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Italy Volume II : From Cassino to Trieste

II: The Account Squared with the Parachutists

II: The Account Squared with the Parachutists


‘If the Idice proves tough I want to step back from it, and bomb and shell it. Halt 9 Brigade and 43 Gurkha Brigade, put the other two brigades [5 and 6] through to establish a bridgehead, tidy your two [9 and 43] brigades up and put you through the bridgehead, get right out beyond and try to make a break,’2 General Freyberg told Brigadiers Gentry (9 Brigade), Barker (43 Brigade) and Queree (CRA), and Colonels Gilbert (GSO I) and Cook3 (AA and QMG) at Headquarters 43 Brigade on the morning of 17 April. Queree listed the formidable array of artillery available for the task: six regiments plus a battery of 25-pounder and 105-millimetre

2 GOC's papers.

3 Lt-Col J. P. Cook, OBE, m.i.d.; Dunedin; born Wellington, 3 May 1917; law clerk; DAQMG 2 NZ Div, Aug 1943–Jan 1944; AA & QMG 2 NZ Div, Dec 1944–Nov 1945.

page 465 guns, five regiments plus a battery of 5.5-inch gun-howitzers, a regiment of 4.5-inch guns, a battery of 7.2-inch guns, a battery of 155-millimetre guns, and eight 3.7-inch anti-aircraft guns.

It did not seem likely that the Division would meet strong opposition before the Idice River. Apparently the conference expected no resistance at the Gaiana,1 towards which 9 and 43 Brigades had begun to advance. Pushing on as fast as they could, 22 and 27 Battalions of 9 Brigade were across the Canale di Medicina before 8 a.m. The supporting tanks of A and C Squadrons of 19 Regiment had some difficulty in passing this obstacle, but were assisted by 28 Assault Squadron, which kept close behind the leading troops. Two hours later the two battalions passed the Fosso Sillaro, and about midday they reached the village of Villa Fontana, some 1000 yards short of the Gaiana.

Between the village and this small river, which flowed between stopbanks like so many the Division had left behind, a flat approach gave no cover other than a few ditches; from the left of the village the embankment of the Medicina-Budrio railway led to a demolished bridge, and from near the right of the village the Budrio road led to another demolished bridge. Major Titchener,2 who commanded 2 Company of 27 Battalion on 9 Brigade's left flank, took a foot patrol to the railway station, from which it could be seen quite clearly that the enemy was holding the near stopbank.

The 27th advanced towards the Gaiana with 2 Company alongside the railway embankment and 4 Company (on the right) on the Budrio road. At a speed which apparently took the enemy by surprise Headquarters 2 Company and 10 Platoon, in Kangaroos accompanied by a troop of A Squadron's tanks, drove right up to the stopbank, where the men debussed under the shelter of the bank while the tanks held the enemy at bay. Second-Lieutenant Vazey3 left his tank to observe the enemy from the stopbank and returned to direct his troop's shooting until his tank was knocked out and he was wounded. Lance-Corporal Hutchison,4 of 10 Platoon made a solo dash over the crest of the bank, killed a German, wounded another and took a prisoner.

Titchener's plan was that if the first platoon reached the stop-bank the other two were to be called up and the company would cross the Gaiana. All three platoons arrived at the stopbank with

1 For simplification the Torrente Gaiana, Torrente Quaderna and Torrente Idice are called rivers. There is no mention of the Gaiana in the reports of the conferences on 16 April and the morning of the 17th.

2 Lt-Col W. F. Titchener, MC and bar; Ahmedabad, India; born Dunedin, 14 Dec 1907; public accountant; CO 27 Bn (J Force) May 1946–Mar 1947; wounded 2 Nov 1942.

3 Lt R. A. Vazey, MC; Awanui; born Awanui, 15 Oct 1917; driver; wounded 17 Apr 1945.

4 Sgt C. E. L. Hutchison, MM; Wellington; born Wellington, 11 Feb 1921; insurance clerk; wounded 2 May 1945.

page 466 very few casualties. At this point, however, Lieutenant-Colonel Sanders1 ordered 2 Company to stop. The men had left their digging tools in the Kangaroos, which had withdrawn and had to be persuaded to return with them. Casualties among the unprotected infantry were caused by the supporting artillery and the tanks supporting the Gurkhas on 9 Brigade's left, as well as by the enemy's fire. The company, therefore, was reorganised into two platoons, one with Company Headquarters based at a house in a bend in the stopbank near the railway, and the other on the stop-bank itself farther to the right (north).

From the upper windows of the house the men retaliated against the German snipers and killed or wounded several. ‘The rest of the afternoon we spent trying to keep the enemy from using the steep bank as an observation point. We used Artillery, 2″ mortars, small arms fire, