CHAPTER 16 — Uso to the Savio
Supporting fire as usual was to be provided by the artillery, and while the bridge was being constructed the harassing fire would have the additional purpose of drowning the noise of the bulldozer preparing the site and approaches. The 39th Heavy Mortar Battery was also taking part, bombarding an area beyond the Fosso Vena. In view of the uncertainty as to whether tanks would be able to cross the Uso on 25 Battalion's front, A Squadron of 20 Regiment informed Colonel Norman that if its tanks could not cross, B Squadron tanks would use the 26 Battalion crossing on the left and send support down the west bank to 25 Battalion.
About 9.35 p.m. the engineers were at the ford and D Company (Captain Bourke) crossed and established the bridgehead. Shortly before 11 p.m. C Company (Captain Taylor) moved down to the vicinity of the ford, ready to advance with the armour when it arrived. About midnight, to get the tanks across, the engineers decided to use the Ark bridging tank, and an hour later, when it seemed that the bridge was nearly ready, B and D Companies were ordered to advance to the final objective for the night, the Fosso Vena. After another forty minutes the bridge was completed and tanks commenced to cross, the engineers reporting that provided there was no rain the bridge was suitable for wheeled traffic also.
D Company made good progress and, encountering no opposition, was on the objective and digging in by 2.30 a.m. It had no contact with B Company (Captain Clay1), but an hour later a patrol of two men sent out to find it was in touch with the company's right flank, still some distance from the objective. Shortly after 3 a.m. the tanks had reached D Company, C Company advancing with them as far as the first objective (the lateral road), where some time before dawn it had occupied positions about the right centre. About 4 a.m. D Company asked for stonk ‘Bait’, which was defensive fire on a line varying from 600 yards in front of its position on the final objective to within 400 yards on the left; no doubt this assisted B Company, which half an hour later reported it was almost on the objective and would reorganise at first light. A few minutes page 512 afterwards D Company was in touch with both B and C Companies. The presence of a good many civilians, especially in the casas during these night attacks, was an embarrassment to the attacking troops as it was difficult at times to distinguish them from the Germans; any movement in front of the advancing men or in buildings they were investigating was almost certain to draw instant fire, as delay might well prove fatal. The situation of the civilians was hardly to be envied.
Brigadier Parkinson, who at daybreak was at 25 Battalion headquarters, told Colonel Norman that the Divisional Cavalry was to pass through and reconnoitre the ground beyond the Fosso Vena and that the companies of the battalion should rest, naturally a very welcome instruction to troops who had had a strenuous four days. He said that 26 Battalion on the left was also on the Fosso Vena.
During the morning it was decided that 24 Battalion would pass through 25 Battalion that day (27 September), taking over the latter's supporting arms, and advance towards the Fiumicino River,2 the Greeks also advancing on its right and 26 Battalion on its left. To carry on the advance 5 Brigade at first light on the 28th was to pass through 6 Brigade, which would then be in reserve.
Illustrating the great importance of sending back captured enemy documents (instead of ‘souveniring’ them), gratifying news was received by 25 Battalion from 6 Brigade that captured documents sent in by the battalion during the Bordonchio attack had been of great value in breaking the enemy corps' code, the value of which requires no emphasis.
During the morning, while the battalion was enjoying its rest, two Divisional Cavalry patrols, which were to reconnoitre the ground ahead, were in the battalion area, one near the power line on the left and the other near the centre of the position between the two objectives; neither patrol was able to go beyond the Fosso Vena. Patrols from B Company sent forward shortly after midday met with no opposition; an hour later D Company 24 Battalion passed through the company, and within the hour A Company of that battalion advanced through D Company on its way towards the Fiumicino River. Late in the afternoon 25 Battalion was told it was to remain in position; its losses that day were four killed and three wounded.page 513
During the night (27 – 28 September) units of 5 Brigade passed through 25 Battalion to take over the front as planned, and the battalion, with further losses of one killed and one wounded, withdrew in the morning into reserve at Palazzo Spina and near Route 16, 400 yards north of Castellabate. In the afternoon a cold easterly gale with heavy rain, which was to continue for the next twelve hours, made conditions very unpleasant, though fortunately the troops were in houses and with the help of the rum issue were able to congratulate themselves on an opportune relief. Another casualty occurred next day, Corporal Dustow3 being wounded.
The casualties of the German I Parachute Division had been severe, according to German reports, amounting for the period 13–30 September to 183 killed, 567 wounded, and 389 missing; its front varied from one and three-quarter miles on the 13th to two and three-quarter miles between 15 and 21 September, and two to two and a half miles thereafter.
In the reserve area 25 Battalion followed the usual out-of- the-line routine, resting, reorganising, and enjoying a little leave. The lessons of the recent fighting were closely considered and discussed at a conference with the company commanders, and during the last week of September a change in the system of returning long-service men to New Zealand also occupied their attention. The balance of the 4th Reinforcements was due to be returned, and under the new system the furlough scheme was abolished and a replacement scheme substituted; under it, men on completing their leave in New Zealand would not be returned to 2 NZEF but would be subject to manpower direction into essential industry in New Zealand.
On 1 October there was a change in the battalion; Major A. J. Neil, who had held the appointment of second-in-command since 24 June, was posted to Advanced Base, Major Finlay of B Company taking his place and Captain Clay relieving Major Finlay. At the end of September, 25 Battalion with a strength of 27 officers and 598 other ranks was 5 officers and 139 other ranks below establishment. Its battle casualties—all in the eight days 23 – 30 September—were 1 officer and 17 other ranks killed, 6 died of wounds, and 6 officers and 83 other ranks wounded (two of whom were captured), and 1 prisoner of war, a total of 7 officers and 107 other ranks. The sick rate during the month was again heavy, the evacuations being 1 officer and 166 other page 514 ranks in a brigade total of 10 officers and 374 other ranks. The battalion's share of the reinforcements of 16 officers and 382 ranks received during the month by the brigade did little more than maintain the strength at the existing level.
