20 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 19 — Winter on the Senio
Winter on the Senio
Like most of the regiment's moves, this one was made on a Sunday and in rain. The roads were busy and there were frequent halts, especially at the one-way Bailey bridges. The regiment's destination, Fabriano, was some ninety-odd miles south-east of Viserba, and the last 26 miles of the journey, covered in darkness, took the wheeled convoy three hours. It reached Fabriano about 9 p.m. (although it was nearly midnight before some of the later vehicles arrived) and staged the night in a large field outside the town. The tanks, which had been loaded on transporters at Gambettola, and the A Echelon transport joined the rest of the regiment at eight o'clock next morning. After a busy morning ‘messing about’ all the troops were billeted in houses in the town.
The weather was still showery and cold but the men, pleased to be away from the noise of gunfire again after nearly six weeks of it, made themselves comfortable and caught up on some lost sleep. The rest of the brigade joined the regiment in a couple of days' time, and the troops, now refreshed, occupied themselves in discussing the usual rumours—the future of the Division, furlough for the earlier reinforcements, leave. Colonel Purcell and the squadron commanders went off to conferences and learnt that there was some reorganisation to be done. The recent battles had shown that the Division badly needed more infantry; most of its fighting since it had arrived in Italy a year before had been done by two instead of the normal three infantry brigades and reliefs had been difficult to arrange and casualties heavy. The brigades were now increased in strength from three battalions each to four, 22 (Motor) Battalion and the Divisional Cavalry becoming infantry, at first not very happily. There were other changes, too, in which the Division reduced its defensive armament of anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns; and arrangements were also made for a large replacement scheme in which some ten thousand long-service officers and men were to be sent home—later. There had been truth in the rumours after all.page 522
The people of Fabriano and the surrounding mountain villages and towns had by now overcome their early shyness. Generous, friendly and sincere, they welcomed the men into their homes, and they were kind and courteous hosts. The men shared with them their cigarettes, chocolate and food, respected their poultry and possessions, played with the children. Soon children and troopers were calling each other by their Christian names. Poppa liked the New Zealander to share his wine; Momma would find him a warm place by the fire; the children liked to sing and dance and, in all, some pleasant evenings were spent, as one diarist describes it, ‘nattering with the Eytes’.
First thing in the morning the windows of the billets were blind with frost and on one night early in November there was an unexpected fall of snow. It was football weather. That first nip in the air that makes the New Zealand schoolboy start searching for his football boots—thrown mud-caked into a washhouse corner at the end of last season—had reinfected the Division with the football fever. On fields of varying sizes and varying depths of mud, squadron played squadron, regiment played battalion, brigade played brigade. And if you weren't keen on rugby there were the divisional boxing championships to see in the Opera House at Matelica, concert parties (including the regiment's own stars in ‘4 Brigade Revue’ in Fabriano's Teatro Gentile), the cinema, the YMCA, some dancing with the local signorinas—usually well chaperoned—and official leave to Rome, Florence, and Riccione. There was unofficial leave, too, on individually planned tours to the south to renew acquaintances made in earlier rest areas. The people of Arpino, particularly, gave these tourists a special welcome.
Other diversions are recorded. Just as at Mignano almost everyone tried his hand at making olive-wood pipes or in experimenting with variations of the oil-drip stove, in Fabriano on a wet day the thing to do was to learn to play the piano-accordion. Many men bought handsome models from local makers.
The local wine was tried, of course, and the connoisseur would discuss it learnedly and at length, pointing out how it varied in taste and colour and bouquet from that of other districts in which the regiment had been quartered. To the less discriminating throat it was all ‘plonk’ or ‘purple death’. But page 523 not all of it was good. Routine orders reported that two soldiers —not from the regiment—had been poisoned through drinking wine brought from a hawker, and gave a general warning against the dangers of drinking an Italian anti-fly solution by mistake. No, not all soldiers were connoisseurs by any means.
There was also work to do. Fourth Brigade had been issued with some new Shermans armed with a 17-pounder gun—it got them the day it left the Savio sector on the way back to its rest area. Twelve were received, of which the regiment got two. Two Royal Armoured Corps instructors were attached to teach the crews all about them; they were primarily an anti-Tiger weapon. The new gun was fired on the brigade tank range by squadrons in turn; on the regiment's own range the men fired small-arms practices. Maintenance work on the tanks filled in some time, and later most of the vehicles were painted at the brigade workshops. Parties of officers and NCOs were attached for short periods to 23 Battalion and parties from that battalion were attached to the regiment. Captain Miles,1 the RMO, was evacuated sick and was succeeded by Lieutenant Patterson;2 six of the NCOs—Owen Hughes, Owen Boyd,3 Alex Cunningham, Arthur McLay,4 T. J. Minhinnick,5 and Bill Archdall6—were commissioned early in November as second-lieutenants.
Early in November there were some changes of command in the brigade. Brigadier Pleasants, who had not long before succeeded Brigadier Inglis, went to 5 Brigade to succeed Brigadier Jim Burrows, a 20th ‘old boy’, who was going back to New Zealand as Rector of Waitaki Boys' High School. Brigadier Pleasants's message to all ranks on his departure was more than a formal goodbye. He had been with the brigade since it was first formed and had fought with it in infantry and in armour. ‘One of the greatest moments of my life,’ his message ran, ‘was the order to the Bde to attack in this last battle. The page 524 way in which that order was carried out more than justified my confidence. I sincerely hope that I shall be able to give that order again if the need for it is still there…. I hope to be back before long.’ Colonel Campbell,7 a former commander of 22 Battalion, was appointed second-in-command of the brigade on 6 November and commanded it temporarily until February, when his appointment was confirmed.
Then, on 20 November, the conferences began once again and warning came from 4 Brigade of a probable move. Next day—it had been decided to get them away before going back into battle—a party of twenty-four men (Echelon men and early reinforcements) left the regiment for a tour of duty at the armoured corps training depot at Maadi and were replaced by a similar number from that depot. This was the first stage of the replacement scheme that had been discussed so fully in the last few weeks. On the 23rd, while the rest of the unit made preparations for the move back into the line, the Bren carriers clattered away from Fabriano and headed north. The advance party followed them next day, and on the afternoon of the 26th —again a Sunday—the tanks were loaded on transporters and driven north over familiar roads to Cesena, stopping overnight on the way at Pesaro.
