CHAPTER 24 — Over the Rivers
Over the Rivers
While the division had been resting, the Adriatic front had moved steadily forward. Forli was now in our hands. The Canadian Corps was facing up to Ravenna, 5 Corps to Faenza, and the Polish Corps, in the foothills, to the Lamone River.
The Division was ordered to come forward under command of 5 Corps for the crossing of the Lamone and the seizing of Faenza. The Divisional Cavalry was now part of 6 Brigade, whose responsibility was the country facing the Lamone opposite Faenza and north of Route 9. The 26th Battalion took up the whole of the brigade's narrow front, so the 24th, the 25th and Div Cav were in reserve, with the last due to take over next. Until then the battalion remained in billets at Forli, some five miles back. This town was packed with troops and transport. It had a huge Naafi and several cinemas were operating. There was a large gymnasium where indoor basketball could be played; but on the whole the inhabitants were not particularly friendly. The town was naturally treated to visits by the Luftwaffe, but these, of necessity, were rare and fleeting, though enough to entail rigid blackout precautions. On the second day there, B Squadron was dismayed to find, in one wing of its quarters, an unexploded bomb.
|Commanding Officer||Lt-Col N. P. Wilder, DSO|
|Second-in-Command||Maj F. H. Poolman, MC|
|Adjutant||Lt W. C. Sutherland|
|Medical Officer||Capt J. N. Armour, NZMC|
|Padre||Very Rev. A. K. Warren, CF|
|OC A Squadron||Maj A. R. W. Ormond, MC and bar|
|Second-in-Command||Capt R. H. Kerr|
|OC B Squadron||Maj C. L. Wood|
|Second-in-Command||Capt D. L. Studholme|
|OC C Squadron||Maj D. MacIntyre|
|Second-in-Command||Capt C. M. Monckton|
|OC D Squadron||Maj S. W. Askew|
|Second-in-Command||Capt A. E. Clutterbuck|
|OC Support Group||Capt C. W. Mack, DCM|
Major J. R. Williams, DSO,1 had been posted from 26 Battalion and was shortly to replace Major Poolman.
The Divisional Cavalry took over the forward lines on 2 December, about twenty-four hours before 46 British Division forced its crossing of the Lamone further to the south-west. The New Zealand Division took little part in this action except to mount a simulated attack on its section of the river north of Route 9. The artillery laid a genuine creeping barrage on the enemy's side of the river; tanks, anti-tank guns, mortars and machine guns all opened fire, whilst the forward battalions created as much noise as possible with their small arms, and even went so far as to heave heavy stones into the river and generally create sufficient splashing to give the impression of troops launching assault boats.
All this proved a most successful deception carried out at little cost: in Div Cav two men were wounded, one of these from our own small-arms fire. Shells and mortar bombs naturally came down from a thoroughly alarmed enemy, but the main embarrassment they caused was to chop about the telephone wires on the ground, disrupting for a while the communications down to squadrons. So successful a deception was it that Berlin Radio announced that the part of the attack immediately opposite and just north of Faenza had been contained and beaten back. In Div Cav, RHQ and D Squadron were awakened on the morning of the 4th by a bracket of nebelwerfer bombs at dawn, an effective if somewhat sudden reveille.
After the mortars had silenced a Spandau which was annoying No. 12 Troop, the day was particularly undisturbed for Div Cav as the enemy was made to lie low by our close air support. This had been put in with such intensity that not even a half-hour barrage in the afternoon drew so much as a shot in reply.
When 5 Brigade went forward south of Faenza to take over positions from 46 British Division, 6 NZ Brigade was able to sidestep to the left and Div Cav, with D and C Squadrons astride Route 9, was immediately opposite Faenza in the centre of a big loop made by the Lamone and Marzeno rivers, which join just outside the town.
A and B Squadrons were relieved by 4 British Reconnaissance Regiment; A Squadron was in a reserve position about 1000 yards in rear of D, and B Squadron went back three or four miles to the rear.page 387
Constant patrolling went on for several days, and there was much provoking of the enemy FDLs opposite. Light rain or fog sometimes reduced visibility, and at other times the sun was pleasantly warm, although the nights were bitterly cold. In either case, nobody at all had need to be without the shelter of a casa when not on duty.
All this activity was not without its expense in casualties, for during the fortnight from the time the battalion took over until it moved into Faenza, it suffered one officer and eleven other ranks wounded.
Without doubt the German troops in the line were getting their tails down properly as quite a regular little stream, one at a time, of prisoners and deserters was being sent back. Some were in uniform, some in stolen civilian clothes, the majority being only too ready to talk.
Now that the Lamone had been crossed there was every chance that a further advance, to the Senio River, could now be made; this would constitute such a threat beyond Faenza on Route 9 that the enemy would have to abandon the town. So preparations for a Corps advance were put in hand. The 5th New Zealand Brigade was now poised on the flank west of the town. On the 13th, C Squadron of the Divisional Cavalry had the job of laying smoke across its front to hide the movement of 4 Brigade's tanks, which came forward to cross the Lamone into 5 Brigade's territory.
