28 (Maori) Battalion
CHAPTER 16 — The Rimini Campaign…
The Rimini Campaign
Along and dusty night drive ended in the wooded Chianti hills four miles north-west of Castellina. Colonel Awatere's first order after the troops had settled in was that every man must write at least one letter home.
The battalion stayed there for ten easy days; each company spent twenty-four hours swimming and sunbathing at a beach three hours' drive away near Follonica; leave to Rome reopened and there was daily leave to Siena. Siena had been liberated by French troops without any damage to its treasures of art and architecture, but it must be admitted that its greatest attraction to the troops was a restaurant opened by 6 South African Armoured Division and courteously made available to New Zealanders on leave. On the 24th the battalion lined a road and cheered a column of dust that enveloped a car containing Britain's Prime Minister, Winston Churchill; the next day Second-Lieutenant Ngapo1 and an advance party left for parts unknown—everything was very ‘hush-hush’ for a surprise concentration was being aimed at.
Around Florence the Fifth Army was now facing the Apennine mountain chain while on the Adriatic coast the right flank of the Eighth Army had edged, sometimes bloodily and sometimes without opposition, up the narrow corridor from the Sangro to within 30 miles of the seaport city of Rimini. Beyond Rimini the mountains swung west past Florence, and from Rimini along those mountains was the German Gothic line guarding the Po valley and the industrial north of Italy.
The plan to break the Gothic line was to give an impression of great activity on the west coast north of Florence while a breakthrough force was concentrated for an all-out offensive on the Adriatic coast. When the enemy reserves had been drawn away from the American Fifth Army, it in turn would breach the mountain barrier, join the Eighth Army in forcing the Po River, and the war in Italy would be over.
The brigade column left in the evening of the 27th and the route, about 120 miles the first night, was through Siena, San page 407 Quirico, Torrita, Castiglione del Lago, around the north of Lake Trasimene, Perugia to Foligno. Colonel Young, fit and well again, looked in for a few moments before preceding the unit to Iesi, its destination for the time being.
A later start that night took the column another hundred miles right through the mountains to the Adriatic coast. No headlights were permitted but the Maoris, with implicit faith in the drivers, got what sleep was possible in swaying lorries screaming in low gear as they climbed the road's hairpin bends.
The Iesi area was something over one hundred miles north of Orsogna of unpleasant memory, 15 miles from the coast and quite near the Esino River. Colonel Young resumed command of the battalion, with Major Awatere as second-in-command and Captain Lambert adjutant. The company commanders were:
HQ Company: Major J. C. Henare
A Company: Major H. M. Mitchell
B Company: Captain E. V. Hayward
C Company: Captain J. S. Baker
D Company: Major H. P. Te Punga
The weather was still hot, dry and dusty, and sleeping out was no hardship. Battalion Headquarters lived on the top floor of a farmhouse; the family, the pigs, fowls and cows shared the ground floor.
The attempt to gatecrash the Gothic line by rushing the last 30 miles to Rimini had started a few days previously. It also served the purpose of masking the concentration of the remainder of the ten divisions, 1200 tanks, and 1000-odd guns that were to drive through to the Po.
Colonel Young told his company commanders that as far as he could gather there would be no more operations for the battalion until after 8 September, when 6 Brigade would force a bridgehead across the Po and 5 Brigade would take part in an acquatic right hook. The 3rd Greek Mountain Brigade was joining the Division for an operation which must not be permitted to falter for lack of manpower. An exchange of officers would probably be made and engineer detachments would give instruction in mine detection to all ranks.
The Polish Corps, which had been on the Adriatic coast for the previous three months, had already completed its programme by clearing the enemy off the south side of the River Metauro. Behind the Poles and unknown to the enemy, 1 Canadian and 5 British Corps were balancing themselves for the breakthrough page 408 but 2 NZ Division was in Army reserve for the time being—the traditional exploitation role had been assigned to it once again as on the Sangro and Cassino fronts. As far as the Maoris were concerned it was a continuation of the rest period and the fruit was just as ripe, the tomatoes just as red, and the corncobs just as toothsome as in Tuscany.
Swimming parties were taken almost daily to the beaches and the local river was quite handy for the others; there was talk of selecting a Rugby team to tour England after the war—say in about a couple of months' time—and games started at platoon level. Everything was just fine, with the exception of one fly in the ointment or rather one mosquito, for the area was malarial and got worse further north. The troops did not all appreciate the importance of anti-malaria precautions—daily use of mepacrine tablets, frequent applications of repellent cream, the nightly use of sleeping-nets—and the Colonel had some hard words for his company commanders; nor did NCOs escape his ire for he promised a court martial to each one brought before him on a charge of neglect of duty. Thereafter anti-malaria precautions became a very important part of the daily routine. Supervision was reinforced by mention in Routine Orders, such as the footnote dated 3 September:
PS: 28 (NZ) Maori Battalion have so far had only four (4) cases of Malaria this season. Will there be a FIFTH? Will it be you?
The Division stayed a week around Iesi while the Eighth Army ground its way, albeit a little slowly, up the corridor between the mountains and the sea. There were still rivers every few miles and fighting of the bloodiest nature at each crossing. The Polish Corps went into reserve with its job well done and 2 NZ Division was told to edge up a little nearer the battle in case the breakthrough happened. Sixth Brigade, as previously mentioned, was earmarked for the pursuit role just as it had been ten months earlier on the Sangro.
The Maoris considered that the Mondolfo-Fano locality, 30-odd miles north, was even better than around Iesi because the blue and sparkling Adriatic was only a quarter of a mile away and the beach was perfect for sunbathing. To the left were the low foothills of the mountains, still enemy-held but disregarded. The enemy could stay there or leave as he pleased; Rimini and the plains beyond were the objectives and the time for worrying about flanks had passed. To the right and not so far over the page 409 horizon lay Greece, where the Maoris had met their first enemy; and not so far to the north the Canadian Corps, with the help of the New Zealand artillery, was pounding the stubborn Germans who had, temporarily, stabilised their line along the Coriano ridge.
But the Eighth Army was beginning to tire. It had had eight thousand casualties since the start of the offensive on 25 August and no replacements; first priority was being given to the Second Front. The only fresh formations left were 4 British Division, 2 NZ Division, and 25 Tank Brigade. The newly-arrived Greek Brigade had been put temporarily under command of the Canadians to get battle experience, but if it got an overdose of experience it would be of no use to the New Zealand Division for it also had no reserves.
The Maoris' syllabus of training included street fighting and route-marching in the mornings, but the A and B football teams were excused all duties and reported to Sergeant Kingi for tactical exercises—Rugby tactics of course. Padre Huata commanded another excused-duties party for the purpose of constructing a stage for a concert to be put on by 18 Armoured Regiment. It proved to be a very enjoyable affair and was attended by Brigadier Burrows and most of 5 Brigade Headquarters staff. A route march by A Company also proved very enjoyable, for one platoon returned with a fowl dangling from the belt of each man. The platoon was quite unperturbed by the horrified looks of Authority and swore that the Italian peasantry had rushed up and presented each man with a fowl and that absolutely no persuasion had been used. The lack of complaints about missing poultry proved that this was not a case of Maori mendacity. Such was the pattern of life behind the lines—everything was fine; Paris had been liberated, the Fifth Army was going well in its thrust through the mountains, and Eighth Army was closing in on Rimini and the gate to the Po valley. The 21st Battalion delivered a blow to Maori morale by defeating the A team by 14 points to 8, but a tabloid sports meeting held on the beach on 13 September, followed by a celebration in honour of the 7th Reinforcements' third anniversary overseas, helped to restore their spirits.
Up in the battle line sterner things were afoot. A plan had been worked out whereby 5 Canadian Armoured Division would capture the Coriano ridge and then, in seven successive phases, 1 Canadian and 4 British Divisions would carry the offensive forward and establish a bridgehead over the Marecchia River. page 410 And then 2 NZ Division, with 6 Brigade leading, would exploit through the bridgehead along the axis of Route 16. The operation would commence on the 13th and 6 Brigade had already moved up to Gradara in readiness for a dash towards Ravenna. The Division had come under command of the Canadian Corps three days previously.
Brigadier Burrows had passed this information to his unit commanders. Colonel Young wrote:
Discussions had previously taken place at Bde Hq at which conference all Unit comds. and comds. of the sp [support] arms were present, on the most effective order of march for the Bn when entry was gained to the plains of Lombardy. It was anticipated by the higher command that we would soon be at the gates of the Po hard on the heels of the en. In the event however of increased resistance by the enemy and the resulting slowing up of the advance this should only put plans back for a month or two.
That was for the commanders to worry about and the Maoris continued to enjoy themselves in their own way. As Colonel Young records:
At night the Maoris would hold song singing gatherings, and limited quantities of vino would help liven matters up a little. It was a treat for a pakeha to listen to their melodious voices. Often I was invited to one or other of these impromptu concerts, a pleasure indeed to me. I was tempted time and again to accede to requests for a solo but I managed to resist all offers.
In passing, it is interesting to note that the enemy High Command had not been aware of the transfer of the New Zealand Division to the Adriatic coast but was now beginning to suspect its presence through two circumstances that had, in fact, nothing to do with the Division—the enemy had been attacked by night, notoriously a New Zealand custom, and the presence of dark-skinned troops in the line had been established. The dark-skinned troops happened to be the Gurkhas of 43 Gurkha Lorried Infantry Brigade, but it was a nice compliment to the Maoris for there is no tougher fighter than the little man with the razor-sharp kukri. The yarn used to go that so keen was the edge of a kukri that a German never knew when his head was severed from his shoulders until he sneezed!
Fifth Brigade edged up a little nearer on the 16th. The Maoris were located in a group of houses about eight miles page 411 north-west of Pesaro. It was close enough to the fight to be able to hear the growling of the guns, New Zealand, Canadian and English, firing in support of the offensive now getting set for the crossing of the Fortunato ridge and the forcing of the many-pronged Marecchia River. The Greek Brigade had fought several sharp actions and 22 Battalion was now with it.
An important alteration to the original plan of securing the Marecchia bridgehead had been made at a conference of the divisional commanders and passed on to the brigadiers and unit commanders. It might be that the Canadians could not break the German defence on the Fortunato ridge and establish the bridgehead. Fifth Brigade would then be used to cross the river, whereupon 6 Brigade Group would pass through and exploit in accordance with the original plan. It was hoped that this alternative would not be necessary.
Brigadier Burrows and his unit commanders went off to high country at Coriano to look over the terrain and possible objectives; 28 Battalion went over to 21 Battalion area to help organise a football ground. The attack on the Fortunato ridge was timed for the morning of the 18th. Meanwhile, the Maoris beat Brigade Headquarters 13-9.
The operations of other formations, particularly large formations, are not much dwelt upon in a unit history, but the attack on the Fortunato ridge is noteworthy for the use of a technical weapon that had been tried out in Italy in the First World War and then forgotten. ‘Artificial moonlight’, as it was called, was the result of beaming searchlights on adjoining hills or low clouds overhead, from which the reflected glow gave sufficient light to assist night movement. In the Western Desert darkness, owing to reflection from the sand, was never absolute, but in Italy a really black night inhibited the free movement of large bodies of troops.