The tanks had hardly left Fabriano when the rain set in. Roads were greasy, and in some places flooded, when the wheeled convoy followed the tanks, setting out in heavy rain at 4 a.m. on the 27th. In spite of these conditions the ‘wheels’ made good progress and by noon had reached the regiment's new area on the outskirts of Cesena. The tanks, still on their transporters, went through to Forli that night.
With the coming of winter, Eighth Army planned to rest and regroup its formations in turn. The New Zealand Division's spell had ended all to quickly. During its five weeks out of the line the enemy had been forced back from the Savio River to the Lamone, a distance of roughly 20 miles. He had made successive stands on the Ronco and Montone rivers on the way back, and at one stage had had to withdraw three divisions from page 525 Eighth Army's front to hold Bologna against attacks by Fifth Army. The recent battles had shown that big advances during the winter were out of the question: tanks could not move off the roads, aircraft could not take off from sodden airfields or fly in the rain, and even the infantry weapons became clogged with mud. Eighth Army planned a ‘fortnight's all-out effort’ to capture Ravenna, using three fresh divisions—the two divisions of 1 Canadian Corps and the New Zealand Division. At the same time, Fifth Army would have another crack at Bologna.
Preceded by the field regiments, a week earlier than the rest, the Division returned to the line on 26 November when it relieved 4 British Division on the Lamone River, north-east of Faenza. The troops most concerned, the infantry, found that the war had not changed for the better during their absence. A chilling rain driven by biting winds had soaked the flat countryside. The Lamone was the usually muddy river—perhaps a bit wider than some, waist-deep, and getting deeper with the rain—with the usual muddy stopbanks; and across the river the enemy lay concealed in the usual rows of vines or manned machine-gun posts in houses and used the steeples and tall buildings of Faenza to spot for his guns and mortars. (On our side we had no tall buildings left to spy from and couldn't see very far.) At night there were the usual patrols to the river to find out where it could be crossed and to see what the Hun was doing on his stopbank. Strong swimmers in some of the battalions had some hazardous nights trying to find crossing places. The enemy was nervy and watchful and quick to open fire.
Away from all this in divisional reserve in Forli—eight miles down Route 9 from Faenza—the regiment's tanks and A Echelon had good billets in a partly-built block of flats near the bridge in the north of the town and in neighbouring houses. The town was congested and a target for occasional quick raids by enemy aircraft. A large bomb which fell about fifty yards from the house in which the recovery section was billeted gave its men a shaking but caused no casualties and did no harm to its vehicles. By good luck the bomb fell in the only open space in the neighbourhood.
Captain Familton describes one of these early raids:
I will never forget the Messerschmitts coming in over Forli at roof- page 526 level and doing over first the airfield and then strafing Route 9. Our truck had just arrived, and as we were dodging round the thick stone casa enjoying the fun, being about 50 yards from the road line, we saw the driver, I forget his name, take a beautiful header into a ditch with about 4 ft. of ice-cold muddy water. We found out after that one cannon shell had hit his truck without much damage.
The regiment's method of cleaning out the local sewers caused almost as much consternation as one of these raids. Several gallons of petrol was poured down the street gratings and was followed, after an interval of several minutes, by a lighted match. The same drastic method was used on household septic tanks, often with spectacular explosions.
Back still further at Cesena, B2 Echelon had settled into the ‘Mud Flats’, not the most comfortable of billets but certainly airy—most rooms had neither doors nor windows. B1 Echelon was dotted around in squadron groups on either side of Route 9 near ‘Pip’ and ‘Squeak’ Bailey bridges, two miles out of Forli. There was no room for them in the town. B Echelon's ration trucks had to go forward from Cesena to Forli to draw supplies, take them back to Cesena to be ‘broken down’, then carry them back to Forli again to issue them to the squadrons.
Cesena, too, had its air alarms. After the peace of recent months of air superiority, the supply people were not used to them; sometimes their vehicles were not widely enough dispersed, and in the early days when the alarm sounded men would rush outside to gape or stand around in groups discussing it all. The Italians were less phlegmatic, sometimes hysterical. Bombs were dropped and there were some spectacular low-strafing attacks along Route 9. Some units had casualties, but the regiment in both Forli and Cesena seems to have been lucky. It fired its first shots in return for these enemy pleasantries on 29 November. The day before, half of A Squadron had moved up nearer Faenza to form a gunline in support of 5 and 6 Brigades. On its first day in the line it shot away 500 rounds against roads and other general targets across the Lamone; on the second day 900 rounds ‘harassing fire’ were shot off in the rain against mortar positions and other targets nominated by the brigades. Sixth Brigade reported that the mortars which had been troubling it had been damaged and silenced by the tanks' fire.page 527
December opened with the regiment on twenty-four hours' notice to move forward to take part in Eighth Army's ‘all-out effort’, but the weather was taking care of that. A Squadron's gunline, relieved on the 3rd by its other half and fairly comfortably installed in houses, was still harassing the enemy's mortars and crossroads north of Faenza; B and C Squadrons, in the northern outskirts of Forli, had no duties but had a role to prepare for as part of Parkinson task force8 in the attack being planned against Faenza and advance up Route 9 to the Senio. For this attack B Squadron was to support 25 Battalion, C 24 Battalion, and A was in reserve. In each squadron's retinue was a battery of Royal Horse Artillery self-propelled guns and an engineer reconnaissance unit.
This is not an exciting period in the regiment's war diary. Captain Hazlett faithfully records the weather: ‘Weather—Hy fog turning to rain in afternoon. Cold.’—that was for 6 December; ‘Fog and drizzle continue’—the 7th; then the more routine ‘Weather cold and wet’ for several days in succession. A Squadron continued to chew up ammunition in its gunline and on the 11th was replaced by C Squadron. From all reports, everyone seems to have been pleased with the tanks' shooting, especially the forward infantry, men not always easy to please. The Shermans' guns were especially severe on enemy mortars, which they engaged sometimes—when the weather was fine— in co-operation with an air OP; there are few better ways to win infantry friendship. In the first fortnight, up to 13 December, A and C Squadrons' tanks in the gunlines fired a total of 8763 rounds.