The Division's preparations for 5 Corps' advance being now complete, at 11 p.m. on the 14th the attack started. By dawn the Maoris and 23 Battalion were on their objectives, threatening Route 9 several miles beyond the town. Faenza was not being given away for nothing, however, for on the 15th, while B Squadron, which had come forward again to relieve D, was standing to and ready to cross over, the enemy was still definitely there, though he refused to reply to C Squadron's provocation on the left.
That night the positions on 5 Brigade's front were further improved, thus increasing the need for Faenza to be cleared of the enemy, but in the morning it was still not known whether he had withdrawn. Sergeant Flynn of C Squadron had already developed quite a reputation for skill in patrolling and on the morning of the 16th he went out on his own to find out for certain whether the enemy was still there. He crossed the Lamone on an improvised footbridge, got right into the town, and came back with a prisoner from whom valuable information page 388 was collected. The enemy was still there but was thinning out. Flynn then led a fighting patrol back into the town to capture several snipers left behind.
The whole of B Squadron had by now advanced to the stopbanks and had seen civilians waving white flags to them. The time had come to enter the city. In the early afternoon Major Wood2 sent No. 12 Troop forward; it crossed the debris of the main bridge without opposition. The whole of C and then B Squadron followed and began simultaneously to clear the town of the snipers that were still there. Then A Squadron took over from B in the centre of the town, and finally, by nightfall, D Squadron had come forward to form protection for the Engineers who had already begun to lay a new bridge over the Lamone.
It took until the evening of the 17th before the battalion had cleaned out the whole town. Gurkhas of 43 Lorried Infantry Brigade had passed through to tidy up beyond the town, and Div Cav settled into billets until after Christmas. Some men had to be sent back to be disinfested of lice, which they had most likely picked up whilst living in buildings previously occupied by civilians or enemy or both, and they arrived back resplendent in complete new kits of clothes, the envy of everybody.
Two days before Christmas some of those not on duty were suddenly aroused by their mates with urgency in their voices. They were told to ‘Hurry up, and bring a jerrican.’ They joined a stream of men striding through the streets to a building in which a hole had been pick-axed through the wall. The cellar here was as dark as any other but not quite as dusty—not the floor. Instead, it was ankle deep in liquid which was flowing from holes in the many barrels that were there. At each one there was a man catching the most beautiful vermouth in a bucket and filling all containers held out to him. It was not long before the majority of the unit was in high good humour, and not much longer before they were even happier still. By Christmas Eve, according to one diarist, the offer of a drink of vermouth almost constituted an insult. He goes on to remark that, on the whole, however, this was a good thing because, for once, everybody was sober enough to appreciate the many hours of good work put in by the cooks on the Christmas dinner.page 389
Having been given a day to digest this, Div Cav relieved 26 Battalion on 27 December on the Senio front. The warm relations which had existed between these two particular units ever since the early days in Greece when the regiment had helped the South Islanders as they struggled back, exhausted, from the Servia Pass, never died. Now the veteran infantry took particular, almost fraternal, care to help in every way possible what were virtually novices. Section leaders, platoon and company commanders, all went out of their way to give more assistance and to pass on more information than could normally have been expected.
The allotted area was a short distance from the near stopbank of the Senio, downstream from the railway and Route 9. A, B and C Squadrons took up the forward positions, with D Squadron in reserve. The 26th Battalion had been making much use of forward listening posts by night and had set many trip flares to give warning of enemy patrols. For all its help though, when handing over, it was not able to prevent part of No. 13 Troop from getting shot up by its own men whilst coming in from a standing patrol and suffering five men wounded. By night, active patrolling and harassing of enemy working parties went on, and by day both sides were more inclined to lie low. The daytime belonged more to the artillery and mortars, and to strafing by the Air Force if conditions were right. This flat country gave little chance for observation from the ground for any distance. By rural standards it was heavily populated, and though it was mid-winter and the trees were bare, these were all planted close together, being mainly pollard willows and elms. The enemy had left much of the ground covered with anti-tank and anti-personnel mines.
On 30 December D Squadron came forward to relieve C, but just before this relief took place, C Squadron picked up a leaflet fired over by one of the enemy guns. The leaflet, which was sent back to Brigade Headquarters, was a highly indignant document accusing the brigade of atrocities to newly captured prisoners. One man, it alleged, had been hanged in a window frame, and another had been slashed about the face after death by a big curved knife. It seemed that the enemy still had a wrong concept of New Zealanders—there were, so it happened, none in that particular area at the time—but the general reaction seemed to be to let him keep thinking that. To enlighten him might raise his morale!page 390
The last days of December were spent in restlessness, both sides glaring at each other. Perhaps it was the enemy in this sector who greeted the New Year with the greater enthusiasm. A Squadron could hear a riotous party gradually developing towards midnight, after which, having allowed the season's convention to be observed, the artillery put down a regimental shoot to remind the revellers to go to bed, this shoot being followed by one from the machine-gunners. However, the party seemed to have reached a hilarious stage and the only reaction was a display of Very lights, parachute flares, and small-arms tracer fired in all directions.
In one place the Division could afford to be a little closer to the Senio and, to bring this about, a small action was planned on 6 Brigade's right front. With this tidied up, 5 Brigade was detailed to side-step to its right. Accordingly, on the night of 1–2 January 1945, 28 (Maori) Battalion relieved Div Cav, who marched out to Faenza, where it was picked up by lorries and taken to Forli for a spell of about ten days.
Daily route marches and showers, a complete change of clothes, and good warm billets freshened up the battalion. One or two men were allowed leave to Rome. Other ranks were still not allowed to stay in the city overnight but, reports have it, this rule was rather honoured in the breach. Some changes in the major commands took place during the spell. Lieutenant- Colonel Wilder became due for furlough and handed over command to Lieutenant-Colonel Williams. The latter was replaced by Major Askew3 from D Squadron, and he by Major Monckton, who was given Captain Bunny4 as his second-in- command. By 6 January the battalion was ready to move forward again to relieve 26 Battalion, which was at the time organising Faenza for defence.
In the second half of December the German armies had really shaken the Allies, in the very flush of their success in northern Europe, by their counter-offensive in the Ardennes. This had the effect of sobering the British armies everywhere, making them realise that the initiative still could be snatched from them, particularly during the winter when seasonal conditions slowed, and even halted, advances. As Field Marshal Alexander had decided to wait for early spring for his advance to the Po, he directed that his front should be organised properly in depth page 391 for defence against a possible counter-offensive. Thus it was that, within the New Zealand Division, the Divisional Cavalry came to be preparing defensive positions even after, on 10 January, taking over the forward positions of 25 Battalion.
The Divisional Cavalry Battalion's position this time was further to the right than previously, but in similar country, with the enemy still jealously guarding both banks of the Senio. Snow had been threatening since before New Year and had fallen a few days previously. It had thawed and then frozen again to a crispness that defied silent patrolling. White over- garments had been issued for movement in the open. One man records:
‘Snow was lying everywhere and we had ghost suits for the ration parties, long surplices with white hoods and white leggings, to which we added our own white covers for our guns [sic]. They were stiflingly hot to walk in.’
At night it was so cold that there were instances of weapons failing to fire. One man who spotted a German on patrol, drew a bead on a certain spot and waited fully half an hour for him to pass it. When he did, at a mere twenty yards' range, the Bren misfired and the German escaped.
During this period Div Cav was suddenly the poorer for a much loved, strong, and very picturesque character. On 13 January Trooper Williams5 was killed. He was arriving back at his troop casa after returning the ration containers—rations were always ‘cunning munga’ in his parlance—when a mortar bomb landed nearby. His companion was wounded, but Arnold took the last two or three paces inside and fell down dead, with shrapnel through his head. He was a particularly kind and gentle man inside, and outside, rough and rugged. One of a large and closely-knit family, he and his Air Force brother, who had died in a German hospital in Yugoslavia some four months earlier, had often proved capable of overcoming not only time but also great distance to see each other. Arnold was irregular in dress and, despite all contrary orders over head-dress, retained for use, whenever possible, his old felt hat, which he wore caved in, and with a leather strap woven through some knife-cuts in place of a puggaree. In Italy it was typical of him that he was never satisfied to sleep where others did and was particularly fond of making his bed in the big bread ovens in the walls of the houses. Stories of him—‘Arnold stories’ to Div Cav— page 392 went the rounds of the Division. He once, when banking on having no squadron inspection and realising he was caught, took a smart pace back from the rear rank, extracted the pull- through from his rifle-butt, cleaned the bore, and stepped back into line with nobody in authority any the wiser. On another occasion the inspecting officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Carruth, noticing the bagginess of his pants, stopped and said: ‘No braces, Trooper?’, to be floored by the quasi-friendly reply: ‘No buttons at the back, eh!’ In Tunisia he drove the carrier for the ‘I’ Corporal, ‘Banjo’ Pattison.6 He got steadily more and more annoyed at a stiff steering wheel and wrenched it harder and harder at each bend, until it finally came off in his hands. Whereupon he solemnly handed it up to the crew commander with the remark: ‘Here y'are, Banjo. Drive the bastard yourself!’ But his most famous exploit of all was whilst on a train-guard in the Nile Delta when everybody was at loss for hot water for a brew of tea. Down the main line came roaring the Cairo-Alexandria express, which was met by A.K.B. standing between the rails, his arm held up imperiously. When it screeched to a panting halt he walked round to the driver, handed up one issue cigarette in exchange for a jet of steam from the boiler-pump exhaust into his billy, stood back and waved the train on its way.
Arnold passes out of this story mourned by all of Div Cav, buried in the Romagna in a grave dug under the snow. Even the sky wept that day.
This period in the line was most definitely static winter warfare, both sides being handicapped by snow and the limitations that went with it. Nevertheless the tension did not relax one bit. B Squadron was embarrassed for several nights by a tank which used to come forward to the far stopbank, fire off about ten rounds at the houses and then retire. The battalion sent regular night patrols to the near stopbank, whilst enemy patrols kept everybody in the home team alert. In the casas a roaring fire was kept going whenever possible and it was normal practice to take a hot stone out to the post when going on picket.
