Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

In Peace & War: A Civilian Soldier's Story

13 — The Slog to the River Po

page break

The Slog to the River Po

It was back into the fray once more with Colin Armstrong the only other original officer left in the battalion. Indeed, there were few originals left throughout the division. Winter had restricted our advance in Italy, as it had elsewhere in Europe, but we were now ready to deliver the final blow. Few would have predicted that in less than six weeks the war would be won. It was a period of close and relentless fighting followed by the final dash to Trieste where, instead of the war ending in a blaze of glory, we were to encounter an ugly and tense confrontation with one of our so-called allies.

The awful feeling of apprehension about the fighting which lay ahead had to be firmly suppressed and, as the days of preparation passed by, anxiety was replaced by an eagerness to get on with the job and get it over.

The attack on the Senio River went in on the night of April page 154 9 with 5th and 6th Brigades up front and, by April 11 they had almost gate-crashed the Santerno River, some five miles ahead. The 9th Brigade was scheduled to make the crossing of the Santerno but 6th Brigade exploited their success and pressed on over the river. The 9th Brigade took over the advance on the left of 6th Brigade and A and C Companies of the 22nd moved forward in ‘Kangaroos’. These were old Sherman tanks with their gun turrets and part of the internals removed to make room for up to eight infantrymen carrying their full equipment. It was a bumpy ride with no room to sit down but in daylight the troops were pleased to have the protection of the armour.

Meanwhile, our aircraft were busy overhead and our artillery kept up a steady bombardment. This was answered by heavy mortar and small arms fire from well positioned German paratroopers. An anti-tank gun and five Tiger tanks were knocked out and our troops made good progress with tanks of the 19th Armoured Regiment doing sterling work. A number of prisoners were taken when our troops debussed and attacked strong points which had resisted stubbornly. The way to the Sillaro River was now open and an attack was planned for after midnight that night. At 2.30 am on April 14 the assault went in under an artillery barrage and, while our men managed to cross both stop banks, the fire beyond the northern bank was so intense they had to pull back.

The Divisional Cavalry and two battalions of 6th Brigade had crossed and held the far bank. We were pinned down by withering fire all that day but soon after dark, in a silent attack, we crossed over and drew level with the other battalions. In the early morning our men pressed on to make contact with the 26th Battalion, taking several prisoners on the way. A flame thrower was called up to dispose of one troublesome Spandau post still holding out near the north bank. In all we had taken 116 prisoners at a cost of two officers killed and 16 other ranks page 155 wounded in the past 24 hours. Enemy dead were lying around in great numbers.

We pressed on as fast as the Kangaroos and tanks could move over ditches and canals. The fighter bombers were called in to flatten a strong point at Villa Fontana and by 4.00 pm on April 17, after advancing four miles, our forward troops were established on the near bank of the Gaiana River. The near stop bank had been firmly held by paratroopers and one of our Kangaroos was upended in a ditch about 30 yards short. The troops leapt out and rushed the bank under heavy fire. The men in the other vehicles followed suit and, under covering fire from the Kangaroos and some of our tanks, they started to dig in furiously. German helmets lined the top of the bank and there was a brisk exchange of hand grenades. One Kangaroo was set on fire by a German bazooka and the exploding ammunition added to the confusion. However, by nightfall we were firmly established on and close to the bank with plenty of support close by.

The next assault, which was to be a decisive battle, was planned for the following night of April 18. The stubborn resistance on the Gaiana River, not a formidable obstacle in itself, had taken the division by surprise. It was a straight sided canal with banks about 20 feet high and water no more than knee deep. Certainly it was a tank obstacle, but nothing compared with the Idice, a sizeable river further on which had well prepared defences. A similar dilemma had faced the General earlier when preparing for the attack on the Senio River, which was strongly held, but not as easy to defend as the Santerno, the next river. The General had persuaded Corps headquarters to give him all the ammunition, artillery and air support he asked for. He had been apprehensive the Germans might have pulled out early on the night of the attack to man the stronger line back on the Santerno. This would have been the prudent thing to do, but Hitler came to our page 156 General's aid by forbidding his army to yield one yard of ground and ordering it to stand and fight. They died in their hundreds under one of the most intense barrages of the war. Now, on the Gaiana front, we were planning an even greater expenditure of ammunition but it could be well justified after the Senio experience.

Intelligence reports indicated there were six Panther tanks in the area and 1,000 paratroops manning the line in front of the division, which had been spearheading the 8th Army advance. They were the remainder of the 4th Parachute Division, the elite of Hitler's youth; young and arrogant, they were perhaps the worst product of the Nazi regime. We had met them before in Crete under vastly different circumstances and now we would give them a taste of what they had given us. We felt no sympathy.

At 2130 hours the guns opened up — and the effect was spectacular. The General had organised sufficient field guns to fire 100 rounds at each paratrooper opposite us — 100,000 rounds in all — and, in addition, there were our own mortars and supporting artillery. Besides giving maximum assistance to his own troops, he had a personal score to settle with the paratroopers, as did those of us who had been in Greece and Crete. While this battle did not loom large in the history books, it was probably the most successful single attack organised by the New Zealand Division during the whole of the Second World War. During the course of the opening barrage the Crocodiles, with their flailing chains, set off mines and the Wasps with their venomous jets of flame were doing their stuff on the south bank.

In my battle plan, I had put A Company on the left, C Company on the right and D Company spread out behind to mop up any bypassed resistance. B Company was held in reserve. Good progress was made, with few casualties and a number of prisoners taken, and by dawn we were three page 157 kilometres beyond the start line. At 9.00 am B and D Companies climbed into Kangaroos and continued the advance until I was ordered to bring them to a halt as we were outstripping the Gurkhas on our left and the Divisional Cavalry on our right. The advance was later continued until a line was formed one kilometre short of the small township of Budrio. Here the 9th Brigade was relieved by the 5th Brigade.

The battlefield next morning revealed the absolute carnage created by our attack. Dead paratroopers lay everywhere in grotesque and ghastly forms — groups of four or five surrounding a shell crater, mangled bodies in weapon pits and dugouts. Soon we had seen enough and were pleased to get away from this depressing place. Only 200 prisoners had come in on the first day and a further 100 on the second; the bulk of the defending paratroopers lay dead on the battlefield.

In 10 days from the initial Senio battle, the New Zealand Division had smashed three German divisions — the old German 98th Division, the 26th Panzer Division and the 4th Parachute Division — and had advanced over 25 miles. Casualties were high and the going had been tough. Without the 5th Gurkha Brigade, which had come under command, it is doubtful if the division could have carried on. However, we had reached an extremely high state of efficiency and, with the bulk of the German fighting troops annihilated, we were the obvious division to lead the chase in the Eighth Army sector. With the last set piece battle of our war out of the way, the General was in his element and the whips were soon cracking. While lots of obstacles lay ahead in terms of rivers and the German ‘Venetian’ Line, it was obvious to all that a final Allied victory lay close ahead.

While divisional headquarters prepared for another set piece attack over the Idice River, the infantry, probing in front, reached the banks and crossed with little opposition. The Reno River was then crossed in similar fashion and a dash for page 158 the formidable Po River saw us reach its banks on April 24. A pontoon bridge was soon erected by our engineers and 5th and 6th Brigades were across on April 25 with little opposition, followed by the rest of the division.