‘We were first on the left of the road and later moved over to the right near a big house,’ says Major Caldwell, A Squadron's commander. ‘The tanks were laid out in a line and fired quite a large number of rounds. The conditions were extremely wet and muddy and I can remember even Bren carriers had a difficult time getting ammunition in to the tanks. The few days passed with very little excitement; only once did the Germans ever get near our position with counter-battery fire and the only other notable feature was that one of our returning fighters crashed in our area and the pilot, baling out very low, landed amongst us.’page 528
The Lamone had been crossed south-west of Faenza, where it was shallower, in a night attack on 3 December by 46 British Division. After some reshuffling of units, 5 Brigade crossed the river by 46 Division's bridgehead on the night of 10–11 December, while 6 Brigade side-stepped from north to south of the railway above Route 9. A Squadron crossed on 13 December following 18 Regiment, under whose command it was temporarily placed, and by dusk had concentrated round a farmhouse in the bridgehead about two miles south-west of Faenza. Part of the road up—the Lamone road, built by the engineers from the bricks and rubble of shattered farmhouses—was in direct view of Faenza, but the tanks moved up and crossed the river without incident, although the bridge did a fair amount of swaying under the weight of the Shermans.
A Squadron's immediate job was to send Second-Lieutenant Bill Archdall's troop to relieve a troop of 9 Lancers which was near some houses closer to Faenza on a road leading into the town from the south-west. The approach was under a railway viaduct which was covered by the enemy's self-propelled guns in Faenza—and the shell scars on the viaduct were proof of the accuracy of their shooting. One of the British tanks in some trees west of the viaduct had been hit no fewer than sixteen times by mortar and shell fire. A daylight approach would have been suicidal, and even at night the Germans fired bursts of armour-piercing shell at intervals to discourage any attempt to close on the town. It was decided to postpone the relief until the night of 14–15 December so that the tanks could move up unheard under cover of a barrage supporting an attack by 5 Brigade west of Faenza.
No. 2 Troop covered Archdall's advance, the viaduct hazard being negotiated safely, and after some delay the Lancers were relieved about 5 a.m. Archdall's 17-pounder had its muzzle shot away later in the morning by a direct hit, which fired the round in the breech, blew open the tank's hatches, and left its crew wondering dazedly what had hit them. That night two more A Squadron troops moved up to take up positions supporting 25 Battalion, which had relieved the Maoris. A Bren carrier moving up the road to link with the forward troop struck a mine which the earlier users of the road had had luck page 529 enough to avoid, and Trooper Vic Smale9 was killed and Trooper Bob Morgan10 fatally wounded. Tactical Headquarters and B Squadron from Forli also joined the bridgehead on the 15th and A Squadron returned to the regiment's command.
Fifth Brigade's advance from its bridgehead west of the Lamone towards Route 9 and the Senio on the night of 14– 15 December was a set-piece ‘job’—battlefield lit by artificial moonlight, a barrage by 420 guns, three battalions up, and fighter-bombers and the ‘cab-rank’ on call to break up any counter-attacks next day. There was some heavy fighting round Celle in which 18 Regiment and the Maoris clashed with a Tiger tank or two and the fighter-bombers did some effective strafing. The enemy was reported to have been surprised because the attack came sooner than he expected, nor had he expected quite so heavy a barrage. By late in the afternoon he had had enough and was seen to be withdrawing, and when Divisional Cavalry patrols crossed the Lamone into Faenza by the ruins of the old Route 9 bridge on the morning of 16 December they found only snipers and rearguard spandau posts.
The advance was continued at dawn on the 16th, with 25 Battalion from 6 Brigade—supported by A Squadron—making the fourth battalion forward. Twenty-fifth Battalion soon had a platoon in the western outskirts of Faenza, in which the Gurkhas later joined the Divisional Cavalry. At first the opposition was light—A Squadron's tanks reached Route 9 without incident—then the resistance stiffened; counter-attacks had to be beaten back, and concentrations by guns, mortars, and spandaus pinned down our infantry. A panzer-grenadier regiment, resting after fighting around Bologna, had been rushed to the front to form a line north-west of Faenza with orders to carry out an aggressive defence.
The enemy, expecting the attack, was still aggressive. Throughout the morning shells fell on Tactical Headquarters, which the afternoon before had moved up to a site in a silk-stocking factory about half a mile north-west of Faenza. Shortly after midday Colonel Purcell was hit on the temple by a shell splinter and evacuated to the main dressing station in Faenza. The command passed to Major Barton.
Major Caldwell represented the CO at the brigade conference to complete plans for the night's attack while the second-incommand came forward. Liaison officer at 6 Brigade Headquarters at this time was Lieutenant Bill de Lautour, very solidly built and an inch or two under six feet; and when Major Barton, ‘6 ft 3 ins of skin and bone’ (his own description), began to attend the brigade conferences Brigadier Parkinson christened the pair ‘Big Armour’ and ‘Little Armour’ respectively.
The regiment's arrangements for the night's attack—inherited at short notice by its second-in-command—were that C Squadron should support 26 Battalion on the left flank along the riverbank, and that A and B Squadrons should remain with 25 and 24 Battalions, the last-named on 6 Brigade's right flank. Each squadron had with it an engineer reconnaissance party, carried in Honeys. On the brigade's right, extending the front to the Naviglio canal, was 43 Gurkha Lorried Infantry Brigade. Eight regiments of field guns began their barrage at 9 p.m. and the enemy was quick to reply with heavy shell and mortar concentrations on the infantry's start line, causing casualties. Following close behind the barrage on that pitch-black night, the infantry passed through lightly held outposts in farmhouses and buildings and were among the startled headquarters almost as soon as the fire lifted. The panzer grenadiers' bridgehead was held by about 200 men; to shift them our guns fired 100,000 page 532 shells which at that time they could ill spare. The outposts withdrew across the river, leaving behind surprisingly few dead and 180 prisoners, 86 of them panzer grenadiers and the rest from the German infantry division facing the Gurkhas.
The regiment's tanks supporting 6 Brigade had little part in the night's fighting, their role being to join the infantry at daybreak when the engineers had cleared the roads of mines. Twenty-sixth Battalion left its supporting arms behind in Faenza with orders not to come forward until the road to La Palazza which formed its right-hand boundary had been cleared. A bad demolition on Route 9 delayed C Squadron, which did not move up until 5.30 a.m., by which time the attack had been over for some hours and the companies were consolidating in platoon positions just short of the eastern stop-bank, parts of which were still held by the enemy. By 7 a.m. the tanks were up with the companies.