The enemy patrols showed a decided tendency towards sending small groups out tank hunting. One such patrol, of two men, carrying a faustpatrone, was ambushed on the night of page 393 the 18th by a D Squadron patrol. One man, identified as coming from 9 Jaeger Company, 15 Panzer Grenadier Regiment, was wounded and taken prisoner, but later died. Two nights afterwards a similar patrol was challenged in the C Squadron area. These two ran off a short way before turning and firing their faustpatrone at the house from which they had been challenged. For this they were fired on by small arms and at least one of them was claimed as wounded, but they both escaped.
Two weapons, the faustpatrone and the ofenrohr, have both appeared in latter chapters. The former name, translated, suggests the punch it carried—a ‘fist cartridge’. It is a recoilless anti-tank grenade launcher, which consists of a steel tube containing a percussion-fired propellent charge. The latter word translates in a more homely manner—‘a stovepipe’. This is a rocket launcher rather like the American bazooka, and is a steel tube which fires a rocket projectile (and, in so doing, sometimes has the playful habit of burning a great hole in its operator's jacket!). Though designed as anti-tank weapons, they were found most useful for such jobs as blowing a hole in a wall, for they were capable of being carried by infantry. One tactical disadvantage though, particularly of the ofenrohr, was that, being an expendable weapon, there was a tendency for infantry in retirement to discard it, and thus, as it was simple to operate, it could be picked up and used against its rightful owners during that most critical of times, the counter-attack.
Pinney seems to have realised this, as his diary comments that he carried one for a while, though he declares: ‘… it was really only for swank’ and ‘the boys were always telling me to “put it somewhere else!”’
Spells in the line were arranged for intervals of about ten days and on 21 January Div Cav found itself relieved by 25 Battalion. Once again it went back to Forli for its turn of rest and general tidying up. This time some of B Squadron found a new sport, which became very popular in later months. Squadron Headquarters had picked up some skis in Faenza, and these were put to good use by the lucky few who could get permission to drive up the Forli–Florence road for a day in the hills.
Colonel Williams produced happy news for the 5th Reinforcements on 2 February. He read to them a special order from the GOC which gave the order of priority of those eligible for replacement; so the 5th were definitely off home within the next week or so. That night they ‘started off on serious training for the hectic nights to come.’ The following day all squadrons page 394 packed up, and on the 4th the battalion was carried back to the little village of Cerreto d'Esi, in the Apennines, near Fabriano. It was greeted here with warmth by the villagers, and that evening was accommodated in billets with such comforts even as electric light, a luxury not seen since leaving San Severino.
Life became very pleasant. The Tongariro draft7 was away on 8 February and the next day some 180 new men marched in, the bulk of the replacements who were to bring the battalion up to strength. The Divisional Cavalry Battalion, like the rest of the Division, settled down to a feast of football and hockey, training, and general freshening up for what was to be the last big assault that would break the German armies in Italy once and for all. The weather was pleasant, even early in February, with frosts at night and mainly warm days, rather like the early spring back at home. Most of the men were eagerly adopted by the Italian families, who took a pride, and even competed, in turning out the smartest soldiers. They could be seen watching the squadron parades to make sure that their own soldiers looked the best. The squadrons held dances which were very successful, and one night the village children even turned on a concert for the soldati. In keeping with these days the Roman Catholics attended the parish church, and it is recorded that they were not slow to demonstrate the advantages of this on an occasion when the Padre held his church parade in the open. During the middle of this, the ‘Doolans’ were all seen strolling smugly past from Mass, each one acting the country gentleman with, on his arm, a pretty signorina in her Sunday best.
Under the command of Brigadier Gentry, 9 Infantry Brigade was in existence by 10 February, the three battalions being Div Cav, 22, and 27 Battalions. From now until the end of March these reorganised battalions set about perfecting their infantry training and forming themselves into a well-knit team. In Divisional Cavalry there were exercises in street fighting, much appreciated by the villagers—until the men's issue of smoke grenades sent them scuttling inside in alarm, and also ‘accidentally’ put an end to the odd fowl. A range was put to constant use for mortars and snipers and all small arms; there were exercises for the signals troop and courses for the NCOs, the ‘I’ Section, the machine-gunners, everybody. So by the middle of March, battalion schemes had been held, and there page 395 was a two-day brigade exercise, followed later by a night advance under a live barrage; and by the end of the month there had been instruction in kapok bridging, tank hunting, and the use of the Vickers gun by night; in defensive wiring and the use of the Bangalore torpedo to cut it. There had been practice in throwing grenades, tank and infantry co-operation, in firing mortars, and in firing a Piat mortar at an old Sherman tank, and there had been a demonstration of flame-throwers and of various types of artillery concentrations. Leave parties had been to Rome and Florence, and some of the luckier ones managed to get to a ski rest-camp at Sarnano. This was especially popular, and those who got there came back after a week vowing that it was the best leave they had ever spent overseas. And at the end of the month the battalion had a 15-mile route march in battle order. The old ‘Cavalry-length’ march was now a thing of the past. Nevertheless the war diary's comment reads:
‘Some very tired escarri [sic] seen crawling about the village at night—like a dog with a broken back.’
