Italy Volume II : From Cassino to Trieste
IV: The Rimini Corridor
IV: The Rimini Corridor
An army approaching the 200-mile-long Gothic Line from the south was confronted on its left wing by a coastal belt too narrow to offer it passage, across the centre by a cordon of heights rising to over 6000 feet and nowhere much less than 50 miles deep, and on the right by an alternation of ridge and river as the Apennines spread their tapering fingers towards the Adriatic. On this natural barricade the Germans had begun to develop their defensive system in the autumn of 1943 in the expectation of abandoning Italy south of this line, but when Kesselring's bolder strategy prevailed the work languished and it was not until early June 1944, with the fall of Rome imminent, that it was strenuously resumed at Hitler's orders. Although nowhere completed in accordance with the lavish plans of the High Command, by the end of August fortification had become formidable in parts of the line, especially in the western coastal strip, in the passes through the central mountains and on the Adriatic, where the cliffs between Pesaro and Cattolica gave protection against amphibious threats. On this flank an anti-tank ditch from the sea to the foothills, wire entanglement, minefields and tank turrets emplaced in concrete and steel had been hastily prepared, and along the beaches kiosks which once had sold ice cream now concealed spandaus and anti-tank guns.page 212
Unless the Allied armies could burst through the Gothic Line before winter, the enemy might stand there as he had stood the previous winter on the Gustav Line. If, however, the Allies could reach the plain beyond the Apennines before the rains came, their mobility and fire power might carry them to the River Po or even beyond to the southern threshold of the German Reich. Thus, as autumn succeeded summer, General Alexander's problem became a race against the seasons. His hopes of an irruption into the northern plain were sobered but not destroyed by his waning strength in the Italian theatre. By mid-July he had lost seven divisions— more than a quarter of his forces—to southern France, while the enemy had gained the equivalent of four divisions. This deterioration of comparative strength encouraged him to hasten the attempt to breach the Gothic Line.
Alexander could attack through the mountain defile leading from Florence to Bologna or along the Adriatic coastal corridor which opened out into the plain at Rimini. His original plan had aimed to save time. Since the advance to Florence had gathered the strength of the Allied armies mostly in the centre of the peninsula, it would have been quicker to assault the Gothic Line through the mountain passes. He therefore had ordered the two armies to attack on a 30-mile front east of Pistoia, with the main weight on their inner, adjoining wings.
General Leese, however, had second thoughts about this plan, and at Orvieto airfield on 4 August, as they sheltered from the sun under the wing of a Dakota, he explained his doubts to Alexander. The invasion of southern France had removed from Italy the Allies' best mountain troops—the French Corps—and Leese had no abounding confidence in the ability of his Eighth Army, untrained and ill-equipped for mountain warfare, to pierce the central Apennine position. On the eastern coastal sector, on the other hand, it would be fighting in more familiar terrain, where it could exploit its advantage in tanks, guns and aircraft without the distraction of another army fighting beside it for the same objective and sharing the same system of rough, winding and inadequate roads. These military and psychological arguments won the day.
Moreover, the eastward shift of Eighth Army would permit Alexander to employ a double thrust—one prong towards Bologna, the other towards Ravenna. This would divide the defence and lessen the enemy's superiority in lateral communications which might have enabled him to block off a single penetration by the rapid switch of his reserves.
Now Leese could hope to deploy his mechanised might and avoid a tedious grinding progress through the mountains. Eighth Army would concentrate for the attack ten divisions, 1200 tanks and about 1000 guns, and would fall upon the enemy with the weight of three corps: the Poles, the Canadians and 5 Corps, in that order from the sea inland, would strike simultaneously. A weak 10 Corps was to hold the quiet mountain sector flanking Fifth Army. The New Zealand Division would be in reserve.
By a prodigy of organisation and engineering skill Eighth Army transferred itself and all its impedimenta eastwards across the Apennines in eight days—a vast lift in which NZASC units played their part. Travelling by night over twisting, dimly-lit roads, it passed about 11,000 vehicles every 24 hours across the mountain divide and took with it 1,000,000 shells and 12,000,000 gallons of petrol. The offensive opened on 25 August.
While these preparations were going forward, the New Zealanders were taking life easily in their rest area among the wooded Chianti hills. Those who were not on leave in Rome or at the beaches of western Tuscany could explore the narrow streets and handsome squares of the old hilltop town of Siena. The day before Eighth Army launched itself towards the Gothic Line the New Zealanders lined a hot, dusty road to greet ‘a very important personage’. From the back of an open car a bulldog figure wearing a khaki drill uniform splashed with orders, a topee and sunglasses, waved or gestured the ‘V’ sign: it was Winston Churchill's fourth visit to the Division.1
These early September days around Iesi were a time when it was good to be young and a soldier in Italy. Trees and vineyards offered shade from a sun that sometimes drove the Fahrenheit thermometer up to the hundred mark. The land gave up its autumn yield of peach and pear and tomato; football posts overtopped the olives; and not far away, across tracks white with dust, the Adriatic lazily washed its long beaches, a sea no less deeply blue than the sky it mirrored.
At the request of the Greek Government and with the approval of the New Zealand Government, 3 Greek Mountain Brigade was placed under the aegis of the New Zealand Division. The brigade was composed mainly of men whom war had made exiles; it had been recruited from the reliable elements of two brigades of the Greek Royal Army which had mutinied for political reasons while stationed in the Middle East. It comprised three battalions of infantry (each of three companies only), a regiment of field artillery and attached troops, but had neither armour nor engineers. Of its 3000 or more officers and men, some had seen action in Albania and at El Alamein. General Freyberg inspected the brigade at Taranto on 17 August and was much impressed by the Greeks' bearing. The brigade joined the Division a few days later and did an exercise under New Zealand supervision to familiarise its officers with methods of co-operation of all arms and to test its organisation and communication.
The Greek commander, Colonel Thrassivoulos Tsakalotos, appealed to General Freyberg on 31 August for permission to march through Rome: ‘… from the time the Greek Expeditionary Force … had set foot on Italian soil I felt the soldiers' desire to pass through Rome in order not to avenge but to efface an abominable action of the Italians in Athens, i.e., the sacrilege of page 216 the Acropolis by the hoisting of the Italian flag, action achieved with the complicity of the Germans…. For the moral satisfaction of the whole of Greece, the Army Commander and yourself are kindly requested to consent to take the salute of a March Past in Rome itself, of a Greek detachment of officers and men, made up of representatives from all units, and exclusively from those who fought in Albania….’1
General Freyberg tactfully replied that ‘while sympathising with your natural feelings in this matter, we as New Zealanders would also have liked to march through Rome but it was not allowed.’2 He was certain General Alexander would not agree to the suggestion. This Tsakalotos accepted without further ado.
As well as taking a brigade of foreign troops under command, the Division absorbed reinforcements and a new hierarchy. Officers and men of the 4th Reinforcements (except a few in key positions who could not yet be spared) were replaced by newcomers and by veterans returning from furlough to begin their second tour of service with the Division. On the morning of 3 September, the fifth anniversary of the outbreak of war, General Freyberg was landing in his reconnaissance aircraft on the airstrip at HQ Eighth Army when a sudden gust of wind tipped over the light machine. Painfully injured in the right side, the General had to undergo an operation the same afternoon, and was expected to be unfit for duty for six or eight weeks. On his recommendation the New Zealand Government appointed Brigadier Weir3 to temporary command of the Division. On Brigadier Inglis's departure for home a few days later, the command of 4 Armoured Brigade devolved upon Brigadier Pleasants. Command of the other two brigades already had changed hands. On relinquishing the post of CRA to Brigadier Queree,4 Brigadier Parkinson took over 6 Brigade from Brigadier Burrows, who assumed command of the 5th.
1 GOC's papers.
3 Maj-Gen Sir Stephen Weir, KBE, CB, DSO and bar, m.i.d.; Bangkok; born NZ 5 Oct 1905; Regular soldier; CO 6 Fd Regt Sep 1939–Dec 1941; CRA 2 NZ Div Dec 1941– Jun 1944; GOC 2 NZ Div 4 Sep–17 Oct 1944; 46 (Brit) Div Nov 1944–Sep 1946; Commander, Southern Military District, 1948–49; QMG, Army HQ, 1951–55; Chief of General Staff, 1955–60; Military Adviser to NZ Govt, 1960–61; NZ Ambassador to Thailand, 1961–.
4 Brig R. C. Queree, CBE, DSO, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Christchurch, 28 Jun 1909; Regular soldier; Brigade Major, NZ Arty, Oct 1940–Jun 1941; GSO II 2 NZ Div Jun– Aug 1941, Jan–Jun 1942; GSO I 2 NZ Div Sep 1942–Jun 1944; BGS NZ Corps 9 Feb– 27 Mar 1944;CO 5 Fd Regt Jun–Aug 1944; CRA 2 NZ Div Aug 1944–Jun 1945; QMG, Army HQ, 1948–50; Adjutant-General 1954–56; Vice-Chief of General Staff 1956–60; Senior Army Liaison Officer, London, 1960–64; Director of Civil Defence, 1965–.
From the southern bank of the Metauro River, the starting point of Eighth Army's offensive, to the Marecchia River, the south-eastern boundary of the north Italian plain, the corridor between the sea and the Etruscan Apennines undulates for about 30 miles in a succession of spurs and watercourses. The Gothic Line, behind the Foglia River, lay only a dozen miles or so from the Metauro, and it was the hope of the Allied command that by its unexpected appearance on the Adriatic flank Eighth Army would be able to startle the enemy out of these prepared defences before they could be fully manned. General Leese conceived the battle as a rolling offensive that would catch the Germans off balance by surprise and keep them so by unremitting pressure.
Crossing the Metauro in the last hour of 25 August, the five assaulting divisions of the Polish, Canadian and 5 Corps led off into something of a vacuum. The enemy in this sector, 76 Panzer Corps, had chosen this moment to regroup and withdraw upon the out-works of the Gothic Line. Missing the full weight of the opening thrust, the Germans remained in ignorance of Eighth Army's secret concentration, and it was not until late on the 28th, after a copy of General Leese's message to his troops had fallen into their hands, that they awakened to the disagreeable reality. Though they reacted by the immediate transfer of two divisions of 76 Corps, it was too late to save the Gothic Line. The Canadians and the British corps were across the Foglia on the 30th and were soon biting deep into the long-prepared but still incomplete and barely-manned defences. Many minefields were found still set at safe, some Panther turrets had not been mounted and lay where they had been dumped, and enemy tanks and infantry coming up hurriedly were defeated in detail. By 3 September the enemy had taken refuge behind the next obstacle, the Conca River; and the Canadians, swinging right to the sea at Cattolica, allowed the Poles, as planned, to be withdrawn into army reserve. As General Alexander afterwards remarked, Eighth Army ‘had swept through a fortified line… almost as though it were not there.’1
Beyond the Conca men, terrain and weather checked Eighth Army. The men were the reinforcements Kesselring had switched from his right and centre. The terrain was the stiff spur taking its name from the village of Coriano and thrusting out from the hills to Riccione. The weather was the torrential rain that fell from the 5th to the 7th, turning dust into mud. Its impetus lost, Eighth Army now had to pause for a set-piece assault. Judging that the enemy's centre was now as weak as it ever would be, Alexander decided to unleash Fifth Army for its attack through the mountains towards Bologna and the plain. A new and fierce phase was to open on the night of 12–13 September.
While Eighth Army regrouped, General Leese made plans that promised work for the New Zealanders. In proposing to launch his two strong corps against the last series of obstacles before Rimini, he relied on the Canadian Corps to make the decisive breach on the coastal sector while 5 Corps kept pace on the left and prevented the enemy on the inland heights from pouring fire down upon the Canadians' exposed flank. Accordingly, the Canadians were strengthened by taking over 4 British Division; and on 13 September the New Zealand Division, which had been under Canadian command for planning since the 4th, came under operational command.
With this order of 10 September there began for the Division a regime of fluctuating intention and provisional plans, during which it made piecemeal moves to the coast behind the advancing battle line. The prime cause of this suspense was uncertainty whether the divisions already in action could complete their task unaided or whether the New Zealanders would have to help them to force an entry into the plain before pressing on to exploit it. In the event, the door was to be pushed open for the New Zealanders.
The renewal of the offensive by Eighth Army on the night of 12–13 September, followed a few hours later by the opening of Fifth Army's drive among the mountains of the centre, began one of the heaviest week's fighting of the war in Italy. The doubling of the enemy's strength on the Adriatic front by the transfer there of the equivalent of five divisions clearly showed his anxiety to keep control of an area that would be vital to him if he were driven off the Apennines; for in that event, to avoid being penned against the Swiss and French frontiers, he would have to retract his line to the north-east, pivoting on the Rimini sector. Between Eighth Army and its immediate goal the main obstructions were the Corianc ridge, the Marano River and the recently improved Rimini line. This last line ran from the north-east boundary of the minute but mountainous Republic of San Marino to the Marecchia and the sea at Rimini and incorporated the Ausa River and the ridge of San Fortunato, the last of the innumerable spurs thrown by the Apennines across a coastal advance.
Coriano ridge fell early to converging thrusts by the Canadians on the right and 5 Corps on the left, the Marano was crossed and by 15 September the bridgehead had been rapidly expanded. The enemy reserved his most desperate resistance for San Fortunato ridge, the key to Rimini and the plain beyond, and it yielded only after a struggle lasting three days.
1 The order of battle was: HQ 6 Inf Bde, 24 Bn, 25 Bn, 26Bn, 20 Armd Regt, B Sqn Div Cav, 6 Fd Regt, 24 Army Fd Regt RA, 31 A-Tk Bty, 33 A-Tk Bty, 39 Mortar Bty less two troops, 2 MG Coy, 8 Fd Coy, 6 Bde Hy Mortar pl, and A Coy 6 Fd Amb.
In the first day of the San Fortunato battle the three field regiments fired an average of more than 1000 rounds an hour; and at its height 6 Regiment alone fired 13,301 rounds (more than 550 a gun) in 24 hours. The men of 5 Regiment, now the Division's specialist purveyor of smoke, worked long hours in screening the advance. Troops fighting on the more level seaward sector were always liable to outstrip those farther inland, and so it was often necessary to obscure a coastal salient from enemy observation on the heights. All gunners and guns, however, were put to the test. More than once a crisis loomed. Ammunition stocks dwindled, but by hasty borrowings from other regiments or urgent errands to ammunition points they were replenished in time. Guns developed mechanical faults, but the artificer's skill and judicious resting kept enough of them in action. Therefore no task went unfulfilled.
That the fury of Eighth Army's artillery and bombing offensive did not expend itself in vain is evident from Vietinghoff's complaints. The commander of Tenth Army had a sorry tale for Kesselring on the morning of the 15th: ‘He [the enemy] is attacking behind an absolute wall of shellfire. He is ploughing up the whole countryside and carpeting us with bombs…. Our casualties are even higher than at Cassino. There the men sat in houses and if a house was knocked down they were quite happy in the cellar. But here on the Adriatic I can dig in quickly in the soft ground, but am comparatively easily shattered by shelling. The MDS also report that a big percentage of their patients have been suffering from concussion, completely bewildered and apathetic.’1
2 In a letter to Maj-Gen B. Nesbitt of the AFHQ Liaison Section on 28 October General Freyberg explained that as a result of his aircraft accident he was away when the Greeks went into the line. He had not intended them to be used offensively until they had had some further training. ‘They were put into a battle which was not properly laid on and they had 100 killed.’
As a preliminary to the crossing of the Marano, the Greek brigade was ordered to clear the approaches to the river on its front. An attempt in the early hours of 14 September to capture two clusters of houses known as Monaldini and Monticelli on a lateral road south of the river met with a costly repulse, the Greeks losing more than a third of the troops engaged since the action began. The episode prompted second thoughts. The 22nd NZ (Motor) Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Donald), supported by the page 222 17-pounders of a troop of 33 Anti-Tank Battery, already had been sent forward to a reserve position behind the Greeks. Although it was not intended originally for an active role, General Vokes now instructed the battalion to detach a task force of at least one company to go with all speed to the ‘moral and physical support’ of the Greeks. Donald sent 1 Company (Major O'Reilly). At the same time Major E. W. Aked (of 24 Battalion), now commanding 210 British Liaison Unit, was tactical adviser to the Greeks; he appreciated at once their need for armoured backing, and within a few hours B Squadron of 20 Armoured Regiment (Major Clapham1)joined the task force.
Thus strengthened, the Greeks returned to the assault on the evening of the 14th. In what a New Zealand officer described as ‘a copy-book attack with close support fire from tanks’, Greek infantry occupied Monaldini and New Zealand infantry the neighbouring settlement of Monticelli. Unaccustomed to tank escort, the Greeks needed a little coaxing, and one New Zealand tank commander directed the disposition and digging in of the Greeks on their objective, but it was a happy experiment in partnership. Not only did Greek officers make grateful speeches to New Zealand tank men but General Weir was formally thanked for having sent the brigade, in Aked, ‘an experienced warrior’.2
Beyond the Marano, which they crossed on 15 September, the Greeks began to broach the problem of Rimini airfield, a rectangle a mile long and 1200 yards wide, copiously sown with mines and easily swept by fire from damaged hangars and other buildings around its perimeter. They could still rely on New Zealand help, though now C Squadron, 18 Regiment, replaced the squadron from the 20th, and it was decided to allot to each of the three Greek battalions one tank troop accompanied by a platoon from 22 Battalion. The Greeks maintained the pace set by the Canadians on either side of them. By the 16th, after capturing 20 paratroops and killing perhaps twice as many on the way, they had disposed of nuisances at the south-eastern end of the airfield and were lining the edge of it.
Next day (18 September), during the fight for the Ausa crossing, the Greeks completed their encirclement of the airfield and extended their right wing to the sea to relieve the Canadian armoured car regiment which had fought its way through the ribbon of seaside villas and hotels along the coastal road. The 19th, a day of decisive battle on the San Fortunato ridge, was for the Greeks, assisted by C Squadron of 19 Regiment, a day of easy progress towards the outskirts of Rimini.
The Allies used searchlights to aid the movement of their troops at night. This ‘artificial moonlight’ had an unsuspected effect on the enemy. The Tenth Army chief of staff (Major-General Fritz Wentzell) told the Army Group chief of staff (Lieutenant-General Hans Roettiger) on the 19th: ‘Last night he did the weirdest thing I ever saw. He lit up the battlefield with searchlights…. He turned on a display like Party Day in Nuernberg…. It is a great worry to the boys to be lighted up and blinded and not to be able to do anything about it….’2 The searchlights, sited out of the range of the German guns, hampered the movement of their troops, reliefs and the bringing up of supplies, ‘which were almost impossible except at night. Our men, already depressed by the enemy's superiority in equipment, became even more so by their feeling of helplessness against this new technical weapon.’3