Italy Volume II : From Cassino to Trieste
III: From the Pisciatello to the Savio
III: From the Pisciatello to the Savio
Field Marshal Kesselring and General Vietinghoff agreed on 16 October that the loss of the areas east of the Savio River (which flows northwards through Cesena) would be ‘unpleasant but not tragic’.1 Next day, for reasons which included the possibility of an Allied breakthrough to Bologna or to Route 9 south-east of the city, the necessity of thinning out on the coastal flank to strengthen the central front, and the Canadian advance along the axis of Route 9 towards Cesena, 76 Panzer Corps proposed a withdrawal in a north-westerly direction to avoid possible encirclement, but Army Group Headquarters—under strict orders from the German High Command not to yield ground in any sector—refused consent and demanded that Cesena be held. This meant that in order to hold ground in an unimportant sector the whole Army Group was being placed in jeopardy. Commanders and chiefs of staff harped on this point in telephone conversations2 on 18 October. Vietinghoff insisted that the sector east of the Savio should be given up and finally Kesselring, being of the same opinion, on his own responsibility authorised a fighting withdrawal.
This coincided with the Canadian Corps' planned advance to the Savio. General Burns's immediate intentions were to establish crossings over the Pisciatello on the New Zealand and Canadian divisions' fronts and to push on with both divisions and capture crossings over the Savio. The Canadian Division was to extend its bridgehead over the Savio to link up on the left with 5 Corps and co-operate with it in clearing Cesena. Cumberland Force was to protect the right flank of the New Zealand Division.
While 6 NZ Infantry Brigade patrolled to the Pisciatello on the night of 17–18 October, 2 Canadian Infantry Brigade, on the left, succeeded in gaining a small bridgehead over the river by the railway crossing, and 1 Canadian Infantry Brigade gained another over the Donegaglia, a tributary south of Route 9. In the afternoon of the 18th the Canadians enlarged their lodgement north of the railway and cleared Ponte della Pietra.
2 The record of this day's telephone conversations takes up 31 pages.
1 GOC's diary.
The New Zealanders, 24 Battalion on the right and 25 on the left, met practically no opposition—thanks to the artillery having ‘done the usual good job.’2 B and A Companies of 24 Battalion crossed the Pisciatello with little difficulty and worked their way forward to a lateral road half a mile or so beyond it. D Company, following B on the right flank, cleared Macerone, from which most of the enemy had gone. D and A Companies of 25 Battalion, and B following A to protect the left flank, crossed the river near Casone. Soon after 2 a.m. both battalions were on the objective; they had taken about 50 prisoners, and their own casualties, mostly caused by mines or shellfire, totalled 44. The engineers went to work as quickly as they could bridging the Pisciatello so that the tanks and other support weapons could go into the bridgehead. A Valentine tank installed a scissors bridge at 24 Battalion's crossing, which A Squadron of 19 Regiment (which was to support 24 Battalion) and 18 Regiment intended to use, but the first tank to cross damaged the bridge so that no other could follow. Another bridge-layer was called up, but the sappers considered that the banks were too soft for it, and therefore began to build a 40-foot Bailey. Until this could be used, all traffic was diverted to an Ark bridge which had been placed at 25 Battalion's crossing near Casone. B Squadron of 19 Regiment crossed the Ark to join 25 Battalion before daybreak and A Squadron's tanks followed to get to 24 Battalion. By 7.20 a.m. 20 Regiment also was across, ready for 4 Brigade's advance. Rain, which had begun at 4 a.m., softened the roads, which were churned up by the heavy vehicles. Although delayed by the traffic ahead, 18 Regiment completed the crossing by 9.40 a.m. The enemy had not interfered with the passage of troops and vehicles into the bridgehead; he did not shell the bridges.
2 24 Bn newsletter.