The Brigade Commander had called on the battalion during the training periods and signified his satisfaction, and on 10 March there was a parade by the whole brigade for the GOC. After the main parade and inspection there was a presentation of awards, a march past in columns of nines, and an advance in review order. Three Div Cav officers were decorated: Lieutenant-Colonel J. R. Williams with the DSO for gallantry at Cassino, Second-Lieutenant G. W. R. H. Purchase with the MC for gallantry at the Rubicon, and Second-Lieutenant P. J. Kane8 with the MM won for gallantry at Orsogna as a sergeant in 24 Battalion. The afternoon was a free one for the troops, whilst the battalion officers entertained the award winners and the officers, sisters and nurses from 9 Brigade and 1 NZ General Hospital, who had witnessed the parade.
By the end of March the Division had a third infantry brigade fully trained. The Motorised Battalion, the Machine- Gun Battalion, and the Cavalry Regiment had mourned their loss of identity, had regrouped their ranks, rolled up their sleeves, and turned themselves into hard-hitting infantry. They were now trained, confident, and ready to march into line beside the other brigades. The Divisional Cavalry had made some changes in the senior commands. Second-in-command of page 396 the battalion was now Major Tanner9; Major Kerr10 was OG of A Squadron, Major Studholme of B, Major MacIntyre11 of C, and Major Marshall12 of D Squadron. Headquarters Squadron was commanded by Captain Bunny, and the Support Group by Captain McHardy.13 Lieutenant McKay14 had become Adjutant, whilst Captain Gordon15 had replaced Captain Armour16 as Medical Officer.
New Zealanders must have their football and during February and March they got plenty. But there is one other sport they insist on when possible, and that is racing. So 9 Brigade organised some—a Donkey Derby meeting—on 31 March, complete with bars, totalisator and all. Some of the rules—and most of the running—might not have satisfied the Racing Conference, but it was a race meeting and it was fun. It has been summarised in these succinct words:
‘What a sight, what a day, what a lot of tired and drunken askaris to be seen, what about another one!’
Final touches were put to the training after the battalion moved forward. On its arrival in an area a mile north of Forli on 3 April, there were regular route marches for exercise, and practice runs in Kangaroos belonging to 4 Hussars. Kangaroos were Sherman tanks with the turrets removed so that they could carry, even though rather uncomfortably, a section of infantry forward right into the battle line under protection and at speed. As well as trial runs in these, there were practices in assault river crossings, using small boats and footbridges made of kapok, both by day and in the dark.page 397
Field Marshal Alexander's final Italian offensive was designed to start in one tremendous punch and have a follow-through right to the finish. It had to. There was not much of the war left in Europe: that was obvious to everybody. The Allies were well across the Rhine and the Russians were knocking at the eastern gates of Germany. The Italian offensive provided only for a possible pause at the River Po, so this was regarded as the immediate objective for Operation BUCKLAND, as it was named. The Eighth Army (General McCreery) therefore had for its immediate goal the area of Bologna, Ferrara and Argenta, within which 5 Corps, with 8 Indian Division on the right and 2 NZ Division on the left, was assigned an advance along the general line of Lugo, Massa Lombarda, and Medicina, which entailed crossing initially, apart from the many smaller water obstacles, the Senio, the Santerno, and the Sillaro rivers. For the opening of the offensive, 6 Brigade was placed on the left, next to 2 Polish Corps, and 5 Brigade on the right, beside 78 British Division, which was not to advance until later. The 9th Brigade, as divisional reserve, was to cross the Senio behind the assaulting brigades with the object of protecting the left flank, should they outstrip the Poles (who, unlike the New Zealanders, had not yet reached the near stopbank of the Senio), and of capturing the village of Cotignola, south of Lugo. The Divisional Cavalry was detailed to supply close protection for the Engineers (7 and 8 Field Companies) while they bridged the Senio, and, once the bridges had served their purpose, to supply labour next morning to collect and load the assault bridging and boats, which were to go forward for the next job. The Mortar Troop was placed under command of 28 (Maori) Battalion for the first few hours; a section of Wasps under 24 Battalion was to go forward with the Crocodiles for the initial flaming of the stopbank, and other Wasps were under 26 Battalion, the 6 Brigade reserve.17
Considering the D-day, 9 April, this was indeed a spring offensive for it was a day of cloudless sky. The willows and the poplars and the mulberry trees were all clad in their new green cloaks and a pear tree boasted some delicate blossom. The ground, too, was green and, more important, was firm underfoot. By a soldier's standards it was a quiet, peaceful day —or part of it was. But a little before 2 p.m. all this changed.page 398 page 399
The Division's last fight had begun. Heavy and medium bombers were the first to disturb the air, so in terms of sound, the attack started pianissimo with the distant vibration of their motors, and continued in violent crescendo with their bombing of the enemy's rear areas. The full force of sound came an hour later when the guns opened up and this, augmented—if it could be—by the bombs of the close-support aircraft, went on for four hours, eating up the best part of a quarter of a million shells. At 7.20, to the very second, the guns stopped and the flame-throwers rolled forward with the leading infantry close behind. If ever machines could spit burning hate these could. From ramps behind the near bank they squirted great spits of fire at the opposite side, parabolas of orange-red flame below and black greasy smoke above. Five minutes later the infantry, with their boats and their kapok bridges, were across and were mixing it with the enemy where the grass had been torn by the shells or burnt black and still smouldering. The Div Cav Wasps set off back to the battalion.