Early in October some reorganisation within the Division took place. Trouble had already been experienced with soft ground which would be worsened by the approaching winter, and this, together with the more-or-less positional warfare of the moment, made it advisable in the forward battle zone to reduce the proportion of tanks to infantry; the two armoured regiments under command of 5 and 6 Brigades reverted to the command of 4 Armoured Brigade and one armoured regiment only was allotted for the support of the whole of the divisional sector. Part of 5 Brigade's front was held by 22 Motorised Battalion and it was arranged to relieve this unit by a special force termed ‘Wilder Force’ (named after Lieutenant-Colonel Wilder4 of the Divisional Cavalry) which would come under command of 6 Brigade when, on the night 5 – 6 October, it relieved 5 Brigade. Wilder Force was made up of two infantry companies formed from the Divisional Cavalry, one infantry company from 7 Anti-Tank Regiment, and one platoon of 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion.
On 2 October heavy rain set in, making it certain that cross-country going would continue to be difficult. The battalion was not molested by the enemy, though that night and again on the late afternoon of the 3rd a heavy-calibre gun shelled adjacent areas.
On 4 October the CO was informed that on the evening of the following day 25 Battalion was to take over 21 Battalion's position on the Fiumicino River and hold it until an assault, the date of which was dependent upon the weather, was made across the river. Under command of 25 Battalion were one platoon of medium machine guns, two troops of Mios, one troop of six-pounders, one platoon of 8 Field Company, and A Squadron 19 Armoured Regiment; and in support, one battery of 24 (SP) Regiment, RA, and half of 39 NZ Heavy Mortar Battery.
The 5th was overcast and showery but apart from vehicles experiencing some trouble with the slippery ground, the relief was effected without difficulty by 11 p.m. The battalion's position on the Fiumicino had a frontage of 1600 yards and was page 515 about two miles south-west of the position it had held on the Fosso Vena. The immediate neighbours were C Squadron Divisional Cavalry (part of Wilder Force) on the right and the Irish Regiment of Canada on the left. Twenty-fifth Battalion had two companies forward close to the river, C on the right and A on the left. D Company was astride a lateral road at a sharp bend 200 yards behind C Company and B Company was also astride the lateral road on the other flank on the left rear of A Company, immediately north of Villagrappa, covering a gap between A Company and the Irish Regiment.
The battalion had been told that a dummy barrage was to be fired at 4 a.m. and the companies were to report on the enemy's reaction to it. Throughout the night there was harassing fire from both sides, the battalion having one man wounded. Soon after occupying its position C Company asked for the harassing fire to be raised 100 yards as shells were falling on its side of the river, perilously close to its forward posts. Shortly afterwards a concentration, ‘Skate’, fired on the west bank opposite A Company, was on the target, the company asking twenty-five minutes later for it to be repeated. Shortly after midnight D Company gave the bearing of an 88-millimetre gun firing on to its position from a north-westerly direction, C Company a few minutes afterwards similarly reporting a heavy-calibre gun bearing due north-west. In the very early morning nebelwerfers also were firing on three separate bearings between north-west and south-west.
The dummy barrage brought a strong reaction from the enemy, all companies reporting that he replied with heavy artillery, mortar and machine-gun fire. Along the banks of the river C Company also experienced heavy Spandau fire, ‘Skate’ being again ordered about 5 a.m. as well as harassing fire from the medium machine guns.
Soon after daybreak on the 6th Brigadier Parkinson at Battalion Headquarters outlined the plan for the assault across the Fiumicino, which was to be carried out by 24 and 26 Battalions with 25 Battalion in reserve; the battalion's primary task was to move forward in rear of 26 Battalion and reinforce the right flank, 500 yards beyond the river, but otherwise it was to act as required by the tactical situation. No date was fixed for the attack as on the flanks of the Division some of the formations taking part were bogged down by the wet ground.page 516
It was arranged that companies of 24 and 26 Battalions that night would relieve A and D Companies, which then were to retire to the east of the Fosso Matrice, a ditch or stream about a mile to their rear. The two companies of Wilder Force on the right of 25 Battalion were similarly to be relieved. The two attcking battalions, together with B and C Companies of 25 Battalion, would be concentrated in readiness west of the Fosso Matrice.
That day, 6 October, Battalion Headquarters was a busy place, with many visitors and numerous reports of enemy activity. Amongst the callers were a tank commander reporting on road and ground conditions, the results of tests over the heavy ground, and the tank support that was feasible; an officer from the 4.2-inch mortar detachment and another from 39 Heavy Mortar Battery; a Mr McGuire from the South African Air Force joining the battalion ‘to study the infantry’, according to a message from Brigade Headquarters; the brigade staff captain and the brigade liaison officer; officers from A Squadron 19 Armoured Regiment; others from the Irish Regi ment of Canada; the commanding officers of 24 and 26 Battalions who, with Colonel Norman, then went to Brigade Headquarters; officers of the engineers to ask for a protective detachment; and finally the headquarters of 24 Battalion arriving at dusk in readiness for the advance.
The enemy activity after daybreak that day included a heavy gun shelling A Company; a nebelwerfer reported by C Company; four to six guns firing, reported on two occasions by C Company; a nebelwerfer reported by B Company; two mortars, a heavy gun, and a sniper firing on C Company, which asked for a 3-inch mortar ‘stonk’ against them. In most cases compass bearings of the enemy weapons were given and were passed on to the artillery. Another dummy barrage, fired at 7.30 p.m. on the Greek front (two miles north-east of 25 Battalion), provoked no visible enemy reaction on the battalion's front. Two patrols were out in the evening; at 6.30 p.m. an A Company patrol of three men led by Sergeant Pike5 reconnoitred a route to the river by which to take an engineer party later in the night but was stopped sixty yards from the bank by Spandau fire and could advance no further; half an hour later a patrol from 13 Platoon under Corporal Smith6 a little page 517 further downstream fared better when, with no interference, it patrolled about 250 yards of the eastern bank. Corporal Smith crossed the river opposite his company's left flank and reported it to be a foot deep and fourteen feet wide, slow-flowing with a firm mud bottom, banks four feet high and bordered by embankments twenty feet wide and twelve feet high, set back about twenty feet from the river banks. On the patrol's return journey shortly before 8 p.m., a Spandau from the vicinity of the place where Smith had crossed fired over the heads of the men.
Heavy rain during the night 6 – 7 October made the roads and tracks very difficult for vehicles, and on the Canadian front impossible for armour, causing the attack to be postponed to the evening of the 8th. By 11 p.m. on the 6th A and D Companies were relieved as planned, 8 Platoon reporting four casualties during the relief; it was necessary to have ‘stonks’ fired so that the casualties could be brought out by the RAP jeep, which was promptly on the scene. Casualties on 6 – 7 October were one killed, one died of wounds, and eleven wounded. Enemy fire was also troublesome in C Company's sector; shortly before midnight the company called for stonks ‘Croquet’ and ‘Lacrosse’, fired across the river opposite the position, and just after midnight it was requested that ‘Croquet’ should be lifted 200 yards.
On the 7th there was much activity by the artillery of both sides and in the early morning enemy shells landed very close to Battalion Headquarters. Shortly after noon C Company headquarters had the misfortune to be hit twice by the supporting guns and asked that stonk ‘Lacrosse’ be lifted 800 yards; the company asked that the RAP jeep be sent up as it had one man killed and nine wounded. In the evening C Company was still having trouble with its artillery, asking that ‘Lacrosse’ be lifted another 500 yards and reporting that ‘Skate’ had fallen short. There seemed to be something radically wrong at the guns; presumably the messages from C Company were reaching the artillery (they are recorded in 25 Battalion's almost minute-to-minute war diary) and the frequent calls both for the concentrations and for the lifts would have kept the batteries very much on the alert. It is noticeable that ‘Skate’ was on target for the first three calls on the night 6 – 7 October yet was short on the evening of the 7th; with the ground in such soft condition, which could have caused trouble, the gunners would certainly have been exercising great care.page 518
However, the relief that night ended C Company's difficulties so far as short-shooting was concerned. At 8 p.m. B Company, on relief by 24 Battalion, had moved back to its concentration area. The enemy was still very active in front of C Company, which was to be relieved by A Company 24 Battalion, and further defensive fire was called for; Colonel Norman also directed the medium machine guns to bring down fire in front of C Company during the relief, and twenty minutes later, shortly after 9 p.m., instructed the 3-inch mortars and the machine guns to fire in front of the relieving company, which had reported that it was being attacked; the relief of C Company was completed about 10 p.m.
On the following day (8 October), when torrential rain fell, various alterations to the plan of attack were made and 25 Battalion's role then became the support of 24 Battalion instead of 26 Battalion. In the afternoon the operation was postponed to the 10th. On the following afternoon the Canadians took over the position, and late in the afternoon 25 Battalion (less C Company which had already gone out) moved back to the road alongside the Uso River and from there travelled by RMT vehicles to the coastal strip near the mouth of the Fontanaccia. There was only one casualty that day, one man dying of wounds.
After two days in the new area B and C Companies occupied houses in Viserba, three miles to the south near Route 16, A and D Companies remaining where they were, while Battalion Headquarters occupied houses a little to the north of the mouth of the Scolo Brancona. For the next five days the usual out-of-the-line routine followed, enlivened a little on the 14th by a warning to look out for possible enemy landings, a sabotage party having recently caused damage in Rimini; no such enterprises disturbed the battalion.
On 16 October at a conference of brigade commanders held at 5 Brigade's headquarters and attended by battalion and other unit commanders (an opportunity missed by enemy aircraft to send a wave of promotion throughout the Division), a review of the general situation was given. The enemy appeared to be withdrawing to a main line of resistance east of Cesena (a town seven miles west of the Fiumicino) and the River Pisciatello; on 11 October 5 Brigade had crossed the Fiumicino a little to the south of the position 25 Battalion had held there, and was advancing to the north-west towards Ruffio on the Pisciatello, about three miles east of Cesena.page 519
Alternative plans were explained. Depending upon the situation at 5 p.m. on 16 October, 4 Armoured Brigade would pass through 5 Brigade with two squadrons and 22 (Motor) Battalion and exploit to the west; 6 Brigade would follow up and support the armour. If that plan was not feasible, 6 Brigade would relieve 5 Brigade and continue the advance.
Shortly after 11 a.m. the next day, 25 Battalion left for an assembly area about a mile west of the Fiumicino River, an hour's journey. There the troops were dispersed for four hours while the position to be taken over from 23 Battalion, five miles to the north-west, was reconnoitred. Trucks then took the battalion to crossroads about halfway there and the companies marched on to their positions, with A and D Companies forward and C and D in reserve. A Company had 7 Platoon forward at Ruffio, 650 yards south of the Pisciatello, and Company Headquarters and 9 Platoon together 500 yards back, with 8 Platoon 200 yards to their right. D Company was 800 yards south of A Company, with the river a mile away to the north-west and west; B and C Companies were more-or-less adjoining D Company on the south-east and south; Battalion Headquarters was 300 yards farther to the south-east. The battalion was really on a one-company front, facing north and stretching about a mile and a half from 7 Platoon to Battalion Headquarters. By 6.45 p.m. the companies were in position, A and D Companies each having a troop of tanks close up and Mios available on call. Twenty-fourth Battalion was on the right and on the left Canadian troops were advancing north-west with the intention of crossing the river at 8.30 that night.