When both 18 and 20 Regiments had formed up in 6 Brigade's bridgehead over the Pisciatello on the morning of 19 October, 4 Brigade was ready to launch its armoured drive to the Savio River. This was to be ‘a swift advance at tank speed’ over a course of about four and a half miles, a more ambitious undertaking than any previously attempted. In the past the Division had advanced with infantry supported by artillery and armour, but this time the tanks were to be in front and the infantry's function was to protect them against the assaults of enemy infantry. ‘Indeed, for the first time the 4th Armoured Brigade was operating as a brigade, instead of having its regiments placed under infantry brigades in support of infantry advances. Now each regiment was itself supported by a company of the 22nd Battalion….’1
At 9.50 a.m. Brigadier Pleasants ‘gave the order that the whole Brigade had been waiting for throughout the Italian Campaign: the order for the two Regiments and the Motorised Battalion to attack.’2
The first objective was a section of the Cesena-Cervia road in the Osteriaccia-Calabrina area and part of the secondary road running east from the Calabrina crossroads. This was actually part of the enemy's ‘Doris’ defence line, to which 26 Panzer Division and 1 Parachute Division had retired during the night. In flat farmland criss-crossed with narrow lanes, the more substantial Cesena-Cervia road could be seen from some distance, lined with tall trees and with small clusters of houses at its many crossroads.
3 18 Regt had B Sqn on the right, C on the left, A in reserve on the right of 20 Regt, and was supported by 2 Coy 22 (Mot) Bn; 20 Regt had B Sqn on the right, A on the left, C deployed in the rear, and was supported by 3 Coy 22 (Mot) Bn.
While advancing towards the Cesena-Cervia road, 18 Regiment shot up machine-gun and bazooka posts in ditches and farmyards, but in the increasingly soft fields the tanks ‘bellied in the mud. … some of them were running out of ammunition at awkward moments…. Some troop commanders were asking for infantry to come up and help dislodge the paratroopers, but this could not be arranged at a moment's notice.’1 A self-propelled gun—or perhaps more than one—firing from buildings at a crossroads caught all three tanks of a B Squadron troop in the open and set them on fire, and paratroopers with bazookas set alight a tank stuck in the mud. Two of three self-propelled guns—probably those which had ambushed the three tanks—were knocked out while hastily trying to get away.
While 4 Brigade was still making promising progress in the morning, orders were given to reconnoitre crossings over the Rio Granarolo with the intention of continuing the advance to San Giorgio.2 Sixth Brigade, which had been assigned the task of taking over the ground and mopping up in rear of the armour, was to establish all-round defensive positions at Osteriaccia and Calabrina, and 5 Brigade was to move into the area vacated by the 6th. The enemy's retention of the Osteriaccia-Calabrina area, however, prevented the Division from piercing the Doris Line that day.
B and C Companies of 25 Battalion, each supported by a troop of B Squadron, 19 Regiment, and anti-tank guns, were directed to Osteriaccia, and the battalion's other two companies and supporting arms went to the south-east of the village. B Company, leading off early in the afternoon, met solid resistance from 26 Panzer Division's troops in and near Osteriaccia, and although the tanks drove the German outposts back into the village, the infantry, whose casualties included all the NCOs in one platoon, could go no farther because of the accurate shellfire. C Company was also brought to a halt. Brigade Headquarters ordered the battalion to stay where it was—still east of the Cesena-Cervia road—and to dig in.
The Division's neighbours on the left had met negligible opposition. The Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry (of 2 Canadian Infantry Brigade), after crossing a newly completed bridge over the Pisciatello at Ponte della Pietra, headed towards the Cesena-Cervia road, while battalions of 3 Brigade made their way along the railway and Route 9 towards Cesena. By evening the Germans had withdrawn from the town, which Canadian patrols entered unopposed from the east and troops of 46 British Division (of 5 Corps) from the south. On the New Zealand Division's other flank Cumberland Force took advantage of the enemy's retirement from the Rigossa-Fiumicino region by pushing through the mud to the Pisciatello. On the coast, however, the enemy was still holding out close to the Fiumicino River, but his retreat inland would compel him to evacuate this narrow, strongly fortified strip of land.
During the night of 19–20 October, when 76 Panzer Corps withdrew to the Savio River, the enemy covered his departure from his Osteriaccia-Calabrina positions with heavy shell and mortar fire and with demolitions—13 of which were heard exploding. At dawn patrols from 22 Battalion, sent out to test the ground ahead of 18 and 20 Armoured Regiments, reported no sign of the enemy. The two regiments thereupon resumed their advance.
At this time General Freyberg felt that the Division's front was becoming ‘rather a salient with its attendant disadvantages.’1 He therefore ordered Brigadier Parkinson to try to link 6 Brigade with the Canadians on the left, and instructed Divisional Cavalry to go through on the right. Fourth Brigade was to direct its thrust towards the river through San Giorgio.
