18 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 40 — Through Mud and Water to the Senio
Through Mud and Water to the Senio
Away back out of earshot of the guns, where the Esino River winds across a wide basin among the Apennine peaks, many of the Kiwis on their journeys round Italy had passed through Fabriano without giving it a second look. Now 18 Regiment went to live there, and discovered what a fine place it was for freshening up wilted morale.
The soft-skinned convoy had a long day's trip back on 24 October, and the tanks an even longer, freezing cold night's run on transporters. Fabriano had points in its favour from the outset, for after such a trip any place that offered food and rest would have appealed to the boys. But Fabriano, they very soon found out, was also a most profitable and pleasant town in its own right.
Profitable, because in this well-to-do part of Italy the civilians were short of everything except money. The first day a swarm descended on the 18th brandishing large bundles of banknotes, and, as one man put it, ‘trying to buy all we possess’. German loot salvaged from the Rimini battlefields, spare food and clothes and boots, everything had its price, though the whole business was highly illegal and would have raised a red-hot rumpus if word of it had spread abroad. But the auction sale—for that is what it developed into—went off without interruption, in a friendly spirit all round, and with few of those wordy battles that often mar such functions.
Pleasant, for many reasons, chiefly the strange, spontaneous bond of sympathy that grew up between the unit and the local people. Here, as nowhere else, the Kiwis were star guests, went freely into civilian homes for meals and parties and sing-songs, and had the best china and silver brought out in their honour. The war had skimmed past these mountains without leaving its trail of wreckage behind, so that the civilians could still look with a kindly eye on foreign soldiers.page 584
And the Kiwis must have almost full marks for their behaviour. It was not all voluntary—a pretty firm discipline was clamped down, with a 10 p.m. curfew, restrictions on the local wineshops, a town picket to squash any disturbance—but all these precautions would have been no good if the mass of soldiers in Fabriano had wanted to be unruly. But they did not. Most of them reacted very well to Fabriano's hospitality.
There were other ways to spend spare time. Two picture theatres which were packed out every night, Kiwi Concert Party and ENSA shows, an excellent 4 Brigade concert which included all 18 Regiment's star talent, boxing tournaments, inter-squadron and inter-unit rugby, a unit dance (which was a washout as only half a dozen girls turned up). There was a big YMCA canteen in town. The ERS ran a class in the Italian language that attracted a crowd of enthusiasts from the regiment.
The Sunday church services, with all the 4 Brigade units together in Fabriano's ornate Opera House, with a band playing and hundreds of voices singing in unison, were an attraction in themselves, even for those who normally did not care two straws about religious observance. Everyone will remember the Sunday when the boys, on their way to the Opera House, passed a civilian memorial service for their war dead, the main square packed tight with people dressed in their sombre best, an impressive scene indeed.
To add to Fabriano's attractions, the regiment was billeted, contrary to custom, right in the town. There was no lack of living space, so the billets were good. The houses had electric light and running water, both rare luxuries; some even had baths. Some rooms had stoves or fireplaces, all in continual use, for the weather was miserable.
With winter coming on fast, you could not expect anything better. The first day at Fabriano it rained, and the second, and the third. The field where the tanks were parked soon became a mud lake. Early November was no better, with cold mists hanging down from the hills, and often heavy frosts in the valley. On 10 November the first snow fell, not very much of it, but enough to cover the ground briefly with a thin white blanket.
Here at Fabriano the burden of work lay very lightly on the regiment. For the first week everyone concentrated on giving tanks and trucks and gear a good clean-up and overhaul. After page 585 that, theoretically, training began; but there was actually very little except occasional squadron route marches up into the hills. The unit ran refresher courses in wireless, driving and maintenance. All the tank guns were carefully ‘T & A'd’, and the gunners had a little practice at 4 Brigade's range outside the town. There was a particular interest here, for the unit had just acquired four Shermans with 17-pounder guns, and their performance had everyone quite excited. Now at last it seemed that the Shermans had a gun that could even things up with the Tigers.
There was a little more leave now, and more men were able to have an overdue holiday. Parties went off to Florence, to a rest camp outside Rome, to a new YMCA camp at Riccione; though the war diary comments, ‘The latter not so popular as it is half way to the front and extremely cold, besides everyone is very satisfied here.’
They would have been hard to please if they had not been satisfied. They could, they felt at the time, have happily sat out the war lotus-eating at Fabriano.
