CHAPTER 18 — From the Senio to Trieste
Between the Adriatic and the Apennines the Eighth Army lay along the Senio's southern bank, prepared to strike north-westwards across the wide alluvial plain that surrounds Ferrara. On its left the Fifth Army made ready to debouch from the mountains upon Bologna and sweep north towards the Alps through Italy's main industrial area. On the extreme right 5 Corps, including 2 New Zealand Division, occupied a sector from the Adriatic coast to a point five miles south of Lugo. Then came 2 Polish, 10 and 13 Corps, extending from right to left up to the boundary between the Eighth and Fifth armies south-west of Imola. The 2nd New Zealand Division had moved into the left sector of 5 Corps' front, with 78 Division on its right and 3 Carpathian Division of the Polish Corps on its left. Five German divisions opposed the Eighth Army. Of these the 98th faced the New Zealanders. Such, in brief, were the Allied and enemy dispositions when 24 Battalion returned from San Severino to enact the last phase of a story that had begun five eventful years ago at Narrow Neck.
The sector taken over by 6 Brigade at the beginning of April lay some three miles north-east of that previously held at Felisio. By the village of San Severo, where the Senio turned directly seaward before bending north at Cotignola, 24 Battalion joined up with the Poles on its left and 25 Battalion on its right. A and B Companies, under Majors Rawley and Turbott, were forward on the right and left respectively, with C and D in support, the former still commanded by Major Boord, while D Company had lately been taken over by Major Conder.1 On this front the enemy still occupied a strip of the near bank about 300 yards long, thus retaining a toehold over part of what was to be the jumping-off ground for our coming offensive. It was essential that this strip should be captured without delay, and 24 Battalion's forward troops prepared for the attempt. page 312 The Senio ran deep and narrow between artificial banks or earthworks raised to protect the surrounding country against floods. The outer wall of these stopbanks sloped steeply upwards to a narrow, flat surface on their summit, between which and the actual river bank a flat ledge extended inwards. The ledge was protected and hidden by the outer wall of earth, and under this wall the enemy had burrowed for safety, building dugouts and machine-gun emplacements. Even if driven off the near bank, he would still be able to make it barely tenable for attacking troops by concentrating fire upon them at close range from the further bank. Altogether the Senio and its protective earthworks constituted a most formidable barrier.
On the night of 2 April A Company sent out a patrol to cross the river and discover to what extent its approaches were mined and wired. The patrol crossed over without being opposed. The water was 4 ft 6 ins deep near the banks and six feet deep in midstream. Neither wire nor mines were encountered.
Preparatory measures having been taken, A and B Companies attacked and captured the enemy-occupied stopbank on the night of 3 April. The first part of this operation was comparatively simple, but the ground gained was far from easy to hold. It happened that an enemy raiding party some fifty strong had emerged to attack us just as A and B Companies' assault went in, and although our men lined the near slopes of the stop- bank, the enemy still remained on the other side at a distance of only a few yards. A duel at close quarters ensued, in which each of our companies tossed more than a thousand grenades over the bank within a space of twenty-four hours. When it became apparent that many of these were rolling down the bank to explode harmlessly in the river, the New Zealanders devised an ingenious expedient. Dropping two or three grenades into a bag, having previously removed the pins, they hurled the whole contraption over in among the enemy. Thus prevented from rolling too far, the grenades exploded opposite the mouths of the German dugouts.
On A Company's front the banks formed an angle with its apex pointing south, the lie of the land enabling Major Rawley to plant machine guns on either flank so as to enfilade the front with intersecting fire. As the Poles had not occupied the stop- page 313 bank, B Company's flank was not only exposed but confined in width, so that it was not possible to bring much fire power to bear on an attack coming in from the west. And counter-attacks did come in continually, some against the left arm of the angle opposite A Company's front, but most of them against B Company's exposed flank, where the Germans were dug in on our side of the stopbank. Our men could hear the enemy burrowing about beneath their feet, and once or twice Germans emerged from the ground in their midst. But all this under- mining of the stopbank had seriously weakened it, and when one of our tanks came close up to fire in support its shells tore right through the upper portion of the earthwork, demolishing enemy dugouts and killing the occupants. Eventually the enemy was literally blasted from his position, but, as may be imagined, this was not accomplished without loss or damage. Besides suffering a number of casualties, our forward troops were obliged to remain so constantly on the alert that sleep was practically impossible. The strain of living cheek by jowl with the enemy was beginning to tell upon the men of A and B Companies when C and D took over the line on 6 April, to continue fighting at close quarters right up to the moment of withdrawal before the general barrage. Each forward company still used on an average 1000 grenades every 24 hours.
As D-day drew near the knowledge that force had been concentrated on so massive a scale, combined with good news coming from other fronts, bred the same confidence in our troops as had been felt before Alamein and El Hamma. ‘We'll go through them like a knife through butter’, said an officer who had been present at both those actions, when asked his opinion. His words expressed a general conviction, but this time the expectation of a mere local victory had given place to a feeling of certainty that the German armies in Italy would be finally destroyed.
