19 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 22 — Back to the Adriatic Coast
Back to the Adriatic Coast
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start.
Before the New Zealand Division pulled out from the Florence sector to cross Italy for the second time and take part in the Adriatic offensive, a stirring tribute was paid to its past performances by Mr Churchill. While lunching at Divisional Headquarters on 24 August he toasted the Division and its distinguished commander in these words:
I cannot leave without raising my glass to you, my dear Bernard and the gallant New Zealand Division, whose name is honoured and cherished among the United Nations. Its career and record is one that will live not only in the history of New Zealand but in the history of the British Empire as an example to the youth of the Empire—an example of duty, valour and honour. For four and a half years you have been in the forefront of the battle. I myself have visited you four times in theatres of war—in England in 1940, in the desert at Alamein, at Tripoli and now in Italy. Everything is going well and I hope it will not be long before you can rest on your laurels and return to your beautiful country. I wish you all the very best of luck. I drink to the New Zealand Division.
The Division’s new assignment held great promise, especially for the armour, who hoped that the plains north of the Apennines would prove more favourable terrain in which to operate. A quick breakthrough to the frontier was predicted once the Gothic Line had been turned at its Adriatic flank.
August had been almost tropically hot, and a further full month of dry weather was to be expected. On this factor above all others depended the success of the plan, which was to drive ruthlessly northwards along the coastal sector. The flat going, so seldom met until then, was not necessarily good going, however, for the whole of the Romagna area page 443 and the vast Lombardy Plains themselves were intensively cultivated. The roads were mostly raised above the level of the surrounding land; rivers, canals and irrigation systems intersected all routes, so that every hundred yards or so a bridge, culvert, or conduit carried the roadway. To an enemy depending on demolitions as part of his plan for defence and delaying actions, each one of these crossings was a potential barrier, one which could be turned to advantage with a minimum of work.
Off the roads the cultivated ground was typical of Italy’s long occupied and heavily tilled land. The soil was finely worked, easily pulverised to a fine dust in dry weather, and was quickly converted into thick, clinging mud in wet weather. Though flat, the fields afforded plenty of cover, for vineyards, olive groves and tall grain crops obscured the view, while the embanked pathways and irrigation ditches gave good protection for infantry. Close settlement added further difficulties to the operations of an advancing army.
This, then, was the type of country across which the Division would be called to fight during the final phase of its Italian service The new front, in fact, had little to commend it from the point of view of the attacking army, and certainly did not deserve the almost jubilant predictions for a fast advance which had been so general. Nor did the weather behave as was usual; the elements and the ground were to combine against us in the operations which were to follow.
The speedy and successful move over the Apennines was an excellent example of the careful movement control and skilful convoy work for which the Division was now well known. The road on which most of the units travelled was not sealed and, before the bulk of the vehicles had made the journey, was deep in fine dust. It was not unlike one of the hot, dusty, desert moves of the earlier years of the war. The dry weather lasted for the whole of the transfer, and though most men found the trip slow and tiring, there were few who failed to remark on the magnificent mountain scenery, with its spectacular vistas from the high passes through which the winding route ran.page 444
The tanks moved on tracks for the first 60 miles to Foligia, where transporters were waiting. Almost every one had trouble on the way, for the hard roads and hot weather played havoc with the rubber treads. Roadside replacements of bogies were carried out by the unit fitters, who had a busy time getting halted vehicles mobile again. Each tank carried a spare bogie, but some had to have more than one replacement. The trip was completed in groups rather than in convoy. The route, however, was well marked by the provosts, and there was no difficulty about keeping direction. As the transporters were not due to load until the 28th, there was no hurry, and all crews spent a night camped in clusters of two or three tanks at convenient pulling-out places on the roadside.
By Sunday evening most of the tanks had arrived at Foligia, and the crews were entertained by an excellent concert given by the band of the Grenadier Guards. Loading was completed on Monday, and at 3.45 a.m. the following day the last 90 miles of the journey began.
The destination, Iesi, was something of a let down; it did not compare at all favourably with the pleasant staging area the regiment had left outside Florence, but the town, though dingy and uninspiring, was soon found to offer some compensations. It was in the centre of a lush agricultural area, and fruit, vegetables and farm produce could be obtained easily. In fact, shortly after arrival, an enterprising nocturnal foraging party brought back enough pork and poultry to provide a sumptuous dinner for the whole of C Squadron, with enough left over for a very pleasant cold luncheon next day. Draught Spumante, a welcome change from the ubiquitous vermouth, was also in good supply, and with so much good food and pleasant drink available the other shortcomings of the location were soon forgotten.
Furthermore, though the Iesi area was hot and dusty, the sea was close enough to permit regular trips to the superb sandy beaches of the Adriatic coast.
In the 19th, as in all the armoured regiments, a full programme of heavy maintenance work was in progress, for the Shermans had all had long and gruelling service. As soon page 445 as the tanks arrived in the Iesi area the major overhauls were tackled, and technical personnel and crews were kept fully employed. The usual out-of-the-line training also began, but not all the hours were spent working; time was made for several successful and enjoyable sporting and social functions. The most notable of these was the regimental race meeting organised by the indefatigable John Milliken, regimental signals officer. The evening before the fixture a Calcutta sweep was held, and the bidding for horses was most spirited. The runners had all been appropriately named, and the card contained some ingenious and witty entries, unit adventures and notabilities of course figuring very prominently. A sample: ‘Armcav by Robbie out of Florence.’
The meeting was held on 2 September after a formal parade and inspection of the unit by the Brigade Commander, Brigadier Inglis. When he had completed one of his typical inspections, where even the smallest detail of dress or equipment not up to standard had been brought into the open, the Brigadier commented on the smart turnout and spoke optimistically of the projected operations. The sky above was full of aircraft (ours) at the time, and unfortunately his speech was heard only by those in front. The Brigadier then stayed for the early part of the race meeting, which was favoured by fine weather and held appropriately on a Saturday afternoon. The ‘tote’ handled over £1000.
This was the last visit Brigadier Inglis was to pay to the regiment, where, as in the rest of his command, he was regarded with respect and affection by all ranks. Under his firm hand and keen eye many men had had their first taste of serious training for war, and in operations extending from 1941 to the present time he had led his brigade—and on occasion the Division—in outstanding successes. With the exception of the GOC himself, Brigadier Inglis was perhaps the most colourful—and certainly one of the best known—of the Division’s senior commanders. His second-in-command, Colonel Pleasants, an old 19 Battalion officer, page 446 succeeded him on 7 September as commander of 4 Armoured Brigade.
September was the month planned for the major moves against the Gothic Line. Though the Allied armies in Italy had lost seven divisions to other theatres during the previous two months, adjustments to dispositions had been swiftly carried out, and the forces were already assembled for the attack on the Adriatic flank of the Gothic Line. The first objective was Coriano, where a series of heavily defended spurs ran out to the coast and formed the first natural barrier to the flats which finally opened out north of Rimini, where the sharp end of the vast, wedge-shaped Lombardy Plains began. It was hoped that an attack against this end of the line would draw the German strength down from the west and so give Fifth Army a clearer field in its difficult advance over mountainous country towards Bologna.
The German Army in Italy had recently received reinforcements; now eight new divisions faced the Allies, and the official view held at Allied Headquarters was less hopeful of sudden success in the autumn offensive than were the radio strategists. Events would show, however, that had the attack on the coastal sector been favoured by reasonable weather the splendid gains made during September and October would have been even more considerable, and the armour would have played a full part—a part which the early operations showed would have been both spectacular and successful.
Early in September the New Zealand Division had begun to move formations and units into forward areas before taking over an operational role, but the possible selection of a representative Rugby team to tour the United Kingdom was a topic of much more importance to the average Kiwi than was the move towards the battle zone. Many units had already begun their competition games, and now additional training was undertaken in earnest. A series of selection matches was forecast and the former All Black, Brigadier Burrows, was nominated as divisional selector. On Sunday the 3rd a terrific downpour of rain turned the hard dusty fields round Iesi into something more like New Zealand page 447 paddocks, and after church parade that morning 19 Regiment’s team, under the keen and experienced eye of Captain Charlie Saxton, had its first try-out. The newly erected goalposts were destined to come down the following day for, less than twenty-four hours later, a movement order arrived with details of a new concentration area near Fano.
Fano was right on the seashore and, despite steady rain on the day of arrival and the following day (the 7th and 8th), there were few men who neglected the opportunity to have a swim. The place had not long before been in enemy hands, and a startling reminder of German tactics was given when the LAD breakdown wagon was blown up while travelling down the road through the concentration area. Fortunately there were no casualties, though the driver and the spare driver were badly shaken and the lorry severely damaged. A thorough search revealed three more demolition charges set in likely positions in the area. These were neutralised, and the engineers were called on for a demonstration of enemy mines and booby-trap methods and how to locate and deal with them. The whole of the unit attended.
On 10 September 2 NZ Division, commanded temporarily by Brigadier Weir (the GOC having been injured in an aircraft accident), came under the command of 1 Canadian Corps, and preparations were made for the main Eighth Army offensive to begin on the 12th with an attack on the Coriano ridge. For this offensive 1 Canadian Corps was to be on the right and 5 British Corps on the left. When the battle began many New Zealand commanders were in the forward areas as observers, and the New Zealand Artillery was used in support of the Canadians. Meanwhile the rest of the Division kept up its football practice, and many men spent the fine days which followed relaxing in the sun and bathing on the Adriatic beaches—in peacetime among the most popular European summer resorts.
The operations in the Coriano area began well, for the first attack got onto the ridge, and over 1000 prisoners were taken. The second phase involved exploiting over the Marano River, and on the 13th 22 (Motor) Battalion joined 3 Greek Brigade advancing towards Riccione and, page 448 with 20 Armoured Regiment, supported this formation in an attack on Monaldini. By first light on the 14th the Greeks were on the banks of the Marano and the New Zealand Division was preparing to take on a breakthrough role to continue the advance to Rimini. San Fortunato Ridge, which thrust out to the coast in front of that city, held the enemy’s main defences and was the key to the right flank of the line.
Rimini airfield, one mile long and some 1200 yards wide, was sited on the flats close to the shore. It was bounded on the seaward side by Route 16, which ran parallel with and about half a mile from the coast. The area around the airfield was intersected by irrigation canals, and its southern and eastern boundaries were fringed by houses and the usual large buildings found on a commercial airfield. In these buildings and among the cultivated areas to the north the enemy had his anti-tank weapons well sited and well camouflaged, with excellent fields of fire covering all possible approaches.
A Squadron of 18 Regiment had already done some good work in locating and knocking out a particularly troublesome Panther turret at the northern end of the airfield and in dealing with several other strongpoints in the buildings. When C Squadron took over from it, however, the area was still ‘hot’. No. 1 Company of 22 (Motor) Battalion, already in the area in a tank-protection role, gave excellent support and assistance to C Squadron during the changeover, which was carried out when visibility was very poor.
The troop commanders, after a reconnaissance on foot, got their tanks up to the Greeks’ forward positions and immediately took on the task of covering the area with an effective fire plan and reducing enemy posts causing trouble to the infantry. Dispositions were: 2 Greek Battalion on the right, with No. 9 Troop in support of 4 Company and 10 Troop in support of 1 Company; 3 Greek Battalion on the left, with No. 11 Troop in support. That morning the Greek Brigade had extended its front to the right by taking page 450 over from the Royal Canadian Dragoons on the coastal sector.
During the afternoon the Greeks began to advance once more and, with the tanks in support, had by nightfall established a line some 3000 yards ahead of the airfield. During this advance No. 9 Troop (Second-Lieutenant Graham Brown) did valuable work in dislodging some machine-gun and sniper posts in the hospital buildings lining the coast road about 800 yards to the north of the right flank. This area was to prove troublesome the following day when, after the enemy positions had been heavily engaged by our artillery, 3 Greek Battalion attacked Santa Maria. This attack took place at 4 p.m., and half an hour later 2 Greek Battalion swung its right flank northwards and, after fighting down strong opposition, gained the main building of Ospedalletto Camasco by 8 p.m. No. 9 Troop and No. 10 Troop (Lieutenant Peter Brown) were in support of these moves, which brought the Greek Brigade within one mile of the centre of Rimini city. The route was well covered by anti-tank guns, but despite this the two troops had tanks up with the forward infantry before dark.
Excitement was intense, for the day had gone well; 5 Brigade had now come up and was occupying the area between the Marano River and Rimini airfield, and the stage was set for the capture of Rimini itself. The Greeks especially were tense—and voluble—over the prospect of this important gain, while the units of 4 NZ Armoured Brigade with them (1 Company 22 Battalion and C Squadron 19 Regiment), if somewhat less expressive, viewed the possibility with satisfaction. The weather up to now had been fine, though at times overcast, but during the night heavy rain began to fall. To offset this came the news that the Canadians had taken San Fortunato Ridge, the feature on which the enemy had concentrated his main defences. The way forward was now clear.
The historic old city, badly damaged and apparently deserted, looked bleak and desolate, and as the two officers hurried back they saw the first civilian—a small boy. At first he was thoroughly scared, but he set up a yell of delight when he realised that these were ‘liberators’, and his cry brought out from the ruins some half dozen bedraggled Italians, who confirmed that the Germans had left and capered for joy at their deliverance. As it was now light and there was danger of sniping, they were quickly sent back underground.
While No. 11 Troop was moving up Lieutenant Cross took Second-Lieutenant Avery3 and Sergeant Kenny4 of 8 Platoon 22 Battalion forward along the same route as far as the Ausa, and it was arranged that the infantry would push on to the square (Piazza Cavour) by the shortest route, and that the tanks would join them there after fording the river and coming in on the Strada Circonvallazione, on the western side of the city. No. 8 Platoon, accordingly, at once made for the square and arrived there at 6.30 a.m.
The tank crews, eager to get quickly into the town, were faced with a tricky river crossing. Fortunately not much water was flowing, though the banks and bottom were very soft. The troop commander’s tank, with driver only aboard, made the first attempt, charging down into the riverbed at full speed. With some difficulty it safely negotiated the opposite bank and stood by. The next tank, trying the same page 453 method, bogged down in the river but was speedily hauled out by the first. The last tank was then winched over, and the troop, turning left, followed the Mercatino-Marecchia tramway and made its best speed into the Piazza Cavour, where the infantry was already established. On arrival the three tanks drove up the steps of the Palazzo dell’ Avengo, next to the Town Hall, and parked under the portico.
Meanwhile, at first light, 3 Greek Brigade began its general advance on the city, with 2 Battalion on the right, 3 Battalion in the centre, and 1 Battalion on the left. The first Greek infantry arrived in the city square some fifteen minutes after the tanks, and at 7.30 a.m. the mayor of Rimini informed Captain Apostalakis—the senior officer on the spot—that he was ready to hand over the town to the Allies. Rimini, the key to the Adriatic sector, was in our hands. The Gothic Line had been turned.
The Greeks were jubilant and signalled their success by hoisting flags at various points in the city. Our troops were naturally more wary. Lieutenant Cross writes:
The first ceremony I witnessed was a brief one in front of the Arch of Augustus, when the Greeks mounted a guard with fixed bayonets and presented arms while their flag was being hoisted on, I think, one of the arms of the railway barrier—we at the time were in the process of getting our last tank over the stream.
The only civilians I saw in the main square were an Italian and his wife and daughters who appeared before the Greeks reached the square. They had resided in London about thirty years before, the woman spoke good English and told us they were delighted to see us and had waited for a long time to see British troops. They had had a tough time. I told them to get under cover as although we had not then contacted Jerry I expected we would do so at any minute.