By now the Engineers were coming forward with their bridging materials, and each troop of A Squadron had joined one team to provide its close cover while two of the D Squadron troops were doing the same for sappers clearing the routes forward. B and C Squadrons both moved up behind 5 and 6 Brigades ready to load the assault bridging to go forward again once the supporting weapons were up. By the morning of the 10th the Division had six bridges built, but it was not done without enemy shells and mortars and mines claiming their toll. In A Squadron alone six men had been wounded, and three in D Squadron.
Until 3 Carpathian Division got across and breasted up to the Canale di Lugo at the left of 6 Brigade there was an open flank. A Squadron was ordered to cover this flank and went forward to dig in near the hamlet of Barbiano. This it did just after midday, losing on the way one man, Trooper Taylor,18 who was mortally wounded by a stray shell. By evening the whole battalion was in that area except for one troop which was still supplying protection for 8 Field Company, NZE. Even the Div Cav, a reserve battalion, was sending back its quota page 400 of prisoners, but not without suffering casualties. Apart from Taylor, it had lost a further twelve men wounded.19
The second phase of the advance, which was the seizing of the crossings over the Santerno, had started about midday. By dark both brigades were up to the river and by the morning of the 11th had gatecrashed the positions there. The whole advance was obviously gaining momentum and, to keep this up, the village of Massa Lombarda had to be seized and consolidated so that the Division could roll forward to the Sillaro River.
The 5th and 6th Brigades were up to this village on the 12th and by now the former, which had done perhaps the heavier fighting, was replaced by 9 Brigade. Tanks from B Squadron of 19 Armoured Regiment were placed under command of Div Cav and Kangaroos of 4 Hussars came forward to lift the battalion. The 22nd Battalion was ordered to come forward on the right and Div Cav on the left, and by 7.30 a.m. on the 13th, A and C Squadrons had boarded the Kangaroos and started forward, level with two companies of the 22nd. They started gathering in prisoners quite soon. By the time A Squadron had gone three miles, it alone had sent back thirty. Then Tiger tanks defending the Fosso Squazzaloca, about a mile and a half short of the Sillaro, forced the men to dismount. Three of the Kangaroos, in their hurry to get clear of this fire, got ditched but they were recovered during the night. Once A and C Squadrons had been halted, B and D Squadrons came forward and dug in. After the small advances of the previous few months a three-mile gain seemed substantial, but it was by no means unhampered and the enemy had responded with heavy shellfire and nebelwerfer ‘stonks’ which cost one man killed and fourteen wounded. But the cost was well evened on the day. Reports had gone back pin-pointing two tanks on C Squadron's immediate front and these were knocked out by the guns of 5 Medium Regiment, RA. A Squadron had also reported tanks on its front and one of these was destroyed and the others driven off by cabrank planes, which were called down. A further ten prisoners were captured by C Squadron.
Better positions were needed as a jumping-off place for the attack on the Sillaro so, after dark, 22 Battalion, under a page 401 barrage, moved forward to the Squazzaloca. Once it was there, A and C Squadrons followed suit in a silent attack.
The main attack went in almost straight away with, in Div Cav, B and D Squadrons passing through to take the lead. They kept well up under the barrage and got forward without encountering serious opposition, so that by 5 a.m. they had reached the river, had crossed it, and were digging in near Sesto Imolese, with C Squadron doing the same thing a few hundred yards short of the near stopbank. But once daylight came, things became considerably more difficult, as only half of either forward squadron was across, and to the right 22 Battalion, which had found its advance more troublesome, had only reached the near bank. There were no bridges yet so there were no tanks across. Enemy defensive fire was coming down and casualties were mounting.
It was not just those across the river who found themselves in trouble at first light. Some of the B Squadron sections on the near side discovered that they were dominated by positions in Sesto Imolese, and it fell to Corporal Rawson20 to neutralise these. In the face of heavy machine-gun and grenade fire he led his section over the river and silenced three or four posts, he himself accounting for five enemy killed.
Counter-attacks started coming in from 8.30 onwards, but though the positions were rather precarious, they were held, as defensive fire tasks could be called down and the tanks also were able to give help from the near stopbank. Throughout the day, both B and D Squadrons had to accept mortar and shell-fire which steadily whittled down their numbers. Snipers, too, were claiming their quota. D Squadron alone lost four killed, three of these to snipers, before tank fire blew up the building from which they were shooting. One man lucky not to collect a sniper's bullet was Sergeant Bremner21 who, despite the chance of this or of a shrapnel wound, made it his job during two counter-attacks to keep ammunition up to his men.
The whole of B Squadron was under continuous fire all day but the two forward troops managed to hold on. Major Studholme tried to get his reserve troop forward at least to the river during the evening, but despite the help of fire from the supporting tanks he had to give up.page 402
This was Div Cav's first real action as genuine infantry and it can be seen that the battalion was grimly determined to honour the lessons it had been taught by the 6 Brigade instructors back at Cesolo. They had captured a bridgehead and, come what may, every man was going to make sure it was held. Hold it they did, though the cost was great: the casualty list for 14 April alone shows 12 killed or died of wounds and 40 wounded, and they were to lose half as many again before the position was held for certain.
During the 15th C Squadron managed to establish a troop over the river too, but in the afternoon it was counter-attacked and, after a vigorous exchange of grenades, was forced back over the river. But, like the rest of the battalion, C Squadron was not going to be pushed around, even if it was on an open flank of the Division. With the help of the tanks the other two troops regained the position. At one stage Major MacIntyre and Second-Lieutenant Corskie22 had urgent need to dive into what they thought was an unoccupied slit trench and, when that immediate necessity was past, they climbed out again in company with two very surprised Germans. These were rather breathless, but nobody can say whether this was merely from their fright!
The 27th Battalion had been ordered by Brigadier Gentry to pass through and advance towards the Gaiana River. This gave Div Cav a spell for a day or so whilst it took over the responsibility of the left flank, and also put it in a position to complete the mopping up of Sesto Imolese which had been taken by 27 Battalion. D Squadron was ordered to do this tidying up as well as to supply close cover for bridge-builders working on the Sillaro. A and B Squadrons were given the flank protection job.
The battle for the Gaiana crossing brought about a carnage of the enemy immediately opposite the Division such as men had only conjured up in their imaginations before the war. It was not surprising. Facing the New Zealanders, command of whom had been transferred, on 14 April, to 13 Corps (which came into the line between 5 Corps and the Polish Corps) was 4 Parachute Division, which had been squeezed on to the New Zealand Division's front by the Poles' advance towards Bologna. These Germans were the fanatical paratroops whom the New Zealanders had met in Greece and Crete, at Cassino and page 403 Florence; who, to a man, seemed willing, indeed anxious, to die; who were still believing to the letter, Hitler's fatalistic words of despair, now a month old, that ‘Those who will remain after the battle are those who are inferior, for the good will have fallen.’ Now, with the Russians over the Oder and the Neisse and the American Ninth Army over the Elbe, both within 50 miles of Berlin, they still stood firm, though their immediate rear at Bologna was threatened by General Clark's advance out of the Apennines. They simply had—it was their wish—to be slaughtered, and facing the sector that was to be allotted to Div Cav was their corps d'élite, such as it was, 12 Sturm Regiment.
In the meantime though, Div Cav was the reserve battalion, and during the 16th and 17th, as the forward move went on, it was given the responsibility of the other flank, the right, behind 22 Battalion. This was done by moving A and C Squadrons across the axis of advance of 27 Battalion. From here they were in a position to come up beside the 27th that night, giving the 22nd a spell.
Information concerning the river—it was really a canal—was needed immediately because the attack was due to go in just as soon as a barrage could be prepared. It was even necessary to establish for certain whether any enemy were still there. Second-Lieutenants Murchison23 and Hodson of A Squadron did this the quick way by calmly marching up on to the stopbank in broad daylight and firing off their Tommy guns. The enemy were there all right! The two officers were lucky they did not stay there for good! Patrols went forward from both A and C Squadrons to find out what the conditions would be for crossing. They found that the banks were about fifty yards apart and that the water could be forded on foot. The A Squadron patrol found that the far bank was not particularly heavily manned, but that there were plenty of automatic weapons there, and this was borne out by the response to a covering fire plan which the rest of the squadron put down to cover the patrol. A wounded paratrooper was also brought back: one of 3 Company, Sturm Regiment. The C Squadron patrol ran into trouble from automatic weapons dug in on the same bank and were driven back over the water after suffering a man wounded, whom they were forced to leave behind. But the squadron commander, Major MacIntyre, was page 404 not accepting that. He immediately organised another patrol, himself in command, which rushed back over the river, silenced the weapons in question, and chopped their crews about properly while the wounded man was being carried back to safety.
That night the Division's last set-piece attack of the war started. The assault was entrusted to 9 Brigade and to 43 Gurkha Brigade, which the Division had under command. The artillery fire plan involved 192 field guns, and that on an estimated 1000 men. They could surely not live through it; not that as well as fire from all the flame-throwers in the Division. Some did: but not all—not by a long way. The enemy had committed the very last of his reserves and this was the occasion to beat them into the ground.
The Divisional Cavalry, on the right, had under command B Squadron of 19 Armoured Regiment, the Kangaroos of half C Squadron, 4 Hussars, and half of A Squadron, 51 Royal Tank Regiment, together with the Wasps from 23 and 28 Battalions.
