Italy Volume II : From Cassino to Trieste
I: The Sillaro River and Medicina
I: The Sillaro River and Medicina
ON 13 April Eighth Army had completed the first phase of the offensive begun on the 9th; three divisions—8 Indian and 2 New Zealand of 5 Corps and 3 Carpathian of 2 Polish Corps— were firmly established across the Santerno River, and an amphibious assault by 56 British Division of 5 Corps across the flooded ground south of Lake Comacchio had made some progress towards the Argenta Gap. The German 98th and 362 Infantry Divisions had been thrown back from the Senio River by the New Zealand and Indian divisions; 1 Parachute Corps, astride Route 9, had been compelled to pull back 26 Panzer Division, whose northernmost regiment had been outflanked by 5 Corps, and 4 Parachute Division, in the Apennine foothills, had to retire to conform with the 26th Panzer. Because of the progress made by 56 Division and 8 Indian Division, 42 Light Division had withdrawn from a salient at Alfonsine on Route 16, and the Italian Cremona Group had occupied this town and advanced along the highway to the Santerno River.
The enemy had not yet indicated where and when he intended to use his two reserve divisions, 29 and 90 Panzer Grenadier Divisions. The 90th was not expected to leave its central position until Fifth Army began its offensive, when General von Vietinghoff would be better able to assess the situation. The results achieved by Eighth Army's offensive so far did not indicate whether it should concentrate on the northward thrust through the Argenta Gap or the westward thrust from the Santerno bridgehead. General McCreery therefore decided to increase the weight of both thrusts to the limit of his resources. Orders were given for 78 Division to advance north from 8 Indian Division's bridgehead to Bastia, where Route 16 page 445 crosses the Reno River and enters the Argenta Gap, and for 56 Division to make another outflanking move across the flooded ground south of Lake Comacchio. Fifth Corps was to be relieved of participation in the westward thrust and concentrate on the task of breaching the Argenta Gap; to give the westward thrust the necessary momentum, Headquarters 13 Corps and 10 Indian Division were to be brought in on the right of 2 Polish Corps.
Thirteenth Corps, therefore, was ordered on 12 April to hand over its sector in the hills south of Route 9 to 10 Corps and to proceed into the Romagna plain. The boundary between the Polish Corps and 5 Corps (later between the Polish Corps and 13 Corps) was defined on 13 April so as to give the Poles an axis of advance passing through the towns of Medicina and Budrio, and 2 NZ Division (which transferred from 5 Corps to 13 Corps at 6 p.m. on the 14th) a parallel axis of advance passing to the north of these two towns.
The 56th Division's first amphibious operation had begun on the night of 10–11 April. Assisted by a Royal Marine commando advancing on its right flank, 169 Brigade had embarked from the Wedge (between the Reno River and Lake Comacchio) in a fleet of Fantails, crossed the floods south of the lake, captured the village of Menate, and linked up early on 12 April with 167 Brigade, which had advanced westward along the Reno River until near its confluence with the Santerno. The two brigades, however, made little further progress.
The 78th Division advanced on 13 April towards the Argenta Gap from the south, but 36 Brigade, after crossing the Scolo Fossatone, was checked at the village of Conselice, while 38 (Irish) Brigade, heading northwards between the Santerno and the Scolo Fossatone, was halted at the village of Cavamento, about two miles from Bastia. The 56th Division's second amphibious operation, which began the same day, met with little success because of the difficulties of the terrain and because the enemy reinforced this sector. The 24th Guards Brigade, using Fantails and with 9 Commando under command, was ordered to cross the floods east of Route 16 and advance on Argenta from the north-east. They landed little more than half a mile beyond the positions reached by 169 Brigade in the earlier amphibious operation, and could go no farther until the evening of 17 April.
Apparently the threat of amphibious attack had induced the enemy to commit 15 Panzer Grenadier Regiment of 29 Panzer Grenadier Division on the Lake Comacchio flank while the remnants of 42 Light Division defended Bastia and the Argenta Gap; later he committed 71 Panzer Grenadier Regiment of the 29th to page 446 the defence of Argenta. The opposition already encountered by 56 and 78 Divisions persuaded 5 Corps to deploy as many troops as possible and attack on a wide front.
The 78th Division's northward advance had caught 362 Infantry Division in the rear and thrown it into confusion, but the remnants of this division and of 42 Light Division, which had tried to stand against 56 Division, were organised into battle groups. One of these groups defended Bastia, which did not fall until early on 16 April. The 11th Brigade of 78 Division then passed through to the line of the Fossa Marina, a watercourse just south of Argenta. The assault on this line on the evening of 16 April began ‘the decisive battle which was to end nearly forty-eight hours later with the forcing of the Argenta Gap. The obstacle was stubbornly defended by the Panzer Grenadiers, but the leading British battalion managed to secure a small foothold on the far bank from which, in the course of several attacks on the morning of the 17th, the remainder of the brigade pressed forward passing by Argenta village to the east.’1
The 78th Division was assisted by 56 Division sending 169 Brigade across the floods to Fossa Marina. The arrival of this brigade and the advance of a commando along the Reno River to the west of the village ‘stretched the defenders of Argenta to breaking point.’2 The village was captured before midnight, and on 18 April 36 Brigade of 78 Division began a fresh series of attacks which breached the last of the enemy's prepared defences.
Meanwhile Fifth Army had opened its offensive towards the Po valley on 14 April, and Eighth Army's westward thrust from the Santerno River had crossed the Sillaro River and on the 17th reached the Gaiana, between Medicina and Budrio and about 10 miles from Bologna.
Until the arrival of 10 Indian Division the westward thrust from the Santerno was made by 2 NZ Division on the right and 2 Polish Corps on the left. By midday on 13 April the leading New Zealand troops were across the Scolo Zaniolo about a mile and a half beyond Massa Lombarda; north of the Massa Lombarda – Medicina railway 23 and 21 Battalions of 5 Brigade both had two companies over the canal. At this stage 5 Brigade was relieved by side-stepping 6 Brigade to the right and bringing in 9 Brigade on the left.
Ninth Brigade1 left positions near Lugo on the 12th and, after crossing the Santerno, advanced next day with 22 Battalion on the right, Divisional Cavalry Battalion on the left, and 27 Battalion in reserve with the role of protecting the left flank. Beyond the Canale dei Molini the leading companies (A and C) of 22 Battalion dismounted from the Kangaroos of 4 Hussars to mop up pockets of resistance in some houses, but brought the Kangaroos into use again when they found that they could not keep pace on foot with the tanks of C Squadron, 19 Regiment. The tanks, on the other hand, had difficulty in negotiating the ditches, drains and canals, and had to call on the engineers for assistance.
The 22nd Battalion and (on the left) Divisional Cavalry Battalion, the latter led by A Squadron in Kangaroos and supported by A Squadron of 19 Regiment, crossed the Scolo Zaniolo, Scolo Viola and Fosso Gambellara, and by evening were about two and a half miles west of Massa Lombarda. They had very few casualties and took 50-odd prisoners, among them men from 9 Panzer Grenadier Regiment of 26 Panzer Division, which suggested that this division was withdrawing north-westward and might offer the main opposition at the Sillaro River, where the remnants of 98 Division could not be expected to hold more than a small sector.
The tanks covering the enemy's withdrawal were engaged during the day by the New Zealand tanks, the artillery and the dive-bombers. A Panther which knocked out a tank in C Squadron of 19 Regiment in turn was set on fire by a direct hit by a 17-pounder Sherman of the same squadron. The medium guns set fire to two Tiger tanks and possibly damaged a third.
To secure a firm base for an attack to the Sillaro River (about six miles from the Santerno), which was planned for the early hours of 14 April, A and C Companies of 22 Battalion advanced in the evening of the 13th to the line of the next watercourse, the Fosso Squazzaloca, a mile and a half short of the river, and later A Squadron of Divisional Cavalry Battalion moved up on the left flank to conform.
The leading company (B) of 24 Battalion rode on the tanks of A Squadron, 20 Regiment, down the same road and, because of misleading information, went almost too far. ‘We careered happily down the road past the flabbergasted 26th to be halted suddenly by enemy tank fire,’ wrote Major Turbott,1 who was on the leading tank. ‘AP shells soon caused a quick dismount and hasty scatter for cover.’2 Turbott made contact with Lieutenant- Colonel Fairbrother and arranged for his company to work with 26 Battalion, which it did until later in the day, when D Company of the 24th joined B on the right of the 26th.
At the end of 13 April, therefore, the foremost troops of 6 Brigade were approximately the same distance from the Sillaro River north of the railway as were those of 9 Brigade south of the railway.
The 12th Royal Lancers (Lieutenant-Colonel K. E. Savill), which had come under the command of the New Zealand Division the previous day, was ordered to protect the right flank. Two squadrons of armoured cars set out on the 13th to probe the ground between the New Zealand Division and 78 Division (which of course was heading towards Bastia). They were delayed by the congestion of traffic on the roads, and in the afternoon were opposed by self-propelled guns and groups of infantry about two miles north-west of Massa Lombarda.
Divisional Headquarters had arrived in the morning at the southern outskirts of Massa Lombarda. General Freyberg ruefully commented on the devastation done by the bombing, ‘This place has been liberated by us!’3 General Keightley (5 Corps) called after lunch to discuss the situation and boundaries, but his talk with the GOC was abruptly interrupted by the arrival of some 105- millimetre shells. The two generals were among those who dived into ditches and slit trenches. At least two men were killed and 15 wounded, many of them in Divisional Signals. After an orders group conference in the afternoon the GOC decided to take Divisional Headquarters back behind the Santerno River.
2 Quoted in 24 Battalion, p. 324.
3 GOC's diary.
The Division was to capture the far stopbank of the Sillaro River on a front of 3200 yards. The attack was to be made by 24 and 26 Battalions of 6 Brigade and 22 and Divisional Cavalry Battalions of 9 Brigade. The artillery barrage was to begin at 2 a.m. on the 14th, pause for half an hour on the opening line (the Scolo Correcchio), advance at the rate of 100 yards in five minutes for 2500 yards, and pause for the final 15 minutes on a straight line 300 yards beyond the farthest bend in the Sillaro just north of the railway. On roads jammed with transport which raised clouds of choking dust, the artillery had succeeded in bringing forward across the Santerno five field regiments and two medium regiments with enough ammunition for a set-piece attack.
The GOC was concerned that slow progress by the Polish Corps might endanger his left flank. Fifth Brigade, therefore, was to detail a battalion with tanks to protect the flank south of Massa Lombarda if required, and in addition 12 Lancers was to keep contact between 9 Brigade and the Poles. Keightley told Freyberg by telephone at 9.45 p.m. that the Army Commander had assured him he would push the Poles along.
Sixth Brigade met virtually no opposition. On the right 24 Battalion's two or three casualties were believed to have been caused by shells falling short in the barrage. A Company saw no enemy on the way to the river, and occupied the far stopbank about 4.40 a.m. after overcoming very slight resistance there. C Company by 5 a.m. had reached the river on A's right without opposition.
C and D Companies of 26 Battalion also met only slight resistance. As D (on the left) approached the river it was harassed by tanks hull-down on the far bank, but this stopped when the artillery fired several concentrations. Both companies had very few casualties and were on the far stopbank by 5.30 a.m. They had taken about 20 prisoners from 278 Division, which had recently been in the mountains south of Route 9 but had arrived at the Sillaro on the morning of the 13th and dug in north of the village of Sesto Imolese to allow the battered 98 Division to pass through during the night.
By dawn on the 14th, therefore, both 24 and 26 Battalions had two companies dug in on the far bank of the Sillaro north of the Massa Lombarda – Medicina railway, and the two reserve companies of the 24th were on the flank between the river and the Scolo Correcchio; 25 Battalion guarded the flank between the Scolo Correcchio and the Scolo Zaniolo.
On the left B and D Squadrons of Divisional Cavalry Battalion made good progress against little opposition, and by 5 a.m. had occupied the far stopbank of the Sillaro near the village of Sesto Imolese. On the flank C Squadron was a few hundred yards from the river and A Squadron farther back towards the Scolo Correcchio, in rear of which 27 Battalion also took up positions defending the flank. At daybreak, however, only half of both B and D Squadrons of the Divisional Cavalry Battalion were across the Sillaro, and there were no bridges by which tanks could go to their assistance. Men still on the near side of the river discovered that they were overlooked by the Germans in Sesto Imolese. In the face of machine-gun and grenade fire Corporal Rawson1 led his section across the river and silenced three enemy posts.
The engineers had opened a route in each brigade sector, and the tanks of 19 and 20 Regiments went into positions where they could support the infantry at dawn or soon afterwards.
‘I hear the New Zealand Division has done it again,’ said General Keightley when he called on General Freyberg at 7.45 a.m. on 14 April. The GOC replied, ‘All we have tried to do was to anticipate Boche on the river and get our communications through and tanks up….’2
At an orders group conference in the morning Brigadier Gentry (9 Brigade) said that if the enemy kept up his mortar fire there could be no question of bridging the Sillaro that day. Colonel Hanson claimed it would require an 80-foot bridge, but it would not be as big a task as bridging the Santerno, provided that the engineers could get to the river to work; he believed it could be done that night. Brigadier Parkinson said 20 Armoured Regiment thought it might be able to get tanks across a ford towards 6 Brigade's right flank. ‘If you can get tanks across and get out on to the road on the far side of the river,’ the GOC told him, ‘then the bridgehead is established and you will have done away with the set-piece attack.’3 It was agreed to wait until 1.30 p.m. before deciding whether or not to make a set-piece attack.
Keightley called again in the morning; this was his last visit before the Division passed from the command of 5 Corps to 13 Corps (at 6 p.m. on the 14th). The GOC told him that he wanted an extra 25-pounder regiment and another 5.5-inch regiment. Lieutenant- General Sir John Harding (13 Corps) arrived shortly afterwards and said his policy would be to keep going on the present axis and to feed in 10 Indian Division on the right or the left of the New Zealand Division depending on how things went.
1 Divisional Cavalry, p. 401
3 GOC's papers.
The Division had met less resistance than expected on the Sillaro, but the troops occupying the far bank came under fire from the enemy dug in and occupying strongpoints along the line of a lateral road beyond the river. It seemed that the enemy had purposely kept his main defence line clear of the stopbanks in anticipation of a bombardment and flame attack similar to those employed at the Senio. By not manning the stopbanks, however, he had deprived himself of a chance of halting the attack short of the river.
The attempt by infantry from 24 Battalion and tanks from 20 Regiment to ford the river about 400 yards outside the right boundary did not succeed. The first tank, although equipped with ‘grousers’,1 could not climb the steep bank on the far side; it remained in the river under desultory fire until another tank towed it out. In the evening about 60 Germans approached the ford but were dispersed by shellfire. Parkinson told the GOC that the enemy had ‘found out about his plot … and that idea has now been given up.’2
The infantry holding the stopbanks were supported by artillery counter-battery and defensive-fire tasks, gunfire from the tanks, and fighter-bomber attacks on targets not far from the river. The 5th Medium Regiment's guns damaged a Tiger tank and started a large fire where two others were located. The enemy's shell and mortar fire exacted retribution. An observation post from 5 Medium Regiment with 9 Brigade received a direct hit which caused several casualties. A battery commander (Major Macindoe3) and another man from 4 Field Regiment were mortally wounded when a shell struck the window of the room in which they had an observation post. Two tanks in 19 Regiment were damaged. The severity of the fire retarded the work of the engineers. A reconnaissance party from 6 Field Company was unable to get within 300 yards of the river to select sites for two bridges in 9 Brigade's sector, but 8 Field Company found a suitable place for a bridge and a possible Ark crossing in 6 Brigade's sector.
1 Steel extensions to the tank's tracks to widen them and prevent sinking into soft ground.
Ninth Brigade's task on the night of 14–15 April was to complete the occupation of the far stopbank of the Sillaro on its front. The plan was for the artillery and mortars, starting at 8 p.m., to fire concentrations for half an hour, after which 22 Battalion was to make a silent crossing with B and D Companies. If this attack failed, the battalion was to launch another at 2.30 a.m. with the aid of eight Crocodiles and six Wasps.
Two platoons each from B and D Companies of the 22nd waded or swam the river and dug in on the far bank; they took a handful of prisoners from 278 Division at very small cost to themselves. The enemy continued his harassing shell and mortar fire, but the New Zealand artillery's ‘stonks’ and ‘murders’ dealt severely with self-propelled guns, mortars, vehicles and other targets, helped to drive off a counter-attack on D Company's front by some 30 Germans supported by bazookas and spandaus, and also repelled a party probing towards B Company.
Shortly before 22 Battalion crossed the river, enemy activity was noticed on Divisional Cavalry Battalion's front in the vicinity of Sesto Imolese; infantry appeared to be working towards D Squadron, on the left flank. This counter-attack—if it was one—was beaten off with the assistance of the artillery. The battalion adjusted its positions by easing out to the left; it then had troops on the far bank south of Sesto Imolese.
Meanwhile, about midnight, 24 Battalion was relieved by the 25th, which put C and D Companies on the stopbanks north of the railway. D Company of the 24th stayed to guard the ford outside the Division's right boundary. The foremost infantry heard the movement of vehicles at dawn on the 15th, but observation was hampered by fog, although C Company caught sight of a tank which withdrew when engaged by a Piat. On several occasions tanks or self-propelled guns were heard a few hundred yards away, apparently moving from south to north.
During the day the enemy's positions beyond the river were ‘softened’ by continual air attacks and artillery concentrations, which had the effect of diminishing his shelling and mortaring. With the assistance of the air observation post 5 Medium Regiment bombarded Sesto Imolese all afternoon, and demonstrated ‘the great power of the 5.5 shell’.1
1 War diary, 5 Med Regt.
A gap of 600 yards was discovered between 26 and 22 Battalions, probably the result of a discrepancy in the boundaries given in 6 and 9 Brigades' orders. The two battalions closed up to seal the gap, in which B Company of 22 Battalion took 15 prisoners. A Wasp flamed a house at the bend of the river north of the railway to silence a machine-gun post whose enfilade fire had been troubling the 22nd, and the enemy was seen running away.
On the Division's extreme left flank a troop of C Squadron, Divisional Cavalry Battalion, was counter-attacked and, after a vigorous exchange of grenades, was forced to withdraw from the far side of the river. Supported by tanks of B Squadron, 19 Regiment, the other two troops of C Squadron regained the position. One of the tanks was set on fire by a nebelwerfer.
General Freyberg told an orders group conference on the morning of 15 April that the divisional attack had been called off the previous night because the artillery preparation was too hurried. Now, instead of one, the Division would have three medium regiments, as well as the artillery of 6 British Armoured Division and a 155-millimetre battery. The attack was to start at 9 p.m., and the object was to pass two regiments of tanks through the bridgehead and continue the advance beyond the Sillaro River. The artillery barrage was to be 2000 yards in depth, with an extra 600 yards to be taken up in the early stages on 6 Brigade's front (which curved back to the east). The GOC said the brigades were to ‘push on when your armour is over and try to exploit across the open country past the final objective under cover of darkness, otherwise 6 Brigade will be held up by Tigers.’1
Opposite the New Zealanders from Sesto Imolese northwards was 278 Division; south of the village were 26 Panzer Division and then 4 Parachute Division. The 278th was believed to have four battalions about 300 to 500 yards from the far stopbank of the Sillaro, another battalion in reserve, and up to 15 Tiger or Panther tanks in support. The GOC told Parkinson that the Division would be attacking with an advantage in men of two and a half to one, ‘and I think he is going to hold in depth—hold with infantry or Tiger tanks. If they start to try and get away, I think we can bazooka them.’2
Sixth Brigade attacked with 25 Battalion on the right and the 26th on the left; 24 Battalion, in reserve, was to be responsible for protection of the right flank.
The 25th encountered German infantry in strongpoints and trenches, supported by tanks or self-propelled guns. Both leading companies (C and D) reported the presence of tanks. D (on the left) claimed at 10.15 p.m. that it had knocked out two. A Company, following in reserve, reported nine minutes later that the supporting tanks were with it, but as the New Zealand tanks had not yet crossed the Sillaro, these obviously were enemy; the company therefore engaged them, and claimed that it knocked out one. C Company also reported that it had engaged tanks and probably knocked out two, which it declared were Tigers. Later, however, these claims were contradicted by a statement that no Tigers had been encountered and that most of the reported tanks were self-propelled or assault guns.3 One of these had been set on fire by Sergeant Mitchinson,4 who dashed towards it with a Piat and at very short range scored three direct hits. Its crew then fired on him, but he killed three of them with his tommy gun.
1 Under 6 Bde's command were 20 Armd Regt, 33 A-Tk Bty, half of 34 Mor Bty and a company of 6 Fd Amb, and in support were 6 Fd Regt, 142 Army Fd Regt and a battery of 5 Med Regt. Under 9 Bde's command were C Sqn 4 Hussars (Kangaroos), 19 Armd Regt, 31 A-Tk Bty, half of 34 Mor Bty and a company of 4 Fd Amb, and in support were 4 Fd Regt, 1 RHA and a battery of 5 Med Regt. Under 5 Bde's command were 18 Armd Regt, 32 A-Tk Bty and a company of 5 Fd Amb, and in support was 5 Fd Regt.
2 The barrage was fired by the three New Zealand field regiments, 1, 12 and 104 RHA, and 152 Fd Regt; concentrations were fired by 142 Army Fd Regt, 5 and 75 Med Regts and the Polish medium guns, a counter-battery programme by 76 Med Regt and 61 Bty (155-mm.) of 32 Hy Regt, and a counter-mortar programme by a battery each of 142 Regt and 55 Hy AA Regt.
3 A subsequent search in 6 Bde's sector found no tanks but three self-propelled guns which had been knocked out on the night of 15–16 April.
Early in the attack 26 Battalion met infantry resistance which soon crumbled, and took so many prisoners that the reserve companies had to assist in escorting them to the rear. German tanks (or self-propelled guns) were heard moving about, but none was seen. Shortly after midnight the leading companies of both 25 Battalion (C and D) and 26 Battalion (B and A) were on the objective, a lateral road north of the village of Fantazza. The reserve companies of the 25th took up positions protecting the right flank. About 180 prisoners had been captured, the majority of them by 26 Battalion, and many enemy had been killed by the bombardment or the infantry.
The engineers constructed two crossings over the Sillaro for 6 Brigade: 8 Field Company completed a drum and fascine culvert about a quarter of a mile downstream from the railway soon after 1 a.m. and, although hampered by machine-gun, shell and mortar fire, a 40-foot Bailey bridge a quarter of a mile farther downstream three hours later. The tanks crossed the culvert when it was ready, and by 6 a.m. on 16 April C Squadron of 20 Regiment was deployed with 26 Battalion, and B Squadron with the 25th; both battalions also had their support weapons with them.
It had been intended to place an Ark bridge at the ford just outside the Division's right boundary. Sappers from 8 Field Company blew a gap in the stopbank in the evening of the 15th, but E Assault Squadron, RAC/RE, was prevented from completing the task. A German counter-attack on this flank was broken up by artillery defensive fire and mortar stonks, but the party from D Company of 24 Battalion, which was to have protected the engineers, was forced off the bank, and (according to a message from 24 Battalion to the 25th at 2.40 a.m.) the Ark ‘was last seen heading up North with the tail and arms trailing on the ground as it went’— presumably driven by the enemy.
Ninth Brigade attacked with 22 Battalion on the right and 27 Battalion (which passed through Divisional Cavalry Battalion) on the left. Divisional Cavalry was to cover the flank in rear of the 27th and was to ensure that the enemy was mopped up in Sesto Imolese.
The 22nd met moderate opposition, including shell, machine-gun and small-arms fire, while advancing near the railway north of Sesto Imolese. By midnight A Company (on the right) was on the objective in the Fantazza area, but C Company appeared to be held up by enemy infantry at a lateral road about a quarter of a page 458 mile short of the objective. At dawn Corporal Anderson1 left the house which two platoons had occupied and, armed with a tommy gun, walked towards the Germans in their trenches and demanded their surrender. Others from C Company went out to support him. ‘As Anderson grabbed at an enemy rifle about thirty Germans rose, dropped their weapons, moved forward, and were collected. Then Anderson fell, his left arm (later amputated) severely shattered by a concealed tommy-gunner.’2
The 27th Battalion attacked with 1 and 3 Companies leading. On the right 1 Company, after clearing Sesto Imolese, continued the advance ‘through grape-vines and their fences slowing things down and causing much cursing when shovels and picks kept getting hung up in the wires. Other than mortaring and shelling we struck nothing until after we crossed a road just short of our objective.’3 At a house where Lieutenant Nicol4 (who took command when Major Frazer5 was wounded) intended to set up Company Headquarters, ‘we ran into a tank parked in the yard. In the heavy fog I actually walked into the side of it without seeing it. Just as I hit it, its motor started up with a roar and it took off in a tearing hurry out onto the road and disappeared….’6
2 22 Battalion, p. 428.
3 W. S. Nicol, quoted in 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion, p. 473.
6 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion, p. 473.
7 L-Cpl J. L. Tucker, m.i.d.; born NZ 18 Apr 1906; carpenter; killed in action 16 Apr 1945.
8 Pte D. C. McIntyre, MM; Bluff; born NZ 23 Dec 1914; slaughterman; wounded 15 Apr 1945.
Another tank, probably a Tiger, was found at a house on the far side of the crossroads. ‘It seemed to be smoking and appeared to have engine trouble, which led me to believe it had already been attacked,’ wrote Corporal Tanner.1 ‘We [three men] hit it and it tore off…. It stopped, we made another strike, whereupon it staggered off as we pursued it with the last of our phosphorus grenades. It took a desperate zigzag course across country and eventually burst into a great sheet of flame, where it could be seen next day, a gutted wreck.’2
In 3 Company only 15 Platoon had reached the objective at daybreak, but in its first action as infantry the former machine-gun company definitely had accounted for four German tanks. Tucker, who had attacked three of them single-handed, was found dead at the crossroads.
After 27 Battalion had passed through, B Squadron of Divisional Cavalry Battalion entered Sesto Imolese to mop up any enemy who might still be there. Divisional Cavalry then took up positions watching the left flank. The 6th Field Company built two low-level Bailey bridges over the Sillaro for 9 Brigade. One was completed south of Sesto Imolese by 1.30 a.m.; the other, north of the railway, took three or four hours longer because of enemy fire. By dawn on the 16th all three squadrons of 19 Armoured Regiment were across the river, C with 22 Battalion, A with the 27th, and B in reserve with Divisional Cavalry, and the supporting arms were also with the battalions.
The Division was able to report a satisfactory situation to 13 Corps at 6 a.m. The attack had reached its objective; resistance had been strong on both flanks but ‘patchy’ in the centre; more than 260 Germans had been taken prisoner and seven or eight tanks or self-propelled guns had been knocked out or captured; four bridges had been constructed and the armour was with the infantry.
At 7 a.m., in a thick mist, the Division began to exploit about 1000 yards to the next bound, which ran south-westwards along the Scolo Scolatore and to the crossroads at the village of Crocetta. It took 6 Brigade about an hour to get there, but 9 Brigade could not make the same progress. In the Fantazza area 22 Battalion ran into heavy shell and mortar fire, and on the left flank 4 and 2 Companies of 27 Battalion (after passing through 1 and 3) encountered enemy, who included men of 4 Parachute Division more reluctant to surrender than those from the other German divisions.
2 Quoted in 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion, p. 476.
Major Cox, in an appreciation of the situation he gave the orders group conference on the morning of 16 April, said that the chief change since the previous day was the definite movement of 4 Parachute Division to the New Zealand sector. The Poles had crossed the Sillaro, and according to intercepted enemy information, the German parachutists had been told to drop back north-west- wards. The 26th Panzer Division was being squeezed out and it appeared that the enemy was anxious to get it into reserve. The latest New Zealand attack had practically wiped out a battalion of 278 Division, which was now left with about one and a half regiments, possibly two. ‘We can now expect stronger resistance on the left flank…. We should now run into a belt with less tank interference….’1
A captured enemy map showed (in General Freyberg's words) ‘that the Boche knew where we were and put the whole of his tank battalion opposite us. I think we are now through the heavy mine belt. Our objective now is to destroy as many of his tanks as possible. It will then be comparatively easy.’2
Lieutenant-Colonel Savill reported that armoured cars of 12 Lancers had crossed the Sillaro at 7.30 a.m. and were pushing out to the north. The 10th Indian Division (coming up on the right) also had patrols over the river. The GOC told Savill to ‘keep very closely in touch with 6 Brigade because it looks as though there is more looseness on the right flank than anywhere else.’3
It was decided that 5 Brigade should relieve the 6th that night, and that the plan for the 16th would be for 6 Brigade to go as far as the Scolo Sillaro Menata and for 9 Brigade to keep on the left flank and try to get around and behind the resistance about Crocetta.
On the right 25 Battalion reached the Scolo Fenile shortly after midday and the Scolo Sillaro Menata during the next hour. B Squadron of 20 Regiment lost a tank when an armour-piercing shot set it alight. The assault engineers constructed a fascine crossing over the wide Sillaro Menata, which the tanks were able to use by 4 p.m. The tanks and infantry then went on to the Scolo Montanara, where they were established about 7 p.m.
Both 26 and 22 Battalions came under shell and mortar fire when the early morning mist lifted. Artillery concentrations were directed on a group of houses which enemy rearguards were suspected to be holding. The 26th did not move again until midday, and then advanced to the Scolo Sillaro Menata; when the engineers had completed the crossing for tanks in 25 Battalion's sector, the 26th continued on till about 4.15 p.m. At a lateral road A Company met slight resistance and captured two field guns and some 40-odd Germans from 278 Division. By 7 p.m. 26 Battalion also was at the Scolo Montanara.
After a day's advance of about two and a quarter miles, therefore, both 25 and 26 Battalions were on the line of the Montanara, which the enemy had proposed to hold, according to statements from prisoners of war apparently confirmed by earthworks. Meanwhile 24 Battalion, still guarding the right flank, was strung out from the Scolo Scolatore back towards the Sillaro River. In the gap which had opened up between it and 25 Battalion were two squadrons of 12 Lancers, whose patrols to the north and north-west bumped into small pockets of enemy which took time to clear without the help of infantry.
Orders had been given for the relief of 6 Brigade by the 5th that night. During the seven days since the crossing of the Senio River, 6 Brigade had captured nearly 600 prisoners (out of a total of 2200 who had passed through the divisional cage) and had destroyed or captured a number of tanks, self-propelled guns and field guns. The brigade's casualties had been 30 killed and 180 wounded.
Two troops of Kangaroos joined 27 Battalion late in the afternoon, after 4 and 2 Companies had reached the Scolo Sillaro Menata. The Kangaroos were allotted to 1 and 3 Companies, which went ahead at 5 p.m., followed by 2 and 4 riding on the tanks of A Squadron, 19 Regiment, and on Battalion Headquarters' Kangaroos. The rate of advance was limited only by the time it took the assault engineers to provide crossings over the canals and drains. By 5.45 p.m. the leading companies had reached the Scolo Montanara and made contact with the enemy. They debussed and dug in along the canal while the Kangaroos went back a short distance to laager. Patrols later in the night did not meet the enemy, who obviously had gone.
Divisional Cavalry Battalion, still with the role of left flank protection, moved in the late afternoon towards the Scolo Sillaro Menata in rear of the 27th. Ninth Brigade advised Divisional Headquarters in the evening that the number of prisoners it had taken in the 24 hours ending at 5 p.m. was 330, plus nearly 50 evacuated through medical channels. The total since the start of the offensive was about 500.
At an orders group conference at 5 p.m. on the 16th General Freyberg took a very bright view of the prospects: ‘I think we are pushing him back and forcing him to withdraw along Route 9 as the Poles have not taken many prisoners. He is on the verge of a very big decision about going back. I think if he does not do it in two or three days it will be too late. The Staff estimate it will take him three weeks to get out of the hills in the West. He will hold at every obstacle on the front to gain time for that. Most people think he has left it too late.’1page 463
Ahead of the New Zealand Division, between Medicina and Budrio, were several small streams or canals—the Gaiana, the Acquarolo, the Quaderna and its tributary the Fossatone, and the Centonara Vecchia—and beyond Budrio was the more considerable Idice River, into which these watercourses drained. It was to the Idice that the conference now turned its attention. Preliminary information showed that it was no wider than any other river the Division had crossed, and the stopbanks resembled those on the Sillaro. The GOC thought it might need a certain amount of boating, for which they would have to be prepared. The enemy might fight small delaying actions forward of the Idice, but the General thought he was going back behind it.
The intentions for the night of 16–17 April were to go as far as the Division reasonably could, then get some sleep and go on again at daylight. ‘There is one point—we are getting tired,’ said the GOC. ‘It is essential that the reserve brigades and the reserve battalions are out of the battle. We will be going on for another five days.’1
After the conference the information was received that 43 Lorried Infantry Brigade had taken Medicina. General Freyberg then told Brigadier Bonifant to get 5 Brigade to the Canale di Medicina, north of the town. He also advised Brigadier Gentry that 43 Brigade was to be under the New Zealand Division's command and on 9 Brigade's left. The Division would then continue the advance with these two brigades. Ninth Brigade would have an exposed right flank until 10 Indian Division arrived, whenever that might be. The GOC reiterated his belief that the enemy had ‘taken a very big decision and is going right back. If so then tomorrow we may approach the Idice, unless he stays on the Quaderna….’2
The New Zealand Division was to sidestep to the left by taking over 2000 yards of the Polish Corps' sector (to 43 Brigade's left boundary) and handing over about 2000 yards to 10 Indian Division. General Harding informed the GOC in a telephone conversation that he had told 10 Indian Division ‘to get a move on and take over from your right boundary. There is every indication that the Boche has withdrawn and I do not think Denis [Major- General Reed, GOC 10 Indian Division] can catch up with you tomorrow.’ The corps commander also asked Freyberg to keep his ammunition expenditure low ‘unless there is something really worth throwing it at.’3
The railway line from Medicina to Budrio was to be the Division's thrust line and inter-brigade boundary. The GOC told the brigade major of 43 Brigade that 9 Brigade ‘will come level with you tomorrow morning. Be ready to start. Tell your Brigadier [Barker] how delighted I am to have him with us. It is the “old firm” again.’1 The 43rd Brigade came under the command of the Division at midnight.
Fifth Brigade had left Massa Lombarda area in the late afternoon of the 16th. The 23rd and 21st Battalions, each with a squadron of 18 Armoured Regiment in support, passed through 6 Brigade at the Scolo Montanara about 9 a.m., and well before midnight had reached the limit for the night's advance without opposition. The Maori Battalion, also with a squadron of 18 Regiment in support, replaced 24 Battalion on the right flank, with companies spaced between the Sillaro River and 23 Battalion.
Early on the 17th 23 and 21 Battalions set off again, rounded up a few stragglers, reached the lateral road running through Ganzanigo about 6 a.m., and the Canale di Medicina about half an hour later. The German equipment found in the brigade's sector, most of it apparently knocked out by air attacks, included 13 105-millimetre guns, a Panther tank, a self-propelled gun, five infantry guns and five anti-tank guns. When a brigade of 10 Indian Division passed through about 1.30 p.m., 5 Brigade again went into reserve. By this time the number of prisoners it had captured since the start of the offensive on 9 April had passed 1000.
1 GOC's diary.