Twenty-fourth Battalion struck its hardest opposition at the Casa Busa, well on the way towards its objective at San Pietro in Laguna. B Squadron, too, had been ordered not to move until the infantry was on its objective, but by 6 a.m. the tanks were up with their companies after having been held up by mines. A Squadron, with 25 Battalion, lost its bulldozer on the way forward and was held up by demolitions, but was on its objective at 4.30 a.m., well before daybreak.
For his work in organising stretcher parties and help in evacuating the wounded in this attack, the regiment's chaplain, Padre Gunn, won a well-deserved MBE. To evacuate some 24 Battalion wounded he crossed a minefield in an RAP carrier and stayed with them under continuous mortar and shell fire for over two hours while dressing their wounds: ‘… it is the desire of every offr and man in the Regt that his services be recognised,’ states the citation to his award. Always cheerful, always in the thick of the fray, Padre Gunn had a reputation in the regiment for his apparent genius in picking as his casa the most conspicuous and most shelled house in the district.
The brigade's objective—the road running south-east from the Senio from La Palazza through San Pietro — had been gained with relatively light casualties, the worst of them suffered on the start line from enemy mortaring. The attack had cleared a troublesome bridgehead and won about 3000 yards page 533 of ground north of the railway, but patrols at dawn showed that the enemy was determined to keep the positions he still held east of the river and was in no mood to be trifled with. About midday 24 Battalion's reserve company and Lieutenant Shacklock's troop passed through the forward positions to find out whether the enemy was still there in strength. They were sharply reproached by self-propelled guns and mortars and had to retire to their old positions. Later in the afternoon 26 Battalion, in its turn, had to call on our artillery and mortars to repulse enemy patrols which had crossed the river. The enemy showed that he had no intention of going back without a fight; and in fact his line on the Senio was to remain secure until the Eighth Army's final offensive in April 1945.
Being closest to the river, C Squadron and 26 Battalion had probably the liveliest time, especially at night. About midnight on 20–21 December a bazooka party tried to knock out one of 9 Troop's tanks commanded by Lieutenant Frank Childs.11 Infantry pickets posted at upstairs windows gave warning of the enemy's approach and the party was driven off, leaving behind two prisoners; one source says they were deserters with some valuable information about enemy dispositions.
The enemy also set fire to haystacks with spandau incendiaries, an old trick which served the double purpose of silhouetting our patrols and positions and lighting the field for his machine-gunners; to counter it the tanks set alight to the rest of the haystacks by day. Enemy working parties across the river were harassed by the infantry's mortars and the tanks' guns, but retaliation was stern and there were some brisk exchanges. A nebelwerfer concentration shook up Tactical Headquarters—it had moved a little way north of the silk-stocking factory—on the night of the 20th but caused no casualties, and next day B Squadron's shooting destroyed a building and a tower, both suspected of being used as OPs. During the morning of the 21st Corporal Jack Blunden,12 commanding C Squadron's new 17-pounder tank, was fatally wounded by fire from an SP gun only a few hours after he had come forward to join 10 Troop. ‘Mum’ Blunden, one of the page 534 old hands and a good soldier and comrade, lingered in hospital for seventeen days before he died.
Behind the lines there was some shelling and an occasional air raid to cheer the rear echelons. As one account puts it: ‘Downstairs rooms were at a premium, but there was no shortage of upper storey accommodation.’ No one wanted to spend the winter in a bivvy tent. The morning frosts were hard and the days often raw and grey. It was riskier perhaps to live in a house but far more comfortable. In the centre of the room the diesel stove roared and spluttered, throwing strange shadows on the bare stone walls. Outside was a winter's night of rain and snow; inside it was cosy and warm, with a good fire, a plentiful supply of vino, old songs to sing, comradeship, and a feeling of mellowness and good will.
As the squadrons had moved forward during the last fortnight, the rear echelons had followed forward in bounds from Cesena to Forli and on towards Faenza; the caterpillar simile has been used too often before but it describes the process adequately. Because of the number of units trying to crowd into these towns, good accommodation—especially in battered Faenza—was sometimes hard to find, but Faenza had one advantage over Forli in that coal and firewood were plentiful there.
‘When the Sqn settled in on the gunline at Faenza I settled in B Ech in good billets in a quiet corner of Forli,’ says Captain Familton. ‘All we had to do was keep up the food and amm supplies we thought. We were soon disillusioned. As the weather became colder the 25-pdr box, drip-feed diesel stove came into its own. My returns showed a greater diesel consumption than when the Sqn was in action. We supplied infantry and other arms right up to the front line.’
Contact between the B echelons in Forli and the squadron headquarters and A Echelon in Faenza was maintained largely by jeep train and despatch rider. Six jeeps and trailers from a British armoured unit were attached to the regiment, but later in the month the job was handed over to drivers from 4 RMT Company. Route 9 was flat and straight and easy driving, although liable to be strafed without notice by enemy fighters or shelled by his long-range guns; but when it had been snowing—and snow on the morning of 23 December gave promise page 535 of another ‘white Christmas’—the slush was flung up into the drivers' faces and against windscreens by the churning wheels and the icy air bit deep.
Meanwhile, in the battered farmhouses and muddy fields below the Senio stopbank—the river, of course, had two stop-banks but the eastern one concerns us most at the moment—the tanks and their infantry improved their positions and kept a suspicious eye on the enemy's doings. A Squadron, which had been longest in the line, was withdrawn on 22 December with 24 Battalion when that unit handed over its front to 25 Battalion. The latter battalion, and B Squadron with it, now had much more ground to cover and an enemy to face on two fronts: to the north-east, where his positions were screened a little by some trees, and to the north-west, along the Senio. B Squadron's troops were concentrated mainly around La Palazza and San Pietro in Laguna, along the road leading to San Silvestro. They made no spectacular advances and fought no stirring actions but were content to fire when ordered and to harass the enemy when the chance came. In return they had to endure enemy shelling and mortaring; two of the squadron's men were wounded in a heavy mortar ‘stonk’ on the 23rd.
