Italy Volume II : From Cassino to Trieste
IV: Gate-crashing the Santerno Line
IV: Gate-crashing the Santerno Line
General Freyberg held a conference at 9 a.m. on 10 April in the farmhouse where 5 Brigade had its headquarters. Brigadiers Bonifant1 (5 Brigade) and Parkinson (6 Brigade) were able to report that the attack over the Senio had been a complete success. Major Cox gave an appreciation of the situation: ‘I think there is now a hole in front of 6 Brigade and that 5 Brigade will meet the heaviest resistance.’ The enemy ‘has been forced over to the right and is probably pulling back along the Lugo road.’2 The General gave orders that the advance was to continue at 12.30 p.m., when the heavy bombing had stopped.
The intention was to gate-crash the Santerno line before the enemy manned it. The Santerno River was a more formidable natural barrier than the Senio. In the region towards which the Division was heading it presented a double obstacle in front of the town of Massa Lombarda: an embanked channel had been cut to carry the water straight across the loops of its original sinuous course (the Santerno Morto). Aerial photographs showed that the old bed was dry, but like the canalised river was a tank obstacle well prepared with defence works.
Later in the morning the GOC told Bonifant to ‘push on. Withdraw back a bit before the heavy bombing. Then at 12.30 split out using artillery as you want it and get to the Santerno.’ He also told Parkinson to ‘push like hell at 12.30…. you must get the near flood bank and as much as you can of the far bank but don't push out into the blue without bridges. The limit is the Po.’3 It was decided to do without the artillery barrage planned for the crossing of the Scolo Tratturo, midway between the Senio and the Santerno, and to support the advance with tanks and artillery concentrations.
1 Brig I. L. Bonifant, DSO and bar, ED, m.i.d.; Adelaide; born Ashburton, 3 Mar 1912; stock agent; CO 25 Bn Sep 1942 – Jan 1943; Div Cav Jan 1943 – Apr 1944; comd 6 Bde 3–27 Mar 1944; 5 Bde Jan–May 1945; 6 Bde Jun–Oct 1945; wounded 24 Oct 1942.
2 GOC's papers.
3 GOC's diary.
Cox was correct in his forecast that 5 Brigade would meet stronger resistance than the 6th. The tanks of C Squadron, 18 Regiment, accompanying 21 Battalion, had no difficulty in crossing the almost dry Canale di Lugo, which ran on an embankment above the level of the plain. ‘But just beyond it Jerry suddenly showed his teeth. As the Shermans were dispersing under the trees by the road [south of Lugo], 88-millimetre shells began to come in thick and fast from in front of the right flank.’1 Almost immediately the self-propelled 25-pounders of 1 Royal Horse Artillery went into action, but their observation-post tank was knocked out, its commander killed and all the crew wounded. The leading tank of C Squadron and the artillery engaged the position from which the enemy was shooting, and later, when the enemy had gone, a Tiger tank was found abandoned with a track broken by shellfire.
The 23rd Battalion, after taking about 10 hours to make its way from its location in reserve through the congestion of traffic on the roads and at the Senio River crossing, passed through 21 Battalion about 2 p.m., and with A Squadron of 18 Regiment in support, advanced together with 28 (Maori) Battalion (on its left) towards the Scolo Tratturo, half a mile beyond the Canale di Lugo. The 21st Battalion remained deployed south-west of Lugo.
The 23rd was opposed at the Scolo Tratturo by machine-gun and mortar fire, much of which came from the right of the embankment of the Lugo – Massa Lombarda railway, which followed the direction of the advance to the Santerno River, a mile and a half away. D Company, on the right, assaulted and reduced a strongpoint, killed some of the enemy and took a few prisoners. As a Tiger tank was concealed behind two houses on the immediate front, and there was much less opposition on the extreme left flank, Lieutenant- Colonel Thomas decided that while D Company advanced along the railway embankment, A Company should make a wide left-hook which would take it some distance behind the strongpoint containing the tank. A Company made contact with the Maoris on the left and continued on as far as a minefield near the Santerno, but as this was covered by machine-gun fire, withdrew to a lateral road about 500 yards from the river. D Company occupied a house a similar distance from the river. While going forward to support A Company, C Company attempted to eliminate the strongpoint which A had bypassed, but the enemy still resisted and was left to his fate.2
2 Next day the 30-odd Germans at the strongpoint, finding themselves completely cut off, came out under a white flag and surrendered.
While advancing to the Scolo Tratturo 28 (Maori) Battalion, with B Squadron of 18 Regiment in support, at first passed unmanned strongpoints and dummy guns. When D Company, which was ahead of C on its right, emerged from some trees on to a field of foot-high wheat just short of the Scolo Tratturo, it was engaged by four machine guns. Without hesitation Private Nia-Nia2 led his section in a charge which silenced the four posts, killed 11 Germans, cleared some houses and took four prisoners, at the cost of one man wounded.
C Company of 28 Battalion made good progress until it also was held up by machine-gun posts close to the Scolo Tratturo and by a 105-millimetre gun at a house beyond it. Lieutenant Tibble3 brought up a six-pounder anti-tank gun, which was manhandled to a suitable position and with its first shot scattered the German gunners; its second shot, a direct hit, was a knock-out. C Company had lost wireless contact with B Squadron, but Private Maangi4 crossed open ground swept by fire to guide the tanks. The Maoris, with the tanks in support, then ‘surged forward with their bayonets at the ready. The enemy asked for no quarter and received none. Three Maoris were killed and six wounded, but there were ten nests of rifle pits filled with dead men when the company pushed on.’5
Sixth Brigade was accidentally bombed shortly before it was about to advance to the Scolo Tratturo. Flying Fortresses and Liberators, a total of 848 aircraft, dropped 179,190 20-pound fragmentation bombs in front of the Polish Corps and 5 Corps between 11 a.m. and 12.30 p.m. Not all of them found their assigned targets close to the Santerno River; many fell in the vicinity of one of 8 Indian Division's bridges on the Senio River and did much damage among the men and vehicles waiting to cross; some others caused 20 or 30 casualties among the foremost troops of 25 Battalion and other New Zealand units near the Canale di Lugo.
Sixth Brigade began to advance about 1 p.m., with 25 and 24 Battalions supported by the tanks of 20 Regiment and artillery concentrations, and about two hours later had reached the Scolo Tratturo. Apart from the sporadic resistance of small isolated groups, the enemy made no attempt to dispute the two battalions' progress. The 25th discovered—as did the Maoris—that what appeared to be abandoned field guns were wooden dummies.
A and B Companies of 25 Battalion passed through C and D, which had led to the Scolo Tratturo, and continued the advance to a lateral road about 1000 yards short of the Santerno, where they halted in the evening. Likewise A and B Companies of 24 Battalion passed through C and D at the Scolo Tratturo; later after crossing the Scolo del Fossatone half a mile past the Tratturo, C and D again took the lead and finally halted in the vicinity of the same lateral road as had 25 Battalion's leading companies.
The 26th Battalion, on the left flank, kept pace with the advance by a method called ‘hem-stitching’, in which each company in turn circled round on the right to take the lead. This covered the Division's exposed flank. The Poles had crossed the Senio in the morning of the 10th and by evening had reached the Canale di Lugo, in their sector still about 3000 yards from the Santerno.
Thus, by the end of 10 April, the New Zealand Division had advanced six miles in 24 hours and was ready to drive across the next obstacle, the Santerno River. On the right 8 Indian Division, which did not cross the Scolo Tratturo until nightfall, closed up to the Santerno River on the morning of the 11th, ‘only 10 hours behind the New Zealanders’.1page 428
1 Some men who are shown in the casualty lists as having died of wounds after 10 April have not been included in this total although they may have been wounded on 9 or 10 April. The casualties of British units under 2 NZ Div's command are not known.
By 6 p.m. on the 10th 591 Germans had passed through the Division's prisoner-of-war cage, and another 36 had been evacuated through medical channels; 24 hours later the total had reached 877. The New Zealanders had encountered only 98 Infantry Division. The interrogation of the prisoners and study of captured documents proved that the enemy had hoped to check the attack, if not on the Senio stopbank, at least among the houses from 1000 to 2000 yards behind it. The defence in depth consisted of two lines of diggings and wiring, behind which were grouped the reserve companies. Six Tiger tanks and some self-propelled guns were to have formed the spearhead of the counter-attacks to regain the Senio stopbank. If these failed, 98 Division was to have fallen back towards the Santerno (the Laura Line), pausing or leaving rearguards on the Canale di Lugo and Scolo Tratturo or on the Scolo del Fossatone.
‘The Senio part of the scheme failed completely and the LAURA outpost part was compromised by the weight of the attack and the tactical surprise it achieved. The bombardment and the flame-throwers, although they apparently did not cause heavy casualties in wounded and dead on most of the line, reduced the garrison on the north [west] bank to a fit state for surrendering in large numbers. The barrage and advance in depth carried the attack through the remaining lines before any counter-attack could be mounted…. The Tigers could not act in the dark, separated from their infantry. The result was that at dawn the enemy found himself not only off the Senio but with a large gap in his front, with I and II Bns of 289 Regt virtually out of action and II/290 badly mauled. He had pulled back I/290 from Cotignola and I/117 from the Senio north of it during the night. These and his reserve battalion (II/117) provided him with something to delay the advance south of Lugo and gave him at least a screen to put on the Santerno…. Small units … sent back two days previously to dig in on the Scolo Tratturo, were encountered during the morning, and the Tigers came in on the scene in their delaying role, but they were insufficient to halt the advance to the Santerno.’1
During the evening of the 10th Lieutenant-Colonel Hutchens had instructed C and D Companies of 24 Battalion to start at 5.45 a.m., test the enemy's strength and, if possible, occupy the near stopbank and attempt a silent crossing. With tank support the two companies reached the near stopbank unhindered, except for sporadic mortar fire, after an advance of about half a mile. Within half an hour C Company, on the right, had waded through the water, which was about three feet deep. Corporal H. E. Smith's1 section surprised some Germans on the far bank, killed six of them, and occupied 50 yards of the bank although still under enfilade fire from the left flank. D Company crossed the river not long after C, but one of its platoons was held up by fire from a concealed dugout until Private Freeman2 captured it; although wounded, he escorted eight prisoners back across the river.
A and B Companies of 25 Battalion had been instructed to make a silent attack at dawn. Patrols from both companies reached the river, and shortly after 6.30 a.m., when reports were received that 24 Battalion had men across the river, Lieutenant-Colonel Norman ordered A and B to keep going and C and D to be ready to follow. By 8 a.m. A and B Companies were consolidated on the far bank. Thus, early in the morning of 11 April, 6 Brigade had established four companies on the far side of the Santerno—but the banks of the winding Santerno Morto still lay ahead.
Fifth Brigade had not yet crossed the Santerno. On the right flank 23 Battalion was astride the Lugo-Massa Lombarda railway about 500 yards from the river, and the ground held was thickly sown with mines. Sergeant Michie3 led a patrol from D Company to the bridge site on the Lugo-Massa Lombarda road, about a quarter of a mile downstream from the railway, where he reconnoitred the river and the opposite bank despite machine-gun and mortar fire. South of the railway 28 Battalion had a platoon from C Company on the near stopbank and one from D Company on a loop of the Santerno Morto east of the river; between these two platoons the enemy still occupied the near stopbank of the Santerno.
Shortly after the conference Brigadier Bonifant ordered 28 Battalion to cross the Santerno, while 23 Battalion remained where it was and gave supporting fire. The Maoris were to start at 2 p.m. on a two-company front and under an artillery barrage, and were to hold ground not more than 500 yards beyond the river; they were to have the support of fighter-bombers, tanks and infantry weapons as well as the artillery. The foremost troops withdrew a safe distance before the barrage opened on the near stopbank. A low-flying fighter-bomber dropped a 500-pound bomb about 100 yards in front of Battalion Headquarters, killing a man and wounding two others. Later a message expressing regret for the error was received from the RAF.
A Company, on the right, plunged into the muddy water of the Santerno. The first man across, Private Kira,2 alone destroyed two machine-gun posts and a sniper post. B Company crossed a footbridge, 18 inches wide and still intact. Beyond the river ‘olive trees and orchards in full bloom gave excellent cover to both companies, but searching fire from the railway embankment, at that point some thirty feet high, was showering the men with leaves and twigs.’3 The artillery and heavy mortars responded to a request for defensive fire on the embankment. Both Maori companies were reported on their objective at 3.20 p.m. A Company exploited to a point on the railway less than a mile from Massa Lombarda, but was obliged to return to avoid Allied air attacks. Many Germans were seen in full flight towards the town.
The air observation post directed the 5.5-inch guns of 5 Medium Regiment (which had already crossed the Senio) on to German tanks beyond the Santerno. At a house where three tanks were recognised as Tigers, one was knocked out and a vehicle left burning; the other two tanks made off and were being chased by fighter-bombers when they disappeared from view. Spitfires swept across the front engaging targets in or near Massa Lombarda, which ‘appeared to be in eruption by the amount of smoke and dust rising from it.’4
4 Ibid., p. 465.
Enemy tanks were reported at several points, and artillery concentrations were fired against these and other targets. One Tiger actually stopped alongside the house in which A Company had its headquarters. From an upstairs window Captain Harris1 watched it ‘nestle in alongside the wall and switch off its engine. The Maoris kept studiously out of sight; the turret top opened and one of the crew sat on the edge for a while and conversed with others in the bowels of the Tiger. Harris told one of his men to slip Hawkins grenades under the tracks as soon as the turret closed. This was done, but when shortly afterwards the unwanted visitor moved away the grenades failed to explode. Probably in the excitement of the moment they had not been primed.’2
A horse and cart containing three Germans singing ‘Lilli Marlene’ came down the road into B Company's lines; they had thought they were bringing rations to their own men on the river line. The Maoris considered the soup unpalatable but liked the black bread. Altogether 28 Battalion took about 30 prisoners on 11 April.
Meanwhile 23 Battalion rested in houses, some of which had to be cleared of the enemy—these brought its tally of prisoners for the day to 47. Two patrols from D Company were prevented by small-arms fire from getting near the bridge site on the Lugo – Massa Lombarda road, but a patrol from A Company succeeded in silencing a machine-gun post near the railway bridge which had been troubling 28 Battalion.
Meanwhile 24 Battalion was exposed to fire from the left flank, where the Poles had not yet reached the Santerno. To counter this, 26 Battalion was brought up towards the river, where it also came under fire from the Poles' sector. Towards evening, however, the Poles closed up to the river, and at 7 p.m. they attacked under a barrage and secured a crossing.
Already, at 6.30 p.m., 24 Battalion had begun its advance to the large loop of the Santerno Morto. D Company reached the banks of the western part of it soon after nightfall, but C Company was forced to ground by machine-gun fire and grenades as it approached the eastern part, and had to retire; consequently B Company, in the middle, did not attempt to occupy the farthest segment. The places still held by the enemy were ‘stonked’ and harassed by the medium and field guns and mortars, and next morning, when the Santerno had been bridged and tanks had arrived, B and C Companies completed the occupation of the loop. By that time, also, C Company of 26 Battalion was holding a section of the far stop-bank of the Santerno on the 24th's left flank.
General Freyberg told Brigadier Parkinson late in the afternoon of the 11th that ‘we want to get two regiments of armour across to open the Lugo – Massa Lombarda road along which we will have page 434 to maintain; then we shall get everybody across in two groups, turn him out of Massa Lombarda by going round it, and then I will put Gentry [9 Brigade] through.’ He told Brigadier Bonifant that 5 Brigade ‘must pass a regiment of tanks across, clear Sandy's [23 Battalion's] front and open up the road—that is tonight's objective.’1
The Division was to continue the advance to a line just short of Massa Lombarda and on the railway which ran south-westward towards Imola, and then to a second line just beyond Massa Lombarda. But first 5 Brigade was to be responsible for clearing the village of Sant' Agata, on the right flank, which would permit the construction of a bridge where the Lugo – Massa Lombarda road crossed the Santerno.
Sappers from 6 Field Company began work before nightfall on the 11th on a bridge in 28 Battalion's sector. Despite harassing sheil and mortar fire the approaches were bulldozed before it was dark, which allowed the bridging train to get to the site without delay. Because the Maoris' bridgehead was only about 500 yards deep, the enemy could observe the site and interfere with the bridge-building with machine-gun fire from that flank. Lance- Sergeant Roberts,2 who was in charge of the work, placed a sapper with a Bren gun where he could divert some of the hostile fire. A bulldozer driven by Sapper Strahl3 under mortar fire made a gap in the far stopbank, and the construction of a 40-foot low-level Bailey bridge was completed by 1.30 a.m. Within the next two hours two squadrons of 18 Armoured Regiment, 32 Anti-Tank Battery and 28 Battalion's support weapons were safely over the river. A squadron of 20 Armoured Regiment crossed just before dawn on the 12th, followed by the third squadron of 18 Regiment. The other two squadrons of the 20th used a crossing in 6 Brigade's sector, where much bulldozing had to be done before one Ark tank was placed on top of another to make a bridge.
The 23rd Battalion was to pass through 28 Battalion's bridgehead and attack northward to Sant' Agata. The tanks would join the two battalions at dawn, if not earlier, and when the marrying-up of the tanks and support arms with the infantry was complete, they were to begin the westward exploitation north of Massa Lombarda. Sixth Brigade would advance south of the town.
C Company attacked from the Maoris' bridgehead about 9 a.m., with 14 and 15 Platoons going towards the railway embankment between the river and a road which passed under the railway, and 13 Platoon, on the right, towards the Santerno stopbank south of the railway. After quickly clearing the stopbank 13 Platoon captured the railway station, about a quarter of a mile from the river. The other two platoons, after killing some Germans, dug in on the southern slope of the embankment, where they had lively exchanges with the enemy still holding firmly in places on the other side. At one stage 15 Platoon crossed the embankment in pursuit of a party of Germans, but met a larger group (possibly fresh reinforcements), and when a Tiger emerged from behind a house, the platoon returned to the southern side of the embankment. When 14 Platoon tried to advance beyond the embankment, it also found itself in danger of being cut off by a large party of Germans, so retired.
C Company was joined about 1.30 a.m. by A Company (less 9 Platoon, which had been given another task), and together they made a further attempt to drive the enemy from the embankment. The A Company men tried to capture some houses on the road which ran under the railway towards Sant' Agata about half a mile from the river, and in an assault in which Sergeant Russell1 distinguished himself, killed or drove back the first Germans they met, but were halted and had to be pulled back to C Company. Further progress seemed impossible without tank support.
The tanks might have to use the road which passed under the railway. After a bold assault by 14 and 15 Platoons to clear the defenders from the underpass, one of B Squadron's tanks went through, but ‘was immediately drilled by a small armour-piercing shell from straight ahead.’2 The bulldozer made a fresh track over the embankment nearer the Santerno, and about 10 a.m. a troop of A Squadron crossed and took cover among vines and trees on the outskirts of Sant' Agata. By this time 23 Battalion had crossed the river east of the village, presumably while the enemy was distracted by the outflanking attack at the railway.
Having concluded that his plan to take Sant' Agata from the south-west had failed, Thomas at 2.15 a.m. had sent B Company northwards along the eastern side of the Santerno, with orders to cross it where 8 Indian Division was reported to have done so and then to close in on the village from that side. B Company, however, had found that 8 Indian Division was not yet over the river, so returned to its houses to await further orders.
Thomas then decided to commit D Company to a frontal attack across the river. The information gained by Sergeant Michie's reconnaissance the previous day now proved valuable. It had not been possible to get D Company's supporting tanks (protected by 9 Platoon) to the place where the company was to cross the river, but without much difficulty 18 Platoon gained a foothold on the far bank; 16 and 17 Platoons passed through and took the enemy completely by surprise. D Company entered Sant' Agata and occupied some houses.
At dawn B Company crossed the river to reinforce D's right flank and, also taking the enemy by surprise, rounded up many prisoners in a few minutes. Fighter-bombers, which were already attacking targets close to 23 Battalion's foremost troops, dislodged a Tiger tank. The New Zealand infantry and tanks consolidated in and around Sant' Agata.
On 12 April the engineers erected two high-level bridges over the Santerno: 7 Field Company built a 120-foot Bailey between the Lugo – Massa Lombarda railway and the road near Sant' Agata, and 8 Field Company a 110-foot Bailey where the straightened river course intersected the winding Santerno Morto. These bridges, on the route from the Senio for each brigade, were essential to the maintenance of the Division beyond the Santerno.
2 Ibid., p. 621.
As at the Senio, 8 Indian Division suffered numerous casualties while crossing the Santerno. After a short artillery preparation, which began at 5.30 p.m. on the 11th, the Wasps and Crocodiles— with the exception of one Crocodile—failed to flame the banks of the river. The two assaulting battalions of 17 Indian Infantry Brigade, after being exposed to machine-gun, shell and mortar fire from both flanks on the near stopbank, waded waist-deep through the water, and on the far side came under fire from almost every direction. On the right 1/5 Royal Gurkha Rifles was counter-attacked five or six times and lost many men killed and wounded. On the left 1/12 Frontier Force Regiment succeeded in occupying some houses beyond the river, but the seven Kangaroos bringing its two reserve companies to the river were all blown up on mines.
The 1st Royal Fusiliers passed through 1/12 Frontier Force Regiment's small bridgehead and made some progress until counter-attacked by German infantry and tanks at 6.30 a.m. The enemy fire had delayed the construction of a Bailey bridge, but by dawn three Ark tanks had succeeded in making one crossing, by which page 438 some British tanks entered the bridgehead. Later in the day, when two more bridges were thrown across the river, 8 Indian Division firmly held its bridgehead over the Santerno.
The Maori Battalion resumed the advance from its bridgehead at 6 a.m. on the 12th, with the assistance of a barrage fired by 5 Field Regiment. The leaders had gone scarcely half a mile when they came under heavy fire from the front and the railway embankment on the right. The tanks of B Squadron, 18 Regiment, stopped to return the fire, and the infantry took shelter in whatever buildings were handy. C Squadron's tanks were brought up to help; one was hit by a light anti-tank shell, which did only slight damage. The air observation post found four German tanks at a house on the other side of the railway embankment and directed the artillery on to them. Aircraft were ‘diving and strafing round Massa Lombarda in a most satisfying way.’1
The Maori Battalion's advance had created a gap of about 1000 yards between it and 25 Battalion, which was occupying the smaller of the two loops of the Santerno Morto in 6 Brigade's sector. To close this gap, therefore, 26 Battalion was ordered to pass through the 25th and occupy a line between 24 Battalion's foremost positions on the larger loop and the Maori Battalion. When 26 Battalion's leading company (A) was crossing the Santerno at midday, however, advice was received that the plan had been changed and there was to be an attack by 5 and 6 Brigades in the afternoon.
While 24 Battalion protected the left flank, 23, 28 and 26 Battalions, in that order from right to left, were to advance 1200 yards at the rate of 100 yards in three minutes under a barrage to a line just short of Massa Lombarda; later they were to advance under another timed barrage to a line just beyond the town. The Division was then to regroup and continue with 6 Brigade on the right and 9 Brigade on the left.
Before the advance began the medium guns scored a direct hit which set fire to a Tiger tank reported by 28 Battalion near the railway. The leading companies of this battalion (A and B) had difficulty in getting back behind the artillery opening line. A Company called for smoke to cover this move and sheltered in some houses which were shelled by a tank on the other side of the railway. After knocking out a six-pounder anti-tank gun, this German tank was driven off by shell and mortar fire. From a start line which straddled the railway 28 Battalion advanced with A Company (on the right) and B, followed by C and D. B Squadron's tanks set fire to a Tiger tank which was sitting out in the open— it had probably been disabled by air attack—and ‘brewed up’ another tank which was camouflaged in a wooden shed. Near a high-walled cemetery a Tiger or Panther was seen in a roadway, but was able to get away in the failing light.
At the cemetery A Company had ‘a short sharp fight’ with about 30 enemy. ‘They fought until they were all killed. The Germans were apparently on the point of pulling out for their gear was neatly stacked and ready for removal.’3 This was the only infantry clash. While taking the evening meal to B Company at the objective, Staff-Sergeant Rangitauira4 went too far in his jeep and entered the outskirts of Massa Lombarda. He took shelter when 18 Germans approached, dashed out behind them and, by pretending to call up others to help him, persuaded them to surrender and hand over their arms.
Despite such short notice the three companies were in position before the barrage opened. During the advance they met stronger opposition than had been expected—from tanks and machine guns. From a ditch alongside a road Lance-Sergeant Grainger1 and his assistant disabled a Tiger with two shots from a Piat at close range. The crew was taken prisoner. One of C Squadron's tanks fired smoke and armour-piercing high-explosive shells at another Tiger. A shot aimed at the driver's hatch struck the periscope, ricocheted and exploded inside the tank, which stopped about 50 yards away. Nine Germans, including several spandau gunners, baled out and took shelter in a ditch. One escaped, two died of wounds, and the rest were taken prisoner. C Squadron accounted for another Tiger after the infantry had reached the objective and before the light began to fail. This tank was knocked out in the middle of a crossroads by a 17-pounder Sherman which fired two shots into its rear at a range of 400 yards.
By about 5 p.m. on 12 April the New Zealand Division was firmly on its first objective just short of Massa Lombarda. German tanks, horse-drawn transport and motor vehicles, packed with men and gear, could be seen from the air retreating along the roads from the town. The Air Force and artillery attacked these targets.
The Division had captured over 1000 prisoners since the offensive began. Of the 135 Germans who passed through the prisoner-of-war cage on the 12th, half were from 117 Grenadier Regiment of 98 Division and (with the notable exception of 28 men from 26 Reconnaissance Battalion of 26 Panzer Division) most of the others were also from the 98th. A German officer who had been sent to reconnoitre positions on the Canale dei Molini said the New Zealand attack had made it impossible to hold the line of this canal, and in his opinion a withdrawal to the Sillaro River was inevitable.
The Division was to attack to the line of a road on the western side of Massa Lombarda. At first it was planned that an artillery barrage, opening at 2 a.m. on 13 April and lifting at the rate of 100 yards in five minutes, was to be fired by five regiments (which were deployed where they could support the advance beyond the Santerno), but Brigadier Bonifant decided that 5 Brigade did not require a barrage because the leading infantry of 23 Battalion had gone well beyond the objective of the afternoon's attack without meeting resistance and was being troubled already by shells from the Divisional Artillery; further the enemy was known to be withdrawing from Massa Lombarda. It was decided, therefore, that 4 and 6 Field Regiments should fire a barrage for 6 Brigade only.
Fifth Brigade attacked with 23 and 21 Battalions. The 21st had left its location near Lugo in the morning, crossed the Santerno in the evening, and passed through 28 Battalion, which went into reserve at Sant' Agata. Supported by tanks of C Squadron of 18 Regiment, 21 Battalion entered Massa Lombarda shortly before midnight without meeting the enemy, and reached the objective about 1 a.m. With its men mostly mounted on 18 Regiment's tanks, 23 Battalion pushed on until it also reached the objective about one o' clock; it then bedded down for a few hours'sleep.
The leading companies of 6 Brigade, A and B of 26 Battalion on the right and C of the 24th on the left, advancing under the barrage, crossed the Canale dei Molini south of Massa Lombarda without trouble, and the supporting tanks of 20 Regiment used two bridges which the enemy had left intact. When Tactical Headquarters of 26 Battalion entered the outskirts of Massa Lombarda at dawn on 13 April, ‘red-eyed civilians emerged from their shelters. … The town had taken a pounding from the air and civilian casualties had been heavy. Partisans of both sexes were much in evidence.’1 Lieutenant-Colonel Fairbrother ordered A Company, with its platoons travelling on tanks, to continue the advance until contact was made with the enemy. By 6.30 a.m. this company, with seven tanks, was on its way towards the Scolo Zaniolo. B Company, also with seven tanks, followed A.
Brigadier Bonifant advised 23 Battalion at 6.15 a.m. of 21 Battalion's progress towards the Scolo Zaniolo; 6 Brigade was also pushing on, and he wanted the 23rd to do likewise. Lieutenant- Colonel Thomas therefore ordered A and D Companies to resume the advance immediately, followed by B and C. Again the infantry was mounted on tanks, which took the road leading north-west towards the Scolo Zaniolo. While crossing the railway north of Massa Lombarda they were fired upon by mortars and machine guns from the vicinity of the Canale dei Molini, about 400 yards ahead. This pocket of resistance was soon overcome, and the advance was continued across the flat, open ground between the Molini and Zaniolo canals.
For A Squadron, 18 Regiment, this was ‘a real tank charge such as had been visualised when 4 Armoured Brigade was formed, but which had very rarely been on the cards in Italy…. tanks in line abreast blazing away at the enemy on the Zaniolo, who stayed and fought it out to the end. They had no chance. All were either killed or scooped up.’2 Two bridges were captured intact, and B and C Companies of 23 Battalion and a troop of tanks crossed the Scolo Zaniolo and established a bridgehead.
1 26 Battalion, p. 507.
3 The casualties in 5 Bde's three battalions since the start of the offensive on 9 April were 25 killed and 161 wounded.
By this time 2 NZ Division and 8 Indian Division had captured 5 Corps'first objective (the line of the Canale di Lugo) and its second (a bridgehead over the Santerno River), and had taken well over 2000 prisoners. The intention now was that 78 Division, after passing through 8 Indian Division, should strike northward towards Bastia and Argenta to link up with the amphibious forces of 5 Corps, and that the New Zealand Division should either protect 78 Division's left during this northward drive or continue its own westward advance towards Budrio.