A busy period followed, especially for A Company which had patrols out getting in touch with the flanking units and crossing the river to report on the state of the road beyond the bridge, which of course had been destroyed. Well before daylight 8 Platoon was brought forward to the vicinity of the bridge to protect an engineer reconnaissance party and to take up a position there. The river at that point was fifty feet wide and the banks fifteen feet high, but the water did not appear to be deep. It had been reported that for about two miles on either side of the bridge the river bank was mined but patrols saw no sign of mines.
Shortly before midnight 17 – 18 October it was learnt that the Canadians had succeeded in crossing the Pisciatello in strength 2400 yards south-west of A Company, and that on page 520 the other flank 24 Battalion was within 300 yards of the river. At 3.25 a.m. 25 Battalion received orders to move companies to the river and attempt to cross. With such a narrow front there was no room for more than one company, and under instructions from Colonel Norman A Company sent a second platoon forward; D Company was also warned to be ready to move up later on the right of A Company.
There was little enemy activity, though a couple of hours before daylight A Company was harassed by a nebelwerfer and asked the artillery to deal with it; when the light strengthened men of 8 Platoon saw enemy troops in a house on the opposite bank and sniped one of them. According to the engineers a sixty-foot Bailey bridge would be required to cross page 521 the river at the broken bridge, though a quick crossing could be made by using an armoured bulldozer and an Ark bridge. About dawn D Company had sent 17 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant R. D. (Pat) O'Neill) to Casa Potini on the right of A Company and within 300 yards of the river; by 9 a.m. the remainder of D Company had moved to that locality. Half an hour later A Company moved its third platoon to the river, where it then had 8 Platoon at the bridge, 9 Platoon on the right, and 7 Platoon on the left, a frontage of about 500 yards; Company Headquarters was 300 yards behind 9 Platoon.
During the day the enemy artillery directed harassing fire on the forward areas, the battalion's positions being spasmodically shelled and mortared. At two in the afternoon Colonel Norman gave instructions for that night, 18 – 19 October. Twenty-fifth Battalion was to secure a bridgehead over the Pisciatello and pass part of 4 Armoured Brigade and 22 Battalion through it. With 24 Battalion on its right, 25 Battalion would then advance on a two-company front, D Company on the right and A Company on the left; B Company would cross the river behind A Company and guard the left flank, while C Company was to protect the engineers working on the bridge site.
At 11 p.m. under a barrage the advance would commence from the Scola Olca, a ditch 400 yards south of the river. B Squadron 19 Armoured Regiment, which was to support 25 Battalion, would cross the bridge and at first light would be up with the infantry; the Ark bridge would be ready by 2.30 a.m. The battalion's objective was a road and ditch on a frontage of 1100 yards and was 1300 yards north of the river. On the left the Canadians had two troops of armour across and were also exploiting to the north-east from Ponte della Pietra, a mile south-west of A Company.
Throughout the day, to keep the enemy on edge, the battalion mortars from the vicinity of Ruffio carried out a good deal of harassing fire; when the attack started they were to fire a creeping barrage with the artillery to thicken up the fire, the first time in Italy that the mortars would be working to an artillery programme in a barrage. They were not to cross the river till the following day, 19 October. The task of the medium machine guns was to provide harassing fire on the roads, especially the crossroads on the flanks of the two battalions.
As planned, at 11 p.m. the barrage opened and the advance commenced. Only slight opposition was encountered, though page 522 on the start line 16 and 17 Platoons (Second-Lieutenants Beer7 and O'Neill) almost immediately suffered casualties from the enemy counter-barrage, and about 1.20 a.m. D Company reported it was on the objective. Before reaching the river A Company had two men wounded but had little difficulty in reaching its objective, where it was in position by 2 a.m. In the meantime C Company occupied a position to cover the engineers at the bridge, reporting four casualties and the capture of six enemy, amended later to four killed and thirteen wounded; mines in the vicinity of the river were reported to have caused several casualties. Responsible for left-flank protection, B Company at 2.15 a.m. was in position a few hundred yards south-west of A Company.
Naturally the companies were anxious to have their supporting tanks and other arms forward; the tanks had moved up near the river in readiness to cross and had reported that the work on the bridge was progressing well and that possibly vehicles could cross then. By 3.25 a.m. the bridge was ready and the armour moving forward, reaching A and D Companies about 4.30 a.m., together with some of the SP guns and 4.2-inch mortar OPs. The going on the road leading to the bridge was satisfactory for the tanks, but with heavy rain just before 4 a.m. was bad for wheeled vehicles, and the anti-tank guns were told not to cross the river. They were on the move at the time, about an hour before daybreak, and were held up by the mud on a detour round a big demolition in the road at Ruffio; they were moved clear of the road and instructed to stay there in the meantime.
The Ark bridge over the Pisciatello was sinking and C Company was directed to tell the tanks to be ready to help each other across the bridge; at that time fifty-six tanks of 20 Armoured Regiment were passing 25 Battalion Tactical Headquarters on their way to the river. Shortly afterwards B Company in its position 900 yards north-west of the bridge was told that its tanks were held up by a crater in the road about 400 yards east of the company.
