Chapter 19 — The Final Offensive in Italy
The Final Offensive in Italy
FOLLOWING its relief by the Poles, the battalion stayed overnight at Forli and on the 5th travelled south to the district where it had spent the previous November. The convoy finally halted in the low hills about two miles west of the town of San Severino and about seven miles from Castelraimondo. The advanced party had already selected suitable houses in which to billet the troops. Headquarters 6 Brigade was located in San Severino together with 24 and 25 Battalions, and the rest of the Division was in the neighbourhood.
Training began almost immediately and continued until the end of the month. The syllabus covered every likely phase of battle and was designed not only to get the men fit for forthcoming operations but also to give recent reinforcements an insight into the part they would have to play. Most recent arrivals had been officers and other ranks of 3 NZ Division posted to Italy from the Pacific theatre. Particular attention was paid to river crossings, and each company carried out this training, using assault boats and various types of bridging. During the month a section of carriers was equipped with flame-throwing apparatus and in a demonstration illustrated its terrifying possibilities. On 16 March General Freyberg inspected 6 Brigade at a parade held on the football ground at Castelraimondo. After the inspection a number of awards were presented.
The all-day training syllabus limited recreation but Wednesday and Saturday afternoons were generally available for sport. Enthusiasts soon laid out playing fields and inter-platoon and company games began. Representative teams were selected. The Rugby team played several games but won only one. The hockey team, which contained some provincial representatives, won five games in a row and was unlucky to lose the sixth and the divisional championship.
A battalion race meeting held on 25 March proved an outstanding success. Riders were confident in their ability to induce their donkeys to breast the winning tape, whether by fair means page 494 or foul. A large crowd saw some close finishes and abrupt changes of form. The totalisator, which operated from the sides and backs of trucks, reported a large turnover. The big race of the day resulted in a popular win by Unfortunate—a bay gelding by Fatigue out of Cookhouse—capably ridden by Sgt J. A. Simpson of A Coy. The winner was led up to the presentation dais by the bowler-hatted, black-frocked Clerk of the Course to receive his prize from the hands of the Hon. W. J. Jordan, who was paying a visit to the Division.
The following night a battalion concert organised by Padre Linton was staged in the Opera House at San Severino. A capacity house gave the performers an excellent hearing. Two short plays were presented, one by A Coy and the other by the ‘I’ section, the latter being the star performance of the evening.
During the month the rest of the 4th Reinforcements left for Advanced Base and New Zealand. These men, most of whom had joined the battalion at Baggush in December 1941, were fine soldiers and all ranks were sorry to see them go. Amongst them were a number of long-service officers, including Maj K. W. Hobbs, C Coy commander, who had gone overseas with 20 Battalion. His place was taken by Maj Pithie,1 a former 3 NZ Division officer. Two other changes of command took place, Capt Cooper2 taking over Support Group and 2 Lt Brent the duties of QM. Within the Division several important changes had taken place during the winter. The Divisional Cavalry Regiment, 22 (Motor) Battalion, and 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion relinquished their specialist roles to become infantry and form 9 Brigade under the command of Brig W. G. Gentry. As a result of this change selected personnel were trained and formed a machine-gun platoon, equipped with Vickers guns, in every infantry battalion.
Towards the end of the month a battalion exercise was held in an area about six miles from San Severino. Mock infantry attacks with tanks in close support were practised, as well as the speedy deployment of supporting arms when the objective page 495 had been gained. The old problem of inter-platoon and company communications had been largely overcome as the troops became more used to No. 38 sets. Tanks operated with the platoons, and it had become fairly simple to direct their fire onto targets. There had been little change in platoon equipment during 1944 except that the Piat had superseded the two-inch mortar; in addition to its value as an anti-tank weapon, it was also an ideal ‘casa buster’.
Although the Russians were nearing Berlin and Allied spearheads had crossed the Rhine, the troops knew that the war would not end without another battle in the Po Valley. Security lectures held out in open paddocks made it plain that an all- out offensive to crush the German forces in Italy had been planned, despite the obvious difficulties facing the attacking forces. Throughout the winter the Fifth Army, deployed across the high mountains south of Bologna, had remained on the offensive and had made gradual progress. After the Division's departure early in March, the Eighth Army had concentrated on gaining the eastern stopbank of the Senio as a springboard for the spring offensive, but very few lodgments were held. The difficulties of mounting such an offensive in the vine-covered, water-logged Po Valley were now fully realised, but confidence grew as more and more details of the support which would be thrown in to assist the attacking infantrymen were given the troops. Throughout the battalion's stay in the San Severino area the weather had been good. The ground had dried out thoroughly and the hills were green with spring growth.
Orders were received to move back to Forli, and on the afternoon of 1 April the battalion embussed and set out on the long journey back to the line. All means of identification were hidden from sight and the men were unable to say goodbye to the kindly civilians who by their hospitality had made the month's spell so much more pleasant. A few hours before daylight the convoy reached Forli and, moving out of the town, dispersed in nearby fields. Camouflage precautions were taken so that German reconnaissance aircraft would not notice the concentration of vehicles and men. During the afternoon the battalion moved again, this time to take up a reserve position page 496 near the small village of Granarolo. Ahead near the banks of the Senio were 24 and 25 Battalions.
The new sector taken over by 2 NZ Division from 78 British Division lay to the north of the one occupied throughout the winter and was about six miles north-east of Route 9. Four battalions were deployed across the 4500-yard front: 24 Battalion was on the left next to the Poles, and on the right 25, 21, and 28 Battalions; 26 and 23 Battalions were in support, with 9 Brigade in divisional reserve. Before it was relieved 78 Division had captured the greater portion of the eastern stopbank of the Senio and only a few enemy posts remained. During the Division's absence a significant change had taken place in the Po Valley. The spell of fine weather had melted the snow, dried up many of the ditches and canals, and had made the roads very dusty. Vines and trees were covered with green foliage which, though it reduced observation, was much more pleasant than the winter bareness. In the battalion sector the troops dug in along the line of grape vines and bivouacs were erected over the trenches, most of which were lined with straw for comfort. A few houses were occupied, but as the enemy artillery by this time had most of them registered, they proved a comfortable but scarcely safe habitation.
For four days little of note occurred. There was very little enemy shelling, and in warm, sunny weather the troops enjoyed the respite. Mail arrived every day; one afternoon the Hon. S. G. Holland, Leader of the Opposition, and Mr. F. W. Doidge, MP, paid the unit a short visit. Both visitors were besieged with a barrage of questions concerning happenings and conditions in New Zealand and they left with numerous messages for friends and relatives. The battalion's own mobile shower was set up alongside a creek and each company was able to use it. The disadvantage of being in a reserve position was the presence of numerous field guns, which at intervals opened fire and nearly deafened everybody. Allied fighters and bombers, which passed overhead in increasing numbers as the days went by, were always a source of interest.
During these few days plans for a full-scale offensive by the Eighth and Fifth Armies were finalised. They had been drawn up weeks before, and much careful thought and planning had page 497 gone into their preparation. The primary object was to destroy the German forces south of the Po River so that they could not withdraw to Southern Germany for a last stand. The offensive was divided into three phases. First 56 London Division, on the extreme right of the Eighth Army front, was to launch a diversionary attack around Lake Comacchio. This was to be followed by a three-divisional assault in the Po Valley, designed to smash the five river lines between the Senio and the Po, crush the opposition, and draw off the enemy's reserves. When the Germans switched their reserves to meet this threat, the Fifth Army was to break out through the mountains, capture Bologna, and then strike northwards towards Milan. Turin and Genoa. Beyond the Reno and the Po the going was much more suitable for fast, mobile warfare, and it was thought possible that the Eighth Army, too, would be able to join in the drive through Northern Italy.