1 GOC's diary.
Much was happening elsewhere on the front. In Cumberland Force's sector the Governor General's Horse Guards crossed the Fiumicino River on the coast and found the seaside town of Cesenatico clear of the enemy; farther inland 27 Lancers and the Royal Canadian Dragoons, having crossed the Pisciatello, were making their way towards the Cesena-Cervia road, which the Dragoons passed later in the day. On the New Zealanders' other flank the Canadians were just short of the Savio River, the far bank of which was held by the enemy in strength. South of the Canadian Corps the two divisions of 5 Corps, 4 British Infantry Division (which had replaced the 46th) and 10 Indian Division, had troops across the Savio.
After crossing the Rio Granarolo the New Zealand armour swung west towards the Savio, A Squadron of 18 Regiment going along a road west of San Giorgio, and A Squadron of the 20th along a track between these two roads, each squadron followed by infantry of 22 Battalion. As they approached a north-south road parallel with the river, they came under fire from German rearguards. They enjoyed ‘some good shooting’ and took 20 prisoners, but most of the enemy ‘just melted away’.1 This ended the day's advance, achieved without the loss of a single tank.
When they harboured for the night the tanks were disposed over a wide area, in which 22 Battalion could provide only light protection for each group. In compliance with the GOC's orders, Divisional Cavalry had set out on the right flank to get contact with the enemy between 4 Brigade and Cumberland Force. This had brought into use the regiment's Staghound armoured cars, without which it had served as infantry with Cumberland Force. The Divisional Cavalry men had shared the delusion that the country in which the Division was fighting would be ideal for the use of their vehicles. ‘How different proved the reality. We hacked down trees to fill ditches. Axle deep we just got up the very slight inclines beyond, and ahead was another ditch to cross…. The lanes were very muddy, and with a wheel touching a ditch on either side it was a strenuous day.’2 Near where the tanks had swung west towards the Savio, C Squadron had cars at two crossroads, at both of which were large demolitions, and at the more northerly of these they had a brush with the enemy. The armoured cars could go no farther on this flank, but Brigadier Pleasants told the GOC that 4 Brigade would be able to look after itself.
2 Diary, R. Pinney, Div Cav.
On the other flank, where there was a gap of about one and a half miles between 20 Regiment and the nearest Canadian troops (the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry), 26 Battalion, with C Squadron of 19 Regiment in support, advanced without opposition other than light shell and mortar fire until its leading companies (C and A) were close to the river.
Towards evening two companies of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry attacked across the river about a mile north of Cesena, in an attempt to gain a footing from which other Canadians were to advance and cut the road running north from Cesena to Ravenna. The enemy, in unexpected strength, ‘greeted the Patricias with a hail of mortar bombs and machine-gun bullets.’1 Only one and a half platoons of one company reached the opposite bank, and these withdrew after dark. Seventeen men of the other company got across and, joined by a dozen stragglers during the night, clung to a narrow strip on the far bank all next day.
By this time General McCreery had decided to take the New Zealand Division into Eighth Army reserve and to put 5 Canadian Armoured Division in its place. The Canadian Corps had intended that both 1 Canadian Infantry Division and 2 NZ Division should establish crossings over the Savio. The Canadians had gained a small lodgement on the far side, but so far the New Zealanders had not been instructed to secure a bridgehead in their sector; on the night of 20–21 October they were committed only to patrolling to the river.
The Division's right flank was vulnerable. Brigadier Pleasants told General Freyberg that there definitely were enemy troops to the north of 18 Regiment that night, and the GOC instructed him to square up to them in the morning and drive them back. Freyberg advised General Burns that he was going to advance to the area opposite Mensa (about six miles north of Cesena) and added that the going was very bad: the dotted red roads on the map were ‘just mud tracks. Rain for two hours would stop further progress.’2 Burns said 1 Canadian Infantry Division was going to make a further bridgehead attack over the Savio that night (21–22 October) and asked the New Zealand Division to create the impression that it was also attacking.
2 GOC's diary.
Fourth Brigade's northward advance was begun about mid-morning on 21 October by C Squadron, 18 Regiment, supported by a platoon from 22 Battalion, and with Staghounds from B and C Squadrons of Divisional Cavalry on the right flank. Although the engineers accompanied both tanks and armoured cars, the heavily cratered tracks and soft ground still made progress slow. When about half the distance had been covered, the tanks joined battle with German rearguards equipped with bazookas, spandaus and small arms. The opposition was stronger and more numerous than had been expected, and although Lieutenant-Colonel Ferguson1 sent his other two squadrons to assist, the tanks could not go much farther. The armoured cars came under fire from the village of Pisignano (east of Mensa), which 27 Lancers of Cumberland Force reported was still held in strength by the enemy.
In its advance that day 18 Regiment was substantially helped by the air observation post, which gave early warning of German dispositions and demolitions, and by the fighter-bombers, which scored hits on gun positions and movement—including that of horse-drawn guns. On one occasion ‘the Kitty Bombers laid their eggs only 300 yds from A Sqn. Close support?’2
Sixth Brigade took over ground cleared by 18 Regiment as well as that already occupied by the 20th, and assumed command of a sector facing the Savio with 25 Battalion on the right (next to the 22nd), the 24th in the centre and the 26th on the left. The three New Zealand field regiments went into positions where they could shoot on call and were issued with ammunition in anticipation of the assistance they were to give the Canadian attack across the river.
1 Lt-Col J. B. Ferguson, DSO, MC; Auckland; born Auckland, 27 Apr 1912; warehouseman; OC 7 Fd CoyMay 1941; CO 18 Armd Regt Dec 1943–Jan 1944; 20 Armd Regt Jan–May 1944; 18 Armd Regt Jul 1944–Feb 1945; wounded 6 Dec 1943.
An impressive bombardment, in which the New Zealand artillery and tanks fired in simulated support of an assault in their own sector, began at 8 p.m. on 21 October. At first there was an increase in hostile fire on the New Zealand front, but this died away as the Canadians developed their attack. Seventy-one tanks of 18 and 20 Regiments fired about 9000 rounds in a barrage which lasted 75 minutes; 4, 5 and 6 Field Regiments were engaged on their tasks until the early hours of the 22nd and altogether fired more than 13,000 rounds of high explosive. The leading troops of 2 Canadian Infantry Brigade were on the far bank of the Savio within an hour of the start of the attack, and despite the strength of the German resistance the reserves of the two assaulting battalions crossed shortly after midnight. When repelling a counter-attack a company of the Seaforth Highlanders, without supporting tanks and anti-tank guns, knocked out two Panther tanks, a half-tracked vehicle, a scout car and two self-propelled guns, and captured intact a Panther which had bogged down in a ditch—an action which won one Canadian the VC and another the DCM.
By mid-morning the Canadians had a bridgehead a mile wide and nearly a mile deep at one point, but the river in spate made bridging impossible, and there was no hope of getting tanks and supporting arms across that day. It was a temporary stalemate, but many enemy had been killed or wounded by the artillery fire, and the Canadians' success was causing the German commanders much uneasiness.
During the night of the attack the main New Zealand activity was providing diversionary fire, but in addition 22 Battalion sent out patrols in the northern part of the Division's sector. One of these patrols, a platoon from 1 Company under Sergeant G. H. Palmer, occupied a house in the vicinity of the hamlet of La Rosetta, arriving there just ahead of about 20 men of 4 Parachute Regiment, who made several determined but unsuccessful and costly attempts to drive out the New Zealanders. On the morning of 22 October La Rosetta, Pisignano and other villages in the neighbourhood were clear of the enemy, who appeared to have gone from both sides of the Savio near Mensa.page 279
Thus the New Zealand Division completed the tasks it had been set in this stage of the campaign. The withdrawal of the Division— except the field regiments of the artillery—began the same day, when 11 Infantry Brigade of 5 Canadian Armoured Division began the relief of the New Zealand units on the Savio River line. Next day (the 23rd) the Division relinquished command of the sector. Its departure—into army reserve, which initiated a programme of resting and regrouping the formations of Eighth Army—ended an association of seven weeks with 1 Canadian Corps.
During this, its second spell on the Adriatic front, the Division suffered 1108 casualties, nearly as many as the number incurred during the Arezzo and Florence battles in July and August. These casualties included 228 killed, 857 wounded and 23 captured. Moreover, in September and October 1944 there were 1079 cases of infective hepatitis or jaundice, a total nearly as high as that for September and October 1942—before and during the battle of Alamein—when there were 1137 cases of this disease among the New Zealanders in the Western Desert.
In the month of disillusionment, wastage and fatigue which had followed the crossing of the Marecchia River, the Division had penetrated less than 20 miles in the south-east corner of the great plains of the Po valley.