The success of the experiment resulted in artificial moonlight being provided whenever necessary and often several areas were lighted up to provide an element of uncertainty as to the exact locality of a new attack. The surprise and dismay of the enemy is evidenced by the following extracts from captured German documents:
Conversation between Maj-Gen Wentzell [Chief of Staff, Tenth Army] and Lt-Gen Roettiger [Chief of Staff, Army Group C], 1045 hrs 19 Sep.
W: Last night he did the weirdest thing I ever saw. He lit up the battlefield with searchlights.page 412
R: From the sea?
W: No, on the land. He turned on a display like a party day in Nuernberg….
R: They will do that again tonight.
W: I don't know what we are going to do about it. We may detail a few 88-mm guns to deal with them…. Could we send a few aircraft over?
R: I'll see what I can do.
W: It is a great worry to the boys to be lighted up and blinded and not be able to do anything about it.2
The initial moves in the Fortunato attack appeared to be going well and 6 Brigade, deployed for the coming breakthrough, camouflaged itself among the guns around Monticelli, which area had been cleared by 22 Battalion and 3 Greek Brigade with the assistance of some New Zealand tanks. Towards midday a different picture emerged from the mass of situation reports coming in from the forward units and it appeared that the enemy might be able to hold on the Ausa River at the foot of the objective ridge. Fifth Brigade was ordered to stand by ready to reinforce the Canadians. At that moment there were three different plans being considered by General Weir3 to cover the possibilities of the changing situation, but in the end 5 Brigade did not move that day or night. In the morning (19th) the Maoris just scraped home against 21 Battalion B team 10-9; at 2 p.m. they were lined up ready to move into the fight, and at 5 p.m. the move was cancelled until next morning.
They really did move the next morning (20th) about nine miles forward to a location between the Rimini airfield and San Lorenzo in Strada. The Canadians were now fighting for the Fortunato ridge and the bridgehead over the Marecchia was to be established by (a) 5 Brigade, or (b) 1 Canadian Corps. Sixth Brigade would still lead the breakthrough with 5 Brigade in reserve, though 5 Brigade was to be prepared to take over the advance at a moment's notice.
The brigade was now the most forward New Zealand formation, and as shelling at extreme range was possible trenches page 413 were dug. During the day Colonel Young was instructed that 5 Brigade would not move again until the Canadians, still mopping up on the hard-won Fortunato ridge, had established the bridgehead over the Marecchia. A few hours later the signal came:
Move forward to the lying up area south of the Ausa tonight. Details later.
The ‘Details later’ consisted mostly in altering the time to start, but eventually firm instructions to leave in trucks at 7 p.m. were received. It looked as if it would be a dirty night with louring rain clouds, and that is what it was. The route, northwest, only five miles to the lying-up area between the Ausa River and the San Marino railway, was over secondary roads winding and narrow, cratered and obstructed with the debris of war. The rain began to pour down in torrents and the clay roads became first skating rinks then quagmires. The men were still in light summer clothing and bivvies had been left behind. The area was under shellfire and the troops dug themselves in, with the alternatives of standing up in the open in the rain or of standing in the slit trenches and watching the water creep up their legs. One man was killed by a direct hit on a carrier.
Orders for the brigade were now firm but the timing was still subject to alteration. The 21st Battalion group, right, and 28 Battalion Group, left, were to enlarge the Marecchia bridge-head, whereupon, as previously arranged, 6 Brigade would pass through. As for the enemy, he had appreciated that with the loss of Fortunato ridge the only thing to do was to surrender Rimini and fall back behind the same river the Canadians were to cross. So, during that dark night of 20-21 September and after twenty-six days of continuous fighting as bitter as any in the war, the Germans were getting their guns and supplies north of the river which was the boundary between the corridor and the open plains of northern Italy; 3 Greek Mountain Brigade, representing the country that Mussolini had set out to conquer, was getting ready to make a triumphant entry into the Italian seaport city of Rimini; 2 Canadian Infantry Brigade was on the march towards the river it was to force; 5 NZ Brigade was waiting the word to enlarge the Canadian bridgehead; 6 NZ Brigade Group was waiting to exploit through into a country supposed to be a tank playground; and rain was falling in torrents.page 414
The objectives given 5 Brigade were two canalised rivers or, according to the season, creeks which run across the Promised Land of the Romagna. The first, the Scolo Brancona, was about three and a half miles north of the Marecchia, and the second, not to be attempted if the opposition was too severe, was the Rio Fontanaccia another mile further north. But, in any case, the brigade was not to impede the passage of 6 Brigade Group. The 23rd Battalion would remain in reserve.
The jumping-off place was behind a railway line and the route to it was along a track then being put in order by the Canadians over the eastern end of the Fortunato ridge.
The approach march was finally fixed to begin at 3.30 p.m. on the 21st and the method was for the forward companies, A (Major Mitchell) and D (Major Te Punga), to ride on the tanks of A Squadron 18 Armoured Regiment while B Company (Captain Hayward) and C (Captain Baker) marched behind them. Support arms were to use their own transport.
The Maoris were very taken with the novel transport arrangements and made light of the buck-jumping propensities of their chargers—until a sudden break in the rain that the Germans were praying would continue and everybody else was cursing most heartily disclosed their presence to enemy gunners. (The Germans still held high country to the north-west.)
The enemy gunners' aim was much too accurate and the troops ‘detanked’ while their conveyances sought shelter. Colonel Young signalled for smoke to hide his forward companies while they marched down the ridge to the flat country along the riverside. The smoke was supplied, but between the haze and the failing light the companies took different tracks and wireless contact failed between them and Battalion Headquarters. There was some marching and counter-marching before the bridge they were looking for was located, and it was well after dark before the platoons were established in casas between the river and a railway embankment that ran across their front. The 21st Battalion was not far away on their right and the tanks (Captain Passmore) were nosing around for hide-ups.
Colonel Young established his headquarters in Casa Guida near the bridge that had been used by the forward companies, and the reserve companies, who had not lost touch, were in casas along the Sant' Andrea road near by. Lieutenant-Colonel Thodey4 (21 Battalion) also moved into Casa Guida and for page 415 some time both commanders were in the same position of not knowing where their forward companies were. The 21st Battalion re-established wireless contact and Colonel Young went on a reconnaissance to find his missing men. He had no trouble in locating them because they were where they should have been, and final arrangements were made for the move forward which was to begin at first light or as soon afterwards as practicable.
The company commanders were warned that their left flank might be exposed as no word had been received from 4 British Division operating on the left of the Canadian Corps, or from 5 Canadian Armoured Division which was to move out from the British bridgehead. To keep the picture in focus, 4 British Division had cancelled its attack because of the shocking weather and consequently was twelve hours behind the New Zealand timetable.
In addition to the uncertainty on the brigade left flank, neither Colonel Young nor Colonel Thodey had been informed that the portion of 4 Armoured Brigade not in support of the assaulting troops had sought and obtained permission to take over a part of 21 Battalion's front so as to be in at the kill. The ‘tankies’ had an idea that Venice would be a nice place for a rest area.
The 21st Battalion was attacking along the axis of Route 16 and 28 Battalion's axis was, initially, a secondary road from San Martino, across the railway, to Orsoleto about a mile away. The 2nd Battalion of the Somerset Light Infantry should be handy on the left flank, but to take care of any trouble that might ensue through their non-appearance, Colonel Young moved C Company, the 3-inch mortars, and the attached platoon of machine-gunners into a position protecting the possibly open brigade flank.
Before the troops go into what was hoped and what the enemy feared was the breakout into the Po valley, let us take a quick glance at the country which would be fought over in the morning. The foothills sloping sharply north-west left behind an ever-widening plain, pancake flat. It had been and could easily again become a swamp; only stopbanked rivers and innumerable smaller watercourses, ‘Fosso’ and ‘Scolo’, plus a pumping system prevented it. Besides supporting a human beehive, particularly along the coast, the clay soil was a dustbowl in summer and a morass in the rainy autumn—and autumn was very near. It was more than near; it was overdue.page 416
Horticulturally, the area was given over to grape-growing. Those familiar trellises were strung from tree to tree at thirty yards' interval. The vines, still in full leaf and fifteen feet high, were like a series of drop scenes on a stage. Irrigation ditches, never more than a mile apart in any direction, and casas hidden in the greenery made wonderful strongposts for a determined enemy intent on a slow withdrawal behind the Rio Fontanaccia. There were only two main highways which ran along embankments. All other secondary roads were unmetalled, narrow lanes.
And what of the enemy? The German forces on the Fifth Army front had been denuded to a dangerous extent; the Eighth Army front was held by thoroughly worn divisions salvaged from the earlier fighting but reserves were still available.page 417
On our side the Fifth Army, fighting through the Apennines, had also been denuded of formations switched to France; in the Eighth Army the New Zealand Division was the only fresh fighting formation left and there were no reinforcements available. Italy was now only a secondary theatre with the task of keeping as much enemy strength as possible away from the vital French theatre.
On 5 Brigade's front the two unit commanders, Colonels Young and Thodey, were attacking with two companies forward, in the case of the Maori Battalion with D on the right and A left the axis road. The time fixed upon was 6 a.m.
Most of the enemy strength had been disposed along 21 Battalion's road axis. Consequently, the Maoris were not heavily engaged. The enemy's policy seemed to be to hold the top stories of houses, with other posts cunningly sited in drains; 18 Regiment's 2 and 4 Troop tanks shot up the houses while the infantry searched the drains, but the German tactic was, apparently, to hold until the Maoris were ready to close, then fall back behind the sheltering vines to the next ditch. The result was that while 21 Battalion made slow progress against a determined defence, 28 Battalion was not halted until it reached the report line which, on its sector, was the Orsoleto village. The German infantry had withdrawn as the Maoris closed up and occupied houses around a road junction on the eastern side of the village while awaiting the signal to carry on. The six support tanks also arranged themselves defensively for the time being and watched alternatively a gap that had opened between the Maoris and 21 Battalion on the right and the enemy-held area on the left where 28 Infantry Brigade had still not crossed the Marecchia. A good deal of mortar fire was coming in from that direction and casualties began to mount. Colonel Young had ordered a halt until 21 Battalion drew level and this instruction was later confirmed by the Brigadier, who also sent some Staghound armoured cars to support a reconnaissance troop of 18 Regiment tanks protecting the Maoris' open left flank.
No stretchers had been taken into the attack, but the problem of evacuating the wounded was solved by Sergeant Holgerson5 of 18 Regiment, who converted his Honey reconnaissance tank into an ambulance in addition to acting as a wireless link between Battalion Headquarters and the forward platoons. He page 418 personally loaded his patients into his vehicle and, in spite of being ‘stonked’ every time he showed himself, made several trips back to the RAP. He later received an immediate award of the Military Medal.
More trouble was ahead of the Maoris. Two Tiger tanks were reported to be moving along Route 9 towards them. The supporting armour did not like this news for its tanks were no match for the heavier armed and armoured Tigers; another troop was ordered up and took a position in Orsoleto Piccolo (‘Little Orsoleto’, although Orsoleto proper was only a village) about 500 yards to the south.
About two o'clock in the afternoon Tiger-weight shells announced that the warning was a reality, and when his house was selected as a target Major Mitchell withdrew his men towards Orsoleto Piccolo where the cover was better. The forward tank commander (Captain Passmore) called for divebombers to come over and deal with the Tigers, but his request was refused on the ground that they were too close to the infantry. Medium guns were also refused, probably for the same reason; consequently, the 25-pounders and Shermans had to do the best they could. They did it until dusk.
Captain Passmore describes the end of the engagement of which the Maoris were most unwilling witnesses:
Towards dusk the Tigers fired machine gun tracer and fired the haystacks. I then informed the Maori Coy Commanders that as my tanks were illuminated by the flames I would ask them to withdraw. They agreed to this, so I asked the Arty for smoke cover to be fired. This was done and the infantry withdrew under cover of smoke and tank fire. After the infantry had taken up new positions the tanks pulled back also. The Tigers withdrew when the smoke was firing as I believe they feared an attack.
The Maoris and the tanks established an all-round defensive position between the Casa Venturini and Orsoleto Piccolo and waited on events. Casualties for the day were 5 killed and 25 wounded.
In the meantime, 21 Battalion overcame its opposition and was on the line of the Canale dei Molini and 22 Battalion was likewise in Viserba, at the mouth of the canal. The 28th British Brigade widened the bridgehead under heavy artillery fire but was a long way back.page 419
The German Army Commanders were not too happy over the day's events but were extracting what consolation they could, as the following conversation between Major-General Wentzell and Lieutenant-General Roettiger at 7.10 p.m. on 22 September shows:
R: I don't understand what is going on on your left. The enemy penetrated 1½ km SE of Viserba, and then they say it was at La Turchia.
W: That's right, La Turchia. 303 Turkoman Regt was there.
R: But isn't the line at Viserba?
W: It was. A strong enemy patrol with tanks broke through at Viserba. Fighting is now going on 1½ km south of La Turchia…. Herr does not take a very serious view of the situation, as the parachutists had something behind.
R: Then what about the penetration in the Orsoleto area?
W: That isn't much….
R: But they will be coming again tomorrow.
W: Beyond doubt—strong patrolling at least. But that is not 100 per cent certain because his shelling is not yet strong enough to point to a major attack.
R: He won't have finished bringing his artillery up yet….
That is what the enemy thought; and this is what happened. A full-scale artillery barrage was to precede 4 Armoured Brigade and 5 Brigade as far as the Scolo Brancona, where the troops would consolidate and leave the roads clear for 6 Brigade, still waiting for the word to ‘get cracking’ along Route 16. On the New Zealand left 28 British Brigade, now firm on Route 9, was to patrol forward and establish crossings over the Uso River, whereupon the Canadians would take over.
Unit commanders were called to a conference at Brigade Headquarters and did not return until the barrage was almost due to open. Colonel Young has vivid memories of that night:
This conference at Bde HQ lasted till 2300 hrs and Bde HQ at this stage was in Rimini. The conference was called at a late moment (about 1900 hrs) and at this time I was discussing the night's op with my O Gp at Bhq. I expected to be back at 2100 hrs, and I advised my O Gp to await my arrival at Bhq at that hour. On my hurried return my jeep finished up in a large shell hole right in the middle of the road and I am certain it was not there four hours earlier. I borrowed a carrier from an adjoining unit. This also finished up in a large crater and I had difficulty in locating my HQ in the dark.page 420
There was some hurried moving to get the troops well back from the barrage opening line at Orsoleto but all went well. The companies carried on in the same order as previously against negligible opposition, with improved communications and the new amenity of artificial moonlight.
At 3 a.m. the forward companies reported that they thought, but were not sure, that they were on the right Scolo. Both Major Mitchell and Major Te Punga went towards a house to study their maps by torchlight. There was a burst of fire which lighted the windows and when a party went to investigate they found both the officers killed. Major Te Punga was an original member of the battalion. He had been its adjutant in Greece and Crete and had recently returned from New Zealand after being invalided home from the desert. Major Mitchell was also an original member and had returned from furlough with the 11th Reinforcements. Their loss was a sad blow to the battalion.
The companies were thrown into confusion by the loss of both commanders and the uncertainty of their own whereabouts, but Colonel Young hurried forward and restored the position. Lieutenant Harris was placed in temporary command of A Company and Lieutenant R. Smith took command of D Company. It was fortunate that the barrage had ensured an uninterrupted period for reorganisation, for the Scolo Brancona was still a quarter of a mile away and daybreak was near. To have been caught above ground with nothing much on the open flank would have meant losses, for although the Colonel had brought his reserve companies forward facing the dangerous quarter, the proposed patrolling by 28 Brigade had not occurred because of opposition on its vulnerable left flank.
However, about the same time as 28 Battalion completed its advance to the Scolo Brancona, 5 Canadian Armoured Division was deploying with the dual purpose of eliminating the opposition to its advance in the Casale area and crossing the Uso. That river flowed almost due north. The New Zealand advance was directed north-west conforming with the coast, and there was a considerable and growing distance between the Brancona and the Uso the nearer the latter river got to the coast.
At daybreak, therefore, the position was that from left to right 2 NZ Division had taken all its objectives, and in 21 and 22 Battalions' areas had pushed patrols forward of the Scolo Brancona; the Canadians were in the process of conforming and 6 Brigade, ready to do its part, was coming up in two columns, each, with forty vehicles to the mile, twelve miles long.page 421
The column headed by 25 Battalion passed through the Maori area early in the morning (23rd) and by midday the Maoris were resting in the Celle area. Company commands were reorganised with Lieutenant Christy taking command of A Company, and Captain Marsden, whom we left severely wounded in the Western Desert, relinquishing his job as Brigade LO to command D Company.
The troops rested there until the 27th, during which time they got the last of the caked mud off their legs, managed a swim in the Adriatic and washed their clothes; 6 Brigade pushed a determined enemy off his Fontanaccia defence line and then chased him across the Uso. But no further. The Germans were cracking but had not broken. So 5 Brigade was sent in again.
Ravenna was still the objective but on this occasion 28 Battalion was in brigade reserve. The Maoris left in the afternoon and by dusk were spread around Bordonchio, near the mouth of the Uso. The 23rd Battalion, also in the same area, had pounced on all the habitable casas but the Maoris were to take them over later in the night when the attack started. The 23rd Battalion vacated its quarters around four in the morning and the Maoris moved in, but as the rain began to fall again and the houses lacked roofs nothing much in the way of comfort had been gained.
Even if the troops had to use their groundsheets as umbrellas, they were very well placed by comparison with the assaulting battalions, who were working over autumn-ploughed ricefields towards the Fiumicino, a shallow trickle of water between wide stopbanks. When they forced a crossing 6 Brigade would resume its interrupted advance to Ravenna. The Canadians were also closing on the river with the same idea.
Fifth Brigade reached the near bank of the Fiumicino but the continual rain had flooded the gunners out of their pits, washed away the bridges over the Uso behind them, and turned the inches-deep Fiumicino into a forty-foot-wide raging avalanche of water. The German prayer for the coming of the autumn rains had been answered.
The 23rd Battalion was relieved by 22 Battalion and 21 Battalion by the Maoris on the last night of September; it was a clear night and the moon was new; the rain had, for the time being, ceased; the river would be crossed as soon as the water was low enough; then the drive to Ravenna.
The troops passed two days and nights under exultant enemy fire and hoped he would not think about breaching the page 422 stopbanks. Engineering difficulties with secondary roads were recognised as insurmountable and the project, in that area, was abandoned; the Greek Brigade took over; the Maoris, very thankfully indeed, left for Rimini where hot showers and a hot meal awaited their arrival. The battalion's casualties for the month had been 13 killed and 51 wounded.
The rank and file rested while the commanders thought things over. The tank playground of earlier planning had turned out to be a tank nightmare and it was conceded that, under the climatic conditions prevailing and with the enemy able to decide when he would retire to another river line, the breakthrough was just not possible on the Adriatic coast.
Maybe a thrust further west where the ground was a little higher might be the answer. It was decided to try it, to forget Ravenna for the time being and attack north-west towards Bologna. German strategists figured that the likely thing for the British to do was to attack north-west towards Bologna and reserves were deployed accordingly. From the German point of view the Allied plan was an excellent arrangement because, even if it meant two armies feeling towards Bologna, it allowed the Germans to concentrate their forces; from our angle the Eighth Army change of direction might ease the way for the Fifth Army, which was still moving down the mountains but was running very short of assaulting troops.
Eighth Army was in much the same condition—it had sufficient strength for only one more major effort; in the New Zealand Division units of specialists, the Divisional Cavalry, anti-tank gunners and machine-gunners were now being used in an infantry role.
The locality selected for the attempt was in front of Gatteo, with the New Zealand left flank joining 1 Canadian Infantry Division and the Rimini-Cesena railway as the boundary; the New Zealand right would be protected by Cumberland Force, a mixed force of Greek, Canadian, and New Zealand units organised for the purpose.
A favourable feature in that locality was that 5 British Corps operating in the foothills had not been so inconvenienced by the weather; it had already crossed the Fiumicino River and had observation over the new breakthrough sector. There were, in fact, indications that the enemy proposed to pull back on that wing and there was a possibility that a decisive success might pin large forces against the coast.page 423
The advance to the Savio, October 1944
Fifth Brigade would move into the new territory on 10 October and the Maori Battalion would take over from the Cape Breton Highlanders of 11 Canadian Brigade on the right of the line; 23 Battalion would be on the Maoris' left and 21 Battalion in reserve at the Fabbrona crossroads.
The troops debussed at Fabbrona, where 21 Battalion was settling in, and marched up to their billets around the Villagrappa area. Mindful of the information that the enemy might be pulling back, Colonel Young sent two patrols to test the depth of the river and, if possible, to test the enemy strength as far as the villas Rocci and Poggi, about a quarter of a mile on the enemy side. The patrols reported that the river had fallen to a depth of from three to four feet and that both houses were unoccupied.
It was decided to snatch a bridgehead. C Company was directed to cross forthwith and take up a position in a cemetery—tombstones make splendid bullet-proof shields—and then to page 424 enlarge the bridgehead. The enterprise went smoothly and without opposition, but the rear areas received a pasting from heavy guns and the signals platoon had a most hectic time finding and repairing breaks in its lines. Recourse had to be made to wireless, but the unit control set was faulty and the Colonel had finally to take himself to A Company to keep in touch.
This started another war of a different kind for Canadian frequencies were jamming the A Company set and tempers began to rise. The battle for the mastery of the air went on with the Maori language competing with Canadian until the latter gave up with a despairing wail: ‘Can you hear those God dam kahuri guys on your frequency?’
