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Episodes & Studies Volume 2

V: Panzer Grenadiers in the Senio Bridgehead

V: Panzer Grenadiers in the Senio Bridgehead

Major-general Dr. Fritz Polack,1 commander of 29 Panzer Grenadier Division,2 felt certain by the evening of 19 December 1944 that a New Zealand attack was imminent on his Senio bridgehead near Faenza. During the previous three days the New Zealanders had been probing his defences north-west of the town in the vicinity of the Via Emilia (Route 9) and the high railway embankment with strong fighting patrols, mostly platoons, but in some cases of company strength. That afternoon there had been an increase in traffic up the highway from the town, but his troops were unable to report its destination. Again, the enemy's artillery page 30 had not engaged in any noticeable ranging activity that day. Air reconnaissance planes had not been over the sector since the 17th. Finally, the enemy's searchlights, previously trained towards the north–west—towards Castel Bolognese–were now directed more to the north, which seemed to indicate the direction of the expected attack.

General Polack's division had been on this part of the front for only three days. The Panzer Grenadiers had recently come out of action in the Bologna sector for a rest, but the acting Army Group commander, Colonel-General Heinrich-Gottfried von Vietinghoff,3 had found it necessary to commit them again earlier than he had intended. The British 5th Corps divisions—the 10th Indian Infantry Division and the 2nd New Zealand Division–had made substantial gains south of the Via Emilia. Only by throwing in every available man had von Vietinghoff been able to form a continuous line north-west of Faenza. The situation in the Faenza area had become grave.

Polack's division took over the front formed by 26 Panzer Division in the course of its withdrawal. His sector jutted out from the Senio River roughly in the shape of a wedge pointing at Faenza. One side of the wedge was the boundary with 278 Infantry Division, whose front ran across the ground to the immediate north of the town. On the other side were the railway embankment and the Via Emilia. The ground in the narrow bridgehead was typical Romagna country—an area of cultivated flat ground, with irrigation ditches, rows of trellised vines, trees, and groups of farm buildings. The weather at this time was distinctly wintry. On some days there were hard frosts and weak sunshine, but mostly the days were raw and grey. There were occasional showers.

To the defence of this ground General Polack committed his 15th Panzer Grenadier Regiment, one of his three regiments of infantry. This regiment had fought the 6th NZ Infantry Brigade once before—in the heavy actions for the control of the hilltop village of San Michele in the New Zealand drive to Florence in July. The Panzer Grenadiers established their defences in the main in and around the farm houses and buildings. Digging was carried out only to a limited extent because water was close to the surface of the heavy ground. The western bank of the Senio had already been heavily mined to protect the Irmgard defence line along the river-front. Small minefields were laid in the bridgehead.

From the outset the Panzer Grenadier Regiment put into operation a policy of aggressive defence. The thrusts of 6 NZ Brigade's 24th and 25th Battalions up the Via Emilia and to and beyond the railway embankment, and of 5 NZ Brigade's 23rd Battalion and 28th (Maori) Battalion nearer the Via Emilia crossing of the Senio, were countered by carefully planned concentrations by guns, mortars and spandaus, and on occasions by Panzer Grenadier counter-thrusts, assisted by Tiger tanks. These measures made conditions difficult and unpleasant for the New Zealand battalions, and at the same time cost them casualties.

The policy of aggressive defence created–as Polack intended–an impression in the minds of the New Zealand troops that the bridgehead was strongly held. This was certainly not the case. About 700 men, including supporting tanks and guns, had been put into the bridgehead at first, but on the night of the 18th Polack, on orders from 76 Panzer Corps headquarters, with- page 31 drew about two-thirds of his troops to the western side of the Senio. The bridgehead defence was left in the charge of battle outposts only, totalling in all about one battalion of Panzer Grenadiers and supporting arms (about 200 men).4 Polack ordered the battle outposts to cover and screen the adoption of the new positions of the regiment, to keep up plenty of activity and vigorous fire so as to deceive the enemy into thinking that the ground was held in strength, and to make a fighting withdrawal by groups over the Senio if attacked by a superior force.

