Italy Volume II : From Cassino to Trieste
III: Eighth Army Regroups
III: Eighth Army Regroups
The possibility of a German counter-attack on Eighth Army's front could be almost ignored by the beginning of February; the enemy had lost his best opportunity when Eighth Army changed from the offensive to the defensive in January. Taking into account his losses in eastern Europe and the failure of his Ardennes offensive in the west, the enemy had nothing to gain by a doubtful venture in Italy; he had little reason to deploy large forces on an unnecessarily extended front there when he needed them elsewhere. It seemed, therefore, to be the logical course for the German High Command to choose the most suitable moment to disengage and withdraw across the River Po to a shorter line in north-east Italy.
The line where the German armies stood in the winter of 1944–45 was largely gratuitous; it had no particular strategic page 371 significance; it was where the Allied offensive had come to a halt because of the troops' exhaustion, the bad weather, the lack of ammunition, and the need for regrouping. Between the Adriatic and the Apennines it crossed the Romagna on the line of the Senio River; it continued along the last northern ridge of the mountains south of Bologna and to the coastal plain where the Germans still held, in front of Massa, a remnant of the Gothic Line.
On this coast-to-coast line the enemy had fortified his positions as best he could. There had been little real activity since December except in the Romagna, where Eighth Army faced beyond the Senio more river lines, named by the enemy Laura (on the Santerno), Paula (on the Sillaro) and Genghis Khan (on the Idice and anchored in the flooded country west of Lake Comacchio).1page 372
These lines ‘were designated to cover Bologna from the south-east; at their northern end a line based on the Reno River gave depth to the defence of the River Po, especially in the region near the coast. This was the essential element of any plan of defence: the eastern flank of the German front must hold firm to allow the west to swing back toward the northwestern passes into Germany and the line of the Adige.’1
For some months the enemy had been hard at work on what was known as the Venetian Line, based on the Adige River and the hills between the Adriatic at Chioggia and Lake Garda. Beyond the River Po and the already formidable defences of the Venetian Line was the Prealpine Defence Position (Voralpenstellung), protected by the ‘almost impregnable barrier of the Alps.’2 To prepare these defences the Inspector of Land Fortifications South-West (General Buelowius, who had won Rommel's praise while serving with the Axis forces in Africa) had under his control 5340 German engineer specialist and construction troops, but most of the work was done by thousands of Italians and other foreign labourers conscripted into the Todt Organisation.
Since the autumn the Germans had a plan of withdrawal (which they had given the codename Herbstnebel—autumn fog), but Hitler had persistently refused permission to put it into effect. Had General von Vietinghoff been able to withdraw his Army Group C behind the Po in good time, his chances of manning and holding the Venetian Line and the Prealpine Defence Position would have been immensely greater. But he was even forbidden to make small withdrawals to stronger positions south of the Po.
The commander of Tenth Army (General Traugott Herr) had prepared a plan for a ‘false-front’ manoeuvre: he wanted to fall back, under the cover of a heavy artillery barrage, from the Senio to the much stronger line of the Santerno the day before he estimated Eighth Army would renew its offensive. Such a plan would have nullified Eighth Army's elaborate scheme of air and artillery support for an attack on the Senio line; the ground yielded by Tenth Army would have had negligible strategic value, and Eighth Army would have been obliged to attack the main German defences farther west without the same preparation.
3 Ibid., p. 19.
The commander of 29 Panzer Grenadier Division (General Polack) shared his superiors' views on the use of the Senio as the winter line. After the defeat of the German armies he told a New Zealand interviewer that it might have been better to have withdrawn to the Santerno, ‘but strict orders came from the High Command “Stay! Stay! Halt!” “Defend every metre.” Once it was seen that we could hold at the River Senio then orders came from above to do so…. We had instructions to build up lines behind the front “just in case”. That is all right if sufficient troops are available. If troops and supplies are short the situation then becomes dangerous; if one line is lost it is very difficult to get workshops etc back in time…. It was impossible to win the war therefore we should have withdrawn in greater bounds.’2
The Allied commanders, on the other hand, appreciated that if the enemy chose the right time to disengage on the Senio front, he might catch Eighth Army at a disadvantage. It was important that Eighth Army should attack before the enemy succeeded in disengaging, but the preparations for meeting such an eventuality were complicated by the reduction of Eighth Army's fighting power by the removal of the Canadian Corps from the Italian theatre at the end of February. It would take time for the remaining corps and divisions to regroup to fill the gap left by the Canadians. Moreover, while the divisions which were to take part in the offensive were resting and training, sections of the front were held by comparatively weak Italian combat groups.3
Eighth Army, therefore, planned so that a proportion of its forces was always ready to turn to the offensive at fairly short notice, and regrouped in a way that did not interfere with the plan. General McCreery ordered the Polish Corps to take command of the left sector and relieve 5 Corps as far north as Route 9. If the enemy began to withdraw in February, 5 Corps was to attack in its sector north of Route 9 and the Canadian Corps was to attack on its right; they were to be assisted by a feint by the Polish Corps on the left.
3 The Cremona, Folgore, Friuli and Legnano Combat Groups were raised by the Italian Government to fight on the side of the Allies.
The 3rd Carpathian Division transferred from the Polish Corps to 5 Corps on 5 February, and in the next few days relieved 10 Indian Division south of Route 9; the Friuli Combat Group replaced 5 Kresowa Division farther to the left. The 38th Irish Brigade of 78 Division arrived from 13 Corps to take over the role of 5 Corps' reserve from 43 Gurkha Brigade, which passed to 56 Division's command. The first stage of Eighth Army's regrouping was completed on the 13th when Headquarters 2 Polish Corps took command of the sector occupied by the Carpathian Division and the Friuli Group (south-westward from a point on the Senio 300 yards above the Route 9 bridge site). Fifth Corps' sector (from the point near Route 9 to the Russi-Lugo railway) was then held by 56 Division on the right and the New Zealand Division on the left, with the Irish Brigade in immediate reserve.
The next phase of the regrouping was the relief of the Canadians, which was delayed while 8 Indian Division was brought from Fifth Army. Fifth Corps took command on 16 February of the Canadians' sector from the Russi-Lugo railway to the Adriatic coast at the south-eastern tip of Lake Comacchio. The Cremona Combat Group, next to the coast, passed directly under 5 Corps' command, and on the 25th 8 Indian Division completed the replacement of 1 Canadian Infantry Division.
The 5th Canadian Armoured Division had been withdrawn in mid-January, and with the departure of the infantry division the Canadians completed 20 months' service with Eighth Army in Sicily and Italy.1 They were denied a share in the final victory in Italy, after having fought in the costly battles of Ortona, the Liri valley, the Gothic Line and the Romagna, but left a theatre recognised as secondary in importance to North-West Europe, where 1 and 2 Canadian Corps were reunited in First Canadian Army for the march on Berlin.
The enemy's difficulties were multiplied early in March when the American 10 Mountain Division, which had recently joined Fifth Army, attacked Monte Belvedere, south-west of Bologna, and in three days captured this key position with a thousand German prisoners. By the end of the month the German reserve in Italy had been reduced to two divisions, and with few exceptions the divisions in the line were unrested; Hitler's orders to ‘defend every metre’ had prohibited their withdrawal to positions where they could more hopefully oppose ‘the inevitable offensive of two well rested Allied Armies, superior in equipment and morale, and almost every other respect.’2
In mid-February, however, the enemy was still in undisputed possession of the Senio stopbanks, from which no attempt had been made to dislodge him since 25 NZ Battalion's minor abortive assault at the end of January. After 5 Corps' move farther to the right into the Romagna plain, control of the near stopbank—a prerequisite of the crossing of the Senio—was preferred about the centre of the front rather than on the comparatively unimportant sector held by the New Zealand Division on the left. An attack, therefore, was begun in the evening of 23 February by 56 Division (raised from two to three brigades by the inclusion of 43 Gurkha Brigade), with substantial help from the air force.
The Gurkhas gained most of their objective and beat off several counter-attacks between the Lugo-Russi railway and Cotignola, and also made contact with 167 Brigade south of this small town. The 1st London Irish reached the top of the stopbank at several places but failed to clear the Germans from a weir north-east of San Severo, while on the left 1 London Scottish did not reach the objective. On 3 March 2/7 Queens of 169 Brigade, using flame-throwers and supported by 40 fighter-bombers, drove the enemy from the stopbank in the locality of the weir. Although the enemy still held the bank at Cotignola and other isolated points, 56 Division now dominated it at several places.
1 16 SS Pz Gren Div, 356 Inf Div and 715 Inf Div.
Meanwhile the Italian Cremona Combat Group,1 together with the partisans of 28 Garibaldi Brigade and the tanks of the North Irish Horse, supported by British artillery and fighter-bombers, attacked the German positions guarding the spit of land between the east shore of Lake Comacchio and the Adriatic coast, with the object of securing a hold on the narrow tongue a few hundred yards wide between the River Reno and the sea. The enemy, who was carrying out a relief at the time, was taken by surprise. Over 200 Germans and Turcomen were captured. The ground was to form the base for an advance on the rest of the Comacchio spit.
In the first week of March, when the attacks by 56 Division and the Cremona Group ended, Eighth Army completed its regrouping. Since the departure of 1 Canadian Corps, 5 Corps had been responsible for a front of over 30 miles, and within its sector were the three major routes forward: Route 16 on the right, the road through Lugo and Massa Lombarda in the centre of the Romagna plain, and Route 9 on the left. The final stage of Eighth Army's plan was to concentrate 5 Corps opposite the northern and central roads, and to bring 2 Polish Corps on to Route 9.
The Kresowa Division assumed command of the front along the Senio as far downstream as a point just south of San Severo, and thus relieved the New Zealand Division and the troops of 56 Division south of the new boundary between 5 Corps and the Polish Corps. By 8 March the New Zealand Division was in Eighth Army reserve.