While 8 Indian Division and 2 New Zealand Division prepared to attack north and south of Lugo, thereby pinching out the Cotignola salient, some anxiety was felt by the higher command as to whether the enemy might not seek to delay the coming blow by withdrawing to the Santerno; but the infantry, more concerned with preliminary details than with strategical page 314 problems, were too fully occupied to think of anything but the work in hand. The 5th and 6th Brigades, right and left respectively, were to carry out the initial assault—6 Brigade attacking with 24 Battalion left, 25 Battalion right, and 26 Battalion in reserve. The 9th Brigade, a new formation lately added to the divisional strength, was to cross the Senio in rear of the assaulting wave, capture Cotignola, and protect 5 Brigade's open right flank. After an artillery and aerial bombardment lasting four hours, the further stopbanks were to be deluged by flame-throwers immediately before the infantry assault went in. The near banks, however, being too steep for flame-throwing tanks or Wasps2 to mount, ramps had to be made and adjusted so that the muzzles of the flame-throwers should protrude exactly over the summit. The task of constructing these ramps fell to C and D Companies, holding the right and left sectors of 24 Battalion's front line, preparatory to forming the first attacking wave. Naturally there could be no measuring and testing with the enemy so close, and the work had to be carried out by judgment and estimate. Tracks were cut and carefully flagged out through rows of vines, which grew especially thick on the right front. Drivers of flame-throwing tanks were each taken personally and shown the exact route to be followed, to avoid all danger of their getting lost on D-day. Tracks were also cut for the boat and bridge parties. Both boats and kapok bridges were dug in and covered over a quarter of a mile behind the stopbank.
April the 9th dawned gloriously fine, and early in the afternoon, under a clear sky, American heavy bombers plastered the enemy rear till a huge pall of dust and smoke towered high above the line of the Santerno. Our troops began to thin out from the front line and by 3 p.m. were sheltering in trenches 500 yards back. Twenty minutes later a vast concentration of guns came into action, and both far and near stopbanks erupted into a state of violent, continuous upheaval. After half an hour the guns ceased. For ten minutes fighter-bombers circled above the river, bombing and machine-gunning the enemy defence lines and firing rockets at known strongpoints. Then the artillery started again.page 315
Each assaulting company had two fighting platoons forward and one working platoon in support to launch the kapok page 316 bridges. Except for one platoon of C Company which found a footbridge intact, the forward troops crossed over in boats without a check, a few casualties being caused by mines. Before long a number of half-stupefied prisoners with no fight left in them were being gathered in from dugouts on the reverse slopes of the far bank. While mopping up still went on, the kapok bridges were launched and fixed in position. Then, with the far bank cleared, C and D Companies moved a little way forward and waited for A and B to pass through them. At 7.47 p.m. a barrage opened up along a line some 400 yards north of the river, where it played for 30 minutes in order that the second assaulting wave might form up behind it. A and B Companies had filed up from behind San Severo to where the kapok bridges had been laid. Smoke was fired to cover their somewhat hazardous operation of forming up in the open. Before the barrage lifted they had crossed the river, passed through the advanced companies, and were ready to advance through Barbiano towards the Lugo Canal.
Meanwhile 25 Battalion had crossed over on the right, and 5 Brigade had also made its passage although 21 Battalion, on its right flank, was meeting some opposition. Four battalions of 8 Indian Division were across north of Lugo, but the Poles were having difficulty on the left, and one of their assaulting battalions was still on the Senio's eastern bank.
When the barrage lifted at five past eight, 24 Battalion's advance proceeded. Enemy resistance had broken down for the time being, and the outstanding difficulty was that of keeping direction. The whole country was laid out in rectangular fields, bounded by roads, hedges, and ditches and planted with rows of vines. The axis of advance led diagonally across the line of all these natural obstacles; and matters were not improved by smoke from the barrage, which hung low like a ground mist, adding to the darkness of night and reducing visibility to a few feet. Marking shots fired by Bofors guns were of some assistance, but for the most part direction could be maintained only by compass bearing and contact between platoons and sections by continual shouting. Before long most of the men were wet to the skin from having fallen into muddy ditches. Lastly, a few Tiger tanks were still roving about in the darkness, seeking some way of escape.page 317
During the advance Conder's men had relieved B Company of its prisoners, besides collecting a few on their own account. These were placed in charge of Sergeant-Major Kingsford,3 who might have found them difficult to control in the darkness had they been determined to escape, but the bombardment had left them well content to remain in custody.
Groping on towards the pause line south-east of Barbiano, A and B Companies performed the astonishing feat of changing places without any contact being made between the troops of either unit. Reforming on their correct lines just before midnight, they went on past the village to reach their objectives well before dawn. Patrols sent forward to the Lugo Canal came back to report that it was undefended and that its bridges had not been demolished. So far no contact had been established with 25 Battalion on the right. New Zealand engineers were working manfully to bridge the Senio. The Poles were still held up, and two companies of 26 Battalion moved forward on to 6 Brigade's flank to seal the widening gap between the New Zealand and Polish divisions.
Many strange things happened on that pitch-black night. A soldier of B Company, trudging forward in the darkness, suddenly realised that the man walking beside him was wearing a German helmet. Unfortunately he was carrying 10 Platoon's Piat gun—scarcely the right kind of weapon for dealing with a situation of this kind. A warning shout brought other men to the spot, but the German dropped into a ditch and made his escape. Another incident that took place soon after Major Turbott's men had reached their objective with their left flank on the Lugo Canal is described as under in the company's war diary:
Two and Three Sections were still searching their casa when movement was heard down the road to the right leading from the divisional front. Positioning themselves along the side of the road members of Three Section opened fire, at almost point-blank range, upon a horse-drawn vehicle which loomed out of the night, moving as slowly and silently as was possible. As the vehicle did not stop it was necessary to chase down the road after it, but it had not gone page 318 far as it was found that two of the four horses drawing a 6 [inch] calibre field gun and carriage were dead and the remaining two very close to being so.