The Germans opposing 25 Battalion at the bridge area were 3 Company of I Battalion 67 Panzer Grenadier Regiment; two prisoners who had been sent in by C Company said they were from Alsace-Lorraine and that at 6 p.m. the previous day the Germans had withdrawn several kilometres from the river; they page 523 thought a counter-attack might possibly take place at first light, in about two hours' time, but a later interrogation of the prisoners showed that the warning had no foundation.
The bulk of the armour of 4 Armoured Brigade, which was to pass through 25 Battalion, was to have crossed the river by a scissors bridge on 24 Battalion's front and by the Ark bridge in 25 Battalion's sector. Owing to the soft bottom the scissors bridge was rendered unusable by the first and only tank to cross, thus concentrating the armour on the Ark bridge, with consequent delay in the passage of the two regiments concerned; a 40 ft Bailey bridge was being erected in place of the scissors. Meanwhile 24 Battalion on the right of 25 Battalion was deprived of its armour and, if necessary, part of the armour with the latter would be sent to 24 Battalion, whose squadron was being diverted to the Ark bridge and crossed it about 6 a.m. The main body of armour followed and by 7.20 a.m. one regiment was formed up behind 25 Battalion's forward localities, the second regiment crossing over the bridge in 24 Battalion's sector and about an hour later assembling behind that battalion. The delay caused by the bad going and the trouble with the bridges had prevented the armour from thrusting forward from the bridgehead at first light as had been planned.
Shortly after daybreak, when signalling the dispositions of A Company, the tanks reported that while crossing the river A Company had lost its Slidex rule. This instrument was a type of sliding rule on which was the key to the code of the day, and very often inside the case was the key to a week's or a fortnight's codes.
‘The loss of this was naturally of a serious nature,’ wrote one man, who went on to give the very interesting sequel. ‘A and B Companies were given an objective about 2000 yards over the river and German parties were by-passed in houses en route. B Company followed up behind, mopping up these strays, and one of the prisoners who was captured had in his possession the missing Slidex. Had the Slidex been sent back to the enemy HQ it may have caused considerable trouble’— another example, in reverse, of the value of sending back, with all speed, captured enemy documents and material.
About 7.30 a.m. it was decided that 25 Battalion was to await orders before moving forward; the demolition at Ruffio would be passable in an hour or so and metalling was proceeding. Up to daybreak the casualties reported to 25 Battalion headquarters page 524 were four killed and seventeen wounded. A little after nine twelve prisoners arrived from B Company, which reported that 1200 yards west of the bridge 11 Platoon was in touch with the Canadians. Early that morning Captain Webster had sent in a report on the operations of A Company:
‘9 Pl was engaged from a casa just before we reached first objective, and their return fire killed one and wounded one. 7 Pl then took 9 prisoners. Tanks, S.P. and 4.2 O.Ps reached here at 0435 hours and were in position before first light. Since then S.P. and 4.2 have been stonking to our left.
‘At approx 0720 hours 20 Regt arrived and pushed off across country towards next lateral road. At 0700 hrs a big blow was set off at cross-roads 634089 [850 yards west of A Company and a mile north-west of the bridge]. We immediately engaged area with 4.2 and S.Ps. At 0735 a further 2 blows at 633093 [400 yards farther north] and 634104 [a further 1100 yards north]. So far we are unable to make contact with you over the 18 [set]. Have made contact with Baker and Dog [B and D Companies]. No return shelling round here for a change. Regards.’
The three demolitions reported by Captain Webster were at crossroads on a road running north and south a couple of hundred yards west of A Company, the road passing through Osteriaccia which lay 600 yards north of the last demolition.
At 9.50 a.m. 4 Armoured Brigade issued orders for the armoured attack, the first of four objectives being part of the Cesena-Cervia road between Osteriaccia and Calabrina (1000 yards north-east of Osteriaccia), and a section of a secondary road running eastwards from the Calabrina crossroads; this was part of the German ‘Doris’ defence line, to which the enemy had retired during the night. Further objectives for the armour were two branches of the Rio Granarolo and the Savio River beyond. The conditions were not particularly suitable for the tanks; a good deal of rain had fallen but the weather had cleared just in time before the going became impossible; the country was ‘quite flat farmland, dotted with casas and trees and criss-crossed with narrow lanes. Though by no means ideal page 525 tank country it seemed the best we were ever likely to encounter in this country and the tanks were anxious to make the most of it’.10 As General Freyberg noted in his diary:
‘Country forward is difficult—small fields and big hedges and no fields of fire…. Unless you check each crossroad it is impossible to know where you are. If we had had to do this in wet weather it would have taken a long time.’
East of Osteriaccia the armoured units encountered a good deal of machine-gun, artillery and mortar fire, while soft ground and the numerous deep ditches across the line of advance were causing trouble, but by 11 a.m. the leading troops were 300 yards south-east of Calabrina; 1000 yards south-west of them Osteriaccia was still in enemy hands.
At this stage 4 Armoured Brigade was ordered to push on to its second objective, the southern branch of the Rio Granarolo, and then on to the third objective. Sixth Brigade was directed to advance to the Cesena-Cervia road, where in the Calabrina area 24 Battalion was to occupy an all-round defensive position while 25 Battalion was to hold Osteriaccia; 26 Battalion was to be in reserve at Macerone, a little over two miles to the south-east. Fifth Brigade was to send two battalions to the northern side of the Pisciatello.
At 11.30 a.m. 25 Battalion received orders to advance on Osteriaccia, which was 2000 yards north-west of its foremost localities. Starting an hour later, B Company with one troop of tanks led the advance, followed fifteen minutes later by C Company and then by A and D Companies. B and C Companies were to hold the village; A Company was to occupy a position 300 yards south-west of them, and D Company would occupy i. Casetti, 800 yards north-east of Osteriaccia; this operation would place the battalion on a frontage of 1100 yards, facing generally north-west towards the Savio River though organised for all-round defence. B and C Companies each had two anti-tank guns and the artillery OPs were with them; the Mios accompanied A and D Companies.
