CHAPTER 16 — Rimini
The capture of Florence was virtually the end of the campaign in Central Italy, and the Allied Armies were now facing the line prepared by the German High Command for the defence of Northern Italy and, through it, of Central Europe.
The plains of Northern Italy are surrounded in a vast unbroken arc by the Alps running from east to west. Near Genoa they join the Apennines, which continue the sweep from the north-west to the south-east as far as Rimini. Near that seaport the direction is more southerly and follows close to the Adriatic coast. Together the ranges form a reap hook with the open side facing eastwards.
The problem was how to break into Northern Italy. There were two possible methods and it was decided to attempt both, for success with either would rupture the Gothic Line, as the Germans called their defences, either by outflanking or by dividing it. The plan was to switch the strength of Eighth Army to the Adriatic coast, where the main effort would be made, and after the enemy reserves had been drawn in Fifth Army would strike through the mountains at Bologna. To cover the regrouping, Fifth Army (greatly weakened by the transfer of the French Division that had broken through the Aurunci Mountains at Cassino, as well as by the loss of some seasoned American formations earmarked for the invasion of Southern France) was to make a general fuss. While this was going on Fifth Army's strength was to be concentrated on the right flank, while at the same time it was to create the illusion of moving its left up the coast towards the port of Leghorn.
On the Adriatic the enemy had either been pushed or had withdrawn of his own accord from the Sangro to the Metauro River, but there were still some thiry miles of corridor between the mountains and the sea to Rimini. Beyond Rimini there was room to manoeuvre—or so it appeared on the map.
Such was the plan to smash the Gothic Line, but there was page 368 a spectre watching the planning conferences, a spectre with sodden clothes and mud on its boots; the country between Fano on the Metauro and Rimini on the Marecchia was still ‘Sangro country’ and the autumn rains were not far away.
The battalion left Strada in the evening of 28 August. The usual precautions for a secret move had been taken—badges removed, truck signs obliterated, and all leave cancelled. Needless to say, the Italians passed en route were not deceived as to the nationality of the convoy, and the troops themselves felt that the operation was about as secret as a varsity capping parade. The only thing they and the whole countryside did not know was the final destination.
That was the guess and that was how it was going to be. The second leg ended at Iesi, 15 miles inland from Ancona and some 220 miles from Strada. As far as the troops were concerned, Iesi was a continuation of the rest period. In between bathing parties to the coast or to the Esino River closer home, enough training was done to keep in form. Iesi was a pleasant town and the news was good: the battle for the Gothic Line was going well, with the Canadian Corps, under the command of which was 2 New Zealand Division, and the Polish Corps moving steadily up the coast towards Rimini, the anchor of the German left flank. Montgomery was a Field Marshal; Paris had liberated itself; Brigadier Burrows,1 who had been commanding 6 Brigade for a period and now commanded 5 Brigade, was an All Black (a sound knowledge of Rugby is undoubtedly a good thing in a brigadier); the Russians had taken the Ploesti oilfield; most of the Americans had left New Zealand. Buono, it won't be long now!page 369
But perhaps the most important local event was the decision to declare the football season open. Inter-company games started forthwith. The change in locality did not interfere with the selection committee's deliberations in picking possible and probable teams to find the battalion's representatives. Fifth Army had opened its drive through the mountains towards Bologna, which, of course, was important also.
Lieutenant-Colonel Thodey accompanied the Brigadier and other battalion commanders to take a closer look at the scene of the Canadians' next objective, the Fortunate Ridge and the key to Rimini. There was a possibility that the Canadians, now feeling the strain of incessant fighting, might not be able to clear this obstacle, in which case 2 NZ Division would take a hand.
It was undoubtedly ‘Sangro’ country, for the brigade moved a little closer to the front on 6 September, and left the Esino River to cross the Misa and Cesano before coming to the Metauro and billeting on the coast at Fano. Fano was much the same as Iesi, except that it had been fought over more recently. The fighting was still four rivers further north and the troops carried on with their bathing, football, and training.
Major Tanner returned from his staff course while the battalion was at Fano and became second-in-command to Colonel Thodey, vice Major N. B. Smith, who marched out on furlough. The company commanders were Major Harding (A Company), Major Ashley (B), Major Hawkesby (C) and Major Dymock (D).
Rugby now took a more serious turn with inter-battalion matches as circumstances permitted; there was talk of sending an NZEF team to England, and that was no trifling matter.
There was another move on 16 September, across the Foglia and Conca into the Coriano area. The road ran close to the coast, where the Adriatic sparkled blue in the sunshine and (on its eastern edge) lapped around the hills of Greece, where the Division had fought its first campaign. All around the convoy was the aftermath of war, while high up on the inland mountains were the towers of San Marino, the oldest and smallest republic in the world. San Marino is a pocket-handkerchief state in the heart of Italy, 32 square mountainous miles in area, with a population of 16,000 and a standing army of 700. It has defended its independence against all comers since page 370 the year 301 AD; it defied the might of Germany, and its neutrality has been, possibly out of amusement, largely respected. Before the war was over many Kiwis were to park their weapons at the border and enjoy the hospitality of the tiny republic.
The fighting, not so far away now, was to be the gambit of an ambitious game. Once 5 Brigade had secured and enlarged the bridgehead, 6 Brigade would pass through and, by the coastal routes, strike for Ravenna, 32 miles north-west of Rimini. After Ravenna would come Bologna and Ferrara, then across the Po River, and the war in Italy would be over.
On the map the country was eminently suitable for fast movement—a flat, featureless river plain, widening as the mountains swept westwards. Had there been a geographer at the planning conferences, he might have mentioned that the low-lying plains built up by the silt of the frequently overflowing rivers was, with the possible exception of Holland, the most heavily canalised area in Europe. Even since early historic times eastern Italy has been so built up that the town of Adria, which was once a seaport and gave its name to the Adriatic Sea, is now 16 miles inland. The only reason why Venice remains a harbour is that no rivers of consequence discharge into the lagoon.