When the Greeks appeared in the square, which they did while I was forward making a recce, they hoisted their flag on the tallest building. When I got back and saw the flag I told one of my chaps, Miller5 by name, to see the flag was taken down as we did not want to advertise our presence. I then went forward again to the Marrechio.
Miller by means of signs and a smattering of Italian indicated to the Greeks that the flag was to come down; they were page 454 annoyed and at first refused. (Miller told me later that I had told him to see the flag came down whatever the Greeks thought.) He pulled out his pistol and told the Greek captain that the flag would have to come down or there would be trouble. There was no trouble!
While the formal handing over of Rimini to the Allies was taking place in the main square, the advance into other sections of the city and its outskirts was still continuing. On the right 2 Greek Battalion was already in the modern area —divided neatly from the old by the railway line—and, like its compatriot unit in the old city, was making its arrival as dramatic as the unopposed entry permitted. Nos. 9 and 10 Troops, in support of this battalion, had been held up by demolitions and lost one tank on a mine, but the squadron commander, reconnoitring forward, found that the bridge nearest the coast could still carry tanks. He sent a wireless message to the two troops to take the coast route in, and the tanks were quickly on their way.
No. 12 Troop, the squadron reserve, had been sent up Route 16 to support No. 11 in the centre of the town, and in attempting to ford the Ausa had one tank so badly bogged that it could not be extricated until the following day, when bulldozer assistance was required to get it clear. Two tanks of this troop, however, got forward to the square.
It was during this period of moving up that a most important discovery was made—a discovery which caused the greatest excitement in 4 Armoured Brigade. The circumstances were as follows. While No. 11 Troop was fording the Ausa and 9 Platoon was making for the square, Lieutenant Maurice found that the Via Venti Settembre bridge would carry his scout car, and with this and a Greek carrier he crossed and went straight ahead to the Marecchia Canal, where to his amazement he found the main bridge, the 1900-year-old Ponte d’Augusto, was still intact. The demolition charges which had been placed in position had not been fired; they were now quickly withdrawn and Brigade Headquarters notified that the bridge was intact.
On receipt of this information, the commander 4 Brigade decided to make a quick thrust through the town instead page 455 of adhering to the original plan, which had been to bring the armour forward over the now muddy and badly cut up Fortunato track.
Accordingly, early in the afternoon C Squadron and 1 Company 22 Battalion crossed the Ponte d’Augusto and, driving the enemy outposts ahead of them and demolishing the buildings as they went, got to the Marecchia River proper and engaged the enemy positions on the other side of the river along the north bank. During the morning Lieutenants Maurice and Cross and an engineer officer of the Canadian Corps had got as far forward as this point and had reported that the Route 16 bridge was well down and that no immediate possible tank crossing could be seen. They considered, however, that if the concrete sides were blown and the approaches bulldozed, a tank crossing could be constructed without resorting to bridging.
During its investigations the party ran into trouble and was pinned down by spandau fire from two points—one downstream on the near side of the river and the other from the opposite bank. All managed to get safely away, though Lieutenant Cross, whose whereabouts was known to the enemy, had to break through the inside wall of a building in which he had taken cover in order to get clear.
Fourth Armoured Brigade took over the Rimini sector and made preparations to attack over the Marecchia. The plan was for 1 Company 22 Battalion to advance along Route 16 to the Celle junction and for 2 Company to attack along the coast. At 7 p.m. the infantry waded the river and 6 Field Company began to construct a crossing for 19 Regiment’s tanks. The bridgehead was established before first light on the 22nd, despite bitter fighting by the paratroops at Celle and on the coast. The tanks of Nos. 9, 10 and 11 Troops were over the river by 2.30 a.m. No. 12 Troop, which had been in reserve, covered the crossing, and the whole of C Squadron moved forward to support the infantry, who were meeting stiff opposition.
The rest of 19 Regiment, which had been located at Misano since the 17th, moved up to the airfield during the afternoon of the 21st, and that night A Squadron (Major page 456 Ellingham) went into the town itself, where with the rest of 22 (Motor) Battalion it awaited orders to go forward into the Marecchia bridgehead, where C Squadron and 2 Company had surprised the enemy by their speedy follow-up and were still fighting. This was the first move in the New Zealand Division’s role of pursuing and destroying the enemy forces between Rimini and Ravenna.
While crossing the Marecchia C Squadron’s tanks had been engaged by enemy anti-tank guns sited near Celle, and had encountered minefields and demolitions on the opposite bank. Once daylight came the tanks were forced to advance with caution, shooting their way forward, and at times using smoke to screen movement and to cover mine-lifting operations. The troops on both routes—No. 11 with 1 Company making for Celle and Nos. 9 and 10 with 2 Company on the coast—fired on gun emplacements and houses from which the enemy was opposing the advance. By 9.30 a.m. the immediate objective had been gained, and with the intention of securing a line along the Fossa Turchetta between Route 16 and the sea, the attack was pushed on without a pause.
The infantry was now supported by A Squadron, which crossed the Marecchia at 8 a.m. in support of 3 Company 22 Battalion, which was to pass through 1 Company and exploit up Route 16. After reaching Celle crossroads, where contact was made with a troop of 18 Regiment operating on the right and with a platoon of 24 Battalion, No. 1 Troop (Second-Lieutenant Paterson6) and No. 4 Troop (Second-Lieutenant ‘Russ’ Whyte7) went forward on the parallel road between Route 16 and the railway. Both troops were heavily ‘stonked’ by enemy mortars and Whyte was mortally wounded. In the face of constant and heavy opposition, progress was made only with great difficulty; nevertheless by 2 p.m. the objective—the junction of the main lateral road leading into Viserba—was reached. No. 1 Troop lost two tanks bogged near the Fossa Turchetta.page 457
Farther east, Nos. 9 and 10 Troops of C Squadron, supporting 2 Company in the drive along the coastal strip, had made a spectacular advance. With a section of Canadians attached, they had bypassed a double ‘blow’ on the road during the night and got well ahead to where they could hear the sounds of an engagement in the vicinity of the cemetery on their left. At first light they shot up a German patrol and went forward, picking up a 22 Battalion man as guide. He overshot the turn-off leading to the vicinity of his company headquarters, and as the tanks met no opposition they continued on. A barricade across the road was charged—a flimsy structure made mainly of household furniture—and the two troops went into Viserba.
Both troop commanders now reconnoitred forward on foot, but excited civilians caused the enemy to take notice and some fire was met. They now went back to their tanks, shot up some enemy-occupied houses, tried conclusions with an anti-tank gun sited outside a German officers’ mess, engaged such scattered troops as they could see, and then turned and made their way back to our forward positions.
The enemy was evidently caught on the hop, and the presence of tanks in his territory was a nasty early morning surprise. One German was caught pedalling down the road on a bicycle. Viserba was undamaged when C Squadron’s tanks entered, but by the afternoon it had been well and truly done over by a heavy-calibre gun. The two troops spent some time on their return in a position close to the cemetery, where as retribution for their audacity they were severely mortared. Later in the day attempts to get to Viserba were stoutly opposed by the Turkoman troops (with German officers and NCOs) who held this sector of the defence line.
At 10 a.m., after a co-ordinating conference called by Lieutenant-Colonel Donald,8 orders were issued for continuing the advance to the Canale dei Molini. New boundaries were notified, for there had been some confusion page 458 over the left-hand limit of 4 Brigade’s area. Good progress was made on this move until the buildings of Villa Sacramora were reached at approximately 10.30 a.m. Now the old familiar drill of searching every casa became necessary. The infantry had an exhausting and dangerous time, and the tanks, firing at targets the infantry indicated, opened up the buildings in which the spandau teams were working. By this means the advance was kept going steadily. By midday, however, German anti-tank guns were engaging all tank movement in the area.
One of No. 10 Troop’s tanks was hit on a sprocket by an anti-tank gun firing down the coast road. Fortunately it was moving when hit and slewed round, coming to a stop under cover, where it remained immobilised for the rest of the day but still did good work with its heavy armament.
By this time the enemy was throwing in the full weight of his artillery, anti-tank weapons, mortars and machine guns in an attempt to stem the advance. It was evident that he was holding from Viserba north in some strength. For the rest of the afternoon the battle went on with the tanks of C Squadron doing their utmost to search out and silence the enemy strongpoints. There were some exciting duels, and on one occasion the attackers had the satisfaction of seeing a lucky shot dislodge an enemy anti-tank gun, but the Germans were a determined bunch—paratroops no doubt—and despite continued fire by our troops they managed to work on the gun from behind the shelter of a building and get it clear before it fell into the hands of the advancing infantry.
At 5 p.m. A Squadron took over the area and C Squadron, which had been almost continuously under fire since daylight, withdrew. For the day’s work there had been, surprisingly enough, only two casualties, one of these being OC No. 11 Troop, who was wounded by spandau fire when going, in response to a message from Brigade Headquarters, to reconnoitre the Fossa Turchetta crossing.
By nightfall the forward troops were well into Viserba, and on the left 5 Brigade was making equally good progress. A midnight attack was now planned in conjunction with page 459 this brigade to keep up the momentum and deny the enemy time to regain balance. For this attack 3 Company 22 Battalion was to pass through 1 and 2 Companies, and A Squadron was to give tank support.
Preceded by a 15-minute artillery barrage on 5 Brigade’s front, the advance up the road north of Viserba began fifteen minutes after midnight. No. 3 Troop (Second-Lieutenant Davidson), in support of 11 and 12 Platoons, and No. 2 Troop (Lieutenant Whitton9), supporting 15 and 16 Platoons, made good progress until a short hold-up occurred on the coast-road crossing of the Scolo Brancona at Bersaglio. This hold-up was soon sorted out, however, and both tanks and infantry got on to the first objectives without much difficulty. A halt was then called until it was certain that 5 Brigade was firm on its new line. Though darkness and fog had made this move hazardous, the same conditions had also contributed to its success, for at dawn, with improved visibility, resistance became most determined.
At 5 a.m. 4 Brigade began to move forward again, and almost immediately this group ran into trouble. At 6 a.m. OC No. 3 Troop’s tank, on the coast road, was hit by a bazooka and brewed up, but the crew bailed out safely, Davidson being slightly wounded. As this happened, the area was heavily ‘stonked’ by mortars and the infantry forced to withdraw to the cover of some nearby houses.
On the parallel route No. 2 Troop, with 15 and 16 Platoons, had an even worse encounter. The tanks had crossed the Scolo Brancona, continued along the railway track, then moved across and over the Scolo Cavallaccio onto a track on the northern bank of the stream. From here Whitton and Sergeant Windsor,10 of 15 Platoon, reconnoitred on foot up the lane to the Casa Panzini, where they questioned an Italian who told them that there were no Germans in the house. They searched about before returning to the infantry and tanks.page 460
The force then moved forward again, with 15 Platoon followed by the two tanks going along the lane, and 16 Platoon conforming on the right. When the infantry was level with the Casa Panzini they were fired on from the top windows, and Windsor was wounded. Whitton moved his tank up level with the fallen sergeant to give him protection and opened fire on the house. A Tiger tank pulled away from the back of the house, and at the same time the enemy sent down a bazooka bomb. This first shot missed Whitton’s tank and whizzed down the lane between the two sections of infantry, but a second hit the turret, set fire to the tank, and badly wounded the driver. Whitton got out and was beginning to assist the wounded driver out when he was seriously wounded himself by another bazooka bomb. A heavy mortar ‘stonk’ now came down on the area, and under cover of this the enemy withdrew from the house. One 15 Platoon man was killed. The wounded were moved into the house, where they were attended to, and Windsor ordered his platoon back down the road to Cavallaccio.
When the infantry and remaining tank had gone, the enemy returned and captured the wounded who had been left in the house. About a quarter of an hour later the two infantry section leaders, returning to see Sergeant Windsor, walked straight into the arms of the Turkomen. During the rest of the day the enemy party fired towards the New Zealand front, but not at any particular target. They withdrew at 6 p.m., taking with them their prisoners, except the badly wounded tank driver and Windsor, who was feigning serious injury. They said that they would be back later to pick up these two. As soon as they were out of the way, however, Windsor made his escape, got back to his platoon, and sent out a party to bring in the wounded driver.
Taking up positions on 6 April 1945 for the initial attack on the Senio
Headquarters of B Squadron and of Divisional Cavalry Battalion at the Senio and German prisoners
Stopbanks on the Senio
Infantry being taken forward near Medicina
After A Squadron had pulled back from where 9 Brigade suffered heavy losses at the Gaiana River—G. Frisby, H. L. Myles, G. Prentice, L. McClure, T. McK. Alexander
Cookhouse at Medicina
At Villa Fontana, south of the Gaiana River
For this operation B Squadron (Major Wakelin), which had been standing by in the concentration area at Casa Bianca, came up at 9 p.m. and relieved A Squadron, which in the early morning had recovered its No. 2B tank when the tank commander and driver, with a section of infantry, had gone out and, after working on it, had successfully driven it in.
The attack was mounted at 8.20 p.m. and was preceded by a concentration from 22 Battalion’s three-inch mortars and a detachment of 4.2s. Nos. 1 and 3 Companies, with No. 6 Troop (Second-Lieutenant Martin Hobson) and No. 7 Troop (Second-Lieutenant Dryden11), moved out towards their objective—the Moro River—but the enemy reacted strongly and the advance was soon halted. The infantry was pinned down by mortar fire, and one tank was knocked out on a mine, with three of its crew wounded. Enemy tanks and self-propelled guns were harassing the area and restricting all movement.
During the day the body of Lieutenant Whitton was recovered and buried by the regiment. He had died from his wounds and had been left behind when the enemy withdrew. Steve Whitton had been one of the few remaining originals and was a popular figure in the unit; he and Russ Whyte, who had been mortally wounded on the 22nd, had made many friends, and their passing was keenly felt.
At 2 a.m. the Brigade Commander came forward and discussed the situation with the commanding officers of 22 Battalion and 19 Regiment. The enemy showed no sign of page 462 withdrawing, despite the efforts made to dislodge him and the attempts of the forward tanks to search out and engage his guns. At 3.45 a.m. Brigadier Pleasants reported back to Divisional Headquarters that he considered any further move at this juncture to be impracticable.
Meanwhile, on the left, 6 Brigade’s attack had been successful, and at 7 a.m. the coastal force were able to get moving again, though there was still some shelling and mortaring in that area. A dive-bombing attack at 7.30 a.m. helped to discourage the opposition, and by 10.30 a.m. the tanks had reached the Moro bridge. Here orders were received that 26 Battalion would relieve the 22nd and 20 Regiment the 19th. The relief of the tanks was completed on the outskirts of Bellaria at 6.30 p.m., C Squadron 20 Regiment taking over from B Squadron 19 Regiment.
The 19th spent 26 September in a concentration area at Viserba. After the strain of the past few days’ fighting, the good billets (most men had managed to find beds with mattresses) were keenly appreciated. The Italians were friendly and enthusiastic about the Allied advance; they did everything they could to make our troops comfortable. Time for maintenance and rest was hoped for, but by the afternoon it was clear that the rest would be but a short one. Just before noon A Squadron was ordered to stand by, and at 6 p.m. Squadron Headquarters and two troops left to take over from C Squadron 20 Regiment in support of 3 Greek Mountain Brigade, which was advancing towards the Uso River (the Rubicon), about three miles away.
This advance made good progress, and by 8 a.m. on the 27th the Greeks, with A Squadron in support, were over the river and clearing out Bellaria. By midday the squadron was moving forward again, opposed by artillery and mortar fire. One tank received a direct hit and was immobilised. The area of operations was out of the way of the numerous villages and thickly scattered habitations which up to then had been a feature of the closely settled countryside. The day was overcast and chilly, and towards nightfall the weather got steadily worse and it rained heavily.page 463
The tank crews spent a wretched night in a very bleak area, sheltering on the lee sides of their tanks and constructing bivvies from any materials which came to hand. Some nearby haystacks provided bedding, but the rain was so heavy that many of the less skilfully built shelters collapsed on their sodden and uncomfortable inhabitants. During the night some successful foraging yielded a supply of cognac, and this, distributed on the basis of one bottle to each tank, helped to maintain some glow of warmth. At dawn welcome news was received of relief by C Squadron 20 Regiment and A Squadron went back to a new regimental concentration area east of the Uso, where the rest of the unit was settling in, having arrived only a few hours previously.
It was now blowing hard from the sea and raining continuously. The absence of the usual houses made the accommodation problem acute, and orders to dig in were not at all popular, particularly as the slit trenches filled with water and mud even while they were being dug. Some mortar bombs landing a hundred or so yards away from the area showed the wisdom of the order, however, and throughout a most unpleasant day the tank crews were kept busy digging, trying to build shelter from the cold wind and guiding the pools which now covered the area away from their bivvies. Instructions which indicated a further move were received late in the afternoon, and the prospect was welcome.
Headquarters 4 Brigade was keen to press on despite unfavourable weather and the rapidly deteriorating state of the ground. The 19th Regiment was required back on the brigade axis and Second-Lieutenant Davidson, who had been posted to Regimental Headquarters from A Squadron, reconnoitred forward and reported the going satisfactory as far as the crossroads, where a demolition would hold up the wheeled vehicles but could be bypassed by the tanks. As preparations were made for the move, orders were received for B and C Squadrons to support 22 Battalion, which had a protective role on the Division’s left flank.
At the last minute this move was cancelled. There was general disappointment, which was somewhat allayed during page 464 the evening when a stock of brandy was distributed among the wet and fed-up troops who were taking a poor view of their enforced halt in the bleak and barren area. Rain was still falling unabated.
During the night the Bailey bridge over the Uso disappeared under five feet of water, and the river became a roaring torrent quite impossible to cross. Any anxiety over the projected flank-defence role was fortunately put at rest by the news that the Canadians on the left of the New Zealand Division had made a rapid advance. At this stage 5 Brigade had passed through 6 Brigade, and on 30 September 22 (Motor) Battalion was the only 4 Brigade unit left in the advance. The Motor Battalion came under the command of 5 Brigade that day and relieved 23 Battalion.
The continuous wet weather brought almost the whole Division to a standstill. The Fiumicino River, the next objective, which it had been confidently expected would be crashed before the month ended, was now turned into a torrent thirty to forty feet wide. Behind this formidable obstacle the enemy had time to reorganise, and soon began to make his presence felt by shelling 4 Brigade’s area.
This shelling was particularly troublesome, and on 2 October A Squadron had one man killed and another wounded. The German gunners had the concentration area nicely taped, and any tank movement soon brought down a shower of shells. To try the practicability of cross-country movement, the tanks were tested over the nearby ploughed ground, as this type of going represented the seasonal norm in this closely cultivated part of the country, where grain crops were grown extensively. These tests proved conclusively that until the ground dried out there was no hope of operating tracked vehicles off the formed roads; nevertheless the armour continued to reconnoitre all likely forward routes in the hope that a break in the weather would enable the advance, which had been going so well, to be resumed.
Two more casualties from shelling occurred on the 3rd. The constant attention paid by the enemy gunners to 19 Regiment’s area caused the Brigade Commander to order page 465 its evacuation, and that night the unit moved to a position just north of Orsoleto, a less exposed and somewhat more hospitable site.
When the move had been made to the new area the weather took a temporary and welcome change for the better. But the wet and cold had already begun to take a toll in the general health of the troops. The sickness rate in all units was high; jaundice was epidemic, and 19 Regiment did not escape. Several officers and a number of other ranks were evacuated to hospital, and it became necessary to make a readjustment of commands to keep up a working establishment. Changes notified in orders on 5 October were: acting OC A Squadron, Captain Wethey; acting second-in-command C Squadron, Captain Saxton; acting second-in-command B Squadron, Captain Kerr; acting second-in-command Headquarters Squadron, Captain Sumpter12; acting Intelligence Officer, Second - Lieutenant Davidson.
On the same day the 19th passed from the command of 4 Armoured Brigade to 6 Infantry Brigade, and preparations were again made to renew the advance which had now been halted for a week. This check was to prove disastrous to Eighth Army’s offensive, which up to date had gone ahead rapidly and was now well into the Romagna flats, from which it had been hoped exploitation to the Po River would be possible. Given a week or so of reasonable weather at this stage, further successes could have been confidently expected. As it was, there was still an air of eagerness abroad, and despite the still overcast and threatening skies there were great hopes that the advance would be pushed on once more.
Just before midnight on the 6th the tanks of 19 Regiment moved up the coast road and the wheeled vehicles up Route 16 to take up a position facing the Fiumicino. As the unit pulled out heavy rain started to fall and there was some shelling on the road, but by 1.20 a.m. both groups had arrived in the new area ready to support 6 Brigade. It was still raining hard and did not let up all night.page 466
By daylight on the 7th the ground once again was sodden. At 11.25 a.m. 6 Brigade advised that the forthcoming operations would have to be postponed for twenty-four hours, and that evening a conference was held to work out a method of getting the tanks over the Fiumicino. Two engineer officers gave information about the approach routes and bridging arrangements. It rained continuously all that night and all next day, but unit officers reconnoitred routes on foot, a bridgelayer was got into position near a demolition on C Squadron’s route, and the tanks stood by in readiness. By then the whole area was waterlogged, and another postponement was reluctantly announced—this time till the 10th.
It rained steadily on the 9th and 10th and the enemy began to reorganise. The 19th Regiment’s area received, as its share of attention, a steady shelling by 155s. There were some near misses and at 6 p.m. the unit was not sorry to pull out and move to the locality of San Mauro, where it came under the command of 5 Brigade.
Early the following morning news that the enemy had retired beyond the river brought sudden action. B Squadron, in support of 28 (Maori) Battalion, and C Squadron, in support of 23 Battalion, crossed the Fiumicino. There was but light opposition and by dusk the attackers were at Gatteo. During the night the enemy became more active, particularly in 23 Battalion’s area.
At 5.30 a.m. on the 12th 28 Battalion, with B Squadron in support, began to advance towards Sant’ Angelo. The ground was boggy, and mines were encountered almost immediately. Attempting to operate off the road, three tanks were soon immobilised. Simultaneously C Squadron, with 23 Battalion, moved two troops westwards along the Gatteo-Gambettola road. One troop operated 500 yards ahead of the other as it was impossible to move off the road. Both squadrons had a difficult day, but by nightfall had managed to have their tanks up with the forward infantry, which was facing up to the Scolo Rigossa.
A Squadron that day carried out indirect fire in support of 21 Battalion’s advance. An air observation post directed page 467 this shoot, in which the squadron expended 480 rounds and found the method as interesting as it was successful. Two fires started in the enemy area sent up black smoke to mark the success of the tanks’ gunnery.
Operations during the day had demonstrated that to attempt to operate tanks off the formed roads while the ground was in its present soggy state was inviting disaster, and it was clear that any plans made for the 13th would have to take this restriction into account. At this stage 5 Brigade’s front was approximately two miles wide, with 28 Battalion on the right and 23 Battalion on the left, and extended along the Scolo Rigossa. There were only two practicable crossings on this front, one on the Gatteo-Gambettola road—the axis of advance for 23 Battalion—and the other on the right flank of the Maori Battalion on the northern route. This second crossing was dominated by the enemy guns in Sant’ Angelo, and after a reconnaissance Lieutenant-Colonel Everist recommended to Brigade that the village should be cleared so that the crossing could be used by the tanks.
At nightfall on the 12th C Squadron’s forward tanks were up with D Company 23 Battalion, about three-quarters of a mile south-east of Gambettola. B Squadron’s tanks were close enough to the infantry positions on the eastern bank of the Rigossa to get in some good shooting at enemy positions on the opposite bank. The bogged tanks also took their share of this work, and during the night the enemy pulled back some 300 yards. At 1 a.m. A Company 28 Battalion attacked Sant’ Angelo with one troop of B Squadron in close support. They found the place strongly held and were forced to withdraw from the outskirts of the village at 5 a.m. to a position some 600 yards west.
In the Gambettola sector, too, the enemy proved most aggressive, and on the morning of the 13th C Company 23 Battalion, supported by three tanks of No. 11 Troop, ran into stiff fighting during an advance towards Point 120, at a railway intersection south of Gambettola. Here both the infantry and the tanks had a bad day. Perhaps the old superstition worked against them, for it was Friday the 13th page 468 and No. 11 Troop was working with 13 Platoon; the number of the troop commander’s tank was also 13, and its name ‘Discord’! Nevertheless the tough little action was very well handled by a comparatively junior NCO.
The first tank in the troop was stopped while moving up the road to support the infantry, who were under mortar and spandau fire, and the OC No. 11 Troop (Sergeant Lugton13) was wounded and the tank wireless put out of action. Corporal ‘Rusty’ Laird,14 who took over as troop commander, was working off the road abreast of the sergeant’s tank. He immediately called up the reserve tank which, owing to the uncertainty about minefields, had been held back. This tank advanced up the road and successfully got past the knocked-out tank, and then, with the acting troop commander’s tank, engaged spandau posts in the buildings round the area. Both these tanks were in wireless communication and at this stage found that they were out of touch with the infantry. When moving to another position Laird’s tank bogged down about thirty yards from the other tank, which had taken up a position under cover behind the wall of a house just short of Point 120.
Laird, in an attempt to locate No. 13 Platoon, left his bogged tank and ranged around on foot, but was unsuccessful. Returning, he called up the other tank and ordered it to move back to a nearby house where he could keep it in sight. Enemy infantry was now putting in an appearance, and the three tank crews were soon busy repulsing an attack. As it was evident that the tanks were out on their own, the crews of both immobilised vehicles were evacuated under cover of smoke, taking with them code books, personal weapons, Browning machine guns, and other vital parts of the tank’s armament. The one mobile tank then withdrew to the squadron rendezvous, and the crew of the sergeant’s tank followed.
Laird took his crew into a house, which they immediately set up for defence against infantry, and then went out again page 469 to try to find 13 Platoon, which he eventually located in another house. He was unable to return to his crew, for the enemy attacked again and surrounded the place. A section from another platoon, with a tank in support, relieved the position shortly before dark. After dark Laird, with three troopers, went out with infantry protection and recovered the two immobilised tanks. The party had a clash with an enemy patrol during these recovery operations.
No. 9 Troop, also working with 23 Battalion, lost a tank that day on a mine, but claimed an enemy vehicle which had been camouflaged as a haystack. The troop used its Brownings to good effect in support of our infantry.
On the 14th Regimental Tactical Headquarters moved into San Mauro and set up in an abandoned hospital, a nauseating, dirty place, still accommodating two long-dead but unburied Italians. All headquarters were well forward, and Headquarters 4 Brigade, near Gambettola, found that our own three-inch mortars were firing from a position in its rear.
A Squadron, which was still at San Mauro in support of 21 Battalion, continued its artillery role, and during the afternoon, in response to a report from the air observation post, which was linked direct to the squadron commander’s set, engaged a German tank in the vicinity of Gambettola. This was the last day of the squadron’s three days’ indirect shooting, in which it fired a total of 2109 rounds.
C Squadron, with 23 Battalion, had a further two tanks bogged, but was able to spend the day profitably knocking down enemy-occupied houses across the Scolo Rigossa. The forward troops in this area were under vigorous shelling, and the enemy nebelwerfers were particularly troublesome.
B Squadron, with the Maoris outside Sant’ Angelo, stood off and shelled the village, putting in some 650 rounds, and as the enemy then ceased to react another attack was mounted after dark, when two companies of infantry with two troops of tanks in support moved in. Before dawn on the 15th the occupation was complete.
The capture of Sant’ Angelo forced the Germans to withdraw from the Scolo Rigossa, and at first light, while this page 470 withdrawal was still in progress, C Squadron brought up a bridgelayer. At 11 a.m. No. 9 Troop went over into Gambettola while the rest of the squadron took up a position on the south bank of the river. The troop in Gambettola had an exciting day dealing with isolated enemy pockets still in the area and engaging strongpoints on the other side of the town. Several prisoners were taken, and 200 rounds of high explosive and fifteen boxes of Browning machine-gun ammunition were used. One tank was hit by an enemy anti-tank gun, but successfully engaged the gun responsible and knocked it out, killing the crew. This was an unusual encounter, as apparently both gunners saw, sighted and fired simultaneously, the tank gunner getting the better strike.
A Squadron, which had moved up with 21 Battalion on 15 October and had established in Gatteo, took part in an attack over the canal (Scolo Rigossa) and pushed north-west towards the next water barrier, the Pisciatello River. Nos. 1 and 2 Troops forded the river successfully, and by 3.15 p.m. No. 2 Troop had made contact with C Company, while No. 1 Troop moved up with B Company. Both troop commanders became casualties in this action, Lieutenant McPhail being wounded while reconnoitring on foot. His tank was later hit by a bazooka and brewed up. A Honey tank following it was also hit.
Fortunately the crews of these two tanks were not hurt, but they had to spend an uncomfortable night in the damp and dubious safety of a nearby ditch. Until they reported in, there was some anxiety not only about the men but also about the codes, which could have fallen into enemy hands. The codes, however, were burnt when the tank brewed up. OC No. 1 Troop (Second-Lieutenant Paterson) was wounded in the head during the afternoon and was evacuated.
Altogether the 15th had been a strenuous day, but the advance was again going well. There was general anxiety among the armour to keep it moving, for the ground had dried out a good deal but the weather was again overcast. The sappers were doing a herculean job metalling the main routes with the rubble from damaged buildings, and the page 471 going in the brigade area was good. The infantry was having to fight every inch of the way, for though it was obvious that the enemy was withdrawing, his rearguards fought to the bitter end and his siting of delaying weapons was superb. Mines and demolitions, too, were constantly encountered, and tank routes especially received his full attention. Obstacles were invariably well covered by anti-tank guns.
On the 16th C Squadron was relieved by B and moved into reserve at Gatteo. B Squadron, supporting 23 Battalion, advanced towards the village of Ruffio under heavy fire, and A Squadron, with 21 Battalion, occupied Bulgarno. Both these groups were kept under constant shell and mortar fire, and it was evident that the enemy had good observation over the whole area from the village of Macerone.
Next day 19 Regiment passed to the command of 6 Brigade. To try to spoil the enemy’s accurate shooting, No. 1 Troop and some M10s (self-propelled anti-tank guns) demolished the church tower at Macerone, where it was considered the German gunners had their observation post. This was successfully knocked down with armour-piercing and high-explosive fire, and during the day some small gains were made in 21 Battalion’s area while B Squadron, with 23 Battalion, occupied Ruffio. The tanks had several casualties. The weather, which had been fine and warm, now became overcast, and at 4 p.m. rain began to fall.
Orders for 4 Armoured Brigade to be prepared to exploit beyond the Pisciatello were received with acclamation, and there was great expectation in the regiment. During the night the preliminary moves were made, the unit coming under the command of 6 Brigade; A Squadron went up to support 24 Battalion and B Squadron to support 25 Battalion. Steady rain all night caused the formerly favourable prospects for the operation to worsen hourly.
The 18th dawned dull and overcast, but the rain ceased and plans went ahead for the Pisciatello crossing. Sixth Brigade’s attack went in at 11 p.m., and at midnight the infantry was established on the north bank. The scissors bridging tanks came up, and A Squadron got ready to cross. The first tank damaged the bridgelayer, and the squadron page 472 was quickly diverted west to the arc crossing south of Casone. B Squadron had already crossed at this point and was supporting 25 Battalion. A Squadron and 20 Regiment now passed through them, and 4 Brigade’s advance began.
By 10.30 a.m. on 19 October the leading tanks had made nearly 3000 yards across the flat cross-country going. It was raining again, however, and by mid-afternoon A Squadron was halted outside Calabrina with 24 Battalion and B Squadron outside Osteriaccia with 25 Battalion. In both villages the enemy was very active. C Squadron, in reserve, had passed in the meantime to the command of 5 Brigade.
During this operation the usual difficulty with cross-country movement was experienced by the tanks, and the wet weather was making the going steadily worse. One of the many boggings down occurred when No. 14 tank of B Squadron 19 Regiment attempted to pull out of the mud No. 14 tank of 20 Regiment and got into difficulties itself. ‘Very careless’ was the remark of the trooper who took the photograph of the digging-out operations. While these two tanks were being recovered, some agitated Italians appeared on the scene and also began to dig. After working feverishly beside the tanks, they uncovered a carefully buried hoard of valuables, which otherwise would have stood a good chance of being scooped up by the tank crews as they worked to free their tanks.
On the 20th the enemy was found to have cleared out of Calabrina and Osteriaccia, and these two villages were occupied early in the morning. During that and the next day A and B Squadrons remained static.
C Squadron came up with 26 Battalion as it moved across the Rio Granarolo to the Savio River sector on the 20th, and was called on next day to form a gunline firing onto the road on the western bank of the Savio, to thicken up the artillery ‘stonks’ and to add to the general noise of the diversion intended to cover the Canadian attack on the other side of the river. A Squadron also participated in this shoot.
Careful preparations were called for in these gunline tasks; the tanks operated in exactly the same manner as the artillery, with all the usual trigonometrical calculations page 473 required for predicted shooting on mapped but unseen targets. The work put in earlier in preparing range tables and in calibrating guns now came into its own, and the good results obtained by the tank gunners were largely due to this and to the pains taken by the regiment to perfect the solid theoretical training required to enable indirect shooting to be carried out with confidence.
C Squadron’s commander (Major Wilson) tells the following story of an incident which took place while his squadron was on the gunline at the Savio, an incident which shows, among other things, how preoccupation with the problems of predicted shooting, while undoubtedly contributing to the discomfort of the enemy, could also cause trouble on our own side.
It was while we were in this position that my Sqn Hq was situated beside a farm house. The yard contained the usual haystack and a cesspool. The haystack was somewhat wrecked and the ground around my tank was covered with a thick layer of hay, which also covered the top of the cesspool. Getting down from my tank to go across to another vehicle I took the shortest route across the litter of hay and suddenly to the amusement of all and in a most undignified manner the Sqn Comd disappeared into the cesspool—or almost disappeared. I was certainly pretty well plastered with ordure from the chest down.
The Itie family who were still in their casa were very alarmed at the sorry state of “Majori” and Mama promptly collected my stinking clothes and within a couple of hours they were returned to me thoroughly cleaned, dry and pressed—the smartest crease I’d had in my trousers for months!
The Sqn of course thought it was a hell-of-a joke which of course it was—on me.
On 22 October 4 Armoured Brigade was relieved by 11 Canadian Infantry Brigade, and 19 Regiment withdrew to Gambettola to await transporters for the move to the rest area at Fabriano. That night, to mark the anniversary of the brigade’s arrival in Italy, a special rum issue was made to all ranks. The armour might also have been excused for using the occasion to celebrate its success in the recent operations. The brigade had done well: given dry weather, the armoured thrusts might well have carried the advance into Lombardy. The ‘tankies’ also got great satisfaction from the page 474 close work they had done with 22 (Motor) Battalion, and the squadrons of the 19th especially were grateful for the splendid way that unit had co-operated in the Rimini battle and during the push up the coast to Bellaria. Mixed with this enthusiasm, however, was some foreboding about the future. Winter was fast settling in, and with it would come again the most potent enemy the armour had yet encountered—mud. Memories of last winter on the Orsogna front were still vivid.
The unit found Fabriano a pleasant place, and the stay there lasted just over a month. The town was in the Apennines, elevated and surrounded by high mountains. The inhabitants, though at first shy, were well disposed towards the troops, and all ranks were billeted in their homes. Many of the families received the men as though they were honoured guests rather than invaders forced upon them by a war they had not wanted. Indeed, most billets went far beyond what was required of them by regulations, and numbers of men enjoyed the luxury of clean sheets and the hospitality of the family table—to which many of them contributed their share of army rations.
After the first week very little rain fell and the weather was crisp and bracing, with clear nights and hard morning frosts, admirable weather in which to regain physical vigour and to recuperate after the strain of battle. The mornings were spent in training and maintenance, and most afternoons were devoted to sport, with a programme wide enough to appeal to almost every taste. The regiment fielded teams for Rugby, soccer, hockey, basketball and cross-country running. A divisional boxing tournament was staged, and first-class recreational facilities were provided by picture shows and ENSA and Canadian concert parties.
Reorganisation during this respite from action included changing over the members of tank crews who had had long spells of fighting service with men who had little battle experience. Twenty-three men of early reinforcements (up to the 5th Reinforcements) went back to the Armoured Corps Training Depot at Maadi Camp, where they would instruct future reinforcements for the corps. Both New page 475 Zealand leave centres, Rome and Florence, saw a proportion of the unit during the weekly rotation of leave parties in which all units had a quota. Some excellent sightseeing trips were run, and a few enthusiasts managed to get in some ski-ing after a long run in and a stiff climb up to the snow line on the friendly side of the Apennines.
Opportunity was taken at this time to send home on furlough a number of officers who had had continuous service with the Division since the days of the first three echelons. A round of farewell functions was held throughout the brigade as the various old identities left on their way back home. Lieutenant-Colonel Everist, CO 19 Regiment, and Major Robinson, his second-in-command, were among those who, after the appropriate celebrations, temporarily left their posts for a well-deserved furlough. Their successors were appointed immediately: Lieutenant-Colonel Parata took over the regiment, with Major Wakelin as his second-in-command. Simultaneously the command of 4 Armoured Brigade passed to Colonel Campbell,15 who held the appointment of second-in-command from 6 November 1944 to 25 January 1945, when he assumed command.
On the entertainment side perhaps one of the most enjoyable occasions was the presentation of the ‘4 Bde Revue’ in the Fabriano opera house. The fast-moving, witty and topical show, put on by a versatile and talented cast in which the 19th was well represented, was applauded to the echo by the troops and by a sprinkling of their uncomprehending but politely enthusiastic Italian friends. A dance held by A Squadron was another very good show, much enjoyed by the Italian girls who attended.
As the days passed the physical well-being of the men was reflected in their improved bearing and smartness, while morale benefited from the break from battle and the pleasant conditions in which the rest was spent. Regimental messes set up for the first time since Maadi days contributed greatly to the atmosphere of unit pride and spirit.page 476
On the 23rd warning came that the rest would soon be over, and arrangements began for a move to Pesaro on the Adriatic coast, but on the 28th this destination was changed to Cattolica, a seaside resort some miles further north. On 1 December the unit, not without regret, said goodbye to the friends it had made at Fabriano. There were some moving farewells, for the Fabriano folk were genuinely upset to see the 19th go; they lined the streets waving and, in many cases, weeping.
Three days before the main body pulled out rain began once more. After a wet, muddy journey it was a relief to find that at Cattolica there were quarters under cover for all troops and firm standing for the vehicles. Though cold and damp on arrival, the regiment was soon comfortable, and for the next nineteen days was not required to leave this quiet and much appreciated area. Service chevrons issued during the stay here made a patch of colour on the drab battle dress and gave the Italian women an opportunity to earn some ‘mungaree’ with needle and thread.