Having shot the remaining horses in order to prevent their making a noise, and also providing an effective road block, Two and Three Sections were not to be undisturbed very long. Once again movement was reported coming down the road, but this time the horses were travelling much faster and not so quietly as previously. The reception committee, however, were all ready and waiting as the horses neared the casa…. The silence was broken as the vehicle's shape could be made out distinctly. This time fire was maintained for some time so that anybody trying to escape over the far side of the road stood a good chance of being killed. A call from Jack Riddell4 was answered, and seven frightened Teds5 stepped out from the position they had taken up on the far side of the road. Ushering these prisoners along the road in front of the casa, another Ted was collected as he stood opposite the rear window from which a Bren and Tommy covered him. He had been riding the leading horse, and had been dismounted when the team had telescoped into the first field gun and carriage. All the horses were dead, and again the prize was one field gun.
Twice at intervals later in the morning parties of Germans returned to demolish a small bridge on the road in front of 10 Platoon, but on each occasion they were driven off before their intention could be carried out.
When the leading troops passed through its eastern outskirts, Barbiano had appeared like a place of the dead, but as D Company came through to mop up the village three Tiger tanks emerged from among its ruins. The Piat gunners waited on either side of the road and fired into the rear of each tank as it passed. The last one showed signs of distress and was later found broken down about half a mile away. The village was a maze of barbed wire, but it was cleared with little delay and a number of prisoners taken. While the excitement was at its height, Major Conder found that in addition to all other troubles he had a confinement on his hands. Fortunately Andy Whitson,6 C Company's medical orderly, was also a medical page 319 student. In response to a frantic call for assistance, Major Boord despatched Andy to attend the case. He returned an hour later to announce ‘a seven-pound boy, both doing well’, adding that few men could claim to have helped life into the world and out of it on the same night.
Struggling through vines and across ditches in rear of A Company, Boord's men emerged on to the Barbiano road, along which a Tiger tank with lights on moved slowly towards them through the dense fog and darkness. Corporal Pountney7 at once got his men into a ditch. Since it was impossible to see more than a few feet, the Piat gun was of little use, but as the tank passed by Pountney noticed four Germans armed with rifles riding on the back. Springing up, he threatened them with his tommy gun, upon which they dismounted and were made prisoner, while the tank went on its way.8 As the company moved on to its objective east of Barbiano, three more Tiger tanks passed the crossroads and disappeared towards Lugo.
By dawn the leading troops were in position 500 yards north-west of Barbiano, with C and D Companies in rear on either side of the village. Contact had been made with 25 Battalion, and tanks of 20 Armoured Regiment had come forward. The Poles were making slow progress, but 26 Battalion was deployed facing outwards on 6 Brigade's flank, with its forward companies south-west of Barbiano. Away to the right on 5 Brigade's front 21 Battalion was meeting tough opposition, but the Maoris on 25 Battalion's flank had made good progress. White flags were appearing in Cotignola as troops of 9 Brigade and 78 Division converged on either side of it. Two-thirds of the German 98th Division had been destroyed; nor was there any other enemy formation available for its relief. It remained to be seen whether the battered remnants would effectively dispute our crossing of the Santerno.
At 9 a.m. on 10 April orders came through for a further move that same afternoon. Shifting its line of advance slightly to the west, 24 Battalion pivoted on B Company as it swung left to form up on the Lugo Canal. Proof of the enemy's com- page 320 plete disorganisation was given during the morning when two Germans on bicycles rode into B Company lines. On being made prisoner they explained that they had been to the dentist and thought they were returning to their unit. With C and D Companies right and left forward, the advance began at 1.30 p.m. Tanks of 20 Armoured Regiment followed, though checked continually by the numerous waterways, while the infantry did everything in their power to find crossings as an alternative to going forward unsupported. An hour later 24 Battalion's leading troops had gained 2000 yards to reach the Scolo Tratturo—one of the many canals by which this country was traversed from north-east to south-west. No. 14 Platoon of C Company had bumped into a pocket of resistance, killed three Germans, and taken 16 prisoners. Corporal Hosking,9 of D Company, had gone forward with three men and seized a small bridge beyond the Scolo Tratturo. The bridge was defended by four Germans, two of whom were killed and two made prisoner. Hosking was awarded the MM for this and other exploits performed at the Senio and Santerno crossings. Apart from the sporadic resistance of small isolated parties, no organised attempt by any sizeable body of troops had been made to dispute 24 Battalion's progress.
At this point there was a pause, after which A and B Companies passed through C and D on the second bound, arriving at half past one on the line of a lateral road some 1500 yards south-east of the Santerno. There they remained for the night, while C and D Companies passed through them at dusk to camp within half a mile of the river.
The Santerno's winding course had been straightened by a canal, and opposite the point at which 24 Battalion now faced it a great loop bulged out nearly 1000 yards north-west, where the river had formerly run. Though still carrying water, it was known as the Santerno Morto.
Colonel Hutchens called a conference on the night of 11 April, directing C and D Companies to attempt the canal crossing at dawn. Moving quietly forward with tanks in support, the attacking force reached the river bank unhindered except for page 321 sporadic mortar fire. Within less than an hour C Company had all three platoons across, with the loss of eight wounded. Corporal Smith10 earned the MM for the dash and courage with which he led his section, and Private Gwilliam,11 a medical orderly, won the same award for carrying back wounded under fire. D Company was on its objective soon after C. One of its leading platoons was held up on the far bank by fire from a concealed dugout, but Private Freeman12 went forward alone and captured the position with eight prisoners. Though wounded in the shoulder, he escorted them back across the river and handed them over personally before consenting to go down the line. He also was awarded the MM.
