from the Divisional Signals, drivers from Advanced Base, technicians from 4 Armoured Brigade and key NCOs from the Field Companies. The bulk of the Squadron were from the 13th Reinforcements, some of whom had fought in the Pacific—‘Coconut Bombers’ to the old hands—but the majority were without operational experience.
The war diary of 28 Assault Squadron begins on 24 March 1945:
‘Today two officers and 21 ORs start living together and get to know each other. Thus the nucleus of the new Assault Squadron was formed. A bit of transport arrived, two 3-tonners, two 15 cwts, one jeep, and 2 M/Cs and 6 scout cars on loan. So now we can move if necessary. Our location is in a beautiful casa on a hill overlooking Passo-de-Treia, weather beautifully fine. Ideal location for Div's resting up.’
Sapper casualties for the period 25 November 1944 to 6 March 1945 were 1 killed, 17 wounded and 5 prisoners of war.
1 Triple-single Bailey bridge.
4 The CRE had also at his disposal from time to time various Corps Engineer units, which were mostly used in the rear line of communications but will be mentioned when employed in the forward areas.
5 Lt O'Reilly, private diary.
18 Engineers in the Italian Campaign, 1943–1945.