2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
Pushing on to the Santerno
Pushing on to the Santerno
A 13-lift barrage by six field regiments had been intended to cover an advance in the afternoon of the 10th to a canal line well on the way to the Santerno; but it was not needed. Instead the field regiments brought down observed fire as the infantry pushed on. The 4th Field had recorded zero lines by 4.35 p.m. and began to fire at once. The 5th Field pushed 27 and 47 Batteries forward to the lee of the stopbank at noon; but 28 Battery had so many fire orders it could not move until late afternoon. The 6th Field had to cope with a fluid situation on the 6 Brigade front and to alter DF tasks to conform not only with the infantry advance, but with the movements of 20 page 704 page 705 Armoured Regiment. The front had stabilised sufficiently by nightfall, however, for the 6th Field to fire many DF and HF tasks after dark.
The 10th was another clear day and the air force was again active. ‘Tin hats were worn for a while’, the 27 Battery diary remarks, ‘as the heavies were over again and the ack-ack markers were dropping their shrap in the gun area.’ OP parties had to be careful not to get too far forward and get caught in the showers of fragmentation bombs. Captain Thomson22 of 47 Battery was one who had a very lively time. He was guarding the right flank against counter-thrusts from the direction of Lugo and his OP vehicle, a Sherman tank, was frequently under fire. Several times his wireless operator, Gunner Barrett,23 had to take his radio set out of the tank and set it up in various buildings from which Thomson was observing. Invariably this had to be done under mortar and machine-gun fire. At 5 p.m., for example, near Lugo, when the tank was under direct small-arms fire, Barrett got out with his set and began operating in the open. He established contact with 47 Battery and Thomson called down fire which fell no more than 100 yards away. This overcame a stubborn centre of opposition and enabled the advance to continue. For this and similar efforts Barrett won an immediate MM.
Reconnaissance parties of the 5th and 6th Field were across the Senio soon after dawn on the 11th. After a busy night of DF and HF tasks the batteries followed. They and the 4th Field and anti-tankers before them were profoundly impressed by what they saw as they crossed the Senio and entered the belt of land which had been the target of the guns and aircraft on the 9th. ‘Great scenes of destruction’, the 27 Battery diary says; ‘trees, houses, etc. destroyed—dead animals everywhere.’ The blackened stretches of stopbank scorched by the flame-throwers, the little muddy stream, and then in the fields beyond thousands of black shell holes with jagged edges, mutilated trees, damaged casas, and the enemy weapons and gear scattered everywhere gave the newcomers a vivid insight into the violence required to dislodge a determined enemy from well prepared positions. Even so, the tempest of fire had left many deep-dug positions in the stopbank intact.page 706
A kind of feed-back action now operated against those who caused this destruction; for many of the casas used by OP parties, gun or mortar crews, and others farther back were anything but safe and the tremendous blast of nebelwerfer rockets or 170s brought several of them down on top of their occupants. Many FOOs would have felt far safer in the open; but they had to work from the upper storeys of buildings in order to get useful observation in that flat countryside.
The New Zealand infantry were the spearhead of the Eighth Army and they carried the line of the Santerno without a formal attack. But it was a wider river than the Senio and there was a critical period before it was bridged and tanks and other supporting arms could get across. The enemy counter-attacked strongly and in the afternoon of the 11th the guns fired many urgent DFs. The ‘cab-ranks’ of fighter-bombers were kept busy and the Air OPs directed many shoots against tanks and other targets. The 6th Field were very busy indeed towards evening and the 5th Medium, who this day came under the direct command of the CRA, were in action near them. Even the huge 7.2s were firing at targets not far from the New Zealand FDLs. The 4th Field fired a quick barrage with the 1st RHA to help the Maoris across the river. Both the 4th and the 6th Field fired coloured smoke to mark targets for the fighter-bombers. The 4th Field fired just under 3000 rounds all told, the 5th Field over 2000, and the 6th Field nearly 10,000. Between them they did much to discourage enemy counter-attacks on the Santerno bridgehead.
A Sub-battery of heavy mortars, in close support of 5 Brigade, and B Sub-battery with 6 Brigade, had an arduous and unpleasant day. A shell landing beside a signals jeep of K Troop wounded a bombardier and gunner in the afternoon, and in the evening a direct hit on a casa occupied by K Troop fatally wounded Lance-Bombardier Dow24 and injured a gunner.
At the height of the action in the afternoon, when enemy fire at the Santerno bridgeheads was heavy, the maintenance of communications called for courageous effort on the part of signallers of the mortar battery and the field regiments. In the 6th Field, for example, Major Hanna pushed his 29 Battery OP well forward to a house 400 yards from the enemy to bring down neutralising fire on weapons holding up the advance of 24 Battalion on the left. Fire on the neighbourhood became so heavy page 707 that nearby tanks withdrew. This seemed to attract attention to the house itself and at least seven direct hits were scored on it by shells and mortars. Hanna's OP vehicle was a Honey tank chassis with no ‘top cover’ against this fire. It was parked against the house, and in it Lance-Bombardier Roberts25 ‘cheerfully and without complaint’ (as Hanna later wrote) transmitted vital fire orders until the enemy fire was subdued. Roberts gained an immediate MM.
Radio communications were becoming increasingly difficult, however, because of overloaded wireless nets, a surfeit of high-priority signals, and interference. No effort was therefore spared to establish and maintain telephone lines wherever possible. Lance-Sergeant Mullin26 of F Troop, 47 Battery, was one of the many signals NCOs involved. In the night 11–12 April he was ordered to lay a line to the future Tac HQ of 23 Battalion, a location chosen from the map and then occupied by the foremost company. His only guide was a map reference. He set out at once and had the line working by the time the first HQ officer of the battalion arrived. But then he had to maintain it. Every time it was cut he went out and repaired it. New Zealand tanks were almost as bad in this respect as enemy guns and mortars, and Mullin saw that he had to follow their movements closely so as to be able to repair the line when they broke it. For three hours in the night he was in the open under fire. Next day under sniper fire he laid a line by hand across the Santerno to a village not fully cleared of enemy. Mullin had been through most of the desert fighting and had served in all the Italian actions. He was overdue for a decoration and at last won an immediate MM. Bombardier Transom27 of C Troop, 47 Battery, was another who did essential work cheerfully and efficiently. He was in charge of the maintenance of the troop transport and worked long hours under difficult conditions to keep it roadworthy. At the same time, by his good example, he encouraged all the troop drivers to do their work well.
The 12th was another bad day for 34 Battery. G and H Troops were both across the Santerno early in the morning and they were heavily shelled. The signals exchange house of A Sub-battery suffered several direct hits in the afternoon and part page 708 of it collapsed. Sergeant Walker28 and Gunner Redward29 suffered mortal injuries and two others were badly hurt. All the anti-tank batteries crossed the river and they captured several Germans.