Waiting to cross the Po River
On the advance to Trieste
Lt-Col F. S. Varnham
On the waterfront at Trieste
The last day with the tanks near Trieste
On the 2nd the unit welcomed back two officers from furlough, Captain Swinburn and Lieutenant Stewart. The former was posted to B Squadron as second-in-command, and the latter to the same squadron as second captain. Captain Ron Griggs took over the Reconnaissance Troop.
During the break at Cattolica squadrons arranged their own tabloid sports, and B Squadron had a hard Rugby match with a South African team at Rimini, the result being a scoreless draw. Route marching, too, came back into favour as an official means of keeping fit, and was the daily experience of all who were unable to produce an excuse good enough to pass an unsympathetic squadron sergeant-major.
On 6 December members of 3 Tank Battalion—a large number of whom were still serving with the unit—held a highly successful reunion. It was now almost two years since they had arrived in the Middle East and had been absorbed into 4 Armoured Brigade. They had done well and by now many of their ex-officers had been recommissioned.
The death of ‘Major’, 19 Regiment’s bull-terrier mascot and the No. 1 dog in the New Zealand Division, occurred at Cattolica. Since 1939 he had served continuously with the unit, suffering wounds in battle but surviving several times when his keepers had been killed in action. His history is briefly recorded in an appendix to this volume. As befitting the rank he had earned and as was his due after the devotion which had characterised his service with the unit, he was accorded a military funeral. A suitably inscribed headstone marks his grave.
On 18 December orders were received from Eighth Army for the regiment to move to Forli the following day. The CO and an advance party left almost immediately, and the unit packed up. The 19th was a clear fine day; the wheeled vehicles were away by 8.45 a.m. and the tanks followed on transporters in the evening. By 10 p.m. the whole of the unit was in its new area, but as Brigade had already ordered a further move timed for 10 a.m. next day, very little unpacking was done.page 478
Faenza, which had been captured four days earlier, was the destination for 20 December, and this move brought the unit back into a forward operational zone. The trip was made without incident, and again all troops were billeted in houses. The area was quiet, but some shelling on the north-western outskirts of the town gave proof that the battle, now almost forgotten, was still being waged. The 19th awaited news of its role with interest and some impatience.
Next day the Brigade Commander called and outlined the plan. The regiment was to support 5 Brigade in a two-battalion crossing of the Senio River south of Castel Bolognese. This assault was to be preceded by an attack on the left by the Gurkhas, who were to secure the ridge north of Ossano. For the Gurkhas’ operation, which was to precede 5 Brigade’s attack by two or three days, B Squadron would form a gunline and work with an air observation post. That day, also, a conference was held at Brigade Headquarters and a plan made to set up a mobile reserve for the Division for use in a flank-protection or counter-attack role. Campbell Force, consisting of 19 Regiment, one infantry battalion, one field battery, one company of 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion, and other units to be allotted as necessary by Division, was to be ready to move to any threatened sector in the divisional area, and all its units were therefore put on three hours’ notice. A base was selected at the junction of the Lamone River and the railway line on the northern outskirts of the town. A Squadron reconnoitred the area set aside for 19 Regiment and selected troop positions, but was not required to move from its present position.
During the afternoon B Squadron formed a gunline of eight tanks and began shooting. Targets were engaged successfully, both by observation and prediction. This squadron was on the Senio gunline from 21 December to 6 January and, finally employing a total of 14 tanks, fired some 12,236 rounds during the period. Both day and night shooting were carried out, one of the principal tasks being counter-mortar work.page 479
On the 23rd a jeep train was organised and proved most useful in carrying supplies, which included Christmas and Patriotic Fund parcels, to the tanks in the forward areas. An extra issue of food to the value of two shillings a man had also been donated by the National Patriotic Fund Board, and an excellent variety of fare was available. On Christmas Eve, as the regiment was still on three hours’ notice, a warning was issued against over-indulgence in liquor, of which supplies were plentiful in the town. It is to the credit of the unit that, despite a highly enjoyable round of festivities, reasonable sobriety was observed.
During the night of Christmas Eve there was a light snowfall, and the troops awoke to the doubtful pleasure of a traditional white Christmas. Dean Goffin,16 of 4 Brigade Band, had organised small groups of bandsmen as carol parties, and the Padre conducted well-attended services in each squadron area. The cooks, official and amateur, were early on the job, and many excellent meals were served. Tinned turkey and plum pudding were the main dishes on the lavish menus.
The day was not wholly given over to pleasure, however, for a crowed gathered to watch a demonstration of a new type of ‘grouser’17 fitted to the tank tracks to facilitate crossing heavy ground. In the evening two Luftwaffe planes bombed the town, and though one of their bombs landed no more than fifty yards from the houses occupied by C Squadron, no damage was done beyond blowing in the shutters of the already broken windows.
On Boxing Day the regiment was notified that 5 Brigade’s attack would probably take place about 30 December. The reconnaissance officer arranged to go forward to the Senio to find a tank crossing, but enemy patrolling caused his reconnaissance to be deferred. The Luftwaffe again came over the town during the evening, but released only two bombs.page 480
As opportunity offered, the troops spent their time rummaging around Faenza, sometimes finding something worth salvaging for extra comfort in their billets, or something of more personal value as a souvenir. One night one such foraging party stumbled on to a coffin lying in a dark street; it was uncovered and held the body of a nude, shapely, and very beautiful young woman. There were smothered exclamations—more devout than profane—and the three men, appalled and uncomfortable, crept shamefacedly away. Drawn back to the spot in daylight, with additional helpers to arrange a decent burial, they found that their praiseworthy intentions were but the last act in a first-class hoax. The coffin contained nothing so pathetic as the gloom of the night had led them to believe: though the corpse was certainly all they had described, it was a plaster shop-window dummy, as alluring as only some of the modern continental stores would dare to display.
The farmlands surrounding Faenza still held a certain amount of livestock, some of which was gathered in at fairly regular intervals by ‘recce parties’ and dealt with in due time by the unit cooks. There were of course encounters with a few Italians who inevitably appeared unexpectedly at apparently deserted casas while the foraging was in progress. On one occasion the enemy gunners took a hand and ranged on a 19 Regiment jeep which had ventured into a forward area in search of an ox calf reported to be fat and eminently suitable for human consumption.
On 29 December another squadron of 19 Regiment moved to the forward area when C Squadron took over from 18 Regiment. B Squadron was still in the line, and A Squadron, in Faenza, was still on three hours’ notice with the rest of Campbell Force, but the role of this group was now changed to a defensive one, with one squadron available to counter-attack within a limited area.
This was the position when the year 1944 ended. It had been a year packed with action, and in an imposing list of battles the 19th had played its part: Orsogna, Cassino, Liri Valley, Florence, Rimini, and the advance up the Adriatic coast. There had been many new developments in the page 481 methods of warfare, some of them amusing, such as the enemy’s leaflet propaganda campaign; some of them spectacular, such as our use of artificial moonlight; some of them horrible, such as the powerful, new, and terrifying flame-throwers.
All in all it had been a successful year for the 19th. Casualties in the unit had been far fewer than in any similar period of battle service as an infantry battalion. The operational employment of the tanks had at times been severely restricted by the ground over which the battles were being fought, but the thrust up the Adriatic coast had clearly proved the worth of the armour in forcing a quick decision. In the new year the regiment looked forward to taking part in a further series of the swift advances which had added such exhilaration and satisfaction to the role the tanks had played in their first year as part of 2 NZ Division.
In the regimental logbook several entries made during the last few months recorded details of bets made on the dates of the ending of the Italian campaign and the final defeat of the Axis: 1945 was a firm favourite for both events.
5 Not traced.
15 Col T. C. Campbell, DSO, MC, m.i.d.; Fiji; born Colombo, 20 Dec 1911; farm appraiser; CO 22 Bn Sep 1942-Apr 1944; comd 4 Armd Bde Jan-Dec 1945; Area Commander, Wellington, 1947; Commander of Army Schools 1951–53; Commander Fiji Military Forces 1953-.
17 Heavy pieces of angle-iron attached to a tank’s tracks to give a better grip in heavy going.