As November slipped into its second half, talk of the next move grew and snowballed. As usual, it began with quiet rumours, many of them from the civilians, who always seemed to know everything in advance; then it gradually became common talk in canteens and cookhouses; then advance parties went off along Route 76 towards the coast, and then it was only a question of a day or two. The farewells here were very difficult, and there were floods of tears from the Fabriano women, who had taken the boys to their hearts. But the war could not be won in these friendly little Apennine towns. Farther north there was a hard struggle going on, and battles were still to be fought before 18 Regiment's work was done.
So off went the regiment on its travels, the tank transporters with their loads after lunch on 22 November, the soft-skinned convoy early on the 24th. You would hardly have known the unit that had trailed wearily south a month earlier. The rest had done wonders, tanks and trucks were bright and clean, the boys had regained their old bounce. Now they were bound for Cesena, which meant that they would soon be in the thick of it again. The farewells over, Fabriano had to be pushed into the background of the mind and attention fixed on the next job.page 586
This did not promise to be attractive. Rimini and the plains beyond looked greyer and more cheerless than ever, now that most of the foliage had gone and left only bare gnarled willows and sad, drooping vines. The stopping place near Cesena was a bare field where the men pitched bivvies on the mud, quite a jolt to the system after the luxury of the past month. The old jam-tin brazier, unused for months, suddenly came out again, for there were no cosy stoves here, and it was cold and raw and damp.
The front now ran along the Lamone, another of those Romagna rivers that writhed over the plain, cutting across Route 9 and the railway, then wandering on north-east between high stopbanks. The lifeline of the front was Route 9 and the railway—but for them it would have been an appalling job to maintain a line in such a mud hole. Route 9 ran as straight as a ruler forward from Cesena, through the big town of Forli, now chock-a-block with reserve and rear-line troops, then over the Lamone to Faenza, whose roofs and towers dominated the stopbank for several hundred yards on both sides of the road.
In the last month the battle had moved on only 20 miles. It was still the same old slogging match, and still the Eighth Army was pounding away, losing precious men and ammunition on penny gains to obey the call of wider strategy and keep as many Germans as possible tied down and away from the main front in Europe. Now 2 NZ Division, coming in fresh and ready for battle, was to press on and press on until winter closed down. What would happen then nobody dared think about. After that last winter at Orsogna the boys had sworn that they could never stand another; now it seemed as if they would have to.
On 26 November, when the regiment moved up through Forli to the Lamone front, the tank crews had a taste of what they were in for. Nearly every unit in the Division seemed to be on the move at the same time. Traffic was dense and driving difficult. Only Route 9 could be called a road; all the others were just long muddy puddles. The clouds were louring, and in the afternoon it began to pour. By then A and B Squadrons were reasonably well settled in the line, A Squadron with 6 Brigade just north of Route 9, B with 21 Battalion on 6 Brigade's right, the men crowded into farmhouses, the tanks parked in the page 587 yards. But C Squadron, on its way to 22 Battalion on the extreme right, was out of luck. It was turned off the road into the fields to let 6 Brigade traffic through, and there the rain and failing light caught it out in the open, with no hope of carrying on in the dark. A few of its crews found shelter in buildings, but most spent a miserable wet night in their tanks or bivvies. By morning the lanes were awash, a detour ahead was completely ruined, and C Squadron had no option but to stay put. Two tanks from Squadron Headquarters tried to force their way through; one broke a track, and the only one to make the full distance was Major Laurie's, which, says the squadron's battle report, ‘negotiated a field with the greatest difficulty to swing wide of the obstruction’. Not till 28 November, after the engineers had put a Bailey bridge over the bad detour, did two troops of C Squadron at last make their way up to 22 Battalion.
The other two troops spread out into a gun line among the willows, faced north, and prepared to shoot right across 22 Battalion from left to right. An unusual proceeding, this. But then the situation here on the Lamone was a bit unusual. As soon as the rain-swollen river fell to manageable size the Kiwis were to cross it and drive Jerry a little farther back. Hard on 22 Battalion's right flank, on our side of the river, was a pocket of Germans, well armed and full of fight; this pocket had to go, and urgently, for it would be a nuisance and a danger to the attackers.