The 25th Battalion now crossed on C Company's right, showing a tendency to shoot up anything on sight that caused Boord's men a few anxious moments. Fifth Brigade went over early in the afternoon behind an artillery barrage. As strong as the Senio, the Santerno line had been breached with a mere skirmish, but ahead lay the loop of the Santerno Morto, and without its capture the bridgehead could not be effectively established. Thinking to seize it without delay, Hutchens sent three companies forward—D to occupy the western side of the loop, B to move into the end of the bulge, and C to advance along its eastern limits. Our tanks, however, were not yet across the canal, and as it happened the bulge was strongly held. D Company got to its objective soon after dark, but C ran into strong opposition and had to retreat with one man killed and five wounded. Having crossed the canal as this setback took place, B Company made no attempt to go any further for the time being.
Throughout the night engineers worked hard to bridge the Santerno. Before dawn two troops of tanks had crossed over on 5 Brigade's front and swung left to make contact with 24 Battalion. At 7.30 a.m. 10 and 11 Platoons of B Company advanced towards the end of the bulge, with tanks in support, to gain their objective without much difficulty. But once there page 322 a galling fire came from their left rear. A Company had not yet come up and in consequence this flank was exposed. For a time it seemed that a counter-attack was coming, and the position of the two platoons was somewhat precarious till A Company arrived forward and cleared the left side of the bulge.
With this operation completed, C Company was sent back to relieve the right company of 26 Battalion, which guarded the wide gap between 6 Brigade and the Poles. But by the time C Company arrived at its destination after a tiring, circuitous march, the Poles had advanced, the gap had narrowed, and Boord was ordered back to his former position.
The whole Eighth Army was in motion. With 56 Division pressing forward along the shores of Lake Comacchio and 78 Division storming the Argenta Gap, 5 New Zealand Brigade had advanced along the railway line towards Massa Lombarda, while the Poles were up to the Santerno. The bulge being firmly in our hands, 26 Battalion took the lead for 6 Brigade and went on to link up with the Maoris, who threatened the approaches to Massa Lombarda.
The 24th Battalion was now ordered to move forward by bounds, the companies, two abreast, passing through one another as each successive objective was reached. On the afternoon of 12 April A and B Companies, left and right, advanced 1200 yards beyond the Santerno Morto, with D following. Rawley's men met with successive checks at two large cement buildings several hundred yards apart. It appeared at first that each of them was held in strength, but actually they were defended by no more than four or five German officers armed with spandaus who fought desperately to the end. At this stage Massa Lombarda lay on the battalion's north-eastern flank. Starting at midnight, Boord's tired men had had some difficulty in catching up, being hindered on their way by the traffic of 9 Brigade, which was assembling to carry out the pursuit. It was believed that Massa Lombarda and its environs had been evacuated. An attack was to take place at 2 a.m., with C Company moving through B on 26 Battalion's left; the decision whether or not a barrage should be used was left to Major Boord. He decided in favour and the barrage was fired, but the intelligence proved correct and no enemy was encountered. page 323 Tanks were up with the infantry, and Boord asked Hutchens for leave to push on beyond the Molini Canal. Permission being granted, C Company advanced 1000 yards through country thick with orchards, vines, hedges and ditches, to what was known as the Retriever line, arriving there just before dawn. At 7.30 a.m. on 13 April, 9 Brigade steamed through the position with its men mounted on Kangaroo tanks.page 324
Meanwhile Rawley's and Turbott's men had reached the Molini Canal soon after 3 a.m., a quarter of an hour later than C Company, claiming to have fallen into more ditches than at any other stage of the advance. While waiting on that line a patrol under Corporal Riddell of B Company surprised and captured a German wireless operator at work.13
Making enquiries on the way from Italian residents, Ted's hide- out was pointed out and we entered a casa on the left of the road to find a blond headed youth of about twenty-one. For company he had two powerful radio sets…. Realising that the game was up, Ted came quietly, but [being] conscious of the nature of his activities he was very concerned lest we should shoot him. As he was marched up the road the enemy artillery began to do the area over, and he confessed to having summoned it. This did not give us reason to have feelings of goodwill towards him, but we were pleased with his capture which included Div. codes and other valuable information.14
The 26th Battalion, which had forged ahead to reach the Scolo Zaniolo, now side-stepped right to let 9 Brigade pass through, and 24 Battalion moved round on to 6 Brigade's right flank. At 10 a.m. B and D Companies rode forward on tanks, the latter halting in rear of the 26th, which had advanced to Ghina Vecchia, half-way between Massa Lombarda and the Sillaro River. Major Turbott, however, overshot the mark and had to retreat with some haste. He writes:
I was riding on the back of the leading tank of B Company, and, acting on the faulty intelligence reports I had been given, I gave the tank commander instructions to move to a certain position which turned out to be forward of the 26th Battalion's line. We careered happily down the road past the flabbergasted 26th to be halted suddenly by enemy tank fire. AP shells soon caused a quick dismount and hasty scatter for cover. We came back on foot and I contacted Col. Fairbrother15 and arranged to work with him, which we did until later in the day.16page 325
A and C Companies rested for a short time in a factory building north-west of Massa Lombarda and moved forward again on foot in the afternoon. The defeat had not yet developed into a pursuit. The German 98th Infantry Division had practically ceased to exist as such, but a fresh division, the 278th, stood firm on the Sillaro, a river with floodbanks like those of the Senio, though less high and difficult.