Maybe GHQ did know its geography and hoped Fifth Army would take Bologna before Eighth Army had to fight over country that had a ditch, a canal, or a river so situated that it was impossible to move a mile in any direction without encountering a tank trap or vehicle obstacle.
Running through the northern outskirts of Rimini was the many-pronged Marecchia River. Once this was crossed and Rimini safely held, the Gothic Line was burst wide open; and if the Canadians did not wholly succeed, 5 Brigade was to establish a bridgehead, whereupon 6 Brigade would pass through and exploit.
While the Brigadier waited throughout the 17th to see if 5 Brigade was to be drawn into the battle, 21 Battalion played Rugby against the 23rd and won 11 to nil. The following day was another one of waiting, as 1 Canadian and 4 British Divisions squared up to the ridge of San Fortunate. The assault on the 19th was one of varying fortunes, and 5 Brigade was page 371 told that it might be required to move that afternoon. The plan was cancelled later in the day, and instead of moving into battle the battalion B team played the Maori B team and was beaten 5—3. The Canadians got on to the ridge during the night and 5 Brigade was warned to be ready at a moment's notice. The battalion edged up a little closer the next morning (the 20th) and bivouacked near the airfield at San Lorenzo in Strada. A crossing was to be made over the Marecchia by the Canadians, and the unit was warned that in company with the Maoris it was to extend the bridgehead. The 18th Armoured Regiment would be in support.
The troops moved up in convoy on the night of 20-21 September and bedded down in front of Fortunato Ridge. It was the usual newly fought over scene—derelict tanks, abandoned vehicles, and intermittent artillery fire. One carrier was hit by a stray shell and two men killed by exploding ammunition. The autumn rains began in earnest and the 21st was a sorry-looking mud-caked battalion in the morning. The task given 5 Brigade was the capture of the Rio Fontanaccia position, four miles north of the Marecchia River. There were three report lines before the final objective—the first on the Canale dei Molini, the second on an imaginary line running south-west from the seaside hamlet of La Turchia, and the third along the Scolo Brancona.
The attack was to be carried out by 28 Battalion, with A Squadron's tanks, on the left, and 21 Battalion, with B Squadron's tanks, on the right. The 21st Battalion's axis of advance was Route 16, the coastal road joining Rimini and Ravenna, 30 miles north. C Company was on the right and A Company on the left of Route 16, with B and D Companies in support. The country up to Ravenna was uniformly flat, hardly above sea level, and was crossed by a number of rivers flowing north-west and canalised near the coast. There was thought to be no fixed defences except hastily prepared houses, but there was excellent cover in the many vineyards which largely covered the area.
The battalion, with supporting arms, began the approach march at 4 p.m. in the order of A, C, B and D Companies, Support Company, attached engineers, one troop of 32 Anti- page 372 Tank Battery, one platoon of 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion, and finally Battalion Headquarters. A and C Companies rode on their supporting tanks. This novel kind of transport was not appreciated by the troops for several reasons: the infantry soldier is never happy in a position where he cannot dive for cover when the occasion demands; the rain had softened the going, and while the tanks roared up the road they lurched, swayed, and slipped most alarmingly. The rain, which had reduced visibility, cleared when the column was near the top of San Fortunato Ridge, and enemy guns from the Vergiano Ridge further west plastered the area, whereupon the troops debussed, or rather detanked, very smartly. A smoke screen was quickly put down, and the battalion sheltered in a deep cutting where the road crossed over the ridge, until it was dark enough to move again.
The second leg of the approach march brought the column to the Marecchia River, a mile and a half west of the Roman bridge at Rimini. Fighting was still going on near Rimini and the air was full of tank shells; ammunition dumps were exploding with cascading fireworks effects; shells of very heavy calibre fell at random in the area, but luckily not along the road on which the troops were marching. The river itself was no obstacle to marching men as it was only a few inches deep, but judging by the stretch of shingle between the banks, it could, with enough rain, be another Sangro. It was not known how deep the Canadian bridgehead was, and the assaulting companies dashed across expecting to be fired on at any minute.
By midnight the battalion was disposed with C Company in houses half a mile south of the Celle road junction, A Company on the left of C, and the supporting companies on the Sant' Andrea road south of the river. At the same hour twelve months previously the battalion had been lying in transports off Taranto.
Wireless communication had not been continuous during the approach march, and Colonel Thodey was not certain that the companies were in their correct positions. A Honey tank with a No. 22 set was sent forward to receive and relay messages, and from then on contact was maintained. Brigade was informed and the Colonel was ordered to move off at first light, or as soon after as possible.page 373
During the night a new set of circumstances had arisen, about which, either through a wireless breakdown or through one of the mishaps that occur in war, Colonel Thodey had not been fully informed. Fourth Armoured Brigade, itching to be in at the final breaching of the Gothic Line, had obtained permission to establish its own bridgehead over the Marecchia. The original 21 Battalion front was from the coast to a line a thousand yards west of Route 16, and it was on part of this front that 4 Armoured Brigade had moved up to the Marecchia by way of the undamaged Roman bridge. That in itself would not have interfered with Thodey's plans, but part of 22 (Motor) Battalion had already crossed the Marecchia and passed through Celle, at the junction of Routes 9 and 16, without mopping up, an hour before 21 Battalion had arrived at its lying-up area. Celle was one of the battalion objectives and Route 16 the axis of advance. It was fortunate that 22 Battalion was directed back to the coast before 21 Battalion's attack started.
The first hint that there were loose ends came when C Company reported during the night that a company of Canadians had moved through it to attack Celle. The Canadians were also over the river on the New Zealanders' left, and had been ordered to clear Celle to facilitate the advance of 5 Brigade into the plains beyond. Celle was on C Company's line of advance, and Major Hawkesby sent out three patrols to establish the situation on his front—one under Second-Lieutenant Weir into Celle, one under Second-Lieutenant Clotworthy2 to locate 22 Battalion, and one under Second-Lieutenant Dempsey3 to find the support tanks that had not as yet reported their position.
Weir found fighting going on in Celle but, on a return trip to the village two hours later, reported that the place was cleared and occupied by a platoon of 22 Battalion and some Canadians. Clotworthy could not find any trace of 22 Battalion nor could Dempsey locate the tanks. (They did not link up until just before the attack began the next morning.)
The only thing certain in a night of uncertainties was that Celle, where opposition might have been encountered, was page 374 clear. Lieutenant-Colonel Thodey tied in with Lieutenant-Colonel Young,4 CO 28 Battalion, and the starting time for an advance without a barrage, but supported by tanks, was fixed at 6 a.m. (22 September).
As an extra precaution, a patrol was sent from D Company to make certain that Majors Hawkesby and Harding were quite clear about the position in Celle, the starting time, and the Canale dei Molini. Lieutenant McLean has vivid memories of that patrol:
The forward companies had lost touch during the night and I was sent across the river early in the morning with a section to make sure they were ready to start the attack and had not lost themselves. While trying to find them we were welcomed heartily by an Italian family and I was kissed on both cheeks by most of the family (men mostly unfortunately). Puzzled to know why I was treated thus, it transpired that I was ahead of our forward Coys—the time for the attack had not yet arrived and Jerry was just over the railway line a short way ahead and I had been wandering up and down the road in broad daylight (by this time) as if it was just a practice stunt.
Celle might be described as the ‘cemetery suburb’ of Rimini, for it was adjacent to a cemetery much larger in area than the village itself. It was also an important road junction, for besides Route 16 inland from the coast, Route 9, the main highway to Bologna, 70 miles north-west, likewise passed through Celle. The railway line mentioned by McLean was built along a ten-foot-high embankment parallel to and between Route 9 and the Fossa Turchetta, about half a mile north.
In accordance with the instructions to begin the advance at 6 a.m., A and C Companies with their supporting tanks formed up about 200 yards south of a road from Santa Giustina to Celle. C Company, on the right flank, had to pass through Celle, already cleared during the night, and had little trouble crossing the railway embankment. Not until it was beyond the cemetery did it encounter opposition and take a few prisoners.
C Company carried on without much difficulty, although dispersed over a lot of country. Major Hawkesby enlisted the page 375 services of a Honey tank driven by Sergeant Booth5 and roamed about like a sheepdog behind a scattered flock. They encountered a post that had been overlooked in the skirmishing and went after it, although Honeys are supposed to be purely reconnaissance vehicles. When his Browning jammed, Booth jumped down and killed two Germans and captured the other two. By this time the forward elements of C Company were half a mile past the Fossa Turchetta, and the Honey departed on its own affairs. Hawkesby rejoined his headquarters, where a signal had been received that an enemy force was moving towards him. There was a stretch of country between his right and the sea, and, with A Company not up, his left flank was also in the air, so he decided to concentrate 13 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant Weir) and 15 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant Dempsey) in the Casa Martignoni.
The Casa Martignoni was a big two-storied house surrounded by trees, and from the upper window the enemy could be seen creeping forward under cover of the ditches from the direction of the coast. At this time the news caught up with C Company that 22 Battalion was officially taking part in the operations, and that the boundaries of the battalion had been adjusted to give it a two-company front on the right of C Company. No. 14 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant Clotworthy) was accordingly also withdrawn into the casa, and 22 Battalion with its armour was left to deal with the threatened attack. C Company remained in the house under a variegated assortment of mortar and shell fire until early afternoon.
The next morning we assembled and [Major Hawkesby] made an impassioned address to the throng (going something like this): ‘You've all got automatic weapons, well give the bastards hell!’ ….Well, the attack appeared to be a piece of cake at the start page 376 from our Coy point of view at least. After about a mile things began to warm up and my platoon (13) was pinned down several times by spandau fire and mortars. We had the tanks in support and they drew fire like nobody's business. I remember a Jerry spandau expert bailed up in a nearby railway wagon on our left. One of our tanks went to town on him …. By this time things were getting really hot … his mortars … were landing all around. [We] also had taken quite a number of prisoners, almost entirely Turkoman troops. Just like Japs. We began to wonder if we were in the right country. Things began to get so hot we took to houses for shelter and were shelled violently for several hours.
The night advance of 22 Battalion through Celle to the Fossa Turchetta and thence over to the coast had not disturbed the enemy dug in on the western, or A Company's, side of Route 16. The whole area was quite flat, highly cultivated, and criss-crossed with drains and ditches—ideal defensive country. The enemy posts were dug in behind grape vines with excellent cover from view, or in barricaded houses well supplied with spandaus and supported with mortars, anti-tank and self-propelled guns.
A Company was fired on before it reached the embankment, and 7 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant Hill), caught in the open, had several men wounded. The opposition was entirely unexpected, for Major Harding at the company orders group conference had said that the Canadians had cleared the area. He had been misinformed, because there were posts on the embankment, in houses behind it, and in the Fossa Turchetta. No. 7 Platoon returned the fire, under cover of which Private Pat O'Rourke7 stormed the bank and engaged the enemy single-handed until he was shot down. The platoon, through O'Rourke's gallant action, was able to get on to the embankment and finish the job, but it was still impossible to cross the double line of railway until the fortunate appearance on Route 16 of Sergeant Hunt8 in a Honey tank. He noticed a large strongpoint in front of A Company and went after it. Forty Germans tried to make a break, but Hunt got among page 377 them, shot six and captured twenty. He was disarming his prisoners when their own mortars opened on them, wounding several more. The survivors were herded into a ditch until some 22 Battalion men came over from Celle and took them away. A Company was then able to cross the embankment over an hour behind time, and Hunt went off with his Honey laden with enemy casualties.
The position was then that A Company had no contact with either C Company or the Maoris, both of whom were past the first objective line, the Fossa Turchetta ditch. The company made slow but steady progress through an area ideal for defence. The small farms were divided by drains, all of which appeared to be inter-communicating, while the masses of grape vines gave added cover to an enemy gradually retreating but putting up a stiff defence at the same time.
B and D Companies found ample employment mopping up, D Company particularly so. They were close on the heels of the forward troops, and almost up to a group of houses around a secondary crossroads a quarter of a mile past the Fossa Turchetta, when a spandau opened fire on them. Lieutenant McLean, who had had the adventure with the Italian family earlier in the morning, continues:
The attack developed alright and I was forward [reserve] platoon on the right—the forward Coys having passed on—when all of a sudden we were fired on by machine gun and I had a couple of chaps killed. We took shelter behind a house and I went forward to see what I could make of the affair. I got into a ditch and started up it when I was [wounded by a rifle bullet]. I scrambled back to the chaps and called up the Coy comdr who eventually brought up a tank and cleaned up a nest of about 28 Jerries. Unfortunately I wasn't there to see it—I had been evacuated by then.
D Company waited until the tank arrived some time later. After a round or two of high explosive, followed by a burst of Browning, a white flag was waved from a window, and shortly afterwards 16 Germans filed out. They had been missed by A Company for the good reason that they were hiding in a cellar and had taken turns operating the spandau from an upstairs window. Major Harding, with Company Headquarters, page 378 had also been delayed by this hold-up, and when he joined the forward platoons he found them under fire from the Canale dei Molini and the village of Viserba, 800 yards ahead. He made his headquarters in the Villa Il Palazzone and took stock of his position. There was no sign of the Maoris on the left; firing from the right indicated that A Company was not far away; the support tanks were well behind through difficulties with the innumerable obstacles; and at least two anti-tank guns were firing from Viserba.
The whole battalion attack was in danger of bogging down, but just when most needed Lieutenant Hardy9 arrived at the head of the Mortar Platoon. When the support companies began to advance after A Company had got away, Hardy suggested to Colonel Thodey that he might be able to help the forward troops. It is not the normal function of the Mortar Platoon to get involved in an advance, but permission was given to take the platoon up and see what could be done. Hardy decided not to try Route 16, but to make a wide left sweep with sections at regular intervals. They were to watch his progress and follow. Once out in the open he was confronted by a series of deep drains, at each of which he had to jump out of his carrier and dig away the top from both sides. Private Roy Martin10 then drove over the obstacle, with his carrier almost vertical while going in and coming out.
The rest of the platoon followed as arranged, and the mortars were set up in the grounds of the house. Shells were pouring in from Viserba, and a tank endeavouring to support A Company was knocked out, but with Hardy spotting and directing from an upstairs window, both anti-tank and machine guns were quickly silenced. German stretcher-bearers carrying white flags came to within a hundred yards of Il Palazzone to pick up wounded, and the area quietened down, except for odd bursts of automatic fire from the support platoons engaged in mopping up. The reduction of the opposition at Viserba permitted A Company to resume the advance towards the Canale dei Molini, and by 2 p.m. it was on the canal line.
Mortar crews' billets near Faenza
Mortar pit, Faenza
March past at Camerino
Minesweeping on the Senio
A cookhouse near the Senio
German graves on the beach at Lignano—in the background are enemy vessels which surrendered to 21 Battalion
A Company's success relieved the pressure on Major Hawkesby's company still concentrated in the Casa Martignoni, but there was a light tank or self-propelled gun that defied the efforts of the supporting tanks to locate and quieten it. Hawkesby took a few men and scouted along the ditches until they found the menace firing from the shelter of the Casa Carini, about half a mile ahead. They closed in quietly and killed the crew of a light tank while it was actually firing on the company.
Route 16 was now in use, and Colonel Thodey, driving up to A Company, met Hardy at Il Palazzone and directed him to find and assist C Company if help was needed. He found 13 Platoon in Casa Carini driving its captured tank around the yard, while 14 and 15 Platoons were clearing a factory on the Canale dei Molini.
The successful advance to the Canale dei Molini had not been achieved cheaply. The battalion suffered 49 casualties, 13 killed and 36 wounded, but had taken 77 prisoners, two 75-millimetre anti-tank guns and one Mark IV tank.
The position in the late afternoon was that 21 Battalion was on the first report line, the intruding 22 Battalion's exact position was unknown but it was somewhere in the vicinity, and the Maoris were near the second report line but were having trouble with Tiger tanks.
Brigadier Burrows was instructed by the GOC that 5 Brigade would stand fast until dark, when it would push on to the Scolo Brancona, and if possible to the Fontanaccia, while 6 Brigade was to pass through at first light on 23 September and carry on the advance.
Colonel Thodey attended a conference at Brigade Headquarters in the evening, but while the details were being worked out further instructions were received that 5 Brigade would attack only to Scolo Brancona, which was some 2000 yards short of the Fontanaccia River.
The Maoris, who were well ahead of the troops on their left, were also to go to the Brancona, but were to watch their own left flank; while on 21 Battalion's right boundary, which was fixed at 600 yards from the coast, 22 Battalion and 19 Armoured Regiment were to move forward 15 minutes after the attack went in.page 380
The battalion plan was for B Company, right, and D Company, left, to pass through C and A Companies, with Route 16 as the axis of advance. Each forward company would have a Honey tank linked by wireless to its battalion headquarters and to 18 Armoured Regiment. The supporting platoon of engineers would move with the tanks and clear the route of mines, while the anti-tank battery would consolidate with the infantry when the objective was taken. B and D Companies were to try and tie in with the flanking units, while 23 Battalion would have two companies ready in a holding position on the Canale dei Molini. A barrage of all available guns would be supplied, commencing to move forward at midnight. The opening line for the barrage was along the canal, and as the troops were forward of it in some places, it was essential that they should move back to a safe distance before midnight.
Several harassing incidents made the night an anxious one for Thodey. Firstly, Major Ashley (OC B Company) did not turn up at the battalion conference because the company wireless was unable to receive headquarters' messages and he did not know one was being held; secondly, the Honey tank moving up to establish communications with B Company was hit by a mortar and immobilised; thirdly, the Honey blocked the road for transport and in consequence A and C Companies missed their hot meal that night. The delayed conference did not end until 11 p.m. and runners had to find B Company with little time to spare. However, everything turned out all right, and the troops were in position by 11.30. While things were being ‘jacked up’ behind it, A Company was having a very uncomfortable time forward. Route 16 was consistently shelled and haystacks in the vicinity were set alight. There was a negligible reply to the barrage, and the troops went forward without interference to the Scolo Brancona. Two patrols supported by tanks exploited forward for another half a mile without making contact. The Maoris and 22 Battalion also met little opposition.
Sixth Brigade passed through in the mid-morning and found the enemy prepared to resist the crossing of the Fontanaccia. B and D Companies remained in position that night and joined the rest of the battalion in the morning in Viserba,11 a seaside page 381 suburb of Rimini, and the troops were quartered in houses facing the beach. Battle grime was removed in the still warm Adriatic, clothes were washed in the sea, and the Italian women ironed and pressed shirts and pants most of the night. The usual reorganisation followed: Major Hawkesby marched out to furlough and Captain Campbell took command of C Company; the troops swam by day and held impromptu dances with the Italian girls and impromptu parties with themselves by night; 6 Brigade chased the enemy off the Fontanaccia and then across the Uso River. By this time rivers were the unit of distance —it was not so many miles to a place but so many rivers. The engineers spoke longingly of the good old days in North Africa where there were no rivers and bridges were something they read about in text books.
The battalion moved up to Bellaria, at the mouth of the Uso, on the 27th and in the evening took over from 24 Battalion, with 23 Battalion on its left. The 24th was expected to be found holding a line along a road parallel to and half a mile south of the Fiumicino River, but in actual fact it had been ordered to halt along the Fosso Matrice ditch, about a quarter of a mile short of its original objective.
The changeover was completed by midnight and patrols probed the country in front. The picture that emerged was that the terrain was generally open, with ploughed fields dissected by numerous ditches which were the only cover. Colonel Thodey decided that the crossing would have to be made in two phases, the first of which would be to clear the south bank, and he would prefer to do that by night. The 23rd Battalion, on the left of the brigade sector, concurred, and Brigadier Burrows later advised that the brigade would probably stand fast until next night.
After looking the country over by daylight, the Colonel decided to try for the lateral road which would be a good start line for the next attack. If the affair went well the battalion would not necessarily stop there, but would try to reach the river bank. The Brigadier arranged for the artillery to keep up the usual harassing fire while the attempt was made, and at 9 a.m. B Company on the right and D Company on the left left the cover of the ditch. The immediate enemy fire was page 382 too accurate and the cover too sparse, and by midday very little ground had been gained. The 23rd Battalion also tried, and with more success, to gain the lateral road.
It was decided to make another attempt in a set-piece attack to clear the enemy from the southern side of the river, preparatory to a general advance by the New Zealanders and their left-hand neighbours, 5 Canadian Armoured Division. It was appreciated that the success of the operation depended on the ability of 21 and 23 Battalions to push on to the river bank that afternoon, but it was also appreciated that the storm clearly coming up from the east might upset the whole operation. A torrential downpour with wind at gale force began in the early afternoon and continued on and off for the next twelve hours. The gunners were flooded out of their pits; the heavy ground was soon sodden, giving the engineers responsible for the roads, and the tanks and other vehicles dependent on them, a worrying time. An issue of rum was authorised for the half-drowned infantry.
Fifth Brigade's attack went in about 3 p.m., with B and D Companies still leading 21 Battalion. The artillery support and the cover of the blinding rain enabled the battalion to advance, although D Company had to bypass an enemy-held house and leave it to the mopping-up troops. In spite of having the farthest to go, D Company was the first of the brigade units to get to the river bank, about five in the afternoon. B Company was stopped 300 yards short of its objective by a strongpoint beyond the river. Repeated artillery concentrations failed to silence it, and the troops were pulled back into houses that offered some cover and shelter from the storm. Thodey then sent A Company up to thicken and extend D Company's hold. It was a timely precaution, for by this time everything on wheels was bogged down and 23 Battalion's right flanking company had been withdrawn to protect its supporting tanks. The enemy attempted to loosen 21 Battalion's grip of the south bank, but the fire fight was not followed up and the troops remained in position.
Major Dymock (OC D Company) writes:
The attack took place about mid-afternoon. B Coy right D Coy left. The coy had had a heavy day with many casualties and were page 383 not enthusiastic about this new attack. However, we assembled or formed up in a very big barn or stable which was being heavily shelled. Eventually 2 Platoons advanced 1 Platoon and Coy HQ in reserve in barn. One Platoon got to the house by stopbank, which they held. Other Pl driven back soon after attack began.
I remember that we had a Div Cav corporal in charge of a tank without a turret, who was very game indeed, and was a tower of strength to us. I was wounded in arm that day and was out of the Bn for a long time, otherwise I should have recommended this corporal for his work that day.