Most of the men withdrawn were in their new positions on the west bank of the river by the morning of the 19th. The battle outposts left behind in the bridghead reported a quiet day. Sixth Brigade patrols which tried to test the forward positions found the Panzer Grenadiers very much alert, and were immediately brought under well-directed spandau fire. Guns and mortars supporting the outpost defence lent a hand with effective bombardments of the New Zealand positions, particularly those of 25 Battalion. The New Zealanders retained the impression that the Panzer Grenadiers were still in strength on the ground beyond the embankment.

The attack Polack had been expecting opened at nine o'clock on the night of the 19th with a heavy artillery barrage. The New Zealand Division was making a full-scale set-piece assault from the Via Emilia and the railway embankment with about 1600 infantrymen—three battalions of 6 Brigade and two of the 43rd Gurkha Lorried Infantry Brigade. The fire came down on most of the 6000-yard-wide stretch of ground between the Senio and the Faenza-Ravenna railway.

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The attack overlapped both the Panzer Grenadier and 278 Divisions' sectors. Eight regiments of field artillery laid down the line of creeping fire. Other field guns and about 100 medium guns sought out the bridgehead gun, mortar and headquarters positions. Heavy mortars, machine guns, and tanks assisted with diversionary and other tasks. Searchlight beams gave artificial moonlight. Red tracer shells of Bofors guns fired above the heads of the attacking infantry marked the lanes and directions of advance. The New Zealanders expected that their full-scale effort would surprise the defence. They thought it would be the cheapest way of winning the ground they wanted north of the Via Emilia and the railway embankment.

Polack's divisional artillery and mortars and the 76th Panzer Corps artillery acted with great promptitude. As no fire came down on them in the early stages of the attack, they were free to bring down the whole weight of their own fire on the New Zealanders. Heavy and accurate concentrations of shells and mortar bombs fell on the 6th Brigade's forming-up areas on the Via Emilia and the railway embankment, and on battalion areas south of the highway. The mortars caught 26 and 25 Battalions on the left and centre of the 6th Brigade front. Several men were killed; many more were wounded. Farther east, a Panzer Grenadier minefield took toll of one company of 24 Battalion, inflicting 15 casualties in one platoon. The New Zealanders' counter-battery fire against two of Polack's batteries fell on empty ground. The batteries had taken up alternative positions only an hour before the bombardment began. Even later in the night the New Zealanders' guns did not pay methodical attention to the German artillery. A thick curtain of fire came down, however, along the river line, between the new FDLs5 and the outpost positions. It was concluded that the New Zealanders had laid this curtain to prevent Panzer Grenadier divisional reserves from moving into the bridgehead and to prevent the battle outposts withdrawing over the Senio.

For two hours the wide and deep barrage moved forward from the vicinity of the railway embankment. The guns then turned their attention to the sectors where the attack was to be made. About 11.30 p.m. the second phase began. The wall of fire crept towards the la Palazza- San Pietro-San Silvestro road. The attackers came straight ahead, following close behind the advancing line of shells. To Polack's troops it seemed that certain batteries in the barrage were firing shells with no shrapnel effect, creating safe lanes in which the New Zealand infantry could come forward immediately behind the falling shells. The terrific noise made it impossible to distinguish these shells from shrapnel.6 The night was so pitch black that the New Zealand rifle companies were able to penetrate the battle outpost line, closing on Panzer Grenadier company and battalion headquarters while the forward outposts were still reporting ‘No sign of the enemy yet’. The heavy shellfire soon cut all the telephone lines; about midnight wireless communication also failed. From 1 a.m. it became completely impossible to co-ordinate the operations of the outposts. Each outpost group was forced to act on its own initiative in accordance with the order previously given: to make a fighting withdrawal over the Senio if attacked by a superior force.

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For the Panzer Grenadiers it became a matter of getting back. Old soldiers, taking their weapons with them, showed remarkable skill in making their way across the enemy-held ground, through the curtain of fire along the river and the minefields to the security of the new line on the western bank. Most of these men were back in the new line by midday on the 20th. The new soldiers —recent reinforcements—did not give so good a performance. Houses and slit trenches had given good protection even against the tremendous bombardment. Losses from shellfire had not been heavy. But the morale of many of the new men had been smashed. These were the men who did not return. General Polack thought they should have done better:

If the enemy penetrates the positions or breaks through, there are always opportunities for men to get back from enemy-occupied territory next day or next night. In the daylight a situation is never so hopeless as it seems at night.

About 2 a.m. the New Zealanders had closed up to their objectives towards the east bank of the Senio and along the road running south-east from la Palazza. The Gurkhas were further down the road in the San Silvestro area. The barrage ended. The attack was over. The New Zealand casualties totalled 120, most of which had been suffered when the battalions had been caught by Polack's mortars on their start lines. German prisoners totalled 180, but of this number only 86 were recorded by the New Zealanders as belonging to 15 Panzer Grenadier Regiment. The rest, it would appear, came from the neighbouring 278 Infantry Division.

To Polack the whole operation was a most satisfactory success for his 15th Panzer Grenadiers. Their aggressive defence had deceived the New Zealanders into making a major attack,7 using strong forces of infantry and wasting an enormous amount of ammunition–about 100,000 rounds.8 Yet only about one battalion of Panzer Grenadiers was engaged. Taken by and large, the New Zealand thrust was wasted. On the morning of 20 December Polack found that his casualties and losses were fewer than ever before, and that his regiment—and the division— remained largely intact. Above all, valuable time had been gained by his division to perfect the plans for its further defence.

The Senio line remained secure until Eighth Army's final offensive in April 1945.

1 This officer joined the German Army as an officer cadet in 1911, fought on the Western Front, and on Gallipoli with the Turkish Army. Discharged from the Army in 1920, he gained a doctorate in political economy and finally became a partner in a printing firm. In 1934 he rejoined the Army as a supplementary officer, transferring to the active list about two years later. In 1943 he was awarded the Knight's Cross as leader of a battle group in Sicily. He was promoted lieutenant-general in March 1945. His superiors'reports stated he was an excellent leader and an outstanding artilleryman.

2 The division took part in the campaigns in Poland and France, and in 1941 went to Russia where it was virtually destroyed at Stalingrad in January 1943. It was reformed and then went to the Italian theatre, where it fought in various operations until the surrender on 2 May 1945. Its full strength was 12,000 men, and it ended the war with a strength of 5400. The division was known as the ‘Falken’(falcon) Division, and was cited three times for distinguished action.

3 Acting in the place of Field Marshal Kesselring, who had been seriously injured when his car was involved in an accident on 23 October. Subsequently, as German Commander-in-Chief, von Vietinghoff negotiated the surrender of all German forces in Italy.

4 When interviewed in August 1945 Polack said there were 120 men of the Division on the south bank of the Senio after the withdrawal. [This number probably does not include supporting arms.]

5 Forward Defended Localities.

6 As far as can be ascertained only ordinary HE shells were used in the barrage. The second phase actually followed an arranged pause.

7 The New Zealanders knew that there had been a withdrawal by troops of 278 Infantry Division from the northern outskirts of Faenza, but up to the moment of the attack they did not really know whether 15 Panzer Grenadier Regiment ‘was falling back now or not, but at any rate it was too late to do anything’.

8 ‘We counted 94,000 shells in three and a half hours’, Polack later told a New Zealand officer. In point of fact, the Allied artillery could ill afford to expend large quantities of ammunition at this time.

The German sources used are:

  • ‘29 Panzer Grenadier Division Report on Fighting on the Italian Front, 16-20 December 1944’, incorporated in a pamphlet entitled ‘Preparations for Defensive Campaign in 1945’ issued by the Commander-in-Chief, South-West.

  • Daily reports of Commander-in-Chief, South-West, to OKH (High Command of the German Army), December 1944.

  • ‘29 Panzer Grenadier Division in Italy—GOC's reminiscences.’ (Recorded by a New Zealand Archives officer.) War diary of 10 Army.

  • Personal reports on German officers.