The Eighth Army's task was formidable, although the improvement in the weather had made conditions much more favourable for such an assault. It had to cross five rivers, the Senio, Santerno, Sillaro, Idice and the Reno, before it could attack the much-vaunted Po River line. Each of these rivers had been prepared for defence; the first two, the Senio and the Santerno, were known to be strongly held. Five German divisions were dug in along the Senio line. Opposite 2 NZ Division was 98 Division; on its right were 26 Panzer and 4 Paratroop Divisions, and on its left, stretching across to the Adriatic coast, were 362 and 42 Jaeger Divisions. The Eighth Army plan was that 2 Polish Corps on the left and 5 Corps on the right (with 2 NZ Division in the centre and 8 Indian Division on the right) should launch a simultaneous assault on the Senio; having crossed it, they were then to attack and establish a bridgehead over the Santerno. Then, while the main thrust towards Bologna and north-west to the Reno was continued, 78 Division would pass through the Indians and, by driving through the Argenta Gap south of Lake Comacchio, endeavour to outflank the Reno defences.
General Freyberg planned to attack under a barrage on a two-brigade front with four battalions forward. The first phase was to establish a bridgehead over the Senio to a depth of 4000 page 498 yards. This done, the attack was to continue in three phases, culminating in the assault crossing of the Santerne 24 hours later. As a preliminary to the main attack the forward battalions were ordered to complete the capture of the eastern stopbank of the Senio so that lanes could be cleared through the minefields and observation gained over the enemy defences on the other bank. This task was completed by 4 April, and from then on all ranks knew it would not be long before the main attack was launched.
After dark on the 6th enemy field guns and mortars fired concentrations along the length of the Senio positions. The bombardment lasted over two hours and shells and bombs fell dangerously close to the trenches. Nobody in the battalion was injured, however, but it was noticeable that trenches were being deepened in the morning. Two days later, on the morning of the 9th, the news everyone was waiting for was released. The companies assembled in their respective areas were addressed by Colonel Fairbrother; using maps to illustrate his talk, he described the detailed plan for the attack which was to take place after dusk.
Although 26 Battalion, in reserve, would take no part in the initial assault on the Senio, its role was none the less important. The two Polish divisions on the left were not holding any part of the eastern stopbank, and as they were opposed by 26 Panzer Division and 4 Paratroop Division, it was anticipated they would meet much stiffer opposition and would not be able to keep pace with the New Zealanders. The 26th Battalion was to ‘hemstitch’ the left flank and prevent any counter-attack by the Panzer division on the New Zealand bridgehead. Only two companies, A and B, would be required for this role initially, and they were given specific sectors along the line of the inter-divisional boundary. C and D Coys would also cross the river and move into reserve positions ready to take over the flanking role next day.3 C Squadron 20 Armoured Regiment, under page 499 command, would cross the river by one of the four bridges which were to be built and endeavour to reach the forward troops by daylight. The supporting arms were to follow the tanks across the river and take up various positions from which they could cover the left flank.
Stage by stage the Colonel outlined the plan. He spoke enthusiastically of the tremendous support which would be given the infantry. It would be many times greater than that at Alamein or even at Cassino. It would start with an intense aerial bombardment of enemy positions between the Senio and the Santerno by over 500 bombers. Nearly 2000 tons of twenty-pound fragmentation bombs, designed to cause the maximum casualties to men and equipment without cratering roads, would be dropped within an hour and a half. At 3.20 p.m. it was to be the turn of the artillery. On the divisional front more than seventeen regiments would open fire and, with only five pauses to allow fighter-bombers to attack, would continue their bombardment until 7.20 p.m. During the later stages the infantrymen holding the near stopbank were to withdraw 400 yards to allow the artillery to pound both banks. At 7.20 p.m. Crocodiles (tanks with flame-throwing apparatus) and Wasps, including those of 26 Battalion, were to ‘flame’ the western stopbank, after which the infantry would carry out their assault. Everything was being thrown in to make the attack decisive. The plan illustrated very clearly the changes which had taken place since the Eighth Army was formed in September 1941 and so confidently took part in its first offensive in November of the same year.
The day was perfect for an air assault. A hot sun shone in a cloudless sky. In each company area company commanders held conferences with their platoon commanders, who in turn passed all information on to their men. Detailed maps of the Senio area and a copy of the battalion operation order were issued to each officer. The troops, clad in shorts, prepared for the move. LOBs numbering about seventy packed in readiness to move back to Forli. Everyone was waiting, rather impatiently, for the bombers to appear. They arrived right on time, and from all sorts of vantage points the troops watched as, in formations of twenty or more, they thundered overhead page 500 to drop their bombs within the target area. A huge pall of smoke and dust soon blotted out the front and the ground trembled under the weight of bombs and continual explosions. It was a wonderful spectacle as the heavy bombers almost ponderously moved on to their targets, while Spitfires and Hurri- bombers darted in and out of the dust clouds to attack enemy gun positions.
As suddenly as it had begun the bombing ceased. For a few minutes there was an uneasy lull and then the massed artillery opened fire. The men of 26 Battalion, close to the gunline, were soon deafened by the terrific din which no amount of cotton- wool could keep out. As dusk fell gun flashes lit the sky, and in the milky light created by the searchlights the countryside was given a peculiar, almost unearthly hue. At 7.20 p.m. the guns ceased fire and an uneasy stillness again fell over the front. This was the moment for the flame-throwers and the following infantry. The attack was on and the barrage due to begin.
* * *
For a few minutes fiery tongues of swirling, orange flame spurted across the river. In the fading light dense clouds of black smoke reached into the sky to join together and blot out the dust pall which still hung over the area. The infantry quickly put their kapoc bridges into position and attacked; and at Battalion HQ everyone waited for the first reports to come in. Little opposition was encountered, the Germans, demoralised and shaken, being only too ready to surrender. Both 24 and 25 Battalions soon cleared the far stopbank and began advancing across country in the wake of the barrage. At 7.40 p.m. Col Fairbrother went forward with his Tac HQ to San Severo, a cluster of houses near the stopbank. Three hours later he ordered A and B Coys to join him. The attack was going well, and by midnight the leading elements of the Division had reached their objective and were half-way to the Santerno. On the left flank the Poles were meeting serious resistance and were still hotly engaged in and around both stopbanks. Because of this 26 Battalion was ordered to carry out its pre-arranged flanking role.page 501
As soon as the two companies arrived they were immediately ordered to cross the river. The Senio was no longer the raging torrent which Sgt MacKenzie had swum, and the troops moved over it on the kapoc bridges. Down on level ground again A Coy, and later B Coy, swung slightly left and picked their way past demolished buildings, bomb craters, and shell holes to their objectives. It was difficult to maintain direction for the line of attack, being almost due north, crossed the grain of the country, with roads and vineyards set at an angle. For a while both companies lost touch with Tac HQ, and it was not until after 3 a.m. that communications were re-established through a wireless link set up across the river. Both companies were in position by this time, with B Coy on the left rear of 25 Battalion and A Coy behind it, both facing west. Neither had encountered much opposition, although machine-gun fire indicated there were page 502 enemy troops in the vicinity. The battle for the stopbanks in the Polish sector was still going on.
Meanwhile, enemy guns had registered on the Senio stopbanks but their fire did not prevent sappers from erecting bridges. C and D Coys and the supporting arms began to cross the river, and by dawn tanks were with all companies and the supporting arms were in position. Colonel Fairbrother moved his Tac HQ over the river into a house not far from the forward companies. At first light he went forward and told C and D Coys to be ready to move. The aerial and artillery bombardment began again soon after daylight; wave after wave of heavy bombers passed overhead to repeat the pounding of the day before. Both brigades were on the move again, and reports from Brigade HQ indicated that the Germans were offering only token resistance. The 98th Division had suffered severely: about 500 prisoners had been taken on the New Zealanders' sector alone. The 8th Indian Division on the right flank had almost kept pace with the New Zealanders and had nearly as many prisoners.
The 26th Battalion did not move from its positions until after midday, when it was decided that C Coy should move to Barbiano to guard Brigade HQ and that D, A, and B Coys should continue with the ‘hemstitching’. D Coy was to lead. Except for the Shermans, the supporting arms were to concentrate near Barbiano, which was a small village about a mile and a half from the Senio. Throughout the afternoon the advance continued, the forward battalions moving slowly ahead against light opposition. Mines and demolitions were the main reasons for the slow advance. Prisoners passing back to the cages at the rear appeared to be badly shaken. The countryside was almost bare. Trees had been stripped of their foliage and homes and farm buildings were either smoking ruins or piles of rubble. The ground was pock-marked with shell holes. Civilians who had escaped the bombing seemed dazed, but they did not forget to produce bottles of wine for thirsty soldiers.
Shortly before dark D Coy, which was close to the Canale di Lugo, came under fire from an enemy post dug in on the flood- bank of the canal. The Shermans with the company opened page 503 fire, and under cover of this 17 Platoon, under Lt Traynor,4 flanked the enemy position from the right. Two Piat bombs were fired and then the platoon closed in on the enemy, who surrendered. Fourteen Germans, including an officer, were captured and another lay dead near a spandau. Not long afterwards a sniper began to harass the company and one man was wounded. After crossing the canal, which was about 3000 yards from the Santerno, the company moved past a huge demolition until it reached a crossroads about 1500 yards from the river. By midnight A and B Coys had closed up on the leaders, and they occupied buildings about four to eight hundred yards to the rear. Intermittent mortar fire was causing no casualties although it continued throughout the night. During the night and the early part of the next morning the rest of the battalion, including the supporting arms, moved forward in readiness to continue the advance.
The Santerno line, which was expected to offer a much more formidable defence than the Senio, was captured at first light on the 11th. The enemy, harassed by guns and aircraft during the day, did not have time to man the well-prepared defences along both stopbanks and was caught by surprise. The 24th and 25th Battalions met only scattered resistance and more prisoners were taken. The Division had now outstripped the formations on either flank and at little cost had breached both the Senio and Santerno lines. During the day the forward troops of both brigades began to exploit towards the old Santerno riverbed on the west side of the river. The 26th Battalion continued its flanking role, with D Coy still in the lead.
By 10 a.m. Maj Gwynne reported that his men were close to the river and were under fire from machine guns and mortars firing from the stopbank in the Polish sector. There was little cover and tanks were being used to silence the opposition. By midday the three companies were close to the stopbank; C Coy, which had returned from Brigade HQ, was also not far away. Hostile mortar and shell fire was increasing, particularly in the forward areas. No. 13 Platoon, with a troop of tanks in support, was sent to make a sweep of an area on the left of the page 504 companies where enemy troops were thought to be. While carrying out this task the platoon encountered the leading elements of 6 Lwow Brigade. The Poles, having overcome the opposition on the Senio, were advancing much more swiftly and proposed to assault the Santerno on the left of 6 Brigade at dusk.
This good news was followed by even better. Everywhere the Germans were retreating. In the New Zealand sector 25 Battalion had reached the old watercourse of the Santerno; 24 Battalion, on its left, had advanced several hundred yards farther on into a wide loop of the watercourse. On its right the 5th Brigade battalions and the Indians were across the river. It was now the turn of the engineers to build bridges so that tanks and supporting arms could move forward to the infantry. To cover and strengthen the left of the 6th Brigade salient over the river, Col Fairbrother was ordered to send one company across to link up with 24 Battalion.
The Poles attacked at dusk under a heavy barrage. Flame-throwers were used and the infantry secured a crossing. Small-arms fire throughout the night indicated that they were meeting some opposition. Shortly after midnight C Coy crossed the river and reached its objective without striking opposition. By morning sappers had erected bridges and tanks had reached the forward infantry. The stage was set for another drive.
Early on the 12th orders were issued for 26 Battalion to relieve 25 Battalion on the right of the brigade sector and exploit to straighten the divisional line as a small gap existed between the two brigades. Orders were quickly issued at a battalion conference at 10 a.m. and by midday A Coy, in the lead, was crossing the Santerno over one of the bridges built during the night. B and D Coys were both on the move, tanks going with each company. C Coy was to remain in its position on the left of 24 Battalion and was to pass to the command of that battalion until relieved.
At this juncture plans were unexpectedly changed. General Freyberg had decided to hammer the disorganised 98th Division and maintain the momentum of the advance without waiting for the divisions on either flank to draw level. Some reinforcements had already reached the Germans, and 26 Panzer Recon- page 505 naissance Regiment had been identified on 5 Brigade's front. The divisional axis of advance had gradually swung in a more westerly direction, and the brigades were advancing along a line parallel to Route 9 with the intention of cutting Route 64, running north from Bologna.
The forward brigades were to attack under a barrage with the object of capturing the town of Massa Lombarda and penetrating another two miles into enemy territory. Three battalions, the 28th on the right, 26th in the centre and 24th on the left, were to take part and were to form up on a start line a short distance beyond the old Santerno watercourse. These orders were not received until midday; the Colonel was given very little time to prepare his plan and get his men onto the start line. Company commanders were given verbal orders for the attack. A and B Coys, which were already across the river or about to cross, were to lead the attack and form up on the 1400-yard start line. D Coy would follow, giving left-flank protection. The tanks already with the companies would advance with the infantry. The rest of the supporting arms, including F Troop 33 Anti-Tank Battery, would cross the river and later move forward to support the infantry. The attack had been divided into two phases. The first would take the battalion to a lateral road a few hundred yards south-east of Massa Lombarda, and the second to another lateral road about 2000 yards farther on. No time was set for the second phase to begin.
Returning to their companies, the three company commanders immediately began moving their men to the start line. Some of the ground had not been cleared and the leading troops encountered some opposition, but by 2.45 p.m. all three companies were in position. It was a fine piece of organisation.
The guns opened fire at 3 p.m., and 20 minutes later the barrage lifted and the infantry began to advance. Opposition was stronger than expected and came from well-sited machine guns and, later, from tanks which harassed the leading, platoons of both companies with shellfire. Quick-witted action by one NCO saved A Coy several casualties from a well-sited spandau post lying directly in the line of advance. Unable to get assistance from the tank supporting his platoon, Cpl Rossiter5 dashed page 506 across the open ground under heavy fire towards B Coy, where he located another tank and guided it forward. The machine-gun post was overrun and its occupants captured. When close to its objective 8 Platoon saw a Tiger tank approaching. The platoon sergeant, B. H. Grainger,6 and Cpl Campbell7 scrambled into a ditch running alongside the road, and when the tank was close at hand disabled it with two shots from a Piat. The crew were taken prisoner. Two more enemy tanks were knocked out by the Shermans while rocket-firing aircraft scored hits on others. By 4.45 p.m. the leading platoons had reached their objective and were digging in on the open ground beyond it. The enemy had been taken by surprise; although some machine-gun posts had offered opposition, they were speedily silenced by well-directed tank fire. A Coy captured two field guns, together with their crews, and this brought the total bag of prisoners for the two companies to over thirty. Many of the Germans were wounded. The 24th Battalion and the Maoris also reached their objectives, and 25 Battalion took over the role of ‘hemstitching’ the left flank.