Behind B Squadron, A Squadron got a little rest and then, on 24 December, formed a gunline with two troops behind Route 9. Its headquarters had acquired in the advance a large house, the Villa le Sirene, just south of Route 9 and a good mile from Faenza.
C Squadron, still with 26 Battalion nearest the stopbank, shot at enemy houses across the river while the infantry reconnoitred hither and thither looking for gaps in the minefield along the stopbank or tried to find out how strongly it was held. No. 10 Troop took part in a noisy little platoon attack at dawn on 24 December against the most prominent bend of the river near La Palazza. Its object was to capture a section of the bank and test the depth and speed of the river; and although two New Zealand field regiments fired over 2000 shells in support and the troop lent a hand with both smoke and high explosive, their fire was not sufficient to drive the enemy from his deep defences. After a sharp fight at close range the platoon gained the ascendancy and won a large slice of the bank. But it could not hold its gains under the Germans' enfilading fire page 536 and had to withdraw later in the morning under smoke cover given by the tanks, which had had to cease their fire on the stopbank because of poor visibility. During the morning the tanks were heavily ‘stonked’ but had no casualties.
This sharp little action brought the war to Christmas Eve, when everyone agreed that the battle could wait an hour or two while healths were toasted and ‘next Christmas’ predictions adequately discussed. The squadrons in the line postponed their Christmas dinner for a day or two, but few of their crews found it necessary to refuse the ‘odd glass’ of vermouth. With a provident eye, crews sent back pigs or poultry to the cooks at B Echelon and had them returned by jeep train, cooked, garnished, done to a turn—sometimes a same-day service. (One sergeant's tank went over a mine and when taken back for repairs was found to have in its turret sufficient supplies of poultry and pork to last several days.) Stray hens were at first thought to be setting off the trip flares laid around front-line houses to give warning of the approach of enemy patrols, but few survived Christmas to share the blame. Good food, bright sunshine, Christmas mail and parcels kept the men in high spirits.
A Squadron and 24 Battalion, the latter fresh from Christmas in Forli, relieved B Squadron and 25 Battalion on the 29th. B Squadron took over A Squadron's house and set up a two-troop gunline, but returned to the line on the last day of the year with 25 Battalion, two troops supporting a forward company three-quarters of a mile north of San Silvestro.
The year ended full of hope. Platoon patrols from 24 Battalion, testing the strength of the enemy to the north-east, found that some ground was theirs for the taking and took it, advancing in some places more than half a mile without being fired on. One of their peaceful acquisitions was the Casa Nova, half a mile due north of San Pietro in Laguna, and on the way forward to this house A Squadron's 17-pounder Sherman had its track blown off by a mine. With the better going, most of the tanks were able to avoid minefields on the roads by going round them across country.
It seemed possible that the enemy had withdrawn his guns and tanks behind the Senio, leaving an infantry screen to the north-east. The infantry was ordered to attack that night to see if this was so, A Squadron supporting 24 Battalion on the page 537 left and B helping 25 Battalion, which was to send a platoon to Casa Nuova, on the right.
The attack was planned to thrust north-east and then north-west towards the river and was to begin at half an hour past midnight on New Year's Eve. The streams of tracer bullets and coloured flares going up along the enemy front showed that the Germans were welcoming in the New Year with a light heart; how would they welcome their first-footing visitors? The infantry advancing in the bright moonlight were not left long in doubt, and soon ran into heavy fire.
A New Year party in Casa Galanuna was broken up with tank support and nine prisoners taken, but the vino factory garrison near the Villa Pasolini was more determined—a vino factory is a major objective or perhaps theirs was a better party —and beat off their attackers. The heaviest fighting took place round a group of houses known as the Palazzo Toli, one of which a D Company platoon rushed and took and then found itself in serious difficulties.
The Germans were dug in in a semi-circle round the group of houses, which were roughly in the form of a triangle with its base facing the attackers. In its attack the platoon by-passed the two buildings at the foot of the triangle, from which no fire was coming, and took the third at its top. The Germans in the other two houses then opened fire and the platoon's position became critical: mortars crashed all around the house and bazooka rockets began to come through the walls. The platoon wirelessed back for help.
About 3 a.m. Second-Lieutenant Bill French's troop, back at D Company's headquarters, received orders to go to the platoon's help.
The C.O. 24 Bn asked if we would have a crack at getting them out [says French]. I said I would have a go if given an infantry screen. This request was made because the country was of the typical close Italian type with grapevines, hedgerows, trees, etc., and provided good cover for any Hun bazooka. Maj MacDonald,13 the Coy Comd, agreed on this and the reserve Pl commanded by Lt John Williams14 was detailed for the job. He and I then did a page 538 quick recce and decided the best plan was to move down the road —actually the Inf start line—for a distance of approx 300 yds, then turn half right and move in line abreast—myself in the centre, Sgt on left, Cpl on right—to within 150 yds of the house; when in position we would open up with everything we had—including the spare driver's lap-gun—and saturate the area of the house, including the house itself if necessary. This was to continue for about 15 minutes, after which we would switch to the left of the house and carry on with the same procedure while the Pl in the house made a dash for it. The Pl was informed by wireless to get well under cover and stand by. We left Coy HQs round about 0300 hrs from memory and moved in and gave the Pl in the house full details of the plan.
During the initial stages I had contact with them on the 38 set; however, when the fireworks started I lost contact. John Williams, however, was close to my tank and maintained contact over his set. Everything went according to plan for once and they eventually made it back to Coy HQs. We then retraced our tracks, arriving back at Coy some time after 0430 hrs. The night was clear with considerable moon, which contributed greatly to the success of the show because it enabled us to direct our fire reasonably well. This was most important when it came to covering the Platoon's dash from the house…. From memory we expended within the troop something like 100 75 [millimetre] rounds and 60 boxes of Browning and ruined two Browning barrels.
During this sharp little barrage the enemy made no attempt to retaliate; he either withdrew, was killed, or elected to lie low for a while. Two wounded men were brought back from the house on improvised stretchers. The attack was then abandoned, the platoon in Casa Galanuna withdrawn, and by dawn the battalion was back again in its former positions, leaving the Germans, if they felt so inclined, to continue their interrupted New Year parties.
Back nearer Route 9, B Squadron formed a two-troop gunline to engage Casa Nuova, 25 Battalion's objective, and sent the other troops forward to give their support. However, the attack was abandoned before the tanks took any part in the fighting.