Ninth Brigade, on the left, and 6 Brigade, on the right, squared up to attack the river line, with A Company of 24 Battalion on the 26th's right and C Company guarding A Company's flank. Major Rawley had been obliged to go sick at Massa Lombarda, and Captain Forster17 had taken his place when A Company moved off from its start line behind a barrage at 2 a.m. on 14 April. ‘About 200 yards after the line was passed’, writes Forster, ‘we had reported one fatal casualty, apparently caused by one gun firing short. As this gun continued to drop short throughout the advance 8 Pl. was moved to the left and followed 7 Pl. along the Coy's left boundary. No enemy were sighted during the advance—the Coy being right up on the barrage throughout. During the barrage pause on the stopbanks the troops had a breather, crossed A and B banks without meeting any resistance and occupied the far bank after very slight resistance had been overcome. 7 Pl. and 9 Pl. began to dig in when the coy from 25 came up and moved over the stopbank. Jerries, apparently still taking cover from the barrage when 7 and 9 crossed the river, opened fire. There was a short skirmish along the bank, with 8 Pl. mixed up in it, for ten minutes or so, about half a dozen casualties in 25 and a dozen prisoners rounded up at our HQ. These last were sent back to 25 Bn. carrying the wounded.
‘A check of the Coy area showed that we were right on a Jerry tank crossing which our planes had tried to bomb. The approaches were still in good order, although bombs had fallen very close. 7 Pl. reported an enemy tank moving in front; a call for an arty stonk was made, after which the tank sheered off without attempting anything tough.
‘We could hear 9 Brigade having bother out to the left, page 326 while a spandau out beyond C Coy made a nuisance of itself on the right. One or two snipers kept our heads respectfully low, but otherwise the situation was quiet. Tim New (CQMS) arrived with breakfast in the small containers and while half a dozen of us prepared to issue the food a mortar stonk made us dive for cover into a ditch. A close one landed first, and we were very lucky to have only one casualty as we were clustered round the containers. I was unlucky in that I had to be the casualty.’18
Coming up on the exposed right flank, C Company had been ordered to move 400 yards behind the barrage, which was not, however, to extend beyond A Company's right flank; but when the barrage came down, Major Boord, finding that it did in fact cover his own front, at once moved forward to get behind it. One gun was firing short; after it had caused two casualties the men opened out to avoid its line of fire and soon arrived on the river bank. A ford that appeared passable for tanks was discovered 400 yards downstream. Having eventually obtained permission to seize it, Boord crossed over with a platoon borrowed from B Company and chased away a few Germans who disputed his passage, but the accompanying tank was unable to negotiate the further stopbank and the platoon had to be withdrawn later.
Supported by a squadron of 20 Armoured Regiment, B Company tried to retake the position in the afternoon, but once again the tanks were unable to climb the further stopbank. After Turbott's men had withdrawn, D Company tried later in the afternoon but with no better success. Enemy shelling and mortaring had now increased, and over on the left A Company was getting its full share; farther still to the south-west, 9 Brigade was held up astride the railway line. In the evening an enemy force about sixty strong was seen approaching the ford, but when shelled it promptly dispersed. At 9 p.m. Hutchens' tired men were relieved by 25 Battalion, after which they moved back towards Massa Lombarda for a short rest.
While 24 Battalion bathed, cleaned equipment, and doctored blistered feet, 9 and 6 Brigades crossed the Sillaro in force, broke out of the bridgehead, and penetrated far into the enemy's page 327 line, reaching Scolo Montanara the following evening. Patrols sent out towards Medicina found that town already in possession of 43 Gurkha Lorried Infantry Brigade. As brigade reserve, 24 Battalion was not engaged, its task being that of flank protection. At dusk its companies were strung out from Scolo Scolatore back to within 1000 yards of the Sillaro, and there they remained for the next forty-eight hours while 5 Brigade passed through to continue the advance.
The Fifth Army had begun its offensive on the left and was shortly to emerge from the Apennines on to the Bologna plain. The 278th German Division had been badly smashed on the Sillaro and it seemed that the enemy was breaking at last. But resistance was not yet over. After fighting a stubborn rearguard action against the Poles, 4 German Parachute Division had moved across to the New Zealanders' front, and now stood firm in strong entrenchments along the Gaiana River. An assault by 9 New Zealand Brigade and 43 Gurkha Lorried Infantry Brigade behind one of the heaviest known barrages captured this position on the night of 18-19 April, with crippling loss to the defenders. Twenty-four hours later the attacking troops were on the Quaderna Canal, where 5 Brigade came up to relieve 9 Brigade on the right, and 6 Brigade took over from the Gurkhas. The 24th and 26th Battalions, right and left, with 25 Battalion in reserve, began to push on before dawn.
Ahead lay another of those interminable rivers—the Idice— on which stood the much-vaunted Genghis Khan Line. The 24th Battalion's companies advanced bound by bound, with B and C leading, right and left. By midday the leading troops were on the railway line running south from Budrio, a few hundred yards from the Idice banks. Fifth Brigade already had a foothold on the other side when Conder's men passed through B Company and came up on Boord's right to make the crossing. Conder got his company over without much difficulty, but C Company encountered three strongpoints on the far bank and had to make use of supporting armour. Two platoons then made the passage. At this point the river had no floodbanks to give protection, but the platoons seized and fortified a large solidly built hospital. In the afternoon German tanks appeared and drove D Company, together with elements of 23 Battalion page 328 on the right, back across the river. Though fairly secure in the hospital building, C Company's platoons were left isolated on the far bank.
At 5 p.m. A and B Companies, left and right, were ordered to attack and form a bridgehead half a mile beyond the Idice. Anxious to gain the confidence of men to whom he was a stranger, Major Lea19 made a point of exposing himself to the enemy's fire, though the reputation he already enjoyed might have precluded the necessity for any special display of courage. All went well until his right forward platoon came under fire from two machine guns which had hitherto remained concealed. There were several casualties, and the advance would have been held up if Lance-Corporal Beckham,20 of C Company, had not immediately come to the rescue. Accompanied by two others, he tackled the first post under covering fire and killed the German machine-gunners. No covering fire could be given to support his attack on the second gun, but, approaching it by way of a communication trench, he dealt with it in the same fashion before returning to the fortified hospital building. He was awarded the DCM. Its left flank being no longer embarrassed, A Company occupied the far bank and then extended its lines to form a bridgehead.
While B Company was approaching the Idice a mortar bomb landed squarely among the personnel of its headquarters, slightly wounding Major Turbott21, who, though shaken, had continued to direct operations. An incident less discouraging took place soon afterwards, when an 18-year-old German prisoner, passed back by the forward troops, explained that he hated both Hitler and Goering. By dusk all three of B Company's platoons were across, to be joined an hour later by three tanks of 20 Armoured Regiment. At one time 11 Platoon found itself with a number of the enemy still in rear on the stopbank, in possession of several large dugouts, ‘but’, says the company war diary, ‘Ted was in a submissive mood and came quietly.’ page 329 Second-Lieutenant Yarnton22 displayed the qualities of leadership that had come to be expected of him ever since the Senio crossing, and led 10 Platoon to its objective on B Company's left front.
While the foregoing events were in process 5 Brigade had extended its bridgehead on the right. On the left 26 Battalion had discovered a ford, and its companies were passing over with armoured support. By nightfall the Genghis Khan Line no longer existed as a barrier to our progress.
So far as 24 Battalion was concerned, the Idice crossing had been the sharpest engagement of the whole advance and the most costly. Since 9 April there had been a total of 97 casualties, and the strain of fighting day and night was telling upon all ranks. But the knowledge that victory was at hand was a powerful antidote to exhaustion. Bologna had fallen. The South African Armoured Division had emerged from the Apennines and was moving out on to the plain. The 12th Lancers, having recently come under the command of the New Zealand Division, were probing forward in Staghound armoured cars and were soon to make contact with 91 United States Division. Away on the right 6 British Armoured Division was pouring through the Argenta Gap.
Meanwhile our troops in the Idice bridgehead were unmolested during the night of 21-22 April. Daylight having revealed the enemy's withdrawal, 24 Battalion moved a mile downstream and then began to advance, with A and B Companies leading. The 26th Battalion followed on the left, with 25 Battalion protecting its flank. Fifth Brigade was still on the right. Throughout the day all four companies plodded forward, crossing canals and ditches and coming every now and then upon very recent traces of the fleeing enemy. Soon after midnight they were five miles beyond the Idice, close upon the Savena Abbandonata. Only a few hours were allowed for rest, but foot- slogging was nearly over. Next day, after crossing Route 64, the main highway between Bologna and Ferrara, the leading companies competed for the honour of being first into San Giorgio. B Company ‘mounted on tanks and raced along for page 330 about two miles, only to run into road blocks. In an effort to avoid these one tank left the road and entered a minefield, but backed out again without mishap. From here we advanced on foot while the tanks took another route, joining us again at a canal bridged by a very frail looking wooden bridge. It was with apprehension that we watched the first Sherman across, and it was with wonderment that we saw a Sherman mounted bulldozer follow it.’23
This check lost the race for B Company. Once over the Navile Canal, its men were again taken aboard to be raced onward, past Italian houses flying white flags, on a line of advance that swung due north into the River Reno's horseshoe bend. But A Company was already in San Giorgio, being welcomed by partisans who alleged that a number of German troops in the vicinity were waiting to give themselves up. None appeared, but in any case their fate was sealed. On its arrival B Company took up a position on the right of the village, and spent an unpleasant afternoon under shell and mortar fire which caused five casualties.
C and D Companies followed behind the forward troops. A letter written at the time by Major Boord describes their progress:
I received orders to move forward which I did, up a road crammed with 26 Battalion transport. However, we shook them clear, crossed Route 64 and bowled along 2000 yards to the canal Navile…. I whipped my group over, trucks, tanks and A/tk guns. Out of contact with Bn and no sign of A Coy, but I met Col Robinson24 of the tanks and he told me that A was headed flat out for San Giorgio some seven miles away…. Evidently Sam Lea had piled his troops on tanks to make an advance at speed…. Half a mile from San Giorgio we stopped and contacted Bn through tanks and received orders to wait. A was holding the far edge of the village with 12 Lancers (an attached recce unit) probing forward. The town was in an uproar—people crowding the streets, throwing flowers, jumping on vehicles, proffering wine—all the exuberance of liberation. I had no desire to take my trucks in there and have page 331 half my men get drunk, so we stayed put till 26 came up and the advance continued. We passed through the town and 1000 yards beyond when the forward troops came under heavy fire from mortars and machine guns and were held up. Opposition was also coming from the left flank, and 25 Battalion, which had had the flank protection role, had had casualties. Their CO was wounded. The opposition held and the show halted for the night.