After dark all infantry in the forward positions pulled back to make room for the barrage to come down on its opening line, the stopbanks. This barrage opened at 9.30 p.m. and went on for half an hour: a rain of screaming metal, a continuous thunder of crashing shells which drowned out the howling of millions of murderous shards: all this on a thousand men who knew they were doomed. And if this were not enough, they were then subjected to half an hour of scorching flame. Any that survived it and still resisted did so only to die by bayonet or bullet.
Two minutes after the barrage had lifted from the start line the flame-throwers were in action, one to every fifty yards, hosing the far bank with their terrible fire; and, on the signal that this was done, the infantry started off. Needless to say, they crossed the Gaiana virtually unopposed and covered the next 3000 yards without stopping. But, as soon as they reached the limit of the barrage area, the enemy was there again fighting back stubbornly.
The advance still continued, steadily and without remorse, though after midnight a ground mist began to develop which, combined with dust and smoke, so reduced visibility that direction could be maintained only by using compasses. Despite the cover this mist now provided for the attackers, the paratroopers fought back fanatically to deny every yard of ground page 406 and, in particular, the crossing of the immediate objective, the Quaderna Canal. But the attackers too, flushed with the success of their advance, were to be denied nothing. When they reached the canal, Trooper Craw24 was one of the first. He went straight across at the head of his section, firing his Bren from the hip, and this laid the pattern of behaviour for the others. In doing it, Craw suffered a bad wound in the thigh, but he led his men on until they had cleared two posts and caused the occupants of others to surrender. By the time this was done, though he was weak from loss of blood, he insisted on remaining forward until the section was dug in. Finally he had to be ordered back.
B and D Squadrons, following on and mopping up, also found the poor visibility an embarrassment almost as unpleasant as the continued fighting spirit of those paratroopers who had been by-passed. Some of these pinned the D Squadron headquarters down completely with Spandau fire but, with visions of getting too far behind the leading troops by the time they reached the final objective, Lance-Sergeant Chaney,25 upon whom the command of a troop had now fallen, immediately rushed head-on at the position in the face of point-blank fire and killed its occupants with his Tommy gun.
By 1.30 a.m. on the 19th A and C Squadrons had both made the far side of the Quaderna and had cleared out this next bridgehead (Sergeant Bremner's MM citation mentions him here as well as at the Sillaro) and were digging in round a group of houses just north of the Medicina–Budrio railway. The tanks were getting up to lend support but had not reached the forward line by daylight, so, when the first counter-attack threatened at 6.45 a.m., this was beaten off by defensive fire called down on it from the guns behind. Throughout the earlier part of the day, most of A Squadron was in a decidedly delicate position. Enemy troops that had been overrun had manned their positions again on the banks of the Quaderna behind them; twice the squadron came close to being shelled by the 25-pounders, while they had also to suffer the enemy's 75-mm. fire. The cabrank planes also gave them several frights, so, until the arrival of B Squadron as reinforcement enabled the position to be held until the tanks did get up, A Squadron's page 407 predicament was not to be envied. Then D Squadron also came through and, together with the tanks, managed to push further forward to deepen the position.
Daylight had revealed a grisly sight from the Gaiana to the Quaderna. Nobody in the Division had yet seen so many ‘mort Teds’ nor the dead so gruesome in their attitudes. Even the prisoners, of whom the battalion had taken forty, gave the same impression. Shuddering and shocked, or sprawled on the ground in exhaustion most of them, their faces looked like living death.
This was not all brought about without casualties within the squadrons. Eleven were killed or died of wounds and forty-seven others wounded before the objective was definitely secured. Nor were the wounded without their troubles: but it was in this battle that Padre Warren proved his great humanity and earned for all time from Div Cav the respect and admiration that fighting men award spontaneously to the brave. The wounded were scattered about over a wide area, all of it subjected to enemy defensive fire. The Padre organised a column of RAP carriers and led them up to the forward lines, where he set about arranging the immediate evacuation of these wounded. Many of them owe their lives to this prompt act of his, and many others that day owed him their sanity, for he was not unmindful of those who escaped injury. In his search he passed from one forward post to another, his great towering body seeming to cry out for a bullet. But he was spared, and this alone put heart into men now tired and battle-weary.
7 The various furlough drafts were given such codenames as Ruapehu, Wakatipu, Tongariro, Taupo.
11 Brig D. MacIntyre, DSO, OBE, ED, m.i.d.; Hastings; born Hastings, 10 Nov 1915; sheep-station manager; MP 1960–; CO Div Cav 7 Aug 1945-28 Jun 1946 (J Force); commanded in turn 1 Bn Hawke's Bay Regt; 1 Armd Car Regt, RNZAC; 2 Inf Bde and 4 Armd Bde in period 1948–60; Associate Member of Army Board, 1960.
17 Crocodiles were tanks, usually Churchills, towing trailers full of semi-jellied inflammable liquid. They could project this up to 100 yards, either ‘wet’ or ignited. Wasps were smaller counterparts on issue at battalion levels, mounting the jet and carrying their fuel on Bren carriers.
19 Until this stage the historian has aimed at mentioning by name all those who were killed or who died of wounds. In the actions from the Santerno River to the Gaiana Canal, the numbers of these became so numerous as to render this impracticable. Their names will therefore appear only in the Roll of Honour.