As the infantry dug in enemy mortar and machine-gun fire increased. Self-propelled guns ranged on A Coy and caused some casualties. This fire slackened off soon after dusk when the New Zealand artillery began retaliating. Casualties for the afternoon totalled thirteen, including three men killed. Colonel Fairbrother had received orders for the second phase of the attack which was to take place at two o'clock in the morning, the infantry again advancing under a barrage. During the evening Tac HQ moved forward to join A Coy HQ in a large farm building close to the lateral road. C Coy, after its relief by 25 Battalion, moved to a concentration area east of the Santerno.
The battalion retained the same formation for the second phase of the advance. Shortly after the barrage opened, A and B Coys began to advance across country against very light opposition. After a pause along a lateral road running west of Massa Lombarda, the companies continued on to their objec- page 507 tive, which they reached without difficulty. A few prisoners were taken, but it was clear that the bulk of the enemy's forces had withdrawn behind the next river, the Sillaro, which was over five miles away. Tactical HQ moved to the outskirts of Massa Lombarda at dawn, arriving just as red-eyed civilians emerged from their shelters to find New Zealanders in occupation. The town had taken a pounding from the air and civilian casualties had been heavy. Partisans of both sexes were much in evidence.
Colonel Fairbrother went ahead to A Coy HQ and ordered Maj Murray to continue the advance until his men made contact with the enemy. Additional tanks were provided and the platoons were to travel as far as possible on them. By 6.30 a.m. A Coy was on its way with seven tanks in support. Brigadier Parkinson confirmed these arrangements when he called at Tac HQ half an hour later. B Coy followed A Coy. While these two companies continued the advance, D Coy was withdrawn for a well-deserved rest and C Coy moved forward to Massa Lombarda to act as reserve.
A Coy made good progress for a while, the troops enjoying the novel method of travelling, but after about a mile machine-gun and mortar fire forced the men to desert their ‘iron steeds’. No. 7 Platoon was ordered forward to make contact with the enemy. The platoon moved forward in bounds over ground devoid of cover. Opposition was coming from two machine-gun posts about 1000 yards away and from a tank or self-propelled gun firing from the left flank. The two Shermans which moved with the platoon gave covering fire as the men ran forward, and by 10 a.m. the opposition had been overcome and several prisoners taken. The rest of the company moved forward as several enemy tanks opened fire along the narrow front. The Shermans engaged them, and for several hours the company was unable to advance. On the right the Maoris were similarly held up.
Fifth Brigade was at this stage being withdrawn. The relief was carried out by 26 Battalion side-stepping across into the Maoris' sector and 24 Battalion crossing behind the 26th to move to the right flank of the Division. This allowed 9 Brigade to move into 6 Brigade's former sector and continue the ad- page 508 vance. The Division was well ahead of flanking formations, and all available reserve troops were required to cover the open flanks. The 98th Division had been completely routed and was no longer an effective fighting force, but 278 Division, which had been withdrawn from the Fifth Army front, had been thrown in to stem the New Zealanders' thrust. This transfer was important, for the Fifth Army's offensive was just beginning to reach full impetus.
When A Coy resumed its advance shortly after midday, it crossed the railway embankment in front of the Maoris, waded through a canal, and then continued forward. The Shermans had to make a detour to find a crossing over the canal, and in their absence 7 Platoon moved about 600 yards to the line of a lateral road. Here the Shermans joined it and almost immediately became involved in an action with enemy tanks and self-propelled guns. The ground was very open, and enemy rearguards dug in along the banks of the Scolo Correcchio, 1200 vards away, were able to sweep the area with machine-gun fire. Tank reinforcements reached the company, and rocket-firing aircraft darted here and there searching for the enemy tanks. The Shermans moved out towards the canal while the infantry dug in along the line of the lateral road. In a short, sharp engagement two Shermans were knocked out and the rest withdrew behind the infantry.
The situation was unchanged at dusk. The battalions on both flanks had drawn level with the 26th and were poised ready to continue the advance. General Freyberg decided to attack again under a barrage on a two-brigade front with the object of capturing both stopbanks of the Sillaro River and the canal before it. The four battalions which had led the advance during the day would make the assault. Colonel Fairbrother received orders late in the afternoon and decided to commit only two companies. A and B Coys, which had had little opportunity to sleep during the last four nights and which had lost 19 men, including four killed, were to remain in reserve. The supporting arms were to move forward but would not cross the river.
Sixth Brigade's Advance from the Senio, 9–29 April 1945
It was soon apparent that the enemy had withdrawn from the stopbank, possibly to avoid the flame-throwers, and had dug in along a lateral road only a short distance west of the river. From these positions he attempted to force the 6th Brigade companies off the stopbank. The forward platoons dug in under very heavy mortar and shell fire and were continually harassed by machine guns. Colonel Fairbrother ordered the supporting arms to move forward, but until the river was bridged they could give only indirect support. On the left flank the Divisional Cavalry Regiment was in a similar position, but on its right 22 Battalion had not yet been able to secure and hold a crossing.
The situation was unchanged at daylight, and throughout the 14th the four platoons over the river were mortared and shelled as the enemy tried his best to force them back. The danger of a counter-attack was very great for 22 Battalion on the left was still not across the river, and 16 and 18 Platoons had to watch both their front and the exposed flank. Fortunately, communications to the rear were good and counter-battery fire was called down at frequent intervals. The appearance of Allied fighter-bombers silenced many of the enemy guns. After dark 22 Battalion launched another attack across the river, and although it had to beat off a determined counter-attack in the early hours of the morning, it had drawn level with D Coy by dawn. During the 15th Battalion HQ and the other companies moved closer to the Sillaro in readiness to enlarge the bridgehead. The Mortar Platoon was able to provide many of the fire tasks asked for by C and D Coys, and the Vickers gunners harassed some electric power pylons which were being used by the enemy to gain observation over the ground east of the river. Casualties in the forward companies during the 48 hours were one killed and 13 wounded.
The success of the Eighth Army's thrust, in particular that of 2 NZ Division, caused the Army Commander to vary his original plans. The Division was withdrawn from the command of 5 page 511 Corps and transferred to 13 Corps. Four main thrusts were being made by the Allied armies in Italy, two by the Fifth Army towards Bologna and along the west coast to Genoa, and two by the Eighth Army, with 5 Corps attacking through the Argenta Gap towards the Reno and 13 Corps driving across the Po Valley towards Route 16. This last thrust, it was now recognised, might be a decisive one.
Details of another set-piece attack under a barrage—and the last for 26 Battalion—were released during the afternoon of the 15th. It was to begin at 9 p.m. on a four-battalion front with the intention of extending the bridgehead over the Sillaro to a depth of about 2000 yards. The 25th Battalion, which had relieved the 24th, would be on the right, with 26 Battalion alongside it and 22 and 27 Battalions on the left. The barrage would be a heavy one with seven field regiments and some medium batteries firing on the 4500-yard front, for it was expected that the infantry might encounter enemy tanks and some artillery. Colonel Fairbrother decided that A and B Coys should make the assault. C Coy was to mop up and take over any prisoners captured by the forward troops. D Coy was to remain in reserve along the Sillaro stopbanks. The supporting arms would move forward after bridges had been erected.
Late in the afternoon A and B Coys moved forward to the river bank and by 9 p.m. were ready on the start line. The attack went well from the start. Three prisoners were taken just beyond the start line, and although the enemy offered some resistance at first it was soon very clear that his men were demoralised and disorganised by the bombardment. B Coy on the right met little opposition, but A Coy was very quickly swamped with prisoners. It became impossible to provide escorts for them, and in turn Battalion HQ and C Coy found they could not handle the number taken. D Coy was called to assist. The leading platoons reached their objective, a lateral road, by midnight and dug in as enemy mortars began firing. Enemy tanks could be heard moving about nearby but none was sighted.
The attack had been very successful. Approximately 150 prisoners had been taken, most of them by A Coy, and many German dead were left lying on the battlefield. Some of them page 512 had been caught by the barrage and others had been killed as the infantry cleared their dugouts. On the right flank 25 Battalion, although it had encountered some enemy tanks, had also reached its objective. The battalions of 9 Brigade had also encountered tanks but had eventually conformed with the 6th Brigade line. Much of the enemy counter-battery fire passed over the heads of the forward troops to land on the Sillaro stopbanks, where sappers were hard at work erecting bridges. The 26th Battalion RMO, Capt Malcolm, was wounded when he went to the assistance of some wounded sappers. Nevertheless, before 2 a.m. C Squadron 20 Armoured Regiment was moving over one bridge to join A and B Coys. By dawn the battalion with its supporting arms was across the river.
Before dawn the Colonel was up with the forward companies, and at 7 a.m. he ordered them to continue the advance in bounds towards the next likely defence line, the Gaiana Canal, about eight miles away. A heavy ground fog hampered progress, but by 8 a.m. the two companies had reached a small canal about 1000 yards west of their former positions. No opposition had been encountered and the fog was lifting. Shortly afterwards 22 Battalion, A Coy 26 Battalion, and to a lesser extent B Coy, came under heavy mortar and shell fire. The ground was very open and the troops took whatever cover was available. Counter-battery fire was arranged but had no apparent effect. The 22nd Battalion unexpectedly withdrew about 800 yards on the left of A Coy, and Maj Murray called for flank protection. As C Coy was already following close behind the leading troops, the anti-tank gunners were ordered to move forward to cover the gap.
For several hours the companies did not move. Heavy artillery concentrations were fired on a group of houses suspected to be holding the enemy rearguard parties. The 22nd Battalion moved forward again, and shortly after midday A and B Coys moved ahead to the next objective, a crossroads 700 yards away. B Coy, with C Coy following it, did not pause but carried on until it reached the Scolo Sillaro, 500 yards farther on. The 22nd Battalion had not advanced and A Coy's flank was exposed to a depth of about a thousand yards. Because of this the Brigade Commander ordered the battalion not to move until 22 page 513 Battalion could conform. In the meantime sappers built a bridge over the narrow canal, and tanks and infantry engaged a number of enemy posts ahead.
Until 4.15 p.m. the companies remained on the canal bank under intermittent mortar and machine-gun fire, and then the order was given to continue the advance. Little opposition was met, and the forward platoons moved rapidly over another canal and on about another 800 yards to a lateral road, completing an advance of 4000 yards for the day. A Coy's flank was still exposed, and at the lateral road it encountered some opposition. The enemy, however, offered only a token resistance and in a short time 7 and 9 Platoons, which were leading, had captured two field guns and had rounded up a German officer and 44 other ranks of 278 Division. Patrols were sent forward to the Scolo Montanara, 700 yards away, and they reported that it was undefended.
After dusk 5 Brigade relieved 6 Brigade and 21 Battalion passed through the 26th to continue the advance towards the Gaiana Canal. The battalion had been seven days in the line; although the fighting had not been severe, it had been almost constantly on the move and was seldom out of contact with the enemy. In comparison with the casualties inflicted on the enemy and the number of prisoners taken, the battalion's losses had not been heavy. They totalled 51, including ten men killed. During these seven days the Division had crossed three major rivers and advanced over 16 miles. It had smashed two German divisions and, in doing so, had set the pace of the Eighth Army's advance. The climax of the entire battle was not far away.
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For two days the troops rested. There was little to do except laze about in the warm sunshine, read accumulated mail, and write letters home. All ranks were billeted in houses, and the civilians who owned them were very friendly. B Echelon moved forward and the unit showers were set up alongside a nearby creek. LOBs arrived and returned to their companies. Major Kerr, back from a tour of duty at Base Camp, Maadi, resumed command of D Coy, and Maj Gwynne took over the Support page 514 Group again. On the 18th the battalion Wasps, together with those of 24 and 25 Battalions and under the command of Capt Cooper, went forward to take part in the attack on the Gaiana Canal.
After a relatively easy advance during 16 April the leading elements of the Division had met stiffening resistance as they approached the Gaiana Canal. The reason for this was soon obvious. The 4th Paratroop Division, which was slowly being driven back by the Polish Corps, was withdrawing across 2 NZ Division's front. Just as the war seemed to be over, the New Zealanders encountered what was without doubt one of the finest fighting formations the Germans had in Italy. More troops had been added to General Freyberg's command. On the left flank was the 43rd Gurkha Brigade and on the right a regiment of the 12th Lancers in staghounds. The Gurkhas and 9 Brigade, on their right, suffered fairly heavy casualties as they advanced over the open ground east of the canal. At 9.30 p.m. on the 18th the two brigades attacked under a very heavy barrage. Wasps and Crocodiles flamed the stopbanks and inflicted heavy casualties on the paratroopers. A bridgehead was gained and, as the infantry fought hard to enlarge it, sappers bridged the canal. Throughout the 19th the fighting continued, with the two brigades slowly forging their way ahead across a number of small canals towards the next river, the Idice.
This was the situation when Col Fairbrother received orders for the relief of the Gurkhas by 6 Brigade. Fifth Brigade was to relieve 9 Brigade at the same time. The relief was to be carried out after dark, and as soon as it was completed both brigades were to continue the advance with the object of getting as close to the Idice River as possible before daylight. Although the Gurkhas had advanced about 3000 yards beyond the Gaiana Canal, they were still about a thousand yards behind 9 Brigade on their right, and the immediate task of 6 Brigade was to straighten the Division's line. The 26th Battalion was to assemble near the east bank of the canal during the afternoon and later take over the left-hand sector. The 24th Battalion would be on its right, and 25 Battalion would carry out the ‘hemstitching’ on the left flank. The paratroopers still held a small section of the canal bank on the immediate left of the page 515 Gurkhas, and a squadron from the 12th Lancers had been sent across to deal with them.
The troops moved forward in lorries, and as they were digging in on the east side of the canal a few shells landed in the area. Gunfire on the left indicated that the Lancers were having some trouble, and a few bursts of spandau fire from the stopbank of the canal sent everyone scurrying to cover. At 9.30 p.m. the Colonel went forward to 2/10 Gurkha Battalion's headquarters and from there ordered the 26th Battalion companies forward. C Coy moved first and went onto the right flank. D Coy took the other forward position, with A Coy in support of it. B Coy remained in reserve. Tanks of 20 Armoured Regiment accompanied each company, and the supporting arms crossed the canal. Shortly after midnight the relief was complete and the CO gave the order to continue the advance. The ground over which the troops began to advance was dotted with flickering fires—haystacks and buildings set ablaze by earlier air and artillery bombardments or, as often was the case, fired by the retreating Germans. Away to the left huge clusters of flares were being dropped by aircraft and ack-ack shells were bursting above the drifting lanterns.