Late that afternoon A and B Companies were two miles or more beyond San Giorgio and had come under shell and mortar fire. The 26th Battalion had encountered fairly determined opposition on the left, while on its flank 25 Battalion and 9 Brigade were making slower progress still. On the other hand 5 Brigade had forged ahead to reach the eastern outskirts of San Pietro in Casale.
C and D Companies passed through A and B early on the 23rd, arriving soon afterwards on a line south of San Pietro, where a halt was called. At this point 26 Battalion steamed past without a check, to take the lead of 6 Brigade. Having received orders to resume their advance, C and D Companies moved on to Sant' Alberto, but on arriving there Boord found himself out of touch with Battalion Headquarters and decided to make straight for the Reno. Outstripping Conder's company, he succeeded in overtaking 26 Battalion at the river, where he arranged with Colonel Fairbrother to co-operate in crossing. By 10 a.m. our troops were on the far bank, with C Company on 26 Battalion's right. The water was only knee- deep and there was no opposition, though a number of derelict enemy guns lay scattered about. Tanks followed the infantry and a bridgehead was formed. D Company crossed soon after C. Lea and Turbott came up with their men early in the afternoon and lay along the south bank. Fifth Brigade had already crossed on the right some time before any 6 Brigade troops put in an appearance. Elements of the Guards Brigade and 6 British Armoured Division, which had driven through the Argenta Gap, also appeared upon the scene. That night 24 Battalion moved to a brigade concentration area, a mile north of the river.
Next morning 6 Brigade moved towards the Po, the men riding in motor transport, with 25 Battalion leading. After being delayed for a while by demolitions south of Bondeno, page 332 24 Battalion camped south-west of that town early in the afternoon, while 25 Battalion went on to occupy an island in the river opposite its junction with the Panaro. The whole vicinity was littered with German trucks, guns, and tanks knocked out by South African armour. The early hours of Anzac Day saw 24 Battalion crossing the Po in assault boats, with A and B Companies leading. While a pontoon bridge was being set up in the afternoon, tanks and trucks were being ferried across on rafts. Then, mounted once more on motor transport, the battalion swung east along the river bank and turned north for a few miles, to camp for the night at Sariano.
Prisoners were being collected in large numbers as the pursuit went on next day (27 April) through Trecenta, across the Tartaro and Maestra rivers (whose bridges had been captured intact by 25 Battalion) to Badia Polesine on the Adige. B and C Companies halted close to the banks. A few snipers were in evidence on the far side, but tanks which were up with the infantry soon blasted them out. Wide, deep, and rapid, with dangerous swirling eddies, the stream was obviously unfordable, but at nightfall tanks and mortars plastered the further bank while B and C Companies crossed in assault boats. The other companies followed. Then, with 25 Battalion on the left and 23 Battalion on the right, a bridgehead was formed soon after midnight, with all the usual precautions against possible counter-attack.
American divisions were approaching the Alpine foothills, turning the Venetian Line and driving a wedge between the German armies in Italy. The Partisans had risen and were seizing bridges behind the enemy lines to prevent their destruct- tion. In the meantime 6 Brigade enjoyed a short spell while 9 Brigade took up the pursuit. A patrol sent out by 24 Battalion to investigate Castel Baldo, a few miles to the north-west, returned later to report the place empty of Germans. Once more under way, 6 Brigade stayed for a short time at Este and then moved on through Padua, passed by the outskirts of Venice, and halted ten miles short of the Piave River on the evening of 29 April. On the way a large number of prisoners fell to B Company, whose diarist recounts the incident in detail.page 333
It was about ten miles from Padua that Gordon Blackledge25 and Les Poole,26 driving along in convoy in the B Coy pick-up, were approached by Italian Partisans who explained that there were about two hundred Teds in the vicinity very anxious to give themselves up, but not prepared to surrender to the Partisans.
So pulling out from the convoy, accompanied by 2-Lt Reidpath,27 2-Lt McDermott,28 [both officers of D Company], Sgt Cavanagh,29 and with the Partisans as guides, Blackie and Poole drove about ten miles to a small village where they received a great welcome from the Partisans, who swarmed on to the sides of the pick-up. This sort of welcome was reassuring but thoughts of possible minefields, a trap, a natural suspicion of the unknown, passed through the minds of the party.
However they reached the village where the Germans were reported to be, and, leaving the truck about two hundred yards back, three members of the party advanced on foot, their only weapons being a couple of pistols. After waiting about ten minutes Pte Blackledge became anxious and drove to the village where he learned that the fifty Teds already in the casa entered by the recce party of three, were being increased by Germans from the surrounding area. He parked the truck and advanced to meet one of the incoming groups who proceeded to gather in the courtyard of a casa occupied by a German colonel.
The numbers of incoming Teds increased the initial amount until there were about five hundred.30 All were carrying their weapons and ammunition. The German colonel decided to hold a parade, and, standing on the balcony of the casa, accompanied by our two officers, a parade was held. This was inspected and addressed by the colonel who appeared to become very emotional.
In platoon lots all arms were brought out at the double to the front of the parade where they were laid down neatly in their respective heaps. All Spandaus together, etc. When this was completed the Colonel handed over to 2-Lt Reidpath and preparations were made to depart. For this the Germans loaded their trucks with the weapons, ammunition etc., and with the Colonel, three other German officers, and Mr Reidpath in the lead, the convoy page 334 of German vehicles, loaded with all they could carry, moved out of the village. Mr McDermott brought up the rear with a car load of the enemy who were obviously happy and in good spirits, knowing that the war for them was over and that at least they would receive fair treatment.