What 24 Battalion had been unable to achieve on New Year's Eve by force it accomplished next night by reconnaissance patrols. A platoon found Palazzo Toli unoccupied except for a solitary German, took him prisoner, and sent a message back for the rest of the company and the tanks to join it. Other patrols found the wine factory—now battered by dive-bombers page 539 —also unoccupied, and A Squadron tanks joined them in new positions around the Villa Pasolini. B Squadron and 25 Battalion infantry, farther to the right, occupied Casa Nuova and other houses, and by the evening of 3 January the squadron had a troop in Palazzo in Laguna. Fifty-sixth (London) Division then passed through 6 Brigade's front, 7 Armoured Division made a successful attack north-east, and a reshuffling of boundaries left 6 Brigade looking across the Senio towards Gaiano, with A Squadron on its own to provide tank support. B Squadron came back into reserve on 5 January, while A Squadron formed a half-squadron gunline under its second-captain to support 25 Battalion and kept the other two troops under Major Caldwell's command at Casa Busa in support of 24 Battalion.
Colonel Purcell made a quick recovery from his head wound, endured Hogmanay in a Scottish hospital near Rimini, and returned to his command early in January. He found the front quiet and little of importance happening on either side. C Squadron had been relieved on the morning of the 2nd by 19 Regiment and was back in the gunline at the Villa le Sirene, then more widely known as ‘the Colonel's casa’ after the peppery Italian colonel who, with his family, occupied some of the downstairs rooms. Under Divisional Artillery orders, the squadron shot indirect harassing fire tasks against mortar positions and other targets across the Senio; it also had the role of covering the withdrawal of the forward infantry should the enemy make an attack to cut Route 9.
On the 7th the squadron relinquished its harassing fire tasks and concentrated on a counter-mortar role, its guns firing 1266 rounds in six days against no fewer than twenty-five different targets—nebelwerfers, mortars, self-propelled guns, transport, a church at Felisio suspected of being used as an OP, and enemy working parties—to the satisfaction of the infantry and the counter-mortar officer at Brigade Headquarters. Since Christmas the squadron had been under the command of Captain Stan Wright while Major Eastgate was away on a course. The latter returned to the squadron on 24 January.
Memories of the next few weeks are difficult to stir. A tank crew in a static role learns very little of what goes on outside page 540 the walls of its own casa, and little of interest is remembered or recorded except that it was ‘a dull period’. War diary entries favour ‘Locations unchanged’, but ‘A and B Sqns NTR’ runs it a close second. The dates of squadron reliefs are recorded and also the evacuation sick of Colonel Purcell on 11 January, leaving Major Barton once again in command for a few days. Tactical Headquarters continued to draw more than its share of enemy mortar bombs and shells, especially at night, but recorded no casualties.
In spite of the terseness of his war diary entries—if, indeed, he kept the diary—the regiment's adjutant, Captain ‘Lu’ Hazlett, was one of its most colourful characters, with a fluent (but quite unprintable) turn of speech when roused; some of his telephone conversations with the squadrons are still remembered by those who heard them at RHQ. His driving is also remembered: ‘I can see him now at the wheel of his jeep,’ one officer recalls, ‘his scarf flying from around his neck, pipe stuck in mouth, no hood, and pouring with rain, heading for Fabriano at an enormous speed and putting the fear of death into all MPs on traffic duty.’
To the monotony of a static role the regiment's forward crews could add the nervous strain of being within reach of enemy patrols and shelling. For the long-service men especially, for whom this was the last action and their return home imminent, the days dragged interminably. Usually the forward tanks were sited beside or behind houses in which their crews and the infantry platoons they supported were quartered. The infantry battalions took turns as custodians of the front, and the regiment's troops took turns at manning their tanks, on call at instant notice to drive off an aggressive patrol or silence an enemy working party improving its positions on the stopbank on the far side of the river. Another side of their work was flash-spotting for the enemy's guns and nebelwerfers, whose positions would be meticulously plotted and recorded for future attention by the regiment's gunline or the artillery.
One story is recorded which shows how the system worked. C Squadron was manning the gunline just below Route 9 when a British OP officer visited its headquarters' casa. While he was there a message from the regiment's tactical headquarters gave the position of an enemy mortar. A map was produced, the page 541 position found and, with the margin of a recent issue of Eighth Army News, the distance from gunline to target was measured on the map scale. After a little discussion the range was given to the troop on duty and ten rounds gunfire ordered. Half an hour later word came back through the infantry's forward patrols that all ten shots had fallen in the target area. The artilleryman, amused and mildly surprised at such casual methods of gunnery, was impressed nevertheless.
B Squadron also gets its share of praise in another incident in which it took action against an enemy working party whose activities had been reported by the infantry. The tanks' fire caused the party to seek shelter in a house, which in its turn was made untenable with armour-piercing shells and high-explosive rounds on delayed fuse. Finally, when the party left the house to go back by truck, the truck itself was hit. In spite of the low trajectory of the Sherman's guns the gunline was able to engage targets within 200 yards of the forward troops.
But the enemy, too, could show his teeth. His self-propelled guns tried to knock down our houses while his nebelwerfers and heavy guns, assisted sometimes, it was suspected, by agents on our side of the river, could bring down an accurate concentration when provoked. Any movement by the tanks in the forward positions was a certain way of provoking him. The noise would give away their positions and bring down a heavy ‘stonk’. No details have been kept of the results of these ‘stonks’, but it is recorded that six A Squadron tanks received direct hits during the squadron's period in the line. The lesson was soon learned and the forward tanks were called on to fire only in an emergency.
Besides being a priority target for the enemy's guns, the tanks also attracted notice from enemy patrols. At night the Germans had the great advantage that they had themselves laid the minefields on the stopbanks and knew their way through them. On the night of 15–16 January a German patrol slipped through the trip-wires and had a crack at Sergeant Frank O'Connell's 15 tank (12 Troop) with a bazooka. The enemy gunner's aim was high and the shot went through the wall beside the upstairs window of the house from which the picket (Trooper ‘Custer’ Mains 16) was keeping watch.page 542
One of the tank's Brownings was mounted at the window and Mains immediately opened fire. Awakened by the deafening roar of the bazooka at close range and the hammering of the Browning, the rest of the troop and the 26 Battalion infantry stood-to and manned their weapons. Unfortunately the Browning jammed when the feed belt became snagged and the enemy party of three escaped unscathed but in considerable haste, as their tracks in the snow next morning confirmed. The engagement came to be widely known as ‘Custer's Last Stand’.