The 23rd Battalion filtered over the Fiumicino in its sector and the engineers worked feverishly getting two bridges across, for 5 Brigade was to protect the Canadian right flank and be prepared to fight if need be. The objective was the Pisciatello River about four miles away, and the advance was to be done in four bounds—the first to Rio Baldona, the second to the Scolo Rigossa, the third to the Scolo Fossalta, and the fourth to the Pisciatello. The brigade front was a mile and a half wide and the start line was the Sant' Angelo-Gatteo road. Colonel Young's plan was to attack with C Company, right, and D left, with a troop of B Squadron 19 Armoured Regiment supporting them along the axis north of Gatteo, north-east of Gambettola, then westerly to Bulgarno, north-west to Ruffio, and finally north to the Pisciatello near Casone. It sounds very complicated, but in effect the troops were to go straight ahead while the tanks followed the roads through the villages named.
The morning passed fairly quietly on the Maori front; on their left 23 Battalion was nosing into Gatteo which was apparently unoccupied, but with the river still unbridged extreme caution was being exercised; the bridges in the rear were coming along, though very slowly on the Maori sector. On the Maoris' right Princess Louise's Dragoon Guards had established themselves on each side of the river; overhead the sun was drying out the muddy roads to a certain extent.
The 23rd Battalion bridge was ready in the early afternoon and bulldozers started repairing the inevitable demolitions at Gatteo, but the Maori bridge, as it was called, took longer as the builders had to take shelter from shelling at frequent intervals. It was still uncompleted the following morning, but the Maori support arms came forward by 23 Battalion's crossing.page 425
About the same time as the first bridge was ready, 28 Battalion had poised itself on the start line, which ran from the north end of Gatteo to a point 500 yards south of Sant' Angelo. A Company was in close support to C Company and B Company was with Battalion Headquarters.
The Canadians had commenced their advance, but 5 Brigade was held back until the following morning and told to get all its support arms across the one available bridge. In the meantime the roads were cleared of mines as far forward as practicable. The enemy took advantage of the delay and gave the assaulting troops a very bad night with gun and mortar fire.
The troops crossed the start line at a quarter to six in the morning (12 October) and reached the first halt line, the Rio Baldona, an hour later without much trouble, with no casualties and with eleven prisoners. One newcomer to the battalion, with more enthusiasm than discretion, shot up the cemetery in passing but was gently reproved by his platoon sergeant: ‘You shoot at live Jerries, Arthur, not dead ones.’
The 23rd Battalion, which owing to the winding of the Baldona had much further to go, was not far behind.
While this movement was in progress the enemy blew sky high the Sant' Angelo bridge over the Rio Baldona but showed no intention of vacating the village itself. There were more strong-points near C Company prepared to defend the Baldona stream and the troops had a bad time from them and from guns and mortars further back. Lance-Corporal G. D. King6 took his section forward to quieten the fire, which had cost nine casualties since the company had halted on the Baldona. He stalked a spandau post and killed most of the occupants, only to find that the position was dominated by another post. King was wounded but able to carry on, and he led his section to a flank and rushed the second post. He stayed with his section for some hours but had finally to give in and be evacuated. In due course the award of an immediate MM was announced.
The 23rd Battalion tried to move to the next objective, the Scolo Rigossa, but was halted by heavy fire, and for some hours both our and the enemy's artillery were in full action, the Germans ‘stonking’ Gatteo and our guns Sant' Angelo and each dealing according to his lights with the Rio Baldona area.page 426
Fifth Brigade started again about 3 p.m. for the Scolo Rigossa, this time with more success, although C Company on the open flank had initial difficulty with a strongpoint. Here another MM was won by Private T. H. Tuhi,7 company medical orderly, who attended the wounded under fire and was himself wounded.
There was no further opposition and the battalion had settled into casas near the Scolo Rigossa by 4 p.m., with the enemy FDLs about 200 yards beyond it. Sant' Angelo was now becoming very much of a preoccupation both with Colonel Young and Brigadier Burrows. The support tanks were roadbound and could not pass that enemy strongpoint to assist the Maoris, while the Canadian unit was similarly embarrassed. No further move was made by 5 Brigade that day; A Company sent a patrol towards Sant' Angelo to test its strength but the reception it was accorded was quite convincing; an engineer who went with the patrol reported that the road was thick with mines.
On receipt of this information Brigade ordered Colonel Young to take the obstruction by assault. A Company, still on the track 500 yards south of and parallel to the Sant' Angelo-Fiumicino road, was ordered to take Sant' Angelo. No. 10 Platoon of B Company under Lieutenant Ransfield would be under command in reserve, three tanks from B Squadron 19 Armoured Regiment would support the attack, and there would be a half-hour artillery concentration preceding it.
The company was deployed and ready to advance when the artillery stopped firing at 3 a.m., but Captain Christy was severely wounded almost immediately. All the platoon commanders had been wounded in the previous engagement and the sergeants commanding platoons waited for Lieutenant Ransfield to assume command of the operation. Because of this unavoidable delay Battalion Headquarters suggested that the attack be stopped until the artillery put down another concentration. Ransfield took the opportunity to study Captain Christy's map and to learn the company dispositions from Sergeant-Major Allen.8
The postponed attack started at 5 a.m. on a front of 150 yards with 10 Platoon, now commanded by Sergeant H. Grant, in reserve. There was fairly heavy but unaimed fire until within 200 yards of the road leading into Sant' Angelo, when small-arms fire was added to the mortar bombs and shells. A farmhouse page 427 was rushed and five prisoners captured. A Company took up a defensive position around the house while a patrol from 10 Platoon made a forward reconnaissance. It reported much enemy movement and light tanks in Sant' Angelo. The company wireless could not raise either the tanks or Battalion Headquarters so a runner was sent to call the armour forward. He returned with the message that the tanks were held up by a demolition and could not come forward. It was an unsatisfactory position for a young subalter to find himself in, and when two bazooka shells ripped through the house he ordered a withdrawal. A runner was sent back with a message asking the tanks to give covering fire.