Bringing the tanks' guns to bear on this pocket was quite a feat. The regiment could now justly boast that it had brought indirect firing up to a fine art; but never before had any of its tanks, from three miles back, scored direct hits on houses not 200 yards from their own OP. In this flat country where you could not see past the next line of trees, any OP farther back would have been useless. This of C Squadron's was right under Jerry's nose, in a house occupied by a Gurkha platoon, and the men living in it swore they could feel the wind of the 75-millimetre shells passing low overhead. They felt more than wind, too, when Jerry retaliated with heavy mortars all round the house.
Apart from this shooting, plus a few rounds over the Lamone here and there, there was not much profit in the first two days. page 588 Jerry had some self-propelled guns just over the river and plenty of heavier stuff behind, and switched his attention impartially all over the place. Our own artillery fired reluctantly, for 25-pounder ammunition, so the story ran, was getting woefully short again. The boys filled in their leisure searching for firewood with indifferent success, and collecting fowls and pigs and wine, which helped the war along a great deal, official rations not being the best at the moment. Civilians were rounded up from their farms and sent off in voluble, resentful truckloads to the comparative safety of Forli.
C Sqn 18 Regt & 22 Bn Attack, 30 November 1944
But in spite of thick misty rain, mines, demolitions and Jerry, it went off very well. First the 25-pounders and ‘Long Toms’ bombarded Jerry's houses. Then 10, 11 and 12 Troops of C Squadron helped the infantry forward from house to house, first turning their guns on the buildings, then covering them while the 22 Battalion men went in and dragged out any Germans who cared to resist. There were not many, except on the left flank, where Second-Lieutenant Norman Shillito's 10 Troop, working along the river, struck Spandau fire from holes in the stopbank. From the shelter of a farm a self-propelled gun tackled Lieutenant Hugh McLean's 11 Troop, but retired when the pace got too hot. A few dejected prisoners were rounded up from some of the houses; more of them got away over the bank into the riverbed under the cover of the mist and smoke. Towards the end of the attack Lieutenant Barber's 9 Troop, coming up the centre into the forefront, escorted the infantry forward to the house that was its final objective.
The B Squadron tanks, with an OP in the tower of a house overlooking the river, were also in the party. At one stage they chased away a Spandau that had been causing 22 Battalion a lot of worry.
By 4 p.m. the job was done. Infantry and tanks had advanced nearly three-quarters of a mile downstream, which was pretty good, as the ground was so sodden and treacherous that the tank commanders had to brave the Spandaus and ‘recce’ forward on foot most of the way. Ploughed ground had been quite impossible. One tank had lost a track in the mud, another in a minefield. For the last few hundred yards there had been no opposition except mortar ‘stonks’. None of the attackers had been hurt; the only casualties were two of the 17-pounder tank crew wounded by shell splinters back at C Squadron headquarters.
Everyone was pleased with this effort, including General Freyberg, who wrote in his diary that it was a ‘good show— excellent co-operation by all arms’. There had been no misunderstandings with the Indians, and by nightfall the Gurkhas were in a line of houses only about 300 yards from 22 Battalion. page 590 By this time some ‘tank-busters’ had come up to take over from the Shermans, which pulled back for the night to some of the less battered houses just behind the front.
The way to the Lamone was clear now, but plans were changing, and the New Zealand attack over the river was ‘off’. Instead, the British 46 Division was to cross farther south, away out to the left of Route 9. Later the Kiwis were to move in behind 46 Division, push through and carry on where the British left off, taking the attack forward over the next river, an insignificant little ditch called the Senio.
In the meantime the regiment had some busy days by the Lamone. A Squadron on Route 9 shot down Faenza's towers and belfries, which stuck up above the rooftops, lovely OPs for Jerry, much too good to be left standing. Captain Passmore was chief tower-demolisher—his technique of firing several armour-piercing shells, followed by armour-piercing high explosive, at one side of the tower seemed to give first-class results. Lieutenant Oxbrow's 12 Troop of C Squadron dealt with another tower just over the river from 22 Battalion in the little village of Ronco.
All the squadrons took their share in ‘tickling up’ Jerry's houses and headquarters and supply routes, and in trying to demolish dugouts in the Lamone stopbank. On the night of 3 December, when 46 Division attacked across the river, 2 NZ Division, tanks and all, put over a big barrage to divert Jerry's attention and keep him guessing, and this was repeated next day, when 18 Regiment shot off 6200 shells, a record (it claimed) for any New Zealand armoured regiment in one day. That day was particularly noisy, all the guns pounding away, Jerry replying with the full weight of his defensive fire on both sides of the river, the Air Force queueing up to roar down on to Jerry's side, the little ‘shufti’ planes adding their drone to the medley of noise.