A few days before, C Squadron had relinquished its gunline role to B Squadron and had relieved A Squadron with 26 Battalion and the Divisional Cavalry Battalion. On the 17th 26 Battalion handed over to the 24th, but the squadron stayed in position. On the night after it took over 24 Battalion sent out working parties to arrange trip-wires and improve its defences. One party of nine men, all dressed in snow suits, was still out when, at half past five on the morning of the 18th, the trip flares went up and the alarm was given. Three Germans, also dressed in snow suits, were fired on but managed to get away. The working party came back up the road into the lines, gave the correct answer to the challenge, and passed through, but when they reached the company's casa the last three men in the line slipped behind a haystack and disappeared. The enemy patrol had tagged on to the end of the working party and followed it in. The patrol entered the yard of a house where one of the regiment's tanks was posted, ducked round the house, and ‘got clean away’ under cover of hedges and trees. To counter further such excursions trip flares and booby traps were placed around the houses and an infantry standing patrol covered the approaches. The tanks' Brownings were set up to fire on fixed lines and all tracer ammunition was removed from their belts so that the guns' positions would not be given away to the enemy.
A Squadron returned to the Colonel's casa near Faenza on 23 January, taking it over from B Squadron, which went forward to relieve C Squadron. It manned the gunline with the main task of putting down fire on the banks of the Senio, where the Germans were still burrowing and mining and were suspected to be building footbridges. Major Caldwell describes this as ‘a rather interesting piece of work’. The squadron was page 543 assisted by a ‘shufti’ aircraft which spotted for the guns and wirelessed back corrections to its headquarters, which then passed them on to the squadron by telephone. ‘The Artillery officer doing the spotting could not quite make out our methods of correction for elevation and direction, which were of course very crude, depending on wide-spaced markings on the two wheels,’ writes the squadron commander. ‘So he gave up the usual artillery corrections and on each fall of shot gave us the distance from the last shot and we guessed the corrections required. He was so pleased with the results that he made a special trip up after the show was finished to see actually how we had done it and was quite amazed that we had been able to be as accurate as we had.’
In war of this sort, the side which annoys the other the most is the happier; should the enemy produce some means of irritation, however minor, you must knock it out at once or do better yourself. Naturally, the regiment took its share in this game, one of its best successes being a duel with a self-propelled gun which used to run up to the stopbank near Felisio and fire directly into the infantry's positions. The regiment's counter was to mount a tank on an Ark bridge and set it up in the snow near the Casa Claretta, camouflaged under a white muslin cloth, with its gun trained on the place where the enemy last appeared. It was some days—1 February to be exact—before the enemy gun reappeared, and when B Squadron's tank opened up it withdrew — smartly. No hits were observed, but from then on the enemy gun was content to do its shooting from a safer distance.
C Squadron's 17-pounder also had a success, with more destructive result, against a mystery target on the stopbank below Felisio. The object (mineral and vegetable) was a tower made from three poles and a lot of wire and caused a lot of speculation (to quote the brigade report) ‘whether it had been erected for any sinister purpose or was a new line in Hun humour.’ Three shots from the 17-pounder collapsed the contrivance and it was not seen again.
Another target which received a lot of attention was the church tower at Felisio, B Squadron being close enough to shoot it up with its Brownings to deter any German artillery officer thought to be using it as an OP.page 544
Unlike the actions of the autumn months, the ‘going’ in this winter battle presented few problems. To start with, little ground was covered by the tanks in any attack, and their main role was to come forward in support when positions had been won and the roads cleared of mines. All the mines encountered were on the roads or around houses and were often poorly laid; and when the weather improved they could be avoided by moving across country. When the engineers were busy the tank crews sometimes had to clear a path for themselves, probing the ground with bayonets until mines were found and then lifting them as they had been taught by the engineers. For this purpose the tanks carried a 50-foot length of cable, which was looped round a mine and then pulled from the tank or from a nearby ditch until the mine was freed; when it was clear that no booby traps were attached the mine was lifted.
The use of tanks again caused a few problems but most of these were ironed out with experience. Infantry companies still liked to have tanks right up in their forward positions for ‘morale’ reasons, and they can hardly be blamed for that; but often these positions were not suitable for tanks. Tucked in behind the front-line houses, they seldom had good fields of fire and were practically immobile should their positions be suddenly attacked. If they moved about they gave away their positions to the enemy's guns and paid the penalty. Experience taught that the best site for tanks was back near company headquarters in positions where they could move anywhere they were required.
Frosty mornings and falls of snow also brought their problems for the tanks in a static role. Where they could be parked on a firm surface in a cobbled farmyard or on concrete, snow and rain gave little trouble, but on soft ground their tracks soon became buried in the mud. After a series of heavy frosts tracks were found to be frozen to the ground and had to be freed with picks and shovels, and sometimes the oil froze in the tanks' machine guns, causing stoppages at critical times. The traversing of turrets was also affected, sometimes as a result of frost and also because of water in the traversing gearbox.
In spite of the cold and occasional heavy falls of snow (‘Hell, what a cold, bleak, miserable place this Italy is in winter,’ wrote one C Squadron trooper) the crews themselves fared fairly page 545 well. Frosty mornings were sometimes followed by fine days in which the men busied themselves with the soldier's housekeeping tasks of salvaging wood for the fires, foraging for food, bartering, washing and mending, or boiling water for a bath in a wine cask. 17 In the evening the jeep train would come up with a load of mail and supplies in sandbags for the squadron on duty and the reconnaissance troop's Honeys would take it forward to the front-line positions. With engines throttled down, the reconnaissance tank would creep carefully up the lane to the house where the troop was waiting, its crew expecting any moment that the noise of the tank's engines would bring a ‘stonk’ down around their ears. On one night trip up to the stopbank in January with supplies for one of the infantry companies, the crew of Corporal Jim Taylor's 18 tank were noiselessly unloading their supplies from hand to hand when the silence was shattered by the scream of the tank's siren—the driver's foot had slipped on to it while he was getting out of the tank. Taylor's burst of laughter a few minutes later when he could no longer restrain his amusement at the situation was equally unpopular, but fortunately the enemy either did not hear or decided to take no action. Later, because of the noise made by the tanks, jeeps took over the job of delivering supplies to the forward positions.