No opposition was encountered, and by 2.30 a.m. the battalion had drawn level with 24 Battalion and 5 Brigade on the Quaderna Canal; by 8 a.m. on the 20th the troops had crossed two more canals and had moved forward another mile. A Coy was close up on the left flank and was actually moving outside the divisional boundary. At first light 18 Platoon had a short skirmish with some paratroopers. An old Italian informed the platoon commander that seven Germans were occupying his house. The platoon moved forward and surrounded the house. Grenades were thrown through the windows, whereupon the Germans made a dash for safety. Four were killed, another wounded, and the other two taken prisoner.
After a pause for an hour the advance was continued, and by 11.30 a.m. the leading companies had moved forward another 2000 yards and were only a short distance from the Idice. There was no ground opposition but hostile mortar and shell fire was increasing. Colonel Fairbrother, who was with the forward troops, realised that by striking swiftly in daylight it page 516 might be possible to establish a bridgehead over the river. As events proved the enemy was caught unawares. C and D Coys had no difficulty in securing the near stopbank but they encountered intense machine-gun fire when they attempted to cross over to the other bank. This, however, did not stop them for long, and by the middle of the afternoon three platoons were across.
No move to support the platoons or enlarge the bridgehead could be made until just on dusk, because of an intense aerial assault just forward of the platoons by Allied fighter-bombers. During the interval a ford was located which would enable the tanks to cross the river with ease, the water being only a few inches deep. Although this ford was in Polish territory, it was thought more important to make the best use of the advantage gained than to remain within divisional boundary lines. As dusk fell the rest of C and D Coys moved across the river. Tanks also moved over, followed by A Coy. By 9 p.m. a bridgehead had been established over the river on a front of about 700 yards and to a depth of about 600 yards. The three companies were under heavy mortar fire and were being harassed by spandaus. The Shermans retaliated but because of the darkness were unable to pinpoint the enemy positions. The CO brought the Mortar Platoon forward and deployed it along the stopbank to strengthen the bridgehead, and at 10 p.m. the forward platoons withdrew a short distance to better cover.
The 26th Battalion was holding the only crossing place over the river, and General Freyberg decided that 5 Brigade should launch an attack after dusk to secure another. Polish troops and armour would pass through 26 Battalion during the night and continue on towards Bologna. The first Polish tanks arrived about 4 a.m. and soon they had disappeared from sight. Shortly before dawn the tanks supporting 5 Brigade crossed over the ford and turned north to protect the newly established bridgehead.
The advance was resumed at 8 a.m. when B Coy moved off on tanks to take up a position on the left of 24 Battalion. A Coy moved off soon afterwards and the battalion resumed its position within the divisional boundary. A and B Coys continued to lead the advance, with the other companies following. page 517 No opposition was encountered and by dusk four miles had been covered. At this stage the companies were ordered to halt while 24 Battalion and 5 Brigade eliminated some opposition centred around a small canal, the Scolo Zena. Later in the night the leading companies only moved forward another mile and then halted for the night. Tactical HQ was set up in a large building which had been used by the Germans as a hospital. The headquarters personnel arrived in time to witness another of those tragic and unforgettable scenes so familiar in war. Civilians had returned to the area when the Germans evacuated their patients and had availed themselves of an air-raid shelter in the grounds of the hospital. The Germans then set up two anti-aircraft guns right alongside the shelter and subsequently opened fire on Allied bombers passing overhead. Before long the bombers retaliated. One gun was hit and the entrance to the flimsy shelter demolished, trapping the unfortunate civilians inside. This had happened two days before the New Zealanders arrived. An anxious crowd of civilians was still digging frantically into the huge pile of twisted woodwork and rubble. Aided by soldiers, their harrowing task of uncovering the bodies was completed. One of the first brought out was a ten-year-old boy—alive.
If Sunday, 22 April, marked the beginning of the Division's chase up the east coast of Italy, then the day before marked the end of the battle for the Po Valley. American and Polish troops converged on and captured Bologna. The Germans were in headlong flight in an effort to get back behind the Po river defences. Brigadier Parkinson arrived at Battalion HQ early in the morning and gave orders for the battalion to move as fast as possible to cut Route 64 and, beyond it, the road leading north from Bologna through the town of San Giorgio to the Reno River.
Soon after 7 a.m. C and D Coys passed through the leading platoons and continued the advance. Four hours later they reached a crossroads west of Route 64. The men had marched over three miles without sighting the enemy, but his demolitions had forced the tanks to find alternative routes. The CO went forward and ordered the two companies to climb on the tanks and move north along the road to San Giorgio until page 518 contact was made with the enemy. The Colonel followed in a jeep and the rest of the battalion, travelling in transport, brought up the rear. The San Giorgio road was a good tar-sealed one and the tanks, although held up for twenty minutes while sappers laid a scissors bridge over a canal, made good progress. By 2 p.m. they had passed through San Giorgio, already ‘liberated’ by a 24 Battalion company. An hour later C Coy reported that it had encountered a strong enemy rearguard two miles beyond the town. Partisans stated that the enemy, dug in west of the road, was well equipped with mortars and machine guns. Colonel Fairbrother immediately ordered the company to deploy and sent D Coy forward to cover the left flank. A and B Coys, which had remained in San Giorgio, were also sent forward together with the Mortar and Machine Gun platoons.
In an attempt to force the enemy to withdraw, C Coy sent one platoon forward to engage him. The platoon, led by Lt Turnbull,8 made a spirited effort to drive the paratroopers from their well-prepared positions and inflicted casualties on them. Turnbull and his sergeant, K. W. Herring,9 distinguished themselves in this short engagement, but in the end, after suffering some casualties itself, the platoon was forced to withdraw. The Brigade Commander was very anxious to continue the advance and he ordered 26 Battalion to brush aside any opposition. Colonel Fairbrother, who was at C Coy HQ, immediately advised the Brigadier that he did not consider the advance was wise, for not only was the enemy firmly in position but there was no sign yet of 9 Brigade coming up on the left flank. On receipt of this message the Brigade Commander agreed to a postponement. During the night artillery moved into position and shelled the enemy and by morning the road was clear.
The battalion was on the move by 6.30 a.m. on the 23rd, with A and B Coys riding on tanks and the remainder in lorries and jeeps. A few minor mishaps delayed progress for a while. One of the tanks broke down and held up the traffic, and later 11 Platoon's truck struck a mine. The explosion page 519 wrecked the front of the vehicle and pushed the engine back into the cab, but nobody was seriously hurt. By 10 a.m. six miles had been covered and the battalion was close to the Reno. All bridges over the river had been destroyed; while the troops had a late breakfast the CO carried out a reconnaissance to find a likely crossing place. Within an hour A and B Coys had waded across the river, which was only about a foot deep, and were deployed about 500 yards beyond the northern bank. Contact was made with elements of 6 British Armoured Division which, advancing in a north-westerly direction from the Argenta Gap, was moving across the Division's line of advance.
The advance could not continue until the river was bridged and tanks and supporting arms could join the infantry. As the river was wide this was likely to take some time, and the battalion was ordered to move to a brigade concentration area not far from it. During the day there had been some changes in command. The Commanding Officer of 25 Battalion had been wounded and Maj Barnett, who had had long service with 26 Battalion, was appointed to succeed him. Major Murray became second-in-command of the battalion and Capt Boyd took over A Coy. Captain Cooper became OC HQ Coy.