But not every day was like this. All too often the clouds closed down, the planes had to stay at home, the tanks stopped firing because they could not see what they were shooting at. More than that, after the vast heaps of ammunition shot away on 3 and 4 December, 18 Regiment suddenly found itself faced with rationing, the first of a series of shortages that was to harass it all through the winter.page 591
Most of the time, apart from a few spasms of activity, Jerry's shelling was very moderate. About 7 December he seemed to have worked out exactly where the regiment's tanks were, for he threw a lot of heavy stuff straight at them, including great 170-millimetre and 210-millimetre shells that shook the houses. One salvo landed just in the wrong place, killing Trooper Bob Dodds1 and wounding another man, and damaging two tanks in C Squadron's gun line.
There were few other incidents to remember. One day a tank from C Squadron headquarters, on its way up to the forward positions, hit a mine and was a complete write-off. Another evening half a dozen German planes, the first for a long time, suddenly came racing over just above the treetops in a hit-and-run raid somewhere to the rear. Then occasionally the Air Force sent over its rocket-firing Thunderbolt fighters against Jerry's line on the Lamone, and everyone watched enthralled as they dived, then seemed to pull up short in mid-air with the shock as their rockets went away.
So life went on, pretty easily for the most part, until 12 December, and now the next move was imminent. South of Faenza 46 Division was well across the Lamone, but only after stiff fighting and at heavy cost. Now the Tommies were fought almost to a standstill, and 2 NZ Division was to carry out its part in the scheme. The first murmur of this penetrated to the Lamone front about 8 December; then it was postponed, and then postponed again, and finally 13 December was the day.
Meantime the New Zealand infantry had shifted out little by little, and 10 Indian Division had side-slipped to the left to take its place, so that from 8 December the regiment was working with Gurkhas instead of 22 Battalion. The 18th liked the Gurkhas. Happy memories of the Melfa and Liri hills seven months ago still lingered. Good types, said the boys, and a lot less critical than our own Kiwi infantry.
When the time came for the move, it took hours of hard work to get the regiment back on to firm ground. The soft-skinned vehicles finally got away at 8 a.m. on 13 December. The pace was deadly slow. For two hours the tanks sat and waited, lined up in the lanes, the crews champing at the bit page 592 and hoping that no shells would come over. What on earth, they thought, were the people ahead playing at? Then they moved on across Route 9, and discovered the reason for the hold-up.
All up and down Italy the Division had struck all types of roads, some good, some indifferent, some downright dreadful; but this road to the Lamone was the champion of the lot. It startled even the oldest hands. In a desperate, urgent effort to keep supplies up to 46 Division the engineers had hacked the road out of cattle tracks, fields and river marshes. They had blown down houses and dumped tons of brick and rubble on top of the mud; they had put down hundreds of tree trunks; they had built Bailey bridges under Jerry's nose. They had shored up the ditches beside the track, and still these caved in under the weight of passing trucks. Sappers had to toil continuously to keep the road open.
Along this incredible road the whole of the regiment had to pass. No wonder the 14-mile move took all day. The convoy crept along at walking pace, past dozens of trucks lying forlornly with wheels in the air, past gang after gang of workers. One man wrote, ‘There were Itais, Basutas, Indians, Tommys, Kiwis building the track up as each tank went past.’ They had to, for at the soft places every tank left its quota of damage. By the Lamone, where the road came into Jerry's view, the unit went through a smoke screen specially laid for it, a thick grey fog that blotted everything out except the few yards immediately round you. Not a shell came near throughout the move, and everyone breathed freely again, for that road had an evil reputation.
The attack to break out of 46 Division's bridgehead and storm the Senio River was to be on the night of 14 December, exactly a year after that tremendous Sfasciata Ridge attack which so many of the 18th still recalled with a shudder. This next ‘do’ did not promise to be any easier. The roads here were worse, if anything, than back behind the Lamone— narrow, rutted, deep in mud, full of shell-holes and craters, edged with wide ditches. The whole place was infested with mines. Jerry was shelling the bridgehead heavily and often, and dropping Nebelwerfer ‘stonks’ on to the roads. And he was said to have anything up to forty Mark IV tanks and some page 593 Tigers lurking ahead. So you could not blame anyone for being lukewarm about this attack, though at the same time nobody wanted to be long in the overcrowded bridgehead in raw, damp weather.
Supplies were going to be a problem. The 18th had come in loaded to the gunwales with extra ammunition, extra petrol and all the food it could carry, but that would not last long. For the first time since the dim distant days of Terelle and the Rapido valley all supplies would have to be run in by jeep convoys. Every possible jeep was pressed into service, and more were borrowed through 4 Brigade.
At dawn on 15 December Major Deans's C Squadron was to go through and charge the Senio alone, with infantry following up behind. This idea had a suicidal sound about it. ‘What a prospect!’ commented one man. ‘Jerry tanks, S.P.s & bazookas to contend with. Lovely!’ However, C Squadron could drag some comfort from the news that, as soon as it was light enough, the Air Force was to lay on a massive assault with all the planes it could produce.
There was barely time to get ready for the attack. Fuel and ammunition dumps had to be made in a hurry—two men from the Reconnaissance Troop, while clearing sites for these, had their feet mangled by those vile little wooden mines which were so hard to detect. Detailed orders took all 14 December to arrange, and even at zero hour the squadron and troop officers were still poring over maps and aerial photos by dim candlelight.
The plan of action revolved round a tiny village called Celle, another of those wayside churches with a house or two clustered round it. Here several roads met in a knot, and it looked a potential bottleneck, for 28 and 23 Battalions' tanks would all have to go that way before fanning out to join the infantry. It was on C Squadron's road forward too. More than that, the whole regiment had only one road to move up, and a mere lane at that, winding up and over a ridge and diagonally down to the flat below, then coming out on to another road that ran dead straight for Celle church. Those who had been up to the top of the ridge for a cautious look reported that this lane (what they could see of it) looked churned up and exposed and generally undesirable.
Right on the dot of 11 p.m. the darkness cracked wide open as the guns spoke up. ‘Colossal barrage,’ said 18 Regiment's page 595 war diary admiringly. The clear frosty night was ablaze with searchlights, the gun flashes all melting into one another, the ominous answering flashes from over Jerry's way. As the barrage moved forward and the infantry slipped away into the dark, the B Squadron tanks on the ridge, and A Squadron down in the Lamone valley, made ready to follow.
Both squadrons began badly. Lieutenant Harry Hodge's 5 Troop of B Squadron, farthest forward up the ridge, was at once caught in a torrent of shells, apparently ours. Second-Lieutenant Duff Hewett3 was killed by a shellburst, one tank was hit in the radiator, and it was some time before the tanks could move at all. Another B Squadron troop took a wrong turning on the way up the ridge and had to reverse gingerly along the narrow road. In A Squadron, Captain Passmore was wounded within half an hour. Then the 17-pounder tank was hit and went over a bank, ending up with three of its crew dead—a real tragedy, for great things were expected from these 17-pounders. Halfway up the ridge a big crater gaped in the road, with just enough room for the Shermans to inch round the side of it. When they at last got under way it was at a dead slow pace, groping ahead in single file with long halts, the tank commanders braving our own and Jerry's shelling to walk ahead and point out the way, and sometimes to find out where the infantry had got to. The tanks had to keep strictly to the lane, for the fields, besides being chock-a-block with mines, were soft and soggy. From the top of the rise you could see everything being thrown round down below, shells and tracer and flares. A magnificent spectacle, if only you did not have to go down into it.
About 3 a.m. the head of B Squadron's procession was on the final straight leading to Celle, first Second-Lieutenant Angus McMaster's 4 6 Troop (now only one tank, the other two having been put out of action by the shelling), with Second-Lieutenant Graham Kendall's 8 Troop just behind. But now came the worst check yet. Not 200 yards from the church the road was lit up by blazing haystacks on both sides, right under the muzzles of a nest of German tanks or anti-tank guns that were pumping shells straight down the road, just clearing the page 596 Shermans. Up in Celle 23 Battalion was calling over the wireless for help, and away in the rear 5 Brigade and even Divisional Headquarters were urging the Shermans to get on; but as matters stood this just could not be done. Second-Lieutenant McMaster says:
I did a foot recce up the road and was firmly convinced that once my tanks got between the haystacks I would be potted like a sitting duck and still block the road with a brewed up tank. My Sergeant Johnny Boys5 now joined me…. Together we explored the ground to left and right of the road but … it was not possible for tanks to negotiate it.
Then Second-Lieutenant Kendall takes up the story:
Towards first light the stacks had burned down somewhat and in we went at intervals and fast, meeting no opposition or fire that I remember.
By this time, according to report, Celle was ours; but the infantry seemed to be milling round uneasily, some had come back out of the village earlier and now went in again with the tanks. McMaster's tank pulled in behind the church. Kendall's headed past it, but round the far corner of the church came suddenly face to face with a big Mark IV. It is hard to tell who got the bigger shock. The Mark IV fired a round or two into the air, then, before the Shermans could bring their guns round, it took off in haste along a side road out of Celle and vanished behind a row of trees. Kendall's troop went in behind a ruined house on the left of the road, and after this brief spurt of activity Celle quietened down again, while the tankies nosed round trying to find out what the infantry proposed to do. This was one of those particularly shaggy shows where nobody knew where anyone was or what was happening.
The next move was Jerry's. All this time he had been hovering just past the outskirts of Celle. Now the 23 Battalion boys in the village were thrown into some confusion as two Mark IV tanks, with infantry in attendance, came towards Celle and milled round firing into the houses.
The Sherman crews knew nothing of this until it was all over, which was typical of this Celle mix-up. Our guns were still thundering, wireless reception was bad, there were build- page 597 ings in the way, German shells were dropping, battle smoke hung over Celle. The report that German infantry were around finally came back to Second-Lieutenant McMaster, who moved his tank round the church and knocked big chunks off a house at the far end of the village, striking some panic into the enemy, who left smartly. About the same time the Mark IV tanks went too, urged on by a huge artillery ‘stonk’ that fell just in the right place.
But this event brought to an angry head the feud between the senior officers of 18 Regiment and 23 Battalion that had been simmering since Florence. The 23 Battalion company commanders, reporting what had happened, accused the 18th of reluctance to get out and face Jerry. Colonel Thomas was outspoken about it; if B Squadron had been under his command, he said, this would never have happened. Colonel Ferguson and Major Laurie hotly disputed this. The 18th, they asserted, had never been afraid to go after any German tank—a statement which the regiment's record fully bore out.
However, Jerry evidently realised that there was little future in his counter-attacks, for he pulled back a little and tried to pulverise Celle with artillery instead. Early in the day a direct hit immobilised McMaster's tank and wounded Sergeant Boys. All day the Celle crossroads was a perilous and unpleasant spot. Towards midday Lieutenant Hodge came through with the three tanks of 5 Troop, as it was now high time to get some tanks past Celle so that 23 Battalion might not be left high and dry.
Hodge's troop, moving on downhill after its bad luck at the opening of the attack, had spent a confused, infuriating night, held up by the delay in Celle and unable to find out what was happening ahead. At one stage it had helped to pass back some of 23 Battalion's prisoners, already efficiently stripped of their valuables by the infantry. Towards dawn Hodge had tried to bypass Celle by going up and over a rise on the left, but this was hopeless, and the only result was a bogged-down tank. Now the troop came up through Celle and on to a small cemetery 200 yards ahead, by a road that ran straight forward into unknown country. In the afternoon B Squadron's 17-pounder tank came through too, and moved out along a side road to join 23 Battalion's leading platoons.page 598
There was not much for the tanks to do except just to be there. The Air Force was all over the sky, swooping on any movement in the enemy lines. A house 500 yards past the cemetery, which had been the headquarters for Jerry's counter-attacks, was ‘done over’ by the 17-pounder tank, and the Kittybombers came down and bombed it almost to the ground. This support was a bit close for the boys' liking, but they appreciated it later, when a self-propelled gun, burnt out and still smoking, was found in the ruins.
In the early morning hours, when B Squadron was held up at Celle, A Squadron was extended in single file over the crest of the lane and down the hill, half frozen, in the thick of Jerry's shelling, not knowing what was likely to happen the next minute. To A Squadron the attack seemed a washout. Besides the 17-pounder it had already lost another tank on a mine. Eventually Maori guides turned up and tried to direct their half-squadron forward, but it was clear that 28 Battalion would be lucky if it got any tanks. Its companies were away to the right across the fields. In turn Second-Lieutenant Speakman's 2 Troop and Second-Lieutenant Wood's6 4 Troop tried the paddocks, but they might as well have saved their fuel. Once off the lane they could not move five yards. One tank bogged down hopelessly, the rest gave up trying. They could only wait till the way through Celle was open.
It was 10 a.m. before 2 and 4 Troops could go forward. They went up through Celle and doubled back towards 28 Battalion, but too late, for the Maoris had already been counter-attacked and had lost most of their hard-won stretch of mud. But they were very glad to see the Shermans, which always kept Jerry more respectful. The Maoris, like 23 Battalion, were full of stories of Tigers ahead, and very worried about them.
The next hour or two, according to Speakman, were ‘rather hectic as we positioned ourselves behind whatever cover we could get’. Both troops gave the ground in front a good shelling, for Jerry was skulking about nearby. No Tigers came in sight; the only German tank to show its nose was a Mark IV which insisted on making a nuisance of itself from a crossroads in front. No. 2 Troop tackled this tank and scored a few hits, but page 599 the Mark IV stood its ground and hit one Sherman, killing Corporal Sammy O'Donnell.7 The ‘Long Toms’ had a go at it; its crew baled out and the Maoris chased them to cover with machine guns; and Captain Brosnan moved in with a 17-pounder tank and finished off the Mark IV.
This was an encouraging beginning, but the rest of the day did not live up to this promise. Two Shermans stuck fast on the lawn of the Villa Palermo, the biggest house in the area, which sheltered nearly a whole Maori company. When the initial fireworks quietened down 2 Troop went forward, combed the ground carefully, and fired at anything suspicious, but Jerry kept out of sight and gave no more targets away until dusk, when he sallied out from Faenza with a tank or two. Two Shermans moved out against him, but with no result, except that one was bogged and had to be abandoned away out in no-man's land. Jerry's counter-attack (if it was one at all) seemed to have no enthusiasm or drive behind it, and eventually faded away into the dark, helped along by salvoes from our artillery.
Over on the left, with 22 Battalion, Captain Wright's half of A Squadron had quite a satisfactory and interesting day. It was able to dodge Celle, for the road to 22 Battalion turned off well short of the village, and climbed another ridge running back at an angle, straight away from Faenza. This was a road only by courtesy, narrow and nasty like all the others, sown with mines along the edges, but farther from the storm centre, and not such a favoured target for Jerry's shells. By dawn both 1 and 3 Troops were well out to the left along the ridge, ‘married up’ with 22 Battalion and sitting quite comfortably in farmyards. Hard on their heels came Second-Lieutenant Shillito's 10 Troop of C Squadron, groping its way up alone in the dark to reinforce the position and add extra fire power— for this ridge was a commanding position above the valley floor, giving a view into Jerry's territory behind Celle and right down to the Senio River.
The attack on this side had not been so keenly contested, and Jerry did not seem so well under control here, for quite a page 600 number of stray Germans were wandering round, evidently happily unaware that there were any Kiwis so near. During the morning a few of them were scooped up. One or two snipers out beyond the ridge developed a nasty habit of shooting round the houses whenever there was too much movement, but they were a long way off and were only a minor nuisance. No. 1 Troop, the farthest out along the ridge, moved farther out to the left with its infantry and tackled some houses on the flank.
As the day progressed, the tankies up on the ridge had a rare view of the activity in enemy territory, which rose to fever pitch in the afternoon as he tried to get his tanks and transport away to the north, hampered all the time by the watchful Air Force. A Mark IV tank that popped up on a low rise ahead of 1 Troop was promptly put out of action by the Shermans, and (so the local civilians said) had to be towed away after dark. From time to time 3 and 10 Troops had a crack at vehicles out beyond Celle, which B Squadron from its lower viewpoint probably could not see, though it was much closer. No. 10 Troop scored a valuable trophy, a self-propelled gun. Second-Lieutenant Shillito remembers the day:
Our friend in the S/P gun hove into sight…. He made for a house & the crew evacuated smartly & we were able to give the vehicle a good pasting. Soon after a small car came along the same road & the A Squadron troop got a direct hit. We had great pleasure in seeing the occupants take a dive into what we hoped was a very cold wet ditch. An ambulance made a suspiciously large number of trips along the same road but was not engaged.
Next day, when the war moved forward again, the corpse of the self-propelled gun was still there by the farmhouse.
The attack, which from a worm's-eye view looked an awful mess, had in fact been a brilliant infantry feat. In the morning long lines of prisoners, most of them stupefied by the crushing weight of the barrage, plodded back through the tanks. The barrage seemed to have caught a lot of Germans out in the open, judging by the number of dead that littered the lanes— one chronicler laconically remarks in his diary, ‘Ran over some. Couldn't be helped.’ The attack had bashed a great dent in a heavily defended line. But only a dent, not a hole. Before page 601 dawn it was clear that C Squadron would not be able to burst through on its dash to the Senio; so the squadron, after moving up through all the shellfire, had nothing to do but wait in reserve all day.