At night the inevitable picket duty could sometimes be exciting, especially when the trip flares went up, causing a general alert and stand-to. The forward troops lost a lot of sleep, but the regiment's casualties for these two months were light. Twenty-one, including Colonel Purcell, were wounded, most of them in December and some from mines before the area could be properly cleared. Colonel Purcell's work in reconnoitring routes forward for the tanks under fire and in maintaining close support of the infantry won him the DSO.
Another feature of life in this area was the number of civilians who stayed in their houses, chiefly, it must be recorded, to look after what few of their stock had survived the battle and the Christmas table. No. 10 Troop for a time shared a house with the noisiest of these. Known, perhaps unkindly, as ‘the mad page 546 woman’, she had found the strain of the recent battles too severe for her nerves to bear but refused to be evacuated. Her performances at the start of each nightly ‘stonk’ were something to remember and in the end she had to go.
No sooner had a battle freed a few cottages or a few more yards of ground from enemy hands than the people began to return to their homes. The troops, of course, were reluctant to part with their quarters, especially when they were solidly built and comfortable; and the Italians too were reluctant to leave their own roofs—where roofs still existed—and what remained of their possessions for the comparative safety of a refugee centre farther south. Provost Sergeant Hugh Beattie's 19 fluent Italian was often called on to help untangle these domestic differences between tank crew and house owner, but on the whole the men got on splendidly with their Italian hosts. The risk to security of having Italian civilians sharing front-line quarters with the troops could also not be neglected, and most were later evacuated.
One member of a B Squadron tank crew was arrested in Faenza as a German spy but had only himself to blame. He had gone into the town on an exploring trip, looking for odds and ends to make his billets more comfortable, but had become lost in a maze of backyards and shell-torn houses and could not find his way out. He decided that the quickest way to the main street was straight across the rooftops, but was accosted by some Italians while taking this unorthodox route. The Italians, thinking him a German, asked him in Italian if he spoke German. ‘Si, si,’ he answered—one of the few words of Italian he knew—and continued on his way.
Unfortunately, the trooper was wearing neither beret nor shoulder titles, and the Italians, convinced that they had discovered a German spy, rushed off to the nearest red-cap. The military police arrived smartly, noted his path, and were there to arrest him when he descended to earth at his destination. To welcome him also was a crowd of hundreds of excited Italians, most of them vieing with each other in the loudness of their invective and the ferocity of their gestures. ‘Why all the fuss?’ asked the trooper. On being told why he had been apprehended he declared his identity, proof of which was subse- page 547 quently supplied by his squadron sergeant-major when he was returned to his squadron.
The escapade could have had more serious results. Hearing that a German had been seen escaping across the rooftops, one of the regiment's provosts decided he would have a shot at him to see if he could bring him down. He drew his pistol, cocked the hammer, and was on the point of firing when the escaper disappeared from view.
As the battle edged slowly north, the refugees flocked back into Forli. Pushing hand-barrows or riding on horse or donkey-drawn farm carts, all piled high with mattresses, furniture, and firewood, the last perhaps the most precious, they trudged slowly back along the rutted roads. Irritable, black-whiskered men snarled angrily at every stoppage or belaboured spindle-legged donkeys with strange cries, urging them to impossible efforts, heavily laden as they were, at every incline; grey-haired, wrinkled old women struggled doggedly with rickety handcarts; sturdy girls carried colossal loads on their heads or pushed vigorously behind overladen carts, while tiny children, rosy-cheeked from the whipping wind, snuggled down in their mattresses or watched the commotion wide-eyed.
After a year in Italy the men had grown used to the sight of refugees, and there were indications that they might soon be moving back themselves. In the last week of January and the first week of February there were a number of comings and goings in the regiment. Thirty reinforcements arrived from Advanced Base on the 26th and parties of long-service men due for replacement left the regiment a few days later in the Tongariro draft. 20 Leave parties for Florence, Rome, and Riccione had a brief rest from the line, and on 27 January a party of other ranks left for the newly-established YMCA rest hostel in Forli. Four men represented the regiment on the 30th at a dinner and social evening given by the GOC Eighth Army (General McCreery) to representatives from units of different nations. And last, the regiment shed some of its attachments, among them some Royal Tank Regiment personnel who left on the 26th for their own unit, and a Royal Armoured Corps officer and his Crocodile flame-throwing tanks.page 548
The regiment's tour of duty ended on 9 February when B Squadron, after some noisy nights in the front line, was relieved by a squadron from 18 Armoured Regiment. The other squadrons—A manning the gunline and C in reserve at San Silvestro—were relieved by 18 Regiment in turn and had moved back to Forli by 11 February. The last of the attachments from the Royal Horse Artillery, the Royal Tank Regiment, and 1 Assault Regiment transferred their allegiance to the newcomers and the regiment wiped its hands of the front.
During its seventy-three days in the line—from 29 November to 9 February—the regiment from its gunlines had fired 18,254 rounds of 75-millimetre shell, an average of 250 rounds a day, although in January the daily quota was limited to approximately 100 rounds. 21 The tanks' Browning machine guns are recorded to have fired some 100,000 rounds, both from the tanks and from ground mounts, ‘much to the delight of our infantry friends’. The crews coming out of the line may have had no stories of tank battles or of Tigers routed to entertain their Italian friends, but all could take pride in the satisfaction that they had done all that had been asked of them and had done it well.
7 Col T. C. Campbell, DSO, MC, m.i.d.; Waiouru Camp; born Colombo, 20 Dec 1911; farm appraiser; CO 22 Bn Sep 1942-Apr 1944; comd 4 Armd Bde Jan-Dec 1945; Commander of Army Schools, 1951–53; Commander, Fiji Military Forces, 1953–56; Commandant, Waiouru Military Camp, Sep 1956–.
8 Brigadier G. B. Parkinson was 6 Brigade's commander.
17 Two RAP men found some hives and made 25 pounds of honey.
20 Among the regiment's reinforcements about this time were two men named Woofe and Wham. They were made gunners.
21 A Squadron fired 11,679 rounds, B Squadron 1848, and C Squadron 4727.