As soon as the support fire began A Company withdrew carrying its four wounded, then 10 Platoon with the five prisoners followed along a drain by the side of the road. A Company returned to its old position while 10 Platoon stayed as infantry protection to the tanks. The identity of the prisoners disclosed the fact that Sant' Angelo contained elements of I Parachute Division, last encountered at Cassino.
There was little movement during the day beyond tidying up the line; a gap between 23 Battalion and the Maoris was filled with a company of 21 Battalion; 23 Battalion, which owing to the direction of the Rigossa had a longer and tougher job than its right-hand neighbour, made some local moves; 1 Canadian Division was over the Rigossa in places and looking hard at its next objective, the Bulgaria locality.
The Canadians captured Bulgaria that afternoon (14 October) and 28 Battalion was ordered to make another attack on Sant' Angelo and thus gain a wider bridgehead. This time two companies, B and C, with more supporting fire, would make the assault. A tremendous programme of harassing and diversionary fire was also to be provided by 39 Heavy Mortar Battery, the MMGs, and 21 and 23 Battalions.
The order of attack was B Company, right, and C Company, left, and the boundary between them another of the myriad canals that spider-webbed the locality. The attack was to go in at half past nine, but B Company was to wait for five more minutes to allow C Company, some distance away, to get level. On account of the pitch-black night and the considerable enemy shelling, the two companies did not make contact and moved independently but the enemy had already decided that ‘Now is the hour for me to say goodbye’.page 428
The two companies met at the village crossroads without encountering any enemy and then pushed on to their final objectives along the Baldona about half a mile away. At this point the platoons lost contact again and there was some marching and counter-marching along the wrong ditches before they reached their posts. Lieutenant Maika eventually found his company headquarters but had no clear idea about the direction of his own post.
However our very capable ‘I’ man Spider Wikiriwhi came to light with his protractor and compass plus some very heavy nutting and said to me. ‘There's your objective in that direction chief, 325 steps away.’ We arrived on the objective just as a couple of shells from Jerryland burst near the house, a sure sign that Jerry had scrammed. Our bit of fun was still to come. No sooner had Bart Davis got his all round defence established than there was a burst of machine gun fire from the rear, the bullets splattering on the walls outside and some of them coming through the wooden shutters of the windows. Our bren guns promptly replied but the din died down as suddenly as it started up. The corporal came in. ‘Its those C Coy jokers’ he said. ‘I heard them yell in their Ngati-Porou lingo, ‘rush the B's’ so I yelled back ‘Get the hell out of it, B Coy here.’ I said to the corporal, ‘I think C Coy has also had their share of frolicking round the paddocks.’
The enemy had resolved on a fighting withdrawal behind the Pisciatello and the Maori Battalion was not called on to accelerate his departure. The breakthrough plan was still being followed. Fifth Brigade was to go as far as the Pisciatello by the 17th, when 4 Armoured Brigade was to be prepared to exploit through with 6 Brigade following in support. If it was found necessary to alter the plan, 6 Brigade was to relieve 5 Brigade and then carry on. In the event further heavy rain undid the good accomplished by the last few days of fine weather; the advance was slowed down by the conditions and by the enemy's skilful tactics. Sixth Brigade took over, crossed the Pisciatello with a set-piece attack, and the enemy began to back-step to the Savio, four more miles away.page 429
The New Zealand tanks launched their armoured drive but met determined resistance from the enemy rearguards. The terrain—flat farmland criss-crossed with narrow lanes and deep ditches—the state of the going—waterlogged ground that was not tankable—and a profusion of anti-tank weapons slowed down their advance. The enemy was able to keep his line intact along the Savio and to detach sufficient strength to block the Fifth Army almost within sight of Bologna. In Eighth Army 4 Indian Division and the Greek Brigade had been ordered to Greece after the German withdrawal from that country. Two more divisions were out of action from lack of infantry, for men and material were being poured into France.
It was decided to accept the situation and 2 NZ Division was drawn back into Army reserve; 5 Brigade boarded its trucks and temporarily turned its back on the war. The date was 22 October, the first anniversary of the brigade's arrival in Italy.
The Maori Battalion's casualties for October were:
12 Lt T. J. Ngapo; Kennedy Bay, Coromandel; born NZ 19 Oct 1917; labourer; twice wounded.
2From 10 Army reports and conversations.
3Maj-Gen C. E. Weir, CB, CBE, DSO and bar, m.i.d.; Wellington; born NZ 5 Oct 1905; Regular soldier; CO 6 Fd Regt Sep 1939-Dec. 1941; CRA 2 NZ Div Dec 1941-Jun 1944; comd 2 NZ Div 4 Sep-17 Oct 1944; 46 (Brit) Div Nov 1944-Sep 1946; Commandant, Southern Military District, 1948–49; QMG, Army HQ, Nov 1951-Aug 1955; CGS Aug 1955-.
6L-Cpl G. D. King, MM; Taumarunui; born Taringamotu, 19 Mar 1922; millhand; twice wounded.
7Pte T. H. Tuhi, MM; Puha, Te Karaka; born NZ 6 Dec 1912; labourer; twice wounded.
82 Lt K. Allen; Kaitaia; born NZ 23 Sep 1914; labourer.