For a time the advance met with little resistance. At 2.20 p.m. B Company encountered snipers, so called, which the tanks dealt with, but half an hour later, when about 400 yards south-east of the objective, the company was held up by heavy mortar and machine-gun fire. The tanks engaged the enemy, who was thought to be retiring, which in fact he was but only from the outskirts into the village. Shortly afterwards the company com- page 526 mander, Captain Clay, was wounded and was evacuated by the RAP jeep; the company suffered several other casualties, including all the NCOs of one platoon. Despite the covering fire of the tanks, B Company was unable to advance as any movement was met by heavy shellfire, which apparently was directed from an OP in Osteriaccia. During these operations Private Doig11 distinguished himself by assisting the wounded, making three trips across country to get back as many as possible to the RAP, and also by giving Company Headquarters information as to the dispositions of the platoons; he received an immediate award of the MM.
C Company's line of advance was somewhat eastward of that adopted by B Company. The company had several casualties from enemy artillery fire when passing a demolition which had held up its supporting tanks, and moved farther to the east to the vicinity of Gattolino, 1000 yards south-east of B Company. Company Headquarters and two platoons were in Gattolino and the third platoon 400 yards to the north-west on a lateral road, where it was 350 yards south of B Company. A Company was 600 yards south of C, and D Company farther to the south with an advanced platoon within 400 yards of A Company.
At 4 p.m. B Company's objective, the village of Osteriaccia, was still held by the Germans and the company's positions were being heavily shelled. Over the whole front the enemy's reaction to the daylight advance had been vigorous, the forward areas being liberally shelled and mortared. Just about dusk, therefore, it was decided that the companies would dig in where they were.
On being wounded, Captain Clay reported B Company's situation when brought in to Battalion Headquarters and said that the fire from the supporting guns had been very effective; Lieutenant B. A. Andrews had taken command of the company. Late in the afternoon Lieutenant-Colonel Hutchens, commanding 24 Battalion, came over to Battalion Headquarters and reported that his forward positions were east of C Company, his left flank being within 400 yards of Gattolino. Half an hour later the tanks and 22 (Motor) Battalion took over 24 Battalion's front, though that battalion remained in position. Twenty-sixth Battalion was on the same general line east of 24 Battalion.page 527
Colonel Norman was told that aircraft would be over during the night and that from 7 a.m. fighter planes would be in the air, on call at half-hour intervals. The battalion's casualties on 18 – 19 October were 1 officer (Second-Lieutenant Bark12) and 11 other ranks killed, and 3 officers (Captain M. H. A. Clay, Lieutenant H. R. Martin, DCM, Second-Lieutenant E. F. T. Beer) and 31 other ranks wounded.
During the evening enemy shelling and mortaring was heavy at times, continually cutting a signal line that was being laid from the battalion to 22 Battalion on the right. On the other flank contact was to be made at two in the morning with a Canadian patrol, 350 yards west of C Company; that company reported that it could not find the patrol, nor did it know anything about an earlier report from 6 Brigade that the Canadians were in touch with the left flank of the battalion.
Osteriaccia (known to some of the troops in the area as ‘Hunterville’, since Sergeant Mick Hunter13 took the first patrol into it) was reported by B Company to be clear of enemy troops, and a little after 8.30 a.m. the company moved into the village. From 10 a.m. 25 Battalion was in brigade reserve, and an hour later Battalion Headquarters moved up to C Company's headquarters at Gattolino, C Company having occupied the southern end of Osteriaccia. During the morning B Squadron 20 Armoured Regiment left the battalion and was replaced by C Squadron, which however in the afternoon passed over to 5 Brigade.
At 1.30 p.m. fresh orders came by telephone, Colonel Fairbrother14 (26 Battalion) being with Colonel Norman at 25 Battalion's headquarters at the time. Instead of continuing its advance to the north, 6 Brigade was to wheel to the left, 26 Battalion turning westwards through 25 Battalion and advancing to the Savio River, 4000 yards away. When 26 Battalion had reached a north-south road 2300 yards west of Osteriaccia, 25 Battalion was to occupy a position, facing west, on the Rio Granarolo, 1300 yards west of the village; then, when 26 Bat- page 528 talion had reached the Savio, it would replace that battalion on the north-south road. Twenty-fourth Battalion was in brigade reserve.
While B and C Companies continued to hold Osteriaccia, the two rear companies of the battalion at about 3 p.m. moved to the north of them; D Company took up a position two or three hundred yards north of the village, while A Company went on another thousand yards to where the road crossed the Rio Granarolo, both companies facing west in readiness for the advance in that direction. During these movements all ranks were placed somewhat on the alert by an interesting message from Brigade Headquarters that ‘Captain Lardie, dressed in British uniform and passing himself off as an I.O., may attempt to pass through our lines and if so is to be detained’. However, nothing was seen of him.
A few minutes after 5 p.m. when 26 Battalion was within 500 yards of the Savio, Brigadier Parkinson instructed Colonel Norman to move at first light in the morning. During the evening D Company asked for a despatch rider to be sent to collect enemy maps found in the house occupied by its headquarters, an obvious recognition of the possible necessity for urgent examination by higher formations. The only casualty of the day was one man wounded.
The following morning, 21 October, A and D Companies advanced to the west in the wake of 26 Battalion, halting at another lateral road about 800 yards short of that previously selected and taking up their positions on the right and left boundaries of the brigade sector with a gap between them of 1100 yards; A Company was on the right. Battalion Headquarters moved up to a central position 700 yards behind; B Company left the village and occupied the position on the Rio Granarolo, C Company remaining in Osteriaccia.
