CHAPTER 21 — Into the Plains
Into the Plains
The 22nd September saw the beginning of a month's hard fighting against a stubborn enemy who carried out a skilful and controlled withdrawal on ground that was completely flat, interlaced in a close pattern of small streams and canalised rivers—with stopbanks rising in places to a height of forty feet and thus presenting almost insurmountable tank obstacles—and plentifully studded with dozens of stone and brick farm buildings, cottages and villages, which the Germans used as strongpoints and snipers' posts, and which often could be cleared only by hand-to-hand fighting.
This country was vastly different from that part of the Italian peninsula over which the Division had fought. When 5 Brigade and the tanks of 4 Armoured Brigade broke out onto the Romagna plain north of the Marecchia, hopes of a swift pursuit to the north with the armour crowding closely on the heels of a fleeing enemy were quickly dispelled.
In the area south of Ravenna, which was the Division's objective in the pursuit phase and which lies about 30 miles north of Rimini, the extent of canalisation is unequalled anywhere in Europe except in Holland, and it was impossible for armour to move more than a mile in any direction without encountering a formidable obstacle. These canals, or more properly, canalised rivers and waterways, were the result of reclamation methods that had been in use in this part of Italy since the twelfth century. They confined the streams between high floodbanks to obtain a rapid flow to the sea when the rivers were in spate and thus prevent flooding of the low-lying marshlands.
The soil and sub-soil of the Romagna plain and in most places in the Po valley is a mixture of a little gravel and much clay, which in dry weather becomes pulverised into a thick choking dust that rises in a dense pall to obscure the vision and impede page 471 movement. In autumn, which begins towards the end of September, the weather changes from the widespread thunder- storms of late summer to brief periods of heavy rain, and as October passes into November conditions become extremely cold and disagreeable. Brief though these October rains are, they account for the highest monthly average rainfall, and despite the spells of warm sunny weather with which they alternate, turn the ground into a semi-glutinous morass in which vehicles settle immovably and infantry flounder to their ankle tops.
Although the New Zealand attack met considerable resistance along the line of the railway north of Celle, which lies just beyond the junction of Routes 9 and 16, the advance continued steadily to the village of Orsoleto.
During 24 and 25 September the enemy fought hard along the line of the Fontanaccia River, but he was forced to withdraw north of the Uso River on the night of the 25th, after having been severely mauled by artillery fire and air bombardment. Next day 6 Brigade crossed the Uso—believed to be the Rubicon of historic fame–and advanced slowly towards the Fiumicino River against only moderate resistance.
On the night of the 27th 5 Brigade took over again and continued the approach towards the Fiumicino, but next day the weather broke and heavy rain fell during the afternoon and night, with the result that on the 29th operations were temporarily suspended because of the almost impossible ground conditions in the forward areas. It was not until 11 October that the infantry crossed the Fiumicino and entered Gatteo, a battered and shell-torn town about a mile beyond the river in the direction of Cesena.
The advance continued next day against moderate resistance, 28 (Maori) Battalion reaching the Scolo Rigossa north-east of the town of Gambettola during the afternoon. But that night the Maoris suffered a setback when they tried to capture the village of Sant' Angelo, which the enemy was holding forward of the Rigossa.
Activity on the 14th was confined to artillery exchanges, but during the night the Maoris again attacked and this time captured Sant' Angelo, a mile and a half to the north of Gatteo, page 472 from which harassing fire had worried the brigade's right for several days. The enemy withdrew from the Rigossa and next day 5 Brigade crossed it, entered Gambettola, and began to push on towards the Pisciatello River. Bulgarno was taken by 21 Battalion on the 16th and Ruffio fell to 23 Battalion next day.
Sixth Brigade relieved 5 Brigade on the night of 17-18 October and attacked across the Pisciatello next night to secure a bridgehead through which 4 Armoured Brigade passed two regiments of tanks during the morning of the 19th. Both 18 and 20 Armoured Regiments sustained tank losses, but wrested three more miles of ground from the enemy before he recovered from his surprise at finding armour instead of infantry heading the assault. Next day the armour swung westwards towards the Savio River and by nightfall was firing on enemy strongpoints on the western side of the river north of Cesena.
Throughout the 21st and 22nd 4 Armoured Brigade was engaged in clearing out enemy remnants still east of the river. On the 23rd—the second anniversary of the Battle of Alamein —the command of the New Zealand sector on the Savio passed to 5 Canadian Armoured Division, and 2 New Zealand Division, except for the Divisional Artillery, which remained under the command of 1 Canadian Corps, moved back to rest areas at Fabriano, Matelica and Castelraimondo, where it was under the command of Eighth Army.
During the initial stages of 5 Brigade's attack on 22 September numerous faults, most of them caused by enemy shelling and mortaring, occurred on 21 and 28 Battalions' lines working back to Headquarters 5 Brigade. Wireless, however, worked smoothly and without interruption.
American signal wires on Route 6, Cassino
Adjusting an exchange relay at Cassino. A. B. Smith is the instrument mechanic
A brew of tea for W. R. Collins, R. S. Dick, N. A. MacDonald, K. G. Winstanley and H. A. G. Hill of L Section at 6 Infantry Brigade headquarters
Paying out cable on the advance at Atina—A. D. Reynolds and J. G. Bond
Main Divisional Headquarters had no direct contact with its artillery headquarters or the Greeks because of the large number of faults in the cable caused by enemy fire and the movement of vehicles in the forward areas. K Section's signal office detachment, therefore, was taxed to the limit switching telephone connections and clearing ‘through’ Fullerphone traffic, which at times reached a much higher level than a brigade signal section is normally expected to handle.