I was busy trying to contact my forward platoon with the radio when a shell burst quite nearby and blew two German prisoners we had about ten feet from where they were without either getting scratched. It was most entertaining for us to watch them pick themselves up from the blast of one of their own. That same shell was the one that got me in the arm. However, things were in such a bad way that I couldn't possibly leave, so remained with the Coy for another four or five hours, until ordered back by Col Thodey at about 2000 hrs.
The general position now was that the enemy's fighting withdrawal had at last reached an obstacle on which he could make a determined stand. We held a jumping-off position on the Fiumicino, with 5 Canadian Armoured Division up on the left; 3 Greek Mountain Brigade, which had relieved 22 Battalion, had also reached the river at its mouth. The river had risen from a shallow trickle to a raging forty-foot-wide torrent penned in by high stopbanks. The attempt at a breakthrough had not come off. The 23rd and 21st Battalions passed forty-eight very bad hours under fire. There were casualties from exposure and exhaustion, as well as from tank, mortar and artillery fire.
Classical history does not enter largely into infantry training, but even if it did the troops were in no condition to appreciate the fact that the Fiumicino, or one of its tributaries, is thought to be the Rubicon,12 where Caesar passed a night debating whether to cross and march on Rome or do as he was told and send most of his army back home. As a matter of history, he crossed the Rubicon, chased his co-general Pompey out of Rome, and set a precedent for Mussolini until he was bumped off by Brutus, as told by Shakespeare in his Julius Caesar.page 384
The 21st and 23rd Battalions were relieved on the night of 30 September-1 October by the Maoris and 22 Battalion and went back to Bellaria. They stayed there for two days while new plans, leading to a decision to regroup, were considered. The probability of the enemy's breaching the stopbank and flooding vital coastal areas led to a decision to shift the weight of the attack to a more central sector where the conditions were more favourable. The Maoris were relieved by a Greek battalion, and 21 Battalion moved across the divisional boundary on the night of 2-3 October and took over from the right flanking battalion of 11 Canadian Infantry Brigade. The 21st Battalion was now on the left of 22 Battalion. The weather continued to be atrocious, and the troops had little to do beyond patrolling the river bank and being unwilling pawns in a contest between the opposing artillery as to who could damage the greater number of houses suspected of being occupied.
The 22nd Battalion was relieved by a composite force known as Wilderforce and composed of detachments of the Divisional Cavalry and of anti-tank and machine-gun units organised as infantry. The 21st Battalion was now the only 5 Brigade infantry unit in the line, but it was also relieved later that night (5 October) by 25 Battalion and returned to a concentration area between Rimini and Viserba.
The overall position was that the enemy was being pressed hard from two directions—by Fifth Army from the mountains south of Bologna and by Eighth Army on the Adriatic—and a decisive success by either would smash the German defences in Italy. But the weather was on the side of the enemy, and both Fifth and Eighth Armies were running short of assault troops. In Eighth Army there was just enough strength for one more attempt to break through, and regrouping continued. Meanwhile British forces landed on the Greek mainland and the liberated Greeks began to fight among themselves.
A full-scale attack was planned along an axis parallel to and north of the Rimini-Bologna road—Route 9. The New Zealand Division was to make another sidestep to a central position in front of Gatteo; its left boundary was to become its right boundary, while its new left boundary was to be the line of the Rimini-Cesena railway. The Division would then have a page 385 unit known as Cumberland Force, consisting of Greek, Canadian and New Zealand units, on its right in a holding role, while on the left 1 Canadian Infantry Division had in turn taken over a sector astride Route 9 from 56 British Division.
Fifth Brigade moved into its new area in front of Gatteo on 10 October under orders to attack on a two-battalion front, with the Maoris supported by B Squadron 19 Armoured Regiment on the right, 23 Battalion with C Squadron 19 Armoured Regiment on the left, and 21 Battalion in reserve.
The Indian and British divisions further west in the foothills, less handicapped by the rain that had immobilised the coastal plain, were across the Fiumicino and had observation over the enemy facing the Canadians and New Zealanders. The indications were that the German right flank was pulling back to a shorter line.
The 21st Battalion moved in its own trucks and RMT during the afternoon of the 10th, and by evening was dispersed in houses at the Fabbrona crossroads, two miles east of Gatteo. Air reconnaissance and patrols from the forward battalions confirmed that the enemy was in fact pulling back behind the Fiumicino, and platoons filtered over the river until a brigade bridgehead was established. The sappers got bridges across and support arms moved up, not without difficulty, for although the ground was drying, the roads cut up quickly. The Canadians extended the bridgehead on the brigade's left preparatory to 1 Canadian Division attacking along Route 9, with 5 Brigade guarding its right flank, maintaining contact, and prepared to fight if the opportunity presented itself.
The advance from the Fiumicino to the Pisciatello, four miles distant, was to be done in four bounds, the first to Rio Baldona, the second to the Scolo Rigossa, the third to the Scolo Fossalta, and the fourth to the Pisciatello. The brigade front, extending from Sant' Angelo to Gatteo, was about a mile and a half in length, and the start line was the road connecting the two villages.
The Brigadier held a conference on the morning of the 13th and explained that the brigade was faced with the alternative of turning on a full-scale attack on Sant' Angelo to eliminate the danger on the right flank, or to secure the position with a flanking battalion and push on regardless of the enemy strongpoint. The decision was to attack with the Maoris, while 23 Battalion pushed on towards Gambettola. The 21st Battalion was to move up to Gatteo behind 23 Battalion, while B Company, under command of the Maori Battalion, filled the gap between the 23rd and that battalion. After last light all companies marched by the shortest routes to Gatteo, and B Company took up positions in houses between the Rio Baldona and the Scolo Rigossa vacated by elements of 28 and 23 Battalions.
The only event of importance during the night that affected B Company, and to a lesser extent the rest of the battalion further back, was the one-shell celebration of the German evacuation of Athens. To mark the event every gun in the Division fired one shell into Gambettola. The compliment was returned the next afternoon when the battalion area was heavily plastered for ten minutes, for the loss of a carrier, a jeep, and three men wounded. No advance was made during the day (14 October) by 5 Brigade. Sant' Angelo was still in enemy hands, but another attack was being prepared for that night. The new amenity of artificial moonlight was provided as well as a barrage. (Artificial moonlight, frequently used at this period, was provided by searchlight units playing their lights on clouds at such an angle that the light was deflected downwards.) The attack was successful and before daylight the engineers had got a bridge over the Rio Baldona at Sant' Angelo. The 23rd Battalion then resumed its advance, and by early morning had entered the abandoned town of Gambettola.
B Company returned to the battalion and Colonel Thodey was ordered to cross the Scolo Rigossa and form up on the Via Staggi, a road running from the north end of Gambettola in a north-easterly direction. From there the battalion would advance until level with 23 Battalion, whereupon the brigade would move on the Pisciatello with the Scolo Fossalta as the first objective. The timing of the operation would depend on the success of the engineers in bridging the canal for the passage page 388 of tanks and support arms. The battalion was organised as a battle group and took under command A Squadron 19 Armoured Regiment, 5 Platoon 104 Canadian Anti-Tank Battery, E Troop 32 NZ Anti-Tank Battery, 3 Platoon 1 Machine Gun Company, and 2 Platoon 7 Field Company.
The battalion plan was for B Company on the right and C Company on the left to lead the advance. Each would be accompanied by a Honey tank for inter-communication. D Company, with two sections of carriers, was to be ready to move out and protect the right flank. A Company was to be in reserve. The Canadian anti-tank battery would work with the tanks, the battalion mortars would work independently, and the machine-gunners would move up for consolidation on the final objective. The Maoris were to go into reserve, and 22 Battalion would supply right-flank protection.
The bridge over the canal was ready by 2 p.m. and the battalion took up its dispositions along the Via Staggi, on the right of 23 Battalion in the Gambettola area. The battalion was arranged with No. 1 Section of the carriers supporting B Company and No. 2 Section supporting C Company; behind and to a flank were two anti-tank guns for each section of carriers; and still further support was afforded by five mortars in rear of the anti-tank guns. The left flank was in touch with 23 Battalion and the open right flank was the responsibility of D Company. A Company remained in reserve in Gatteo.
The supporting tanks of A Squadron were up by 4.30 p.m. and the advance began. The first battalion objective was from Bulgarno to a crossroads a mile and a half east of the village and about a mile forward of the start line. The troops made good progress for half the distance, when they were fired on from houses along a road parallel to the axis of advance and leading to Bulgarno. By the time the companies had worked as far forward as possible without engaging in a fire fight, it was nearly dark and Thodey decided to stand for the night. The position then was that B Company had edged around the opposition and was close to the road, but C Company had not been able to move more than a few hundred yards. So far there were no casualties. The 23rd Battalion, under instruction not to persist if the going was tough, was also not in full page 389 possession of the first bound. Further to the left the Canadians had made better progress and were within a mile of the Pisciatello; on the extreme right there was no change.
The battalion was to move again at first light on 16 October under the same plan and method. The 76 Panzer Korps facing the Canadians and New Zealanders was in fact now making a fighting withdrawal and had left the Bulgarno road when the troops went forward at daybreak. By 8 a.m. C Company was in Bulgarno and B Company, on its right, slightly behind it. This was not on account of enemy resistance, but because B Company had been ordered to move west along the Bulgarno road and outflank the enemy rearguard holding up C Company. When it found the position vacated, C Company was ordered to occupy the village.
The companies waited in this position while the armour got up. The troop supporting C Company did not take long via the Gambettola-Bulgarno road, but the troop with B Company were delayed by a 200-foot demolition which had to be bypassed. When the tanks arrived B Company moved forward to approximately the line decided as the battalion objective for the previous day and, under instructions from Brigade, remained there until further orders. There were still no casualties.
About midday 5 Brigade received its orders to push on to the river, which was thought to be the enemy's line of resistance, and if possible without heavy fighting to secure a crossing. The 22nd Battalion was moving up to take care of the right flank, and 6 Brigade was also coming up with the intention of passing through 5 Brigade after the crossing was established. The 23rd Battalion's thrust line was along the road to Ruffio, thence due north to the river, while 21 Battalion was directed against Macerone, also due north and across the Pisciatello.
The battalion moved off at 1 p.m. for the river, about one and a half miles north, with the Scolo Fossalta lying half-way as the first objective. The troops were now nearing the enemy outposts defending the Pisciatello River line, and small-arms fire was added to the harassing enemy artillery fire that had been a feature of the morning operation. In addition smoke shells were used against the tanks and obscured their vision to some extent. With snipers' nests to be dealt with, progress page 390 was much slower than in the morning, and it was not until late afternoon, and with the aid of covering fire from A Company 23 Battalion, that C Company crossed the Scolo Fossalta, with B Company a little further back. Forty-eight prisoners were captured at a cost of two killed and three wounded. Thodey decided to wait until darkness before attempting the second bound.
Battalion Headquarters was moved up to the Via Staggi, and in the evening the company commanders met the Colonel there. A divisional order had been received to the effect that 6 Brigade would relieve 5 Brigade on the line reached by 6 p.m. the following day. Brigadier Burrows already had discussed with his two forward battalion commanders the situation on the brigade front, and it had been agreed that 23 Battalion, at the crossroads short of Ruffio village, should wait until 21 Battalion got on to a lateral road connecting the two battalions, and about a quarter of a mile north of 21 Battalion's forward troops.
On the brigade's left the Canadians were squaring up for the final thrust to the Pisciatello; further left again 5 British Corps was in the final stages of its advance on Cesena, east of the Savio River; on the coastal front patrols felt about and the RAF shot up targets—there was no necessity for fighting because the enemy would soon have to pull back or be cut off.
