Italy Volume II : From Cassino to Trieste
II: The Senio Stopbank
II: The Senio Stopbank
A conference of the senior officers (lieutenant-colonels and above) of the New Zealand Division in the mayor's office at San Severino on 18 March ‘packed the old, square, high-ceilinged room, like an audience at a theatre. But no theatre audience ever gave more concentrated attention than did these men to General Freyberg on that spring morning. They sat on rows of chairs facing a small dais, where stood the high-backed carved chair of the mayor, and his desk, between two tall windows whose shutters had been pulled together to keep out the blinding sunshine. Behind the dais hung three big diagrams. It was of these that the General was speaking, and it was on these that the eyes of every man in the room were fixed with that intensity which fighting, or the planning of fighting, gives to those whose lives are directly affected.’2
Orders were issued for the Division to take over a sector on the Senio front between Cotignola and Felisio, where 5 and 6 Brigades were to relieve a brigade of 78 Division; 9 Brigade was to be in reserve in a bivouac area. After reconnoitring with the GSO I (Colonel Gilbert1) the sector the Division was to take over, the GOC held a conference of formation commanders and senior staff officers at Divisional Headquarters on the 28th to discuss the return to the line and further planning. The GSO II (Intelligence), Major G. S. Cox, gave the latest information available about the enemy, who was thicker on the ground than previously ‘because he has put almost everything he has got forward along the river. … We calculate that he has now got one man to every 5 yds of the 4000 yd front we are taking over.’2 His only local reserves, however, were a small assault section for each company, except on the extreme right, where he had two companies forward and one in immediate reserve.
The GOC announced that 8 Indian Division was going to attempt both stopbanks in the one assault, which he considered ‘a tough proposition…. they are prepared to risk it and to depend on the bombardment.’3 Because the sector in which the New Zealand Division was to attack was some distance downstream from the positions it had occupied near Route 9 during the winter, it would be necessary to reconnoitre and locate the enemy's wire, bridges, posts and minefields, and ascertain his habits, so as to be able to determine the layout for the assault, crossing places, wire and minefield gaps, fire positions, and ramps from which the Wasps and Crocodiles would flame the far bank.
Colonel Gilbert outlined the plans to conceal the Division's return to the line and Eighth Army's preparedness for an attack by creating the impression with dummy wireless traffic and other means of deception that the Division was in 10 Corps south of Route 9, and that 5 Corps was to do a seaborne landing.
1 Brig H. E. Gilbert, DSO, OBE, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Wanganui, 20 Jul 1916; Regular soldier; BM HQ Div Arty 1941–42; GSO II 2 NZ Div 1942–43; CO 6 Fd Regt Nov 1943–Apr 1944; GSO I 2 NZ Div 1944–45.
2 GOC's papers.
The GOC said he had been very much impressed by all that he had seen during his visits to units. ‘Morale is right on top. We have highly trained leaders, and none of the troops themselves are battle-tired. I consider that the period of preparation before the attack is of very great importance…. you must get a fierceness into patrolling that we seem to have lost during the last year. I am certain that really active patrolling and sniping in the preparatory period will greatly reduce casualties in the actual attack—you can get on top of the Hun in that way.’1
The New Zealanders' move from the Fabriano region to Eighth Army's front, a distance of about 130 miles, began in the evening of 30 March. From assembly areas near Forli the units were directed to their allotted positions, which had been reconnoitred by advance parties. The Division came under the command of 5 Corps on 1 April and completed the relief of 11 Infantry Brigade, 78 Division, the following night. On the right 5 Brigade took over from 5 Battalion, Northamptonshire Regiment, with 21 and 28 Battalions right and left respectively and the 23rd in reserve behind the Lamone River; on the left 6 Brigade relieved 2 Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers, with 25 and 24 Battalions right and left respectively and the 26th in reserve between Granarolo and the Lamone. Each forward battalion had two companies in the line and the others in reserve. The troops—including the Maoris—had sewn 78 Division flashes (yellow battleaxes) on their battledress in an attempt to disguise themselves as Englishmen.
The precautions and subterfuges to keep secret the Division's move into the line were futile. The New Zealanders' impending departure from the Fabriano region was a common topic among the Italians from about 25 March, and on the way to the front they were greeted as ‘kiwis’ and ‘Neo Zelandesi’, which was to be expected ‘considering that a number of officers and OR's had omitted to take down badges or titles and that the “secret” departure of Main Div [Headquarters] and other convoys unfortunately synchronised with the time set for the opening of a Grand Easter Procession in Matelica with the result that NZ vehicles made a spectacular exit through a lane of admiring citizens assembled on the streets of the town.’2
1 GOC's papers.
A document headed 289 Grenadier Regiment, dated 7 April and captured during the advance a few days later, stated that recently part of 78 Division had been replaced by the New Zealand Division. ‘A major enemy offensive must be considered possible any day now….’1 Three New Zealanders had been taken prisoner by a German raiding party on the evening of 5 April.
Ninth Infantry Brigade, in divisional reserve, trained with assault bridging equipment on the Montone River north of Forli, and with Kangaroos of C Squadron, 4 Hussars. Fourth Armoured Brigade arrived from Cesenatico; 18 Regiment came under the command of 5 Brigade, the 19th under 9 Brigade, and the 20th under 6 Brigade. C Squadron of 51 Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment, provided a troop of Crocodile flame-throwers each for 5 and 6 Brigades.
The artillery of 78 Division continued normal firing tasks, but only one battery each of 5 and 6 NZ Field Regiments was allowed to join in; the remainder of the New Zealand 25-pounders and the heavy mortars, M10s and 17-pounder anti-tank guns had to remain silent so that they would not disclose their positions to the enemy.
The engineers loaded in the correct order on trains of vehicles the materials needed for the bridges they proposed to erect, for which purpose additional transport was provided by 309 Company, RASC, and the NZASC; they searched for mines, reconnoitred and improved roads, cut timber for corduroy, felled trees to improve the artillery's observation, and completed their preparations for the assault.
The New Zealanders' immediate task was to winkle the enemy out of his positions on the near stopbank and dominate it. In the centre of the Division's sector this was comparatively simple, but on both extremities there was ugly, close-range fighting.
Seven Germans had left their outpost on the stopbank to surrender to the Northamptonshire battalion on 1 April, and four men of A Company, 25 Battalion, had dug a tunnel through the bank and occupied the deserted post. When a German relief party, unaware of what had happened, approached about 5 a.m. on the 2nd, the New Zealanders wounded three men and took a prisoner. Later four German stretcher-bearers, with a Red Cross flag, clambered down a ladder on the far stopbank and crossed a footbridge to attend to a wounded man who was out of sight of the post. The New Zealanders, still wearing 78 Division flashes, left the post and tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Germans to desert; they also took advantage of the opportunity to study the river, which was about 15 feet wide, and the banks, which were steep but climbable.
A two-man patrol from 21 Battalion was prevented in the evening of the 2nd from reaching the river by the wire the enemy had erected on the reverse slope of the stopbank. Farther upstream, however, four three-man patrols from 28 Battalion gained the far side of the stopbank, and two of them went to the water's edge; they gathered much information about the wire entanglements, the river and its banks. A patrol from 25 Battalion reconnoitred to a weir and reported that the approaches were good, and a patrol from 24 Battalion succeeded in crossing the river about a quarter of a mile above the weir, where the water was four and a half to six feet deep.
Although the enemy still had posts on the stopbank in 21 and 24 Battalions' sectors, at both ends of the Division's front, work was begun on clearing lanes free of mines to the bank and along its base, digging camouflaged bays for the assault boats and bridging equipment, and constructing ramps for the Wasps and Crocodiles.page 408
A bend in the river permitted the enemy to enfilade part of the bank in 21 Battalion's sector where C Company, on the right flank, made two unsuccessful attempts to secure a footing on 3 April. B Company completed a tunnel through the bank and found the reverse slope covered with wire entanglements; the enemy crossed footbridges quickly to and from his posts dug into the bank only a few yards from the New Zealanders, and grenades were thrown by both sides. Without any such opposition, however, two Maori patrols waded the river, each at three different places, and had no difficulty in reaching the far bank. The water was about waist deep.
A and B Companies of 24 Battalion, on the left flank, attacked the stopbank in the evening of the 3rd and dislodged the enemy from several posts, with the result that by dawn 6 Brigade was on the bank along the whole of its sector. But the enemy opposite 24 Battalion still held the other side at a distance of only a few yards. Because their grenades rolled down the bank and exploded harmlessly in the water, the New Zealanders removed the pins of two or three at a time and tossed them over in a bag to make sure that they exploded among the enemy dugouts.
As the Poles had not reached the stopbank on the left of the New Zealand Division, 24 Battalion was exposed to enfilading fire and attack from that direction. The enemy attempted twice to regain control of the bank on the battalion's sector, but was repelled each time. Shells from a tank of A Squadron, 20 Regiment, penetrated the bank where it had been weakened by tunnelling, and destroyed some German dugouts. The battalion had to remain constantly on the alert. ‘The strain of living cheek by jowl with the enemy was beginning to tell upon the men of A and B Companies when C and D took over the line on 6 April, to continue fighting at close quarters right up to the moment of withdrawal before the general barrage. Each forward company … used on an average 1000 grenades every 24 hours.’1
1 24 Battalion, p. 313.
In the evening of the 5th a German raiding party took three prisoners from 18 Platoon. Sergeant Gardyne1 and others from the same platoon dug through the stopbank and emerged above an enemy post, from which they took five prisoners. Next morning Major Fleming2 led four volunteers (Sergeant Rae3 and Privates Griffiths,4 Tolich5 and Stephens6) from D Company in an audacious dash across open ground to the enemy post near the railway bridge site, where they captured 10 Germans and two machine guns. Early in the afternoon five more Germans surrendered to 21 Battalion after waving a white flag at the exit of a tunnel they had cut through the bank for the purpose. The prisoners and deserters gave invaluable information about the enemy dispositions and defensive-fire plans. On 7 April the Surreys took charge of the part of the stopbank D Company had cleared in 78 Division's sector.
By this time the New Zealand Division had gained the stopbank along the whole of its front. After about a week in the line the casualties totalled 132, of whom 93 (including 10 killed) had been sustained by 21 and 24 Battalions in their efforts to get on to the bank.
Abruptly at 10.55 p.m. on 6 April the German artillery began a bombardment of Eighth Army between the Adriatic and Route 9. ‘It was a beautiful clear night, and hour after hour the shelling went on, the flashes lighting the western sky, seeming to rip and tear it apart, and the shells wailing and whistling in towards us. … It was months since the enemy had given us such a doing over…. This could mean one of two things. The enemy was preparing to withdraw, and was firing off his dumps before he went. Or he expected us to attack, and was shelling us first.’1
The bombardment, which decreased sharply after 1.30 a.m., seemed to be directed mostly against the gun areas and places where troops might be expected to concentrate ready for an offensive. The New Zealand guns had not been located by the enemy and therefore attracted no attention. The only damage reported was to an M10. The infantry experienced intermittent harassing fire, and 21 Battalion bore the brunt of it. Without hindrance seven patrols from 25 Battalion reconnoitred crossing places.
The bombardment raised apprehensions that the enemy might slip away before Eighth Army began its onslaught, which therefore might be wasted on empty ground. The enemy no doubt had reasons to expect an attack. His photographic reconnaissance aircraft might have detected the fresh gun positions and dumps and other signs of preparation. He would have identified as New Zealanders the three men captured from 21 Battalion, and probably recognised the Division's return to the line as a warning of imminent action. On the other hand there had been none of the usual sounds of a withdrawal. Although the German commanders must have appreciated that the Santerno was a better line to defend, they were not likely to risk the consequences of advocating a withdrawal when Hitler had ordered them to stay.
2 Ibid, p. 59.
Three deserters from 289 Regiment, taken by the Maori Battalion, were brought in on 8 April and, ‘to our relief, confirmed that everything looked normal on the far side.’2 The enemy was still on the Senio line. General Keightley told Freyberg during a telephone conversation in the evening that 56 Division and 8 Indian Division also had found the enemy still there.
When General von Schwerin, commander of 76 Panzer Corps, was taken prisoner on 24 April, he revealed that the bombardment on the night of 6–7 April had been planned originally to cover a German withdrawal to the Santerno 24 hours before Eighth Army was expected to attack; the withdrawal had been cancelled on orders from the German High Command, but the artillery programme had not. The result was a ‘Chinese attack’, from the other side for a change; it achieved very little except a brief stimulus to German morale.
While the New Zealand Division was gaining control of the near stopbank on its sector and making final preparations for its part in the assault on the Senio line, other forces began attacks on the extreme eastern and western ends of the front, preparatory to the opening of the Allied offensive.
The first blow was struck by 2 Commando Brigade in the early hours of 2 April on Eighth Army's right flank, on the isthmus known as the ‘Spit’ which divides Lake Comacchio from the Adriatic Sea. The Fantails which were intended to convey the commandos to the western shore of the Spit stuck during the night in the mud close to the southern shore of the lake, and the men and their equipment were transferred to stormboats, which were hauled through the glutinous shallows in the dark. Although it was impossible to reach the Spit before daybreak, the commandos, landing behind a barrage and curtain of smoke, took the enemy completely by surprise and by the 4th had secured their objective as far as the canal south of Port Garibaldi. A squadron of the Special Boat Service captured the islands in the lake next day.
At the western end of the front Fifth Army began a diversionary attack against Massa on 5 April. This task was entrusted to 92 US Division, in which 442 (Nisei—Americans of Japanese ancestry) and 473 (formerly anti-aircraft) Regiments had replaced two regiments which had been detached to the Serchio valley. The enemy abandoned Massa when it was outflanked from the east, but reacted more energetically than was expected to the American advance, which did not aim at a vital objective. General Lemelsen called upon his small reserves in a futile attempt to retrieve the position.