By the end of the first week in October, however, the line plan had assumed a more normal aspect, with one circuit forward to each of the battalions and one to the rear to Main Divisional Headquarters. But this respite was short-lived. On the 10th, when extensive regrouping took place in 1 Canadian Corps— with 2 NZ Division in the centre of the Corps' front, Cumberland Force, comprising Canadian, New Zealand and Greek units on the right, and 1 Canadian Division on the left astride Route 9—5 Brigade's circuits began to multiply rapidly, and by the early morning of the 11th, when the advance against the Fiumicino was resumed, the system had again grown to almost unmanageable proportions.
From 23 September, when 6 Brigade first entered the battle north of the Marecchia and passed through 5 Brigade to continue the advance to the Uso and Fiumicino rivers, L Section's signal problems were much the same as those encountered by K Section, except that it did not have to provide and maintain line circuits to so many attached and supporting units. Throughout the advance line faults occurred frequently, some through damage to cable by enemy fire and the movements of tracked and wheeled vehicles, and many through ‘earths’ where the cable lay on rain-drenched ground, particularly during the stalemate pause in front of the Fiumicino, when cold and disagreeable gales blew in off the Adriatic and rain fell in torrential page 474 downpours. At this stage, however, 6 Brigade, having been relieved on the line of the Fiumicino by 5 Brigade on the 27th, was quartered in houses and buildings to the south and east of the Uso River and thus escaped most of the discomfort.
On 5 October, when 6 Brigade took over from 5 Brigade, L Section sent an advanced detachment forward to the headquarters' new location, about midway between Route 16 and the Uso and six miles north-west of Rimini, and by mid-afternoon had completed all line circuits between the three battalions and the new headquarters' site. By this time the bad weather had abated a little, and for the next few days line communications remained stable with few faults or interruptions. Again, when 6 Brigade relieved 5 Brigade on the 17th for the attack across the Pisciatello, communications worked well, particularly wireless. At no time until the brigade reached the Savio was the headquarters out of touch with its battalions or supporting arms.
At the beginning of the Division's advance north of the Marecchia on 22 September Headquarters 4 Armoured Brigade, with 4 Signal Squadron attached, was located in Rimini, where the men were quartered in buildings. Although the squadron's signal office detachment was kept very busy dealing with a brisk flow of traffic, the line party's tasks were negligible compared with those of K and L Sections, most of the circuits being lateral lines laid and maintained by B (cable) Section from Main Divisional Headquarters.
When Main Headquarters 4 Armoured Brigade moved up to Viserba on the 24th, in the wake of the advance of its armour and 22 (Motor) Battalion along the coastal sector, Rear Headquarters came up to Rimini and set up its signal office in a building there. Main Headquarters moved again on the 27th, this time to a site on the left of Route 16 and about three and a half miles north-west of Viserba. That night most men of the squadron slept in the open, but next day, when a strong gale blew in from the sea and brought with it a twelve-hour spell of heavy rain, even the hardiest of them abandoned all ideas of braving the rigours of an Italian autumn and quickly sought shelter. One of the first results which the rain brought was an outbreak of earth-leakage faults on the line to 5 Brigade, page 475 which at that time was the headquarters' only outlet, apart from wireless, to Main Divisional Headquarters. These faults continued to give considerable trouble until the weather began to clear a few days later.
On the 16th Main Divisional Headquarters moved to the outskirts of Gambettola, which had fallen to 5 Brigade only the previous day. When 18 and 20 Armoured Regiments, with 22 (Motor) Battalion in support, sallied out from 6 Brigade's Pisciatello bridgehead on the morning of the 19th, they had only wireless communication with Main Headquarters 4 Armoured Brigade, but next afternoon, when the armour and 26 Battalion of 6 Brigade reached the Savio, lines were quickly put out to both regiments and to 22 Battalion, as well as to Headquarters 6 Brigade and Divisional Cavalry, and were in working order by early evening.
In the Divisional Artillery, whose guns provided harassing and supporting fire during each successive stage of the New Zealand advance from the Marecchia to the Savio, the provision of communications from Headquarters Divisional Artillery to the headquarters of the field regiments by H Section, and those within the regiments themselves by E, F and G Sections, presented no special problems beyond the usual incidence of faults on line circuits caused by the sodden ground, and damage to cable by enemy fire and the movements of vehicles.
Communications in artillery formations and field regiments conform very closely to a standard layout and therefore vary little, if at all, from day to day. From Headquarters Divisional Artillery lines go out to the regimental headquarters, and usually there are also lateral circuits between the three regiments, although this depends largely on their deployment in relation to the location of Headquarters Divisional Artillery. Similarly at regimental headquarters, lines run out to battery headquarters, or command posts, which in turn are inter-connected by lateral circuits. Then there is the circuit known as the ‘fire control omnibus circuit’, which passes through each command post and returns to the regimental headquarters. The gun position and observation-post lines which run forward from battery command posts are laid and maintained by regimental signallers and are not the responsibility of Divisional Signals.page 476
Wireless communications follow a similar pattern. From Headquarters Divisional Artillery the CRA's control set works forward to terminal sets at the three regimental headquarters, and from there other control sets provide communication to the battery command posts, where the terminal sets are manned by battery signallers and not by Divisional Signals' operators.
When the New Zealand attack opened on 22 September, Main Divisional Headquarters was still several miles south of Rimini, with line communications of considerable complexity working forward to the armoured brigade, the two infantry brigades and their supporting arms. There was a welcome spell of fine weather at this time, and this aided the linemen considerably in the maintenance of circuits, which were surprisingly stable considering the number of units on the move in the forward areas. After the initial stages of the advance had passed on 23 September and until the return of inclement weather brought operations temporarily to a halt south and east of the Fiumicino River, the line plan lost much of its former intricacy and rarely consisted of more than three or four main lines forward. Throughout the advance wireless worked exceptionally well and without any serious interruptions whatever.
During the pause at the Fiumicino River, however, the line layout began to build up again into an intricate array of main-line and lateral circuits, and although the advance was resumed on 11 October, continued on this scale until the 20th, when Main Headquarters reached Ruffio after a succession of moves up the coastal road from Rimini to a little beyond Viserba, then westwards across the Uso and Fiumicino rivers and north-westwards through San Mauro and Gatteo.
From Ruffio to the Division's next destination in the valley of the Esino River, where the towns of Fabriano, Matelica, Camerino and San Severino nestle beneath the mountains, unscathed by the war which had rolled northwards on both sides of them, was a long journey, so the Divisional Headquarters convoy, in which Main and Rear Headquarters travelled together, set off soon after breakfast on 23 October. The journey south was uneventful until the landscape began to change as the long line of vehicles wound its way into steep and page 477 precipitous country. As the convoy climbed higher occasional wisps and tatters of mist and cloud swirled down over the roadway, with now and then a fine drizzle which swept into the backs of lorries. The route led on through upland districts and innumerable small villages perched precariously on the steep hillsides. At the end of the journey the column rolled into the town of Matelica where Divisional Headquarters was to remain for the next four weeks.
A large building about fifty yards from the main square of the town was selected as Signals' headquarters, and the rest of the men settled down in a large disused tannery which had once been used as an Italian barracks. Here, without any fuss or bother, they at once made themselves as comfortable as possible. The locals displayed the usual hospitality of Italian villagers, who are warm-hearted people and generous to a fault within their narrow means. Very soon groups of soldiers were drawing up their chairs at family firesides, sipping appreciatively at the vino bianco or vermouth which Momma had brought forth from the little curtained alcove in the corner, and chatting airily with the grizzled, unshaven, but genial Poppa in the kitchen Italian which was the lingua franca between soldier and peasant. In the background, where the flickering candle- light half hid their presence, the children listened wide-eyed and open-mouthed to the strange accents of these weather- beaten warriors who made themselves at home with such ease. Among the older children were shy and maidenly girls, graceful as daffodils, who flitted about nervously helping their mother dispense hospitality.
Although line and despatch-rider communications were provided between Divisional Headquarters and the outlying brigades—4 Armoured Brigade at Fabriano, 5 Brigade at Camerino and 6 Brigade at Castelraimondo—these duties were not onerous, and plenty of time was available for a thorough overhaul of transport and equipment. There was a generous allotment of leave to Rome and Florence, which allowed most officers of the unit to have at least three days in one or other of these places. Only five other ranks were permitted Florence leave at any one time, and it was not until later in the month that an allocation was obtained for forty to visit a leave camp near page 478 Rome. Some of the out-section commanders, however, were able to arrange for their men to stay at a leave centre at Riccione under arrangements made by the formations and units to which they were attached. So that the remainder of the other ranks might obtain a spell, a personal arrangement was made by Lieutenant-Colonel Grant with the Signals' representative at Allied Military Government headquarters at Aquila for parties, each of twenty men commanded by an officer, to be billeted there for periods of two clear days.
During the month there was a steady influx of newcomers to the unit, including eight from the Reinforcement Transit Camp and Advanced Base, to offset the normal rate of wastage caused by men falling sick or being transferred to out-sections. In the month's fighting during the Division's advance from Rimini to the Savio, Signals had incurred no fatal casualties. A week before the attack from the Marecchia on 22 September, however, 4 Signal Squadron lost one man, Signalman White,1 who was killed in action while attached to 20 Armoured Regiment.
On 17 November the Divisional Artillery left the Fabriano area and came under the command of 5 British Corps. By the early morning of the 18th E, F, G and H Sections had reached Forli and had taken over the communications of 56 (London) Divisional Artillery, which the New Zealand regiments were relieving. The move of the rest of the Division began on the 24th, when Main and Rear Divisional Headquarters and 5 and 6 Brigades left the Matelica, Camerino and Castelraimondo areas for Forli. Fourth Armoured Brigade followed on the 27th.
After a brief spell at San Vittore, the divisional assembly area a few miles south-west of Cesena, Main Headquarters arrived in the vicinity of Forli on the 26th and took up its position a little to the north-west of the town. A forward signals party had gone ahead early that morning to the new headquarters' site and laid out line communications to Headquarters Divisional Artillery, only a few hundred yards away between the railway and Route 9, to 5 Brigade, four miles to the north-east midway between the Montone and Lamone rivers, and to 6 Brigade, near the railway three miles to the north-west. These page 479 preparations were in readiness for the relief of 4 British Division by 2 NZ Division, which was to take place that evening as a result of a regrouping plan in 5 Corps. The relief took place as planned at 7 p.m. and immediately all wireless nets in the Division opened up for a brief period, exchanged netting calls and test calls, and then closed down again. At the time the relief took place heavy rain was falling and conditions were far from pleasant, especially for the linemen, but fortunately there were very few interruptions on any of the line circuits.
During the spell the Division spent in the Matelica-Fabriano rest area the enemy had continued his withdrawal in the hills south of Forli, moving back slowly and easily in the rain which kept aircraft away and held off ground pursuit by 5 Corps. During the October fighting east of the Savio, 5 Corps had been operating on the left of 1 Canadian Corps. By 5 November troops of 4 and 46 British Divisions lay on a line between Grisignano and the Forli airfield. On the night of the 8th-9th the enemy fell back to the Montone River, the next of the many natural anti-tank obstacles which abound in the Po valley. His new defences were called the Gerda Line, which ran from the sea along the line of the Uniti River immediately below Ravenna, joined the Montone River, and continued along its west bank to the point just north of Route 9 where it swung sharply south-east towards Forli. From this point, where the Cosina stream provided an obstacle strengthened by the enemy with minor defences, the Gerda Line continued southwards to Castel-Jacio, eight miles south of Faenza. From the pattern of his defences it was easy to see that the enemy intended to hold fast to Bologna and thus keep Fifth and Eighth Armies separated by the Apennines while he himself made use of the best lateral road communications in Italy.
On the Montone-Cosina line against which Eighth Army opened an offensive on 20 November with air bombardments, the enemy resisted stubbornly, but by the 23rd he was showing signs of weakening. Next day he went back behind the line of the Lamone River, which intersects Route 9 where it passes almost through the eastern outskirts of Faenza.
This was the situation on 27 November when 5 and 6 page 480 Brigades began to probe the Lamone defences from their positions north of Route 9. But the enemy held the far bank in considerable strength, with strongly defended posts, bristling with automatic weapons, at intervals of only a few hundred yards. Rain brought the river up and the ground became saturated.
On the night of 10-11 December 5 Brigade was switched from north of Route 9 to a new position in 46 British Division's bridgehead, a little over a mile from the south-western outskirts of Faenza. At the same time 6 Brigade extended its line southwards and closed up to the line of the river to dominate the west bank with fire and subsequently to link up with 5 Brigade. These moves brought trouble to the linemen of B (cable) Section because, with the switch of 5 Brigade from the right to the extreme left of the divisional sector, where the route lay along narrow tracks and one-way roads, the brigade lines had to be virtually reconstructed. To conserve cable and reduce maintenance, a signal centre was established at Tactical Headquarters 2 NZ Division, which was located at the village of Belvedere, about two and a half miles south of Faenza.
An hour before midnight on the 14th 450 guns opened the barrage for a New Zealand attack directed between Faenza and the little village of Celle, two and a half miles to the west. Throughout the night the attack progressed steadily. At first light the left battalion, the 22nd, had reached its objective, but on the right and in the centre, where the enemy put up stiffer resistance, bitter fighting continued during the day. Early on the 16th there were signs that the enemy was withdrawing from Faenza. By this time one of 6 Brigade's battalions had come through on the right of 5 Brigade, Divisional Cavalry had crossed the blown bridge at the eastern approaches to the town, and a brigade of 10 Indian Division, the 43rd Gurkhas—now under command of 2 NZ Division—went forward to clear Faenza. The final attack was made against moderate opposition, and by early morning on the 17th the town was reported clear of the enemy, whose main forces had withdrawn behind the Senio, although he still held several deep salients east of the river.
For 5 Brigade's attack on the 14th, K Section had no fewer page 481 than eleven main-line circuits in one of the most comprehensive line layouts it had attempted in the Italian campaign. Wireless communications had undergone a similar expansion. On the forward radio-telephony command net controlled from the armoured command vehicle at Brigade Headquarters there were fourteen terminal stations, of which the more important, apart from those at the three battalions, were at 4 and 5 Field Regiments and 18 Armoured Regiment.
In the regrouping which had taken place on the 10th, 6 Brigade had moved south of Route 9 and Brigade Headquarters had been established early in the afternoon a few hundred yards below Route 9 and a little over a mile from the eastern outskirts of Faenza. Before the brigade's move L Section already had a line layout which, for complexity and multiplicity of circuits, had been at least equal to, if not greater than, that provided later by K Section in 5 Brigade for the attack against Celle. During the preparations for 6 Brigade's move to its new positions, however, the system had grown even more intricate; at the new site of Main Headquarters 6 Brigade, which had been represented by an L Section signal centre from early on the 10th until the brigade staff actually arrived in the afternoon, twelve main-line circuits were terminated on the brigade's exchange switchboard. At Rear Headquarters 6 Brigade, in the area north of Route 9 about to be vacated by the brigade, there were seven main-line circuits. Throughout the next few days L Section had a great deal of difficulty in maintaining this unusually large number of circuits, most of the line faults being caused by damage to cable from enemy fire. On the 12th a detachment from B (cable) Section was sent from Main Divisional Headquarters to assist in maintaining the lines.
On the morning of the 14th the section second-in-command and two linemen went forward to 24 Battalion's area, just west of the Marzeno River and two miles below Faenza, and laid a line to 28 Battalion, where a tactical headquarters' signal office for 6 Brigade was established that evening. Two days later this signal office moved over the Lamone in the wake of 5 Brigade's attack towards Celle and set up its exchange near Prince's Cross, an important crossroads a mile and a half south-west of Faenza, with lines forward to 20 Armoured Regiment, 24 and 25 page 482 Battalions, and 43 Gurkha Lorried Infantry Brigade, of which one battalion was at the time under the command of 6 Brigade. Meanwhile, in the rear, the three Main Division lines running forward along Route 9 to Main Headquarters 6 Brigade were being extended towards the Lamone on the eastern approaches to Faenza. Early in the morning of the 17th a line detachment under OC L Section, Captain O'Hara, extended these three lines across the river into the town.
On the morning of the 17th, when Faenza was reported to be clear of the enemy, it was decided that Main Divisional Headquarters should move into the town. There appears to have been no special tactical significance in this move, which was probably intended to secure good billets for the Divisional Headquarters' troops. It created an unusual tactical situation, because when the headquarters opened in Faenza it was some distance—at least a mile—ahead of the two infantry brigades' headquarters on the axis of advance. Indeed, when the Divisional Headquarters' reconnaissance party and the forward signals detachment crossed the Lindell bridge, a few hundred yards upstream from the blown bridge on Route 9 at the eastern entrance to the town, enemy snipers were still active in Faenza.
Main Divisional Headquarters moved in soon after lunch and set up its offices in the centre of the town, which by evening was teeming with tanks and troops. Resistance continued stubbornly along the railway at the northern end of the town, only 800 yards from Main Headquarters, several determined counter-attacks being driven off by Gurkha infantry late in the evening in the area between the railway and the Scolo Cerchia, a canal about 500 yards farther to the north. Eventually the Gurkhas had to withdraw to the line of the railway, leaving patrols on the canal, and by 10.30 p.m. the headquarters of 2/8 and 2/10 Gurkha Battalions were established at each end of a tree-lined avenue at the western end of the town and less than half a mile from the Main Divisional Headquarters. A little later G staff instructed that a line from each of these headquarters should be brought in to Main Headquarters and terminated on the Main Division switchboard. Within half an hour after midnight, however, 2/8 Gurkhas had its own line through to 43 Gurkha Brigade, and one was being laid quickly from 2/10 Gurkhas.page 483
Throughout the rest of that turbulent night a steady rain of shell and mortar fire from the enemy defences between the railway and the Scolo Cerchia, and other German positions to the north-east towards the Lamone, fell on the town. At 5 a.m. on the 18th orders were given that Main Divisional Headquarters would move out of Faenza back across the Lamone, and two hours later it was located just off Route 9 on a side road leading to the metalled road which the Engineers had built along the top of the Lamone's eastern stopbank to the Lindell bridge. On leaving the town with Main Headquarters, Signals had left its Main Divisional signal office detachment behind in the unit's comfortable billets as a signal centre. This detachment was nominally in the charge of the orderly-room sergeant, Sergeant Savage2— a task which he combined with a second duty, suspected of being the more important of the two, of holding fast to the billets until the unit's return.
Throughout that day Main Headquarters fell under enemy shellfire, which severely damaged the lines running forward to the signal centre in Faenza. Extra lines were run across the Lamone into the town, but these also sustained considerable damage from enemy fire and contributed little or no improvement to communications. All control wireless sets were in touch with their terminal sets at brigades and were manned in a continuous listening watch, but the staff was curiously reluctant to use them, whether from fear of infringing security measures, disclosing the headquarters' location, or for some other reason not known.
That day Headquarters 6 Brigade moved into the western end of Faenza, following Headquarters Divisional Artillery which had moved into the town the day before. At the latter headquarters on the 18th an H Section cook, Signalman Scott,3 was killed by an enemy shell.
2 NZ Division Line Diagram 19 December 1944
The line communications plan differed only slightly from that already in use on the 18th after the move of Main Divisional Headquarters from Faenza. In 6 Brigade L Section encountered no special difficulties with line or wireless during the attack. Wireless, particularly, worked very smoothly, and interruptions to line circuits were no more numerous than might have been expected from the desultory to slightly brisk retaliatory fire, except on the left flank of 26 Battalion on the brigade's left, where severe harassing fire was encountered.
Supported by a very heavy artillery bombardment, both brigades reached their objectives against only moderate resistance, the enemy having withdrawn most of his forces across the Senio before the attack commenced.
During the morning of the 20th Main Divisional Headquarters moved back into Faenza and reoccupied the billets it had hurriedly but reluctantly left two days before. By this time the headquarters of 4 Armoured Brigade and 5 Brigade were also established in the town, so Main Division's main-line circuits were satisfyingly short and easy to maintain, which enabled the linemen of B (cable) Section to get a little more rest than they had had since the Division came to the Forli area a month before.
About this time the Intelligence branch of Divisional Headquarters published a translation of a captured enemy document which set out twenty-five reasons for the failure of a German counter-attack in strength against 46 British Division south-west of Faenza on 9 December. Of these reasons, six ascribed the failure to signal communication defects which 2 NZ Divisional Signals—having learned similar lessons in the African campaigns of 1941 and 1942—would have described as crude and elementary. One point, stated brusquely and unequivocally, was that ‘signal nets were quite inadequate and poorly organised’. Another was that adjutants were left without communication with their commanders and could not report or take action, or even get into contact with companies. The page 486 document also said that commanders, in the absence of line communications, did not make use of lateral wireless links. So much for the vaunted efficiency of German signal battalions, which was supposed to match the excellence of captured enemy wireless sets so often ardently admired by New Zealand signal electricians and radio mechanics.
Christmas Day passed in the traditional manner of the British Army; the various commanders made their rounds of the men's messes and spoke to the troops of the year's fortunes of battle and of what lay before them in the New Year. In Signals at Main Divisional Headquarters the usual practice of the officers serving men at their Christmas dinner was varied on this occasion; several officers took over duty shifts in the signal office and wireless stations for two hours to allow the duty men to attend the dinner and eat with their fellows.
That night the enemy continued his harassing fire of the divisional area, and many shells and bombs from marauding aircraft fell in the town. The troops snatched intervals of sleep between the heavy detonations. A 500-kilogram bomb pierced the roof of the building in which Divisional Headquarters was housed, struck obliquely through several floors, and buried itself unexploded in the street. Less than fifty yards from where it struck, several staff caravans, including the one in which General Freyberg was sleeping, stood in the courtyard of the building. Accounts of the circumstances of the discovery of the unexploded bomb in the early hours of Boxing Day vary. One states that a drunk lineman of Royal Signals, making an uncertain but singularly carefree progress along the dark street, stumbled over its tail protruding from the cobbles. In any case, whatever way it was discovered, the General's ADC was awakened soon afterwards by a ring on his telephone and informed by the duty officer of a Royal Artillery regiment that a bomb had fallen in the street nearby. The ADC wasn't very interested and said so in as many words. Why was he awakened in the middle of the night, he asked, merely because a bomb or a shell, or for that matter, several bombs or shells, had fallen in the street? What was so very unusual, he continued, in the odd shell or bomb falling in the town during the night? And so on, and so on. The duty officer, seizing the opportunity page 487 while the ADC paused to draw breath, replied that the bomb had not yet exploded and was only twenty yards from where the ADC was sleeping. This put a different complexion on the matter, but the ADC did not stop to discuss it, having decided that he now had a closer interest in the incident.
A little later, about five in the morning, a warning order received at unit headquarters from G Branch stated—not unexpectedly—that the Divisional Headquarters would move out of Faenza as soon as possible and that the Divisional Headquarters' reconnaissance group was about to set off to find a new headquarters' site east of the town. This move did not take place until the 28th, however, when the headquarters moved back along Route 9 and took up a position about two miles down the road towards Forli, where the troops were billeted in farm- houses and cottages.
In a very short time the men transformed their bare billets into reasonably comfortable quarters, the most important improvement being a number of earthenware stoves manufactured by a gentleman called Becchi, who in his hurried departure had gone away without a large number of them.
These ‘liberated’ stoves fitted the needs of the men very well, but because of some initial difficulties in their installation, several days passed before the windows of billets stopped sprouting ungainly lengths of stovepipe. Fuel was scarce, so it was not long before an improvised oil drip-feed contrivance using Dieseline was introduced. This new-pattern stove generated great heat, but had two serious disadvantages, both caused by imperfect combustion of the diesel oil vapour. The stoves purred softly like a den of contented tigers, but at regular intervals, after a slight hiccough, the purring would stop abruptly. This was the signal for all in the room to take cover. Then, just as suddenly but much more disconcertingly, the ‘ignition’ started up again and the accumulated vapour exploded with a roar. The second defect was that large accumulations of soot gathered in the stovepipes, which had to be cleaned out daily—a filthy and most unpleasant task.
New Year's Day came and went in uncomfortable winter conditions, with snow lying thick on the ground. The linemen of B (cable) Section, if no one else did, acclaimed the snow as page 488 a blessing in disguise. Whereas the mud and sodden ground of a few weeks ago had seriously disrupted line communications, the snow under which the cable was buried, sometimes to a depth of several feet, behaved as an excellent insulator and caused no earthing faults. But when lines had to be lifted and cable recovered, the linemen changed their tune. Sometimes the dense packing of snow under which the lines lay in some places refused to give way to strenuous pulling, and only the vigorous use of picks and shovels would release the cable.
At the beginning of the month all lines were on the ground, and it was decided that some air-line routes should be built as alternative circuits to the brigades and to Rear Divisional Headquarters in Forli. These air-line circuits proved their worth when the thaw set in and the ground cable circuits began to give frequent trouble from earthing faults.
Early in January a new establishment for Divisional Signals, notified by Divisional Headquarters as having become effective from 1 November 1944, brought about a major reorganisation in the unit. Although Nos. 2 and 3 Companies were unaffected, there were important changes in the unit headquarters' organisation, which acquired a new component called the Security Section, and in No. 1 Company, where several sections changed their designations and a new section, N Section, was added to handle the control set at Headquarters New Zealand Engineers for the engineers' wireless communications. B became the new designation letter for the Rear Divisional Headquarters' wireless organisation, formerly known as R Section, and the old B (cable) Section became C Section. In D (operating) Section, henceforth to be known as O Section, the despatch riders were divorced from the operators and signal clerks and became a new component called D Section.
With the formation at Forli on 20 January of 9 Infantry Brigade, which consisted of 22 Battalion, Divisional Cavalry and 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion, a new infantry brigade signal section, J Section—the second of that name—was created. The nucleus of this new section, which consisted of a sergeant and twelve other ranks under the command of Captain Rollet,4 page 489 marched out to join Headquarters 9 Infantry Brigade on the 24th, and was gradually built up in the ensuing weeks to the strength of a complete infantry brigade signal section.
On the 16th Lieutenant-Colonel Grant, who had left New Zealand in 1940 with the First Echelon and who was regarded by all ranks of the unit as a kindly and understanding commander, particularly since his term as Commanding Officer after the departure of the first furlough draft in June 1943, paid a farewell visit to all out-sections before leaving for the United Kingdom, where he was to give a series of lectures at a Royal Signals officer cadet training unit. Most of the old hands and not a few of the more recent reinforcements watched with sincere regret the departure of ‘Old Bob’—or ‘Sea Biscuit’, as he was popularly known among the men because of his curious gait, which resembled that of the well-known racehorse of that name. He marched out from the unit on the 17th and was succeeded in command of Divisional Signals by Major Foubister.
Only a month earlier another senior officer who was widely respected in the unit for his consistently courteous manner in his dealings with all ranks, even the lowliest signalman, and for his calm and manly demeanour under fire, left the unit for Advanced Base on the first stage of his return to New Zealand. This was Major Pryor, another First Echelon officer, who since the Crete campaign in 1941 had temporarily commanded the unit for varying periods during the absence of successive commanding officers through sickness, furlough and other reasons. Many watched him go with keen regret—Geoffrey Pryor, the immaculate, the impeccable, the imperturbable; who was never heard to split an infinitive, confuse his pronouns, leave a participle hanging in the air or in any other way treat his mother tongue with disrespect, or to tell a coarse story or sing a bawdy song; the tidiest of mortals in his personal habits and the most painstakingly conscientious and industrious of officers.
Pryor's careful habits of speech and dress and equable temperament betrayed his English birth. He had come to New page 490 Zealand as a child and had grown up into a passable New Zealander, although no one would describe him as a rugged colonial individualist. If he was not a gentleman, then there was none in the whole Division. As Divisional Signals watched his going, subalterns—and senior officers who had once been subalterns— and sergeants and men remembered pensively how they had joked about him with their cronies and called him ‘Auntie’ and other such names, in which there had been no real malice but only admiration, which they could express only in banter.
February was a mild month, with hardly any rain and consequently little trouble on line circuits from dampness. Nor were there many faults from enemy shelling, so that line communications continued without serious interruption. Early in the month J Section, which had joined 9 Brigade at Forli late in January, moved with Brigade Headquarters to Fabriano and began training. By the end of the month it was working smoothly with almost a full complement of men, equipment and transport.
On 3 March a forward signals party left for Matelica, to which the Division was about to return for a period of rest and training. The whole signal communications layout in the Divis- ion's sector of the Faenza area was handed over complete to Signals of 5 Kresowa Division, 2 Polish Corps, on 6 March, the day 2 NZ Division relinquished command of the sector.