Early on 24 April 6 Brigade began to move towards the Po; 26 Battalion, in reserve, set out in convoy at 9.30 a.m. After passing a seemingly endless line of lorries loaded with bridging equipment, the convoy was brought to a halt by a blown bridge over the Panara River, a tributary of the Po. After a wait of over two hours the battalion moved off the road and dispersed near the banks of the river. In every direction there was burnt-out and abandoned enemy equipment—hundreds of vehicles, field guns of all descriptions, light tanks, armoured cars and all the other equipment of an army. It was striking evidence of the rout of the enemy and the damage inflicted by the Allied air force. The troops, with time on their hands, mingled with civilians, all bent on salvaging something of value from the wreckage. Some of the hundreds of horses roaming about were rounded up and the men enjoyed the unexpected pleasure of an afternoon's ride. Bartering went on with the civilians as horses were sold and then resold. After tea impromptu race meetings were held. The war seemed far away. Several German trucks page 520 were repaired and on the following day joined the north-bound convoys, each one loaded with salvage.
During the night 25 Battalion and 5 Brigade crossed the Po in assault boats to encounter only slight resistance, and early the next morning the battalion crossed the Panara over a Bailey bridge. After travelling about two miles the convoy turned off the road and the trucks dispersed. Ahead engineers were building a pontoon bridge over the wide river. It was Anzac Day. During the morning Padre Linton conducted a short service to commemorate those who had fallen in another war. How different was this Anzac Day from that day in Greece four years earlier when 26 Battalion, along with the rest of the Division, had been racing south to Corinth, pursued by German forces and harried by dive-bombers.
Before dawn on the 26th the battalion crossed the Po. The bridge swayed disconcertingly as the continuous stream of trucks and guns moved slowly across. It was too dark to see much. The enemy's much-vaunted river defences were unmanned; what was left of the opposing German army was scurrying behind the next large river, the Adige, about sixteen miles away. The battalion halted for a while in the village of Salara and then moved on to Trecenta, where the troops lunched to the sound of gunfire some distance ahead. Bands of partisans, armed mostly with German equipment, roamed the town rounding up Fascists and Germans left behind in the retreat. The civilians, obviously glad the war was over for them, cheered wildly each oncoming and departing vehicle. Shortly before midday the convoy moved off again and, after travelling about seven miles, halted two miles from the Adige. Ahead the forward battalions of 5 and 6 Brigades were lining the banks of the river, having fought off an enemy rearguard. A bridgehead over the river was to be secured after dark but 26 Battalion, in reserve, was not required to move until morning. B Coy was sent to form a protective screen around Brigade HQ, and the rest of the battalion moved into nearby houses. There were still some German pockets south of the river and, although the partisans were well organised in the area and actively engaging them, pickets were posted in each house.page 521
The river was crossed during the night and by morning both brigades had established a firm bridgehead. Ninth Brigade and the Gurkhas passed through them and continued the chase, this time towards Venice and the Venetian line. Everywhere the Allied forces were racing ahead—Americans towards Milan, Americans and South Africans towards Verona, British armour on the right of the New Zealanders and seaborne troops towards Venice.
Sixth Brigade moved into reserve, and during the morning of the 27th the battalion moved into the nearby town of Badia Polesine in anticipation of a few days' rest. Badia, which extended along the banks of the Adige, had been severely bombed in places, particularly near the river. The bodies of many Germans lay strewn about the bomb craters while others dangled grotesquely from the twisted girders and framework of the demolished bridge. More bodies floated in back eddies of the river; civilians stated that hundreds of Germans had been drowned during the bombing raids. The companies were given various tasks. A and B Coys helped engineers clear the approaches to the river where it was proposed to erect a Bailey bridge, and C Coy was sent to collect prisoners captured by 9 Brigade. The spell was spoilt by a change in the weather, heavy rain falling during the morning of the 27th and again on the 28th.
But 28 April was a momentous day. In Germany Russian and American forces linked up; in Italy American forces, sweeping around in a wide arc north of the New Zealanders, captured Verona, crashed through the Venetian line and entered Vicenza. This provided the impetus for a similar drive by 2 NZ Division in which all opposition was brushed aside as 9 Brigade raced north-east towards Padua, Mestre and Venice. The Division became a fast, mobile striking force reminiscent of its desert days. The effect of the Divisional Commander's decision to speed up the advance was soon felt by 6 Brigade. The 26th Battalion was ordered to move at short notice, and at ten o'clock that night crossed the Adige by pontoon bridge. From there, at the head of the brigade column, it moved north through Este on to Route 16, and at dawn halted when only a few miles from Padua. Ninth Brigade and Divisional HQ were in page 522 the city. Fighting was still going on for gunfire could be heard. A Coy was ordered to move into the city to protect Divisional HQ, and on the way there passed many partisans, German prisoners, and wounded.
Divisional HQ was in the eastern end of the town, but 9 Brigade had moved on by the time A Coy arrived. Major Boyd deployed his men in various buildings around Divisional HQ for partisans were still engaged in a battle with Germans and Fascists for possession of the city. Already the prisoners numbered thousands, including three German generals. While 9 Brigade cleared the northern exit to the city, the 12th Lancers raced ahead along the autostrada towards Venice. As soon as it had overcome the enemy rearguard 9 Brigade followed, with Divisional HQ and A Coy close behind. After them came the rest of the Division, a long procession of tanks, trucks and guns. It was after 3 p.m. before the battalion passed through Padua. Heavy rain was falling, but the people turned out in thousands and gave the troops a tumultuous welcome. Outside the city the drivers increased speed, and the convoy raced through bombed villages and farm settlements, past cheering villagers and flag-waving children. Now and again the crack of a rifle or the rattle of a machine gun was heard as partisans rounded up scattered bands of Germans. Long lines of prisoners, weary and dejected looking, marched past. At 6 p.m. Venice, captured by New Zealanders earlier in the afternoon, came into sight. Instead of continuing on to the city, the convoy turned north again through Mestre to Route 14. Mestre was little different from Padua for vociferous crowds lined the sidewalks, cheering each truck in undisguised pleasure at the sight of Allied troops. Once again partisans were very much in evidence.
The Division was now heading for the next of the great rivers of Northern Italy, the Piave. All bridges were down and the chase could not be continued until a new one had been erected. In any case, by advancing almost a hundred miles in twenty-four hours, the Division had outstripped its supply lines and was becoming short of petrol. So until the morning of 1 May it rested south of the river, all units dispersed to the sides of the road and in most cases occupying houses. There was still fighting going on in the area, but 26 Battalion was not affected in page 523 its camp site a few miles south of the river. A Coy, which was still with Divisional HQ and remained attached to it for the next fortnight, was farther ahead. On the 30th the opportunity was taken to visit Venice. The Venetians were still celebrating their liberation and enthusiastic crowds gave the New Zealanders a great ovation wherever they went. Pickets from 22 Battalion were guarding one of the best hotels, the Danieli, and a notice in front of it read ‘Reserved for NZ Club’.
The fighting in Italy had virtually ended, only a few fanatics showing any inclination to resist. Venice, Genoa, Turin and Milan had been freed from the enemy yoke, and of the great cities in the north only Trieste, over a hundred miles away, remained in enemy hands. The Division was directed on it and so were Tito's Yugoslavs.