Punching the dent into a hole was largely the task of the Air Force on 15 December. In clear weather that just suited them, our planes flew overhead, pouncing whenever a target appeared. That night, after enduring a day's air and artillery hammering such as he could seldom have struck anywhere, Jerry fell back again, and the danger of counter-attack was practically over. By this time the Shermans at Celle had been relieved by anti-tank guns towed up by Honey tanks, and the tired crews were able to relax.
After all that, the advance to the Senio on 16 December was like a country stroll. On the left, Wright's half of A Squadron set off as soon as it was light enough to see, following its only road out to the left, through territory occupied by the Indians, then back on its tracks into 22 Battalion's area again. In the centre, B Squadron pushed on from Celle close behind 23 Battalion, making for the bridge where Route 9 crossed the Senio. By midday both battalions, with the tanks in close attendance, were up to the river. A Squadron had picked up a dozen prisoners, more or less by accident, and a series of little demolitions and mines had slowed the tanks up, but only at the Senio crossing did Jerry offer any active resistance. There some of the B Squadron tanks came into action and shelled a little group of buildings and a prominent church where Jerry was holding on stubbornly. The Route 9 bridge, of course, was blown before any Kiwis came within reach.
The main centre of action had now swung over to the right wing, where Jerry, though he had given up Faenza, was still holding fast to a mile or two of ground north of Route 9. The Maoris, easing their way forward at right angles to the rest of 5 Brigade, reached Route 9, their half of A Squadron (now under Captain Nelson) up with the leading platoons. Jerry, resenting this threat to his positions north of the road, brought down some heavy ‘stonks’ on to infantry and tanks; the Shermans blew holes in a few houses as they went forward, more as a precaution than anything else, and 2 Troop tackled a German tank that appeared briefly a long way ahead, but it page 602 vanished without waiting to fight it out. Both troops had quite a struggle to get through thick minefields that barred the approach to Route 9.
For 17 and 18 December the story was much the same. Beyond Route 9, 6 Brigade took up the running, and had a very bloody little battle to clear out those awkward Germans who did not want to go; C Squadron and Nelson's half of A Squadron fired many shells on to Jerry north of Faenza and knocked down several more houses. Lieutenant McLean's troop of C Squadron went up on the heels of a bombardment, with a Maori platoon, to occupy a house just across Route 9, and found that Jerry had left in a hurry, but he gave the house a regular pounding all that night. From 23 Battalion's foremost posts on Route 9, some 500 yards short of the Senio, Lieutenant Barber's troop shot up the houses by the bridge, where German infantry was still moving round occasionally. But by and large, cleaning up the country between Faenza and the Senio was an infantry job, and the Shermans found nothing in it of more than passing interest.
Looking back on this big attack later, there seemed to be an unreal quality about it that had not been there in earlier shows. Perhaps it was that desperately difficult night move along the lanes, worse than anything since Sfasciata Ridge a year earlier. Perhaps it was the incredible barrage, the biggest and noisiest (so the old hands said) in all Italy, which churned up the ground like the Somme battlefields of the Great War, which left behind it more dead Germans than the boys had ever seen, and some of the most heart-rending sights they could ever expect to see, five dead nuns in a little roadside convent, the bodies of a whole Italian family huddled together in a barn.
However, here they were now, after ploughing through all that mud and water, facing one more river. A miserable little creek, this Senio, not half the size of the Lamone or the Savio or many others they could remember. A couple of days should see them across it, and then the whole business could begin all over again.
1 Tpr W. R. Dodds; born NZ 18 Jul 1922; farm labourer; killed in action 7 Dec 1944.
2 Lt-Col W. B. Thomas, DSO, MC and bar, m.i.d., Silver Star (US); London; born Nelson, 29 Jun 1918; bank officer; CO 23 Bn Jun-Aug 1944, Oct 1944-May 1945; 22 Bn (Japan) Oct 1945-Nov 1946; wounded and p.w. 25 May 1941; escaped Nov 1941; returned to unit May 1942; twice wounded; Hampshire Regt 1947-.
3 2 Lt B. D. Hewett; born NZ 9 Aug 1906; farmer; killed in action 14 Dec 1944.
7 Cpl D. A. O'Donnell; born NZ 15 Nov 1918; labourer; wounded 31 May 1944; killed in action 15 Dec 1944.