Back in Matelica and Fabriano, the men were quartered in their former billets. They were soon off on visits to Italian family hearths to see Poppa and Momma again and to renew acquaintance with the vino alcove behind the curtain in the corner. The officers sought out their former messroom, but were met by the owner with an exorbitant claim of several thousand lire for damages alleged to have been caused during some frolic- some parties in November.
Throughout the month the weather was very mild. An extensive programme of training in signal office organisation and wireless and line communications was carried out, and all vehicles and technical equipment were thoroughly overhauled.
On 15 March the newly formed 9 Infantry Brigade carried out a two-day exercise to test its training. Its signal section, filled almost completely to establishment by reinforcements and transfers of tradesmen from other sections of Divisional Signals, page 491 fulfilled all that might reasonably be expected, and a good deal more, from an infantry brigade signals section—as a good J Section should.
On the morning of 30 March a forward signals party of twenty-four other ranks under OC O (operating) Section left Matelica for the new Main Headquarters' site north-west of Faenza and a mile and a half east of the Senio River. By 3 p.m. they had established a signal office there, and by the time Main Headquarters arrived at the new location in the early hours of the 31st, had laid out a considerable part of the line-communications system, which by noon included circuits to Headquarters 5 Kresowa Division, 78 British Division and Main Headquarters 5 Corps, to whose command 2 NZ Division passed early next day.
At this time the enemy had seven divisions in the line opposite Eighth Army, and having appreciated that the main Allied effort would be made along the Route 9 axis, had placed some of his best formations there. Against the enemy line Eighth Army was deployed between Lake Comacchio and the Apennines, with 5 Corps on the right, 2 Polish Corps astride Route 9, and 10 and 13 Corps, in that order, on the left towards the Apennine foothills. The New Zealand Division lay on the left of 5 Corps' sector, with 78 British Division immediately to its right. To its left was 3 Carpathian Division of 2 Polish Corps.
In the divisional sector 5 Brigade was forward on the right and 6 Brigade on the left, both engaged in patrol activity. By 11 p.m. on 3 April, three days after the Division's arrival on the Senio, 6 Brigade had gained possession of the eastern floodbank in its sector. In 5 Brigade's sector, however, the New Zealand infantry occupied one slope of the near floodbank and the enemy the other. They exchanged grenades by lobbing them over the crest of the floodbank, and altogether it was a most uncomfortable place and quite unsuitable for observation—or as an official report aptly puts it, it ‘permitted cautious examination of the other bank but denied physical examination of the river’.
Eighth Army's outline plan for buckland—the code-name for the operation to force the enemy's Senio defences and exploit northwards against Bologna and Ferrara—was that 2 Polish page 492 Corps, 2 New Zealand Division and 8 Indian Division should launch simultaneous assaults against the Senio positions, and having forced the river, should attack and cross the Santerno, the next river obstacle. Before the main attack, all troops were to be withdrawn to a safety line east of the river to enable the enemy's river positions and rear areas as far back as the Santerno to be thoroughly softened by air and artillery bombardment. D-day was fixed for 9 April, provided the weather permitted the bombing programme to be carried out, and H-hour, when the infantry was to cross the river, at 7.20 p.m., one hour before darkness fell.
General Freyberg's plan was for the New Zealand Division to attack behind an artillery barrage on a two-brigade front and penetrate beyond the Senio to a depth of 4000 yards. The attack was then to continue in three phases and culminate in an assault crossing of the Santerno.
As D-day drew near, the Division's nudged the enemy out of his remaining positions east of the river and occupied the eastern floodbank along the whole of the divisional front.
During the period between the Division's arrival on the Senio and the opening of the offensive, Signals brought into use a jamming device designed to prevent enemy line-intercept units —whose presence on the front had been suspected for some time and only recently confirmed—from eavesdropping on staff conversations on line circuits in the Division. This was the culmination of a series of experiments and field trials by OC 4 Signal Squadron, Major John Shirley—an inveterate seeker after new and highly unorthodox methods of improving signal communications—and a band of enthusiastic helpers, mainly instrument mechanics of 4 Signal Squadron, of whom Peter Glasson,6 the squadron's technical maintenance officer, was the first to put the idea to a practical test.
At that time—in February, while the Division was in the Faenza-Forli area—Main Headquarters 4 Armoured Brigade was at Faenza and Rear Headquarters in winter quarters at Forli. The speech level on the lines between the two headquarters was poor owing to low line-to-earth resistance between page 493 the field cable and the sodden ground. Glasson complained about this to Staff-Sergeant Barton,7 the squadron's Foreman of Signals, who was at Rear Headquarters, and asked if he could design and build an amplifier for the telephone instruments used on the circuits.
Barton, who was not at all hopeful of the chances of improving the speech-level characteristics of the lines, first turned his attention to the design of a repeating device to be inserted in the line, but this was a failure because of the lack of balance in the circuit. He then designed a simple valve amplifier, of which two of the most essential features were that it had to be automatic in operation and capable of easy use by the brigade staff. This amplifier, constructed by the instrument mechanics of P Troop, switched on automatically when the handset of the telephone F was lifted from its cradle and amplified incoming speech. Outgoing speech was amplified by the operation of a relay controlled by the Pressel switch on the handset; this relay also kept the transmitted speech at a level sufficient to avoid the danger of inductive interference to adjacent circuits.