Returning about 10 a.m. from Brigade Headquarters, the CO told the company commanders that on the following night 6 Brigade was to be relieved by the Canadians; before then, however, the brigade was to occupy a position on the Savio on a three-battalion front of 5600 yards, with 26 Battalion in its present position on the left, 24 Battalion in the centre, and 25 Battalion on the right; on relief the brigade would go back to a rest area near Fabriano, south-west of Iesi, to which on 22 October the Division (with the exception of the artillery field regiments) was being withdrawn.page 529
Twenty-fifth Battalion's position on the Savio had a frontage of 1600 yards and was about four miles north-west of Osteriaccia; 22 (Motor) Battalion would be on the right. About noon Colonel Norman and his company commanders visited 18 Armoured Regiment, which was operating in the area the battalion was to occupy. At that hour the tanks were meeting opposition at Borgo Marinon, a couple of hundred yards north of the right flank of the position and were dealing with it.
Early in the afternoon A Company left for the new sector, followed by D Company and then B Company. By 3.20 p.m. A Company was in position on the right, and half an hour later D Company had taken up its position on the other flank, C Company occupying the centre shortly afterwards. B Company was in reserve 800 yards behind A Company. The situation was quiet. On its left front D Company found a place where the river could be crossed and asked for anti-tank guns to be sent up, and also to be informed regarding the defensive-fire tasks arranged on its front. Soon after this, Colonel Ferguson15 of 18 Armoured Regiment called in at Battalion Headquarters and said that tank crews who had been to the river on foot had found that the crossing reported by D Company was not negotiable by tanks.
The battalion was no sooner established in its new position than representatives from the Canadians arrived to make a reconnaissance before taking over. During the afternoon there had been little enemy activity, the first report coming at 5.30 p.m. from A Company which had come under long-range small-arms fire from the north. Civilians told D Company that two nights ago enemy tanks had retired across the river, and the next night five tanks and fifty infantry followed, blowing the bridge after them; they also said the river was mined and the houses on the other side booby-trapped. Enemy mortaring caused two casualties in D Company, a civilian also being wounded.
At 8 p.m. that night, 21 – 22 October, the Canadians on the left of 6 Brigade were attacking under a barrage to secure a bridgehead over the Savio. The New Zealand Division was to co-operate in various ways, including support from the artillery, medium machine guns, and mortars, and feint attacks by 4 and page 530 6 Brigades in which all available weapons, including tanks, were to be used. As was to be expected, during the night the enemy guns and mortars were very active and the companies sent in numerous flash bearings. About 9.45 p.m. the house occupied by 25 Battalion Tactical Headquarters was hit by two shells which caused two casualties, the total for the day being five wounded. Most of the fire was directed, of course, against the Canadian sector on the left, but there was some activity opposite the battalion. Just before daybreak, as an enemy tank was thought to be approaching, D Company called for defensive fire; Colonel Norman arranged for the medium artillery to shell a house across the river opposite the company front. Shortly afterwards, A Company heard a tank, and about 7.30 a.m. opposite D Company there was considerable movement on the other side of the river and enemy mortar fire was falling there, obviously directed against the advancing Canadians.
During the morning guides were sent to bring up the relieving Canadians, the Cape Breton Highlanders, and by 3 p.m. the relief was complete, the battalion moving back to an area near the Pisciatello River. An interesting account of the period is given by a member of the battalion:
‘The last few days had been spent in leap-frogging—getting up on to the Savio—jacking up the Battalion in a respectable line for the change-over with the Canadians. The change-over was done at very short notice and even before the Bn reached the Savio everyone was very tired, having been on the move and in action for about five days. Sometimes during this period the men had slept without blankets, food was short, and the 2 i/cs were able to struggle up at irregular intervals with rations and supplies. The Ites helped out with some very good pears and potatoes and the foraging spirit was well to the fore. Not a day passed without one or two Coy Comm conferences, followed by recces and further conferences. [On being relieved]— At first it was thought that transport would be at Bn HQ about a mile and a half away. At the last minute troops were told that no transport was available here and that they would have to walk to a village called Osteriaccia about 8 – 10 miles away [actually five and a half miles by road for the furthest troops, A and B Coys]. The roads were narrow, it had been raining off and on for the last two days, and the mud was deep. The Canadians had started to come up, our Bns had started to move out, and transport and vehicles of all kinds blocked the roads, struggling through the mud. The troops marching back were page 531 forced to the side of the road and sometimes right off it. This made marching conditions unpleasant and by the time Osteriaccia was reached 3½ hours later, everyone had “had it”. The last straw was when they found no transport waiting for them. This finally arrived and the Bn moved off to a lying-up area.
‘As we finally got under way the next day there was a large sign erected by the Canadians, who thought the Kiwis were leaving the country, that they “were very pleased to have met us and worked with us”.’
Any hopes of being homeward bound that may have been raised by that sign did not last long—‘we were back in the line again in a few weeks’.
Just before noon next day, 23 October, 25 Battalion left for Iesi, the village it had occupied on 28 August on arriving in the Adriatic sector. As the road to its destination, Fabriano, was not fit for wheeled vehicles, the troops stayed in houses in Iesi until the morning of the 25th, when the column departed for the rest area, 20 miles to the south-west. There, at Castelraimondo near Fabriano, together with 24 and 26 Battalions, the troops occupied partially completed Italian barracks.
The total casualties since the end of September were 1 officer and 12 other ranks killed, 3 died of wounds, and 3 officers and 50 other ranks wounded. One unusual casualty was a man with phosphorus burns.