After driving about four miles looking for a POW cage we met a company of Tommies in armoured cars accompanied by Partisans. This task force was apparently on its way to accept the surrender of the prisoners we had already taken, and so they were handed over to the officer in charge with a certain amount of relief, as five men were hardly enough to handle three hundred prisoners. Besides the Tommies were armed and dressed for the occasion.
The Piave bridge having been blown, the battalion remained where it was throughout 30 April. The weather had held fine for some time, but now it broke, and heavy showers fell during the next few days. During the 24-hour halt as many men as possible were given leave in Venice, and for some account of their holiday-making we may again refer to B Company's war diary:
We reached the entrance to the drive out to the island on which Venice is built, only to be stopped by a provost who informed us that Venice was 56th Div area, and that we could not enter without formal permission. So we despatched emissaries to the Colonel [sic] of the 56th Div and to the Town Major. But in the meantime, the boys becoming a little impatient as time was very limited, were soon past the provost, first on foot and then on top of the 56th Div Bren Carriers, and finally our own trucks nosed past the barrier, and then it was a case of non-stop to Venice. Arriving there, there was a rush for Gondolas, and Kiwis began swarming through the town. Places of interest were visited, and it was found that the Lira was still valued at 85 to the pound, and consequently everything buyable was in demand, but unfortunately there was little on the market. The hammer and sickle was conspicuous on the walls of many buildings, and occasional shots could be heard up side streets and canals as Partisans and Fascists, who were still holding out, exchanged shots.
Rumours were abroad that Yugoslav partisans had occupied Trieste when 24 Battalion crossed the Piave and Tagliamento rivers on 1 May, to arrive early the following morning at Villa Vicentina on the west bank of the Isonzo. From there the com- page 335 panies dispersed to collect prisoners, A going out to the island of Grado, while B and D covered the area between Belvedere and the Isonzo. ‘B Company had a special job here’, writes Major Turbott. ‘We had to make contact with what was known to be a fairly large pocket of Germans on the coast. We moved towards them, whereupon they deployed and gave indication of resisting, but no shots were fired. A German officer came over and, on being sent to me, said that he had come with an offer to surrender 150 men, but that this did not constitute the whole party. He would not believe that we had come up through Italy but tried to convince me that we had come down through France and Austria. He thought that the Germans were still holding well in Italy and would not believe that the war was as good as over. It appeared that he and his comrades had come by sea from Yugoslavia. Included in the party were several naval officers who were not in favour of surrendering but wished to fight. I received permission from Brigade to handle the matter (having sent the German officer there with his tale). We, of course, had no idea of the total number since our German officer would not disclose this. I sent him back with the order for all to surrender by a certain hour. This they did, having kept us waiting until the last minute, arrogantly and on the part of some, notably the naval section, with obvious reluctance. On being told to hand over their arms they were harangued by a senior officer and then, after some angry interchanges, to a man hurled their weapons, binoculars and valuable equipment into a nearby canal.’31
That same evening (2 May) the battalion moved over the Isonzo to a brigade concentration area at Ronchi, and thence next day to Aurisina. The advance had been moving due east; over this last lap it veered towards the south, pointing in the direction of Trieste.
The German armies in Italy surrendered on 2 May and the garrison of Trieste the same night; but relations between New Zealanders and Yugoslavs had become strained, the latter resenting the presence of foreign troops in what they regarded as their own conquered territory. A, B, and D Companies of 24 Battalion moved down to Santa Croce, five miles from page 336 Trieste, to protect our gunline should such necessity arise, while C Company returned for twenty-four hours to guard the Isonzo bridge near Villa Vicentina.
Santa Croce was surrounded with stony, rolling hills, something like those of Greece but not so high. Patches of cultivation lay among groves of olive, oak, ash and elm, bright with wild flowers. The cliff-lined coast nearby had numerous pleasant coves, easily accessible, to which parties went down daily to bathe.
It was at Santa Croce that news of peace reached the men of 24 Battalion; but coming thus as a somewhat belated epilogue to victory, the announcement caused less excitement than might have been expected. For months, or even years, the ultimate issue had never been in doubt. That victory was drawing closer with every passing hour had long been plainly evident. Its official announcement could only seal a conviction universally held. And just as the attainment of an ambition long cherished, the acquisition of an object long desired, brings reaction and satiety in its train, so the surrender of Hitler's Third Reich left the men who had fought so long to destroy it with a vague sense of grievance that fulfilment had fallen short of anticipation.
For the period of just over four weeks from its return to the line on 1 April to the end of the campaign, the battalion had lost 15 men killed and 130 wounded. A third of these casualties had been suffered in the actions against the Senio stopbanks before the final assault on 9 April. Detailed figures for the period were:
|Died of wounds||–||1|
2 Some of 24 Bn's carriers, driven by battalion personnel, were used as Wasps, or flame-throwers.
5 Short for tedesco, the Italian for German.
13 Riddell had been chiefly responsible for shooting up the two horse-drawn gun teams on the night of 9-10 April. For this and the exploit mentioned above he was awarded the MM.
14 B Coy war diary.
15 Col M. C. Fairbrother, DSO, OBE, ED, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Carterton, 21 Sep 1907; accountant; BM 5 Bde 1942-43; commanded in turn 21, 23, and 28 (Maori) Bns, Apr-Dec 1943; CO 26 Bn Oct 1944-Sep 1945; Associate Editor, NZ War Histories.
16 Letter, 14 Aug 1950.
18 Letter, 22 Aug 1950.
23 B Coy war diary.
30 The figure is mentioned below as being 300.
31 Letter, 14 Aug 1950.