Soon after the instrument was installed, Glasson, who was at Main Headquarters at Faenza, noticed that he could hear conversations from other circuits in the neighbourhood. Assisted by Sergeant Boyd,8 another NCO of 4 Squadron, he connected a length of field cable to the instrument, laid the cable out on the ground in the general direction of the enemy's front, and earthed its far end. They listened on the telephone and were astonished at the number of conversations on other circuits they could overhear at fair speech level. None of these conversations came from enemy circuits, but Glasson and Boyd had no difficulty in identifying most of them as coming from New Zealand units, mainly infantry. After they had been listening in this way for several days, reception was suddenly blotted out by what Glasson thought sounded like ignition interference from a battery-charging engine somewhere in the area. This immediately suggested to him that, if a similar noise could be injected into the ground along the front, it would effectively counteract any German line-intercept units, some of which were suspected of operating in the Faenza sector.page 494
At this stage Glasson reported his observations to Major Shirley, who immediately took all further experiments into his own hands; later developments culminated in the construction of a high-gain amplifier of good signal stability housed in a spandau ammunition box.
When the first field trials were made—the day before the Division left the Faenza sector for Matelica—Shirley was commanding 4 Signal Squadron. By keeping an ear tuned for snippets of information that might have a special significance for Signals, he had learned from Intelligence sources that the enemy was believed to be using line-telephony intercept sections (Horch- trupps), which consisted of three or four signallers and an interpreter to note down any telephone conversations overheard. One of these sections was captured in February, and information extracted from the prisoners under interrogation indicated that they were still experimenting when captured and had achieved no worthwhile results. This information of enemy signal methods was meagre enough, but was sufficient to send the eager Shirley off on a series of field trials, for which conditions at this time were almost perfect. It was a period of static war, with the opposing forces facing each other across the Senio and only a few hundred yards apart. In the New Zealand sector Barton's telephone-amplifier was now in use on several circuits, especially those between widely separated headquarters, and of course generated much stronger earth currents on earth- return circuits than ordinary field telephones would have done.
After securing permission from Main Divisional Headquarters and Headquarters 5 Brigade, Shirley took the intercept-amplifier to a 28 Battalion post near the eastern floodbank of the Senio and installed it with its ‘pick-up’ wires or ‘antennae’ extending over ground known to be traversed often by enemy patrols. The method of installation and operation was simple: the long pick-up wires were merely run out in the direction of enemy positions, their far ends earthed with ordinary earth- pins, and the other ends connected to the detector, which, with its amplifier, used four thermionic valves. There were no dials to manipulate and only one knob, the volume control.
Shirley and his men kept watch all night, but were unable to identify any of the speech they heard as unmistakably German. page 495 New Zealand and Polish speech was received at loud-speaker strength throughout the watch, especially after spells of sporadic enemy shellfire, and Shirley was dismayed at the lack of security disclosed in the conversations he overheard. He estimated that five listening posts equipped with apparatus similar to his and sited intelligently along the front of the New Zealand sector would discover that the area was about to be taken over by Poles and that the New Zealanders were being withdrawn. He also estimated that the detector-amplifier had an approximate range of 300 yards, that is, from the earthed ends of the pick-up wires to the line circuit on which he was eavesdropping.
The results of an analysis of Shirley's report of his trials were, firstly, that the G staff at Main Divisional Headquarters was considerably agitated at the lack of security disclosed in telephone conversations and, secondly, that Signals, with the permission of Main Divisional Headquarters and the Chief Signal Officer Eighth Army, began work on a plan suggested by Shirley —and Glasson's early observations of ignition interference—that several oscillators coupled to valve amplifiers should be constructed and used to superimpose a jamming ‘tone’ over the whole of the New Zealand sector, thus preventing the enemy's intercept sections from picking up induced earth currents and listening to conversations.
When the Division reached its new Senio positions at the end of March, Shirley and one of his instrument mechanics, Corporal Sutherland,9 who was primarily responsible for the design and construction of the oscillators under Shirley's direction, went forward into 5 and 6 Brigades' sectors and installed eight oscillators close up to the eastern floodbank at intervals of about 800 yards. The earthed ends of the radiator wires, which were between 100 and 200 yards long and fanned out from the oscillator in a V pattern, were grounded on the floodbank itself. Three of the instruments were installed in this way across the front of 5 Brigade's sector, and five across 6 Brigade's. The task took twelve hours to complete.
The first results were surprisingly good. The jamming tones did not interfere unduly with speech on New Zealand circuits; page 496 this was not their purpose, which was to smother the earth currents by which the enemy interceptors listened to telephone conversations. A British intercept unit on the right of the New Zealand sector had a cable thrown across the river to the enemy side by a Piat bomb with an earth-pin attached, and reported that signals picked up on its line-intercept receiver had been completely blotted out by a loud howling sound from the New Zealand oscillators. Later this intercept unit moved farther over to the right into 78 Division's sector, no doubt so that its members could carry on with their work in peace. Probably they carried news of the New Zealand invention with them, for presently the Technical Maintenance Officer of 78 Divisional Signals arrived hotfoot to seek details of the oscillators so that he could construct some for use on his division's sector.
On 6 April a prisoner taken at an enemy forward observation post opposite 21 Battalion's sector confirmed that the Germans were using line-intercept units, of which one, to his certain knowledge, had arrived on the Senio opposite the New Zealanders on the 2nd. This unit, which consisted of two corporals and two men, of whom the latter spoke good English, began its work on the night of 3-4 April and immediately obtained some results. The prisoner had heard one of the men tell a German officer that a new ‘subscriber’ had come on the line and that he had heard the words ‘whisky and beer issue’ used. Fifth Brigade, which was the closest Allied position to the point where the intercept set was reported to be installed, stoutly denied that it had been guilty of this security indiscretion and brought proof to show that it had had no whisky for a month!
Throughout the preparations for the opening of the New Zealand attack in the buckland offensive, the oscillators installed across the sectors of 5 and 6 Brigades continued to be used to prevent the enemy from eavesdropping. When the Division crossed the Senio on 9 April they were withdrawn and packed away; they were not used again because their employment while the Division fought in a mobile role was impracticable.