Shorn of detail, a ‘Summary of the month's activities’ signed by the Intelligence Officer, Lieutenant R. S. Liddell, gives a bald account of the month's operations:
‘For the greater part of the month the Bn has been in action, with odd periods of a few days rest. Each time the Bn went back into the line advances were made and its contribution to the 8th Army's successes were considerable. On the 5th of the month the Bn relieved the 21 NZ Bn who occupied positions on the banks of the Rubicone. The following morning a dummy barrage was put down to test the defences of the enemy. The Germans replied in no uncertain manner and laid down a heavy concentration of shells, mortars, and machine-gun fire, and it was clear he intended to defend this position. On the 7th the Bn passed to reserve and moved back a short distance, still well within mortar range. The weather at this time did not favour military operations and an attack to be made by 24 and 26 Bns on the night of the 8th had to be postponed. The next day the Bn was relieved by the Royal Canadian Dragoons and moved back to a residential area.page 532
‘On the 17th the Bn once again moved back to relieve the 23rd Bn who had pushed as far as the Pisciatello. At this stage the Bn was on a company front with A Coy in the lead. The next night the Bn attacked across the river successfully although the bridge put across in the 24 Bn area collapsed and all the supporting arms and the tanks had to use the one in 25's area. In this action the Bn advanced 1000 yds secured all objectives and took upwards of 60 POW.
‘The following afternoon the Bn moved forward to test the defences and got as far as Osteriaccia where B Coy were held up by snipers. The next day B Coy occupied Osteriaccia without opposition and a few hours later C Coy moved into the southern part of the town.
‘Pursuing the enemy the Bn advanced 6000 yds to reach the banks of the Savio. About 24 hrs later the Bn was relieved by the Cape Breton Highlanders. The next day the Bn began the march back to the rest and training area.’
Since the battalion's transfer to the Adriatic front there had been a considerable turnover of the officers of the unit. Of those shown in the list of 3 September, sixteen were no longer with the unit. These were: Majors Neil, Handyside, Sanders and Hewitt, Captains Thomas and Sheild, Lieutenants Lawson, Rees, Easthope, Sidford and Grumitt, Second-Lieutenants Dey, Hansen, Banks, McLean and Beer. The only officers additional to those shown in the 3 September list who were with the battalion at the end of October were Lieutenant A. J. Beattie, Second-Lieutenant Jackson,16 and Lieutenant H. R. Martin (attached), who brought the number of officers up to twenty-five, compared with thirty-eight in the September list. The RMO (Pearse) and the chaplain (Rowe) were still with the battalion.
Some observations and suggestions by Captain Bourke, commanding D Company, arising from the recent operations are of interest:
Too much local movement on objective. Digging in should be most immediate even if only temporary measure pending further shift to link up with neighbours. Pln commanders should have almost full control in respect of quick digging in, without delay caused by coy commander coming forward to reconnoitre.
Clearing houses. (1) 2 Secs deployed in area of house for protection searching troops and closing of escape routes. page 533 (2) A period of listening—as close as possible to house. (3) Third sec move fwd to search, two men making for best entrance remainder covering openings as they move fwd. (4) First man enters house on hands and knees and followed by second man going from room to room in bounds (i.e., as for scouts). (5) Use of rocks thrown into room as a ruse to make enemy move. 36 Grenades too valuable to be used on possibly empty rooms.
River crossings—Recce etc. (1) Keep away from recognised crossings unless essential. (2) If necessary to approach river crossing (recognised) recce party not to use obvious approach but preferably to move along river bed covered by fire from own bank. (3) Engineer or officer recce not to be made till covering party is firm on enemy side.
Dealing with Tiger Tanks at night. Use of phosphorus grenades recommended. Point of impact grating below right rear of turret where air intake is situated.
17 Pdrs A/Tk Support. Should be well up preferably in coy area to deal with Tigers using covered approaches. Must be dealt with before tank reaches infantry. Close country necessitates their forward position. A/Tk defence must be thicker than used before in more open country.
Defence of houses. Defence of houses now major question as both sides use extensively. Enemy however has time to prepare such strong points by bolstering up walls, digging shelters, etc.
Our defence—no more than one sec and Pl HQ in house (unless substantial bldg) 2 and 3 secs in slit trenches as far as possible clear of house, while still being in position to defend it. A whole platoon in house invites heavy casualties from conc. shelling or from direct shooting-up by tank. Houses now only possible O.P. positions and therefore must expect conc. shelling if position static for any length of time.
Observations and suggestions by pln commanders as had little battle experience.
K. J. Bourke Capt O.C. D Coy
Tactical questions such as these were to receive close attention in discussions, courses of instruction, and other training in the weeks that were to be spent out of battle.
2 Also named Rubicone
4 Lt-Col N. P. Wilder, DSO; Waipurau; born NZ 29 Mar 1914; farmer; patrol commander LRDG; CO2 NZ Div Cav 1944; wounded 14 Sep 1942.
14 Brig M. C. Fairbrother, CBE, DSO, ED, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Carterton, 21 Sep 1907; accountant; BM 5 Bde Jun 1942–Apr 1943; comd in turn 21, 23 and 28 (Maori) Bns, Apr-Dec 1943; CO 26 Bn Oct 1944–Sep 1945; comd Adv Base, 2 NZEF, Sep 1945–Feb 1946; Editor-in-Chief, NZ War Histories.
15 Lt-Col J. B. Ferguson, DSO, MC, ED; Auckland; born Auckland, 27 Apr 1912; warehouseman; OC 7 Fd CoyMay 1941; CO 18 Armd Regt Dec 1943-Jan 1944; 20 Regt Jan-May 1944; 18 Regt Jul 1944–Feb 1945; wounded 6 Dec 1943.