Thodey's plan was for D Company to pass through B Company and advance up the road to Macerone, while A Company passed through C Company on the axis of a secondary road half a mile west of and parallel to D Company. B Company would provide flank protection if required, while C Company stayed in reserve. The engineers would move with the troops and clear the roads of mines so that the tanks could be on hand at first light. The Canadians' anti-tank guns would work with the armour, while the machine-gunners and mortars harassed the river line. The battalion carriers were not to move until daylight, when they were to be ready to support B Company in its role of flank support.
There was a thousand-yard gap which might be troublesome between the battalion's right and 22 Battalion, hence the precaution for flank support. The Colonel's final instruction was page 391 that, if the forward companies did not get to the river before daylight, they were to continue on if possible after first light. B and C Companies would take care of any pockets of resistance left behind in the darkness. The advance would commence at 11 p.m.
D Company, moving up level with A Company across the Scolo Fossalta, found a big demolition at the Fossalta crossing. It was not, however, a tank obstacle, as it could be bypassed easily enough, though it would take the sappers at least three hours to repair. About four hundred yards north of the Fossalta another road crossed the company's axis, where mortar and machine-gun fire was encountered from the enemy outpost line.
D Company halted until the fire died down a little, whereupon the advance proceeded. At 5 a.m. it was approaching the Scolo Olca, a canal approximately parallel with the objective a quarter of a mile farther north. Here it was fired on by enemy troops holding house positions in the vicinity and took some time to clear them out, but by 6 a.m. the company was firmly in possession of the Scolo Olca and consolidating in conformity with a message not to push further forward until further orders. A Company, moving along the secondary road, was not bothered with harassing fire like D Company, as the enemy was evidently fully occupied with 23 Battalion further left, judging by the metal thrown in that direction. A Company was up to the canal by 4 a.m., and a patrol quietly crossed the bridge over it and picked up two Germans who had no idea that the New Zealanders were so close.
Both companies consolidated on the bank of the canal and remained there throughout the day. They tied in with 23 Battalion, which had been compelled to bypass Ruffio and came up a little later. By 9 a.m. 5 Brigade was firmly established just short of the Pisciatello and under fire from all types of enemy weapons.
Previous experience had taught the troops that when the Germans were pushed back to a new position in flat country the first step was for the artillery, in lieu of spotter aircraft, to find its range by firing a few rounds of smoke shells. On this occasion there were no smoke shells, but there was steady and accurate fire soon after first light. The bell tower of the page 392 church in Macerone beyond the river suggested the answer. The belfry was a large affair supported on four columns, and Second-Lieutenant Craig suggested to a Sherman tank commander that its removal would be a good thing. The Sherman shot its supporting columns away and the whole edifice disappeared, to the detriment of the German gunners' accuracy. Later Craig and Sergeant Bill Marsh13 made a special trip to see if the tower had really been used as an observation post. They found prepared and wired demolition charges in the base of the tower, and telephone wires hanging down the undamaged portion. The Italians said that three Germans had been killed in the crash.
Fifth Brigade ended its seven-day period in action that night. The plan was now for 6 Brigade to force the river and for 4 Armoured Brigade to exploit through if the ground remained firm enough. After last light A and B Companies of 24 Battalion took over from A and D Companies of 21 Battalion and the latter marched back to Gambettola.
The troops cleaned up and caught up on some arrears of sleep, while 6 Brigade established bridgeheads across the Pisciatello and 4 Armoured Brigade fidgeted about waiting for the word to strike for the Savio River, about five miles ahead. The enemy was also considering whether to move back again before he was pushed back, and finally decided on another fighting retreat.
The following day 21 Battalion occupied Macerone. Fifth Brigade stayed in reserve, while 6 Brigade and 4 Armoured Brigade battled through farmlands, across ditches, over demolitions, and along lanes towards the Savio. But there was still no breakthrough.
A battalion history sketches but faintly the operations of other divisions and theatres, but it is necessary here to mention that Eighth Army had been engaged in incessant fighting since August and was sorely in need of rest and reorganisation. Two divisions were non-operational owing to lack of infantry reinforcements, and others were just about fought out; there were no armoured formations in reserve, and there was nobody to page 393 relieve the tired Canadians. All resources were going to France and there was even a grave shortage of shells for the guns. And, as if that was not enough, Eighth Army was required to send troops to occupy Greece. Finally the autumn rains, of which the troops had had a foretaste, were very close. Fifth Army, in the mountains, was already bogged down almost in sight of Bologna. It was decided to form an army reserve with 2 New Zealand Division and to rest the other divisions in any way possible. To this end 5 Brigade was relieved by 5 Canadian Division and moved out in RMT and its own transport in the early morning of 22 October.
The 21st Battalion's casualties in the Rimini operations were 35 killed, 81 wounded, and five prisoners of war, a total of 121.
1 Brig J. T. Burrows, DSO and bar, ED, m.i.d., Order of Valour (Greek); Christchurch; born Christchurch, 14 Jul 1904; schoolmaster; CO 20 Bn Dec 1941-Jun 1942; 20 Bn and 20 Armd Regt Aug 1942-Jul 1943; comd 4 Bde 27-29 Jun 1942, 5 Jul-15 Aug 1942; 5 Bde Mar 1944, Aug-Nov 1944; 6 Bde Jul-Aug 1944; Commandant Southern Military District Nov 1951-.
2 2 Lt J. W. Clotworthy; Pukehuia; born NZ 19 Mar 1914; farmer; wounded 5 Oct 1944.
4 Lt-Col R. R. T. Young, DSO; Richmond, England; born Wellington, 25 Jun 1902; oil company executive; CO School of Instruction Feb-Apr 1943; 28 (Maori) Bn Dec 1943-Jul 1944, Aug-Nov 1944; wounded 26 Dec 1943.