* * *
Early on 1 May the Division, with the 12th Lancers out in front, set out for Trieste. Sixth Brigade, still in reserve, did not move until 11 a.m. Progress was exasperatingly slow, mainly because of the huge volume of traffic on the road and the difficult approach to the newly erected pontoon bridge over the Piave. It was 5 p.m. when at length the battalion vehicles began to cross. By that time the weather had changed and heavy rain was falling. Roads quickly became slippery and treacherous and drivers had to contend with road craters, demolished road blocks, and narrow bends. Sixth Brigade was to go no farther than Monfalcone, east of the Isonzo River and about 27 miles from Trieste. Colonel Fairbrother, accompanied by the IO, Lt McInnes,10 went ahead of the main body to find a suitable dispersal area.
Not long after dark a particularly bad demolition held up the entire convoy and trucks were jammed nose-to-tail for miles. Progress became much slower, about twenty vehicles crossing the demolition each hour. All along the column trucks crept forward a few yards and then waited a chance to repeat the performance. Between bounds motors ticked over quietly and rain fell steadily on hoods and canopies. To this tune the troops page 524 dozed uneasily. At 8.30 p.m. the battalion was ordered to disperse four miles west of the Isonzo, but before it could do so the road became impassable and the convoy was held up for three hours. Outside in the streaming rain working parties toiled to clear the road. Finally, at 5.30 a.m. the leading vehicles reached the road turn-off, where the CO (who knew of the change of plan) was waiting to direct the convoy to a dispersal area. A Coy by this time was at Ronchi, a town a few miles east of the river. Neither the battalion nor A Coy was to have much rest during the next day, for while A Coy continued on to reach the outskirts of Trieste, the battalion began a course in ‘political diplomacy’.
* * *
During the morning the battalions of 6 Brigade were given various tasks. The 24th was sent south to the coast, where Germans were reported to be landing from naval craft. The 25th, with 18 Armoured Regiment in support, went to Palmanova where the 12th Lancers were meeting opposition from an enemy rearguard. The 26th Battalion was directed to secure Gorizia, 16 miles north of Monfalcone on the east bank of the Isonzo. The situation there was not very clear, but the object of the move was to secure the route for Allied forces to advance into Austria. Chetniks were known to be in the area and were to be taken into protective custody.
The battalion moved off in convoy shortly after midday and, travelling along a road running parallel to the west bank of the river, soon neared Gorizia. Large parties of armed Chetniks were seen close to the road; they were obviously only part of a much larger force established in the hills west of the town and the river. The convoy halted while the CO attempted to discuss the situation with a Chetnik officer who was in charge of a small party near the road. The language bar prevented any conversation, but as the Chetniks seemed friendly enough Col Fairbrother decided to risk this force at his rear and move into Gorizia. A number of Chetniks lay dead on the roadside and there were other obvious signs of recent fighting.
From Gorizia came the unmistakable sounds of machine-gun fire as the troops debussed and prepared to move into the town. page 525 The main bridge over the river had recently been demolished but a wooden footbridge remained. This was wide enough to allow jeeps and carriers to accompany Tac HQ and B and C Coys into the town. The shooting died down as the troops moved in and occupied various buildings to which they were directed. D Coy remained with Battalion HQ on the west bank of the river to guard the footbridge and the transport which had to be left behind. Gorizia was held by Tito's Yugoslav troops, against whom the Chetniks had been fighting.
From the battalion's point of view this clarified the situation but certainly did not improve it. Completely unaware of it, the battalion had driven along the no-man's-land of a battle between some 9000 Chetniks and possibly as many of Tito's troops, and had in fact stopped the action. Either of the two factions could have attacked the battalion which, outnumbered and without artillery or armoured support, would have quickly been in a hopeless position. The situation was further confused by the presence of another faction within the town itself—Italians who were strongly opposed to Tito's forces and the Slavs which he supported. They tried to enlist the Colonel's aid to trace persons abducted by the Yugoslavs. It was obvious that the latter were administering the town as territory under their own control, and in doing so had deposed the town council, disarmed the Italian police, and installed a Slovene committee. The officer in charge of the Yugoslav troops, while outwardly cordial, was clearly determined to carry out his original plans. The CO took a firm stand, and to enable him to maintain it the Brigade Commander arranged for 25 Battalion and C Squadron 18 Armoured Regiment to move into the town via the eastern road.
Throughout the afternoon noisy, demonstrative bands paraded through the streets, shouting slogans and waving flags. Each Slav demonstration was followed by an Italian one. Many of the Yugoslavs were armed and tension within the town increased almost to breaking point. In the meantime the troops left on the west bank of the river were also having an anxious time, placed as they were in the direct path of Chetniks and Yugoslavs. Some of the latter had crossed the river and were dug in behind D Coy, which was concentrated around a large cotton factory on the river bank. Two Chetniks were persuaded by page 526 the Adjutant, Capt K. F. S. Cox, to lead him to their commander. At this stage it was not thought that the Chetnik force was a large one, and the Adjutant intended to offer it safe conduct to an area in the rear.
Captain Cox was led to a headquarters about three miles from the river. The position was explained to the Chetnik commander, who agreed finally to suspend hostilities while the New Zealanders held positions forward of Tito's men. At this officer's request the Adjutant continued on to Mosse where, in company with officers of 6 British Armoured Division, discussions were continued with a Chetnik colonel. Preliminary arrangements for an unofficial truce were made, and these ultimately led to the surrender and disarming of over 12,000 Chetniks. The Adjutant returned to Gorizia in time to witness the arrival of the tank squadron, which was immediately sent out to patrol the streets. The 25th Battalion had also arrived and Col Fairbrother was able, with much more assurance than earlier, to ensure that friction in the town ceased. The Shermans paraded in front of the Yugoslav headquarters, and the CO on entering the building received a more responsive and attentive hearing.
On his return to Tac HQ the Colonel gave orders for the transport to move back to Monfalcone and return via the eastern road to Gorizia. The convoy left the cotton factory soon after 7 p.m. and arrived in Gorizia about three hours later. Captain Cox reported a brush with Chetniks during which one signaller had been killed. As it moved south towards Monfalcone the convoy had unfortunately followed a Yugoslav car. This car was fired on and so was the convoy. The New Zealanders, thinking they had run into some Germans, stopped and began seeking the source of the firing. Private Campbell,11 who was wearing khaki drill trousers, an American windjacket and a red scarf, clothes not unlike those worn by Tito's troops, was shot as he walked down the road. The two Chetniks responsible were captured and the situation was clarified, but not before considerable feeling had been aroused amongst the New Zealanders over the unnecessary death.page 527
In Gorizia a strict curfew was imposed after dark and the night passed quietly. Next morning, 3 May, it became apparent that the internal strife within the town was still present. Demonstrations began anew and tension quickly mounted. Disquietening rumours, possibly exaggerated, reached the troops. There were reports of wholesale arrests of Italians during the night. All sorts of charges were laid against Tito's forces, which had apparently worked hard during the night. Nonchalant but alert, the New Zealanders were forced to stand idly by with growing misgivings and a feeling of helplessness while the Yugoslavs endeavoured to back their political creed with force.
News that 56 Division would be taking over Gorizia during the day was received with considerable relief. Unknown to the troops 6 Brigade was required in the Trieste area, where there existed a similar situation to that found in Gorizia. The relief was completed during the afternoon and by half past five the battalion was on its way to Ronchi, where it was to spend the next week. In the excitement of the day before the news of the surrender of the German armies in Italy and the capture of Trieste by New Zealanders and Yugoslavs had passed almost unnoticed. It seemed that the Division could not have chosen a more troubled spot in which to end the war.
3 Appointments were: