18 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 37 — The Road to the Plains
The Road to the Plains
When 2 NZ Division had first crossed the Apennines it had been winter, with snow low on the hills, and its next stop was to have been Rome. Now it was crossing back again, summer was just ending, dust hung above the roads, the heat beat down, and the Po valley was the promised land. Everyone was brimful of confidence. The attack on the Gothic Line, according to reports, was going well; the Fifth Army was to push through the mountains north of Florence and out into the flat country by Bologna; the Eighth Army was to break through along the Adriatic coast; the Kiwis would charge across the Po valley from the Adriatic side, taking everything in their stride. Put like that, it all sounded so easy.
The way led east from Siena round Lake Trasimene, past Perugia on its lofty hill, past Assisi sprawling over a slope up to the left. Then through the real, rugged Apennines, down a majestic river gorge with quaint stone villages hugging the road because there was no other flat place for them, then north again over a jumble of rolling hilltops, and so to Iesi and the Esino River. Nearly 220 miles in all.
For the regiment, barely recovered from the exhausting Florence battle, the heat and long hours of this move were pretty tiring. Much of the driving was done at night. The soft-skinned convoy took two days, stopping for the first night near Foligno, a big road junction just south of Assisi. Officially all towns were out of bounds, but that did not stop the boys from exploring Foligno to see if it was worth a quick visit, or from going back for a casual look at Assisi, one of the few places that nearly everyone had heard of. The tanks took two days to drive to Foligno, where, to the drivers' relief, they were picked up by transporters for the last, toughest, most mountainous part of the journey. A few of them had the usual minor breakdowns early in the move, and there was a bad accident when a Honey capsized, injuring two men severely.page 540
In contrast to the surly civilians of the Florentine hills, who had seen their homes smashed up and looted by both sides, the people who crowded round the vehicles at the halts, or shouted and waved on the Apennine roads, were friendly and smiling. There were plenty of fruit and eggs and wine for sale, or just as often freely given.
And so to Iesi and the Esino River. Here the hills flattened out into a coastal plain several miles wide, and the regiment found itself, for the first time since Piedimonte d'Alife, camped on level ground. There were plenty of good shady trees on the camp site, grapes and peaches and tomatoes to be had without going far—what else could life provide? The Esino was within easy reach and the Adriatic only eight miles away. Every day truckloads of swimmers made for the coast, for, though the edge had gone from the trying heat of the Tuscan hills, it was still hot, and salt water a luxury. The beaches near the Esino were pebbly and shelving and not as attractive as the golden sand of the west coast, but the water was cool and inviting. There was even the nearest approach to surf that anyone had seen for a long time.
One feature of this place was the continual parade of Allied air power overhead. Iesi was on the direct route forward from the Pescara airfields farther down the coast, and almost from dawn to dark there was such a procession of planes that after a couple of days you did not even glance up at them. There was an airfield not far away where many men spent their spare time. It was a busy place. ‘The Kittybombers leave here,’ said one diarist, ‘with their three bombs underneath & a while later return empty if they can find a target.’ This was very satisfying and good for the morale. The select few (there were still some in the 18th) who had suffered under the Luftwaffe on Crete and at Alamein could reflect that this was a gentleman's war now, very different from those far-off days.
Nobody tried to kill himself with work here, though the tanks needed the usual attentions. ‘Many of our tanks,’ said the war diary, ‘are now getting on in service, and as they grow older so does repair become more frequent particularly after long moves during hot weather.’ But there was little attempt at organised training. It did not seem worth while. It was pretty widely known, or guessed, that this pause was very temporary, page 541 that the Kiwis would be in the middle of the fighting again very soon.
But before the regiment was again within range of Jerry it shifted three times, following up after the battle, for the Gothic Line had now been brushed aside and the front was receding northwards. So 2 NZ Division stayed handy, moving up in little bounds along Route 16, which was later to become as familiar to it as any road in Italy. This lovely highway ran for mile after mile beside the Adriatic beaches, through the fishing ports of Senigallia and Fano and Pesaro and Cattolica, past Riccione (once a fashionable holiday resort and Mussolini's favoured playground), to Rimini, where the hills ended and the wide plains of Romagna came down to the sea. On these first moves the tank crews saw very little of this road, for the Shermans moved mainly on back roads, inches deep in dust and badly signposted, the crews with practically no idea where they were supposed to be going.
The 18th's first jump forward took it to the smashed port of Fano, into flat vineyards just outside the town and a stone's throw from the beach. Here for eleven days the boys drank wine and swam and played football and ate tomatoes and muscatel grapes, and sometimes did a little work, mainly rifle shooting on the Fano range, wireless and mine training. There was all too much scope for this last, for the place was lousy with mines left over from the battle that had recently passed that way. The regiment lost a carrier and a jeep and two wounded, and nearly every day someone from some unit was blown up.
Here the regiment was back within sound of the battle— quite a battle, judging by the perpetual grumble of the guns. On 14 September C Squadron (now under Major P. B. Allen) left for the front at the shortest of notice. After breakfast on the 16th the rest of the tanks moved on, followed in the afternoon by B Echelon; up through Pesaro they went, past the empty, forlorn Gothic Line, and on to Gradara, whose round hill was topped with a grey old castle, complete with dungeons and instruments of torture, all reconstructed for the benefit of Kiwis and other twentieth-century tourists. The battle was not many miles ahead now, and from nearby heights overlooking the sea you had the unusual sight of warships standing off the page 542 coast belting away at Jerry's defences. Rumour said that he had dug his toes in at Rimini, and that it was going to be quite a job to get him out. The Kiwis were all geared up to go. The regiment was now under 5 Brigade again, and the officers of A and B Squadrons had already been to see 28 and 21 Battalions to arrange preliminary details.
But there were still a few days of respite. On 18 and 19 September the regiment went up to Riccione, the elegant pre-war seaside resort, now very close behind the front line, where it found C Squadron, fresh out of battle after three busy days, and full of stories about Jerry's horrible habit of fighting from Panther tank turrets solidly emplaced in concrete and mounting 88-millimetre guns.
This story begins at 3 p.m. on 14 September, when C Squadron's tank crews were called away, half of them from a football match at the Fano stadium, and told to pack up and leave just as soon as they could. Where they were to go, or why, nobody could find out, though the rumour circulated that they were to deal with some German tanks that had suddenly put in an appearance and were ‘holding up the works’.
Actually there was a lot more to it than that.
The Canadian Corps, driving up the coastal plain towards Rimini, had been going well, without much opposition from Jerry, until that morning. But then the position had changed. The 3rd Greek Mountain Brigade, attacking on the inland side of Route 16, had struck solid resistance from the stalwart I Parachute Division, backed up by tanks or self-propelled guns, and had taken a bad knock. A squadron of 20 Regiment, which happened to be the handiest, had hurried forward to help, and at the same time 18 Regiment had been ordered to send one squadron up urgently to take over, for 20 Regiment was waiting with 6 Brigade to be called into action as soon as the battle went past Rimini, and was to be kept intact meantime. Hence C Squadron's sudden call.
Panther turret on Rimini airfield
Prepared for rain—a Reconnaissance Troop Honey tank. See p. 550
C Squadron gun line at Faenza
Over the bank at the Scolo Tratturo, 10 April 1945
The set-up here seemed slightly unusual. This was the Greeks' battle, or so C Squadron had been told; but 22 Battalion seemed to be running it, and it was a little difficult to find out who was in control. Both at the outset and during the next two days Major Allen got most of his orders and information through Lieutenant-Colonel Donald1 of 22 Battalion. C Squadron gained an impression of the Greeks as good fellows and brave soldiers, but rather disconcerting to deal with because of the language barrier.
Just before the battle our fighter-bombers roared over, and could be seen and heard going for the airfield and the country farther left, where the Canadians were said to be in trouble at a place called the San Martino ridge. Then the tanks were off, fanning out along the lanes, Lieutenant Barber's 9 Troop on the right near Route 16, Lieutenant Collins's 10 Troop straight up the middle towards the airfield, Second-Lieutenant Colin McIntosh's2 11 Troop to the left. In this flat country of vines, farms, hedge-lined lanes and irrigation canals you could not see far ahead, you were always apt to be held up by some unexpected obstacle, and you never knew where Jerry might be lurking with a gun. Air photos, studied and pored over beforehand, had shown some suspicious bumps on the ground by the corners of the airfield, and these were very much in the troop commanders' minds as they went forward.
The left-hand battalion, with 11 Troop moving along behind, made for a little crossroads hamlet called Casalecchio, just a church with a couple of houses round it. During the morning Jerry had been very unpleasant round here. Now the Greeks took the houses with no trouble, but a few paratroopers held out in the church and could not be dislodged till 11 Troop came up and attacked directly on the heels of an artillery ‘stonk’. The 22 Battalion platoon and a few assorted Greeks page 545 who happened to be in the right place joined in the attack.
That was as far as anyone went in the meantime, for when the Greeks tried to move on they came up against Spandaus and mortars on the western edge of the airfield, and decided against it. The tanks stayed by Casalecchio, parked among the vines, stirring up no unnecessary trouble, but ready to meet any that might come their way.
The right-hand battalion, attacking up Route 16 towards the east side of the airfield, was the least successful of the three. Perhaps expecting the attack to come up the main road, Jerry had this side strongly held, with garrisons in the hangars and airfield buildings and in houses on the seaward side of the road, mines laid thickly all over the place, and at the southern end of the field, covering Route 16, just where one of those bumps had appeared on the air photo, a great Panther tank turret dug into the ground, with a long black 88-millimetre gun. All this broke up the infantry attack before it got very far; there was practically no liaison between Greeks and tanks on this flank, and the advance bogged down with the tanks still in the thick country short of the airfield. Lieutenant Barber comments:
I myself found it impossible to get any assistance chiefly because I couldn't understand their language…. The only Greeks I saw were dead ones, and the others looting everything in sight.
Barber's troop was ordered to tackle the Panther turret next day, a job that gave it a nasty feeling in anticipation. So there was great joy in the morning when the word went round that the turret had been ‘scuttled’ by its own crew during the night.
The story behind the scuttling belongs to 10 Troop, which had more than its share of excitement that first afternoon. In contrast to the other troops, it worked in pretty well with its infantry, partly because Lieutenant Collins could make himself understood in Greek. The tanks moved up behind the advance, knocking holes in the houses they passed, just in case. Jerry was not in evidence in the cultivated country south of the airfield; but as the tanks approached the open field one German appeared ahead, and suddenly the battle broke loose. Germans bobbed up everywhere. The air was thick with metal, and the page 546 infantry had to dive for cover, while the tanks, manoeuvring forward one at a time along a line of hedges, emerged into the forefront of the attack, all their guns firing. It was not a nice position to be in. The ‘eighty-eight’ over by Route 16 was ready and eager to deal with anything that came out into the open; lurking among the trees near the south-west corner of the field was a self-propelled gun; and all round the tanks were determined paratroopers with Spandaus and bazookas. Trooper Jim Sloan3 tells the story:
Cleaned up the dugouts with H.E. & Grenades…. Jerries came back with hands up and Joe [Lieut Collins] relieved some of the Lugers etc. We killed a hell of a lot…. But meanwhile Peter Wood's4 tank had been brewed up.
Sergeant Wood's tank fell victim to the self-propelled gun on the left flank. It was one of those tragic ‘brew-ups’ that leave everyone sick and despondent. Troopers Don Baillie5 and Dudley Bowker6 were killed; Trooper Albie Lawson,7 trapped in the tank, was dragged out later after tremendous efforts, but was fatally wounded. Both the other crew members were burned and shocked. Lieutenant Collins, having put down a screen with smoke shells and grenades to hide his other tanks from this deadly gun, went up to the burning tank, turned a machine gun on the nearest Germans, and strove to rescue the crew, along with Corporal Laurie White,8 who stood on top of Wood's tank pouring water into the turret.
The enemy was now pulling back in a hurry, and Collins's two tanks moved out to the left and helped him on his way while the Greeks, having recovered from their disarray, kept up the fire from the right flank. The self-propelled gun must have gone too, for nothing more was heard from it. The Panther page 547 turret could not be reached before dark, but its crew apparently lost heart now that its protecting infantry had gone, and during the night, after 10 Troop had turned on a noisy demonstration in front, they blew it up and decamped.
There was not much work for the tanks on 16 September. Nos. 10 and 11 Troops made no move, though the Greeks on the left made a little headway through the thick country beyond Casalecchio. On the right the Greeks pushed forward towards the airfield buildings, while 9 Troop advanced to the south-east corner of the field, spraying the whole place with its Brownings. It was no easy move, as the tank crews and their attendant 22 Battalion men had to lift mines ahead of the tanks while mortar bombs were falling and Spandau bullets buzzing round. But then their action was over for the day except for a few exchanges of fire from time to time with the Germans in the houses beyond Route 16. Luckily, there seemed to be no anti-tank guns or bazookas round this corner of the field.
For most of 17 September the story was much the same. On either side of the airfield the Greeks wormed their way a little farther forward. The Canadians were losing a lot of tanks round San Martino, where the fighting was as bitter as ever; some of their ‘brew-ups’ could be seen from the airfield, and it was not an encouraging sight.
Then, in the afternoon, to quote Major Allen's battle report, ‘the CO 22 NZ MOT Bn called me up to say that the canadians had called for Air Support on a dug in Panther Turret with 88mm gun on North Corner of ‘drome. I was asked if we could assist as this gun was taking heavy toll of tks towards san martino.’
This was quite a problem. This second turret, set in concrete just like the other, was right on the northern edge of the airfield, impossible to attack from the front, and with a perfect field of fire in almost every direction. Half a dozen planes had a go at it but missed, and the 25-pounders tackled it with no visible effect. It seemed that only C Squadron could have any hope of dislodging it.
And there seemed to be no easy answer to the problem for C Squadron. ‘No. 9 Tp,’ says Major Allen, ‘could not engage from their position nor could No. 10. No. 11 had moved up but I did not let them engage as I thought the range of 1500 page 548 yds too great and the position they were in was very exposed.’
Then Lieutenant Collins of 10 Troop, who had meanwhile been exploring the lanes on the west side of the field, came on the wireless to Squadron Headquarters with a proposal to stalk the gun from that side. The idea was at first turned down as too risky, but then, as Major Allen reports, Collins ‘informed me that he could engage with a feasible plan of attack. He was so confident that I allowed him to proceed.’
While Corporal White's tank went to the south end of the field to divert Jerry's attention if necessary, Collins's tank, stripped of all unessential gear and loaded to capacity with armour-piercing shells, moved off round the left side, advancing unobtrusively along a tree-bordered lane, across a field of wooden box mines, and through vines and scrub. At the same time the 25-pounders farther back laid a smoke screen in front of the Panther turret. Collins's tank was now out on its own in Jerry's country, but Jerry was apparently too surprised by its sudden appearance to do anything about it except a little ineffectual mortar and Spandau fire. A few minutes was all the tank needed. It pulled in beside a house which gave it some protection; the smoke cleared away, and there was the turret, 1200 yards away, straight across the open field. Then, says Sloan, ‘we … let drive. The 4th shot got it. Then we kept blazing away…. We put the gun out of action and knocked hunks off the turret.’ Before many shots had been fired the turret crew abandoned their post and ran for their lives into the trees behind, helped along by Collins's machine guns. Having made a thorough job of the turret, the tank withdrew, shielded by another smoke screen laid by itself.
This was a fine piece of work, and the crew had every reason to be pleased with themselves, particularly Collins and his gunner, Trooper Morrie Woolley,9 whose fast, accurate shooting had finished the affair off very quickly.
That was the end of C Squadron's part in the Rimini airfield action. Freed from the menace of that vile gun, the Canadians on the left began to get under way again, and the Greeks moved on past the airfield. Before dawn on 19 September tanks of 19 Regiment came up to relieve C Squadron, which went back to Riccione to wait for the rest of the 18th. page 549 One tank of 11 Troop, which had hit a mine the previous day, was dragged back by the recovery section.
The regiment could quite happily have sat out the rest of the war at Riccione. It was a handsome town, still almost intact although so near the front line. There were big splendid hotels, still with some of their fittings, including luxury beds, some of which somehow found their way into 18 Regiment's billets before long. The regiment was housed in an old hospital with plenty of room for everyone, and the boys appreciated the change from bivvy life, for the nights were getting cooler now.
The Adriatic was a bare 100 yards away, and the days were still warm enough for swimming. The beach was very fine, though somewhat spoilt by Jerry's barbed wire and mines. A lot of interest centred in a series of huge kiosks on the beach, brightly painted, with ‘gelati’ (ice-cream) in big letters on their sides, but behind the paint concrete forts with big guns pointing seaward. A very satisfactory waste of German labour and ingenuity, for they had never been used.
A few miles ahead, just inland from Rimini, the Canadians were now battling Jerry on his last defence line before the hills ended. Here, on the low San Fortunato ridge, overlooking the vast Romagna plain, was fought one of the bitterest battles in Italy, beginning on 18 September, going on for three days of thunderous barrages and air bombardments, and ending on the night of 20 September when the ‘Canucks’ cleared the ridge, pushed on down to the plain beyond, crossed the Marecchia River and established themselves on the north side of its wide, many-channelled bed. Now, after weeks of waiting, it was the Kiwis' turn, led by 5 Brigade, to go in, push through the Canadian bridgehead beyond the Marecchia, and head north along the Adriatic coast, keeping Jerry on the run.
After nearly a year of fighting in places not very far from vertical, the Kiwis were at last approaching the goal they had so long been promised, the huge flat plain of northern Italy, with no more mountains between them and the Po River. Optimism, which had sagged badly from time to time in the last few months, took a sudden upward swing. ‘Once we get out on to that flat,’ thought everyone, ‘there will be no holding us. We'll be away, tanks and all.’
They were wrong.
5 Tpr D. Baillie; born NZ 1 Mar 1919; shop assistant; wounded 14 Apr 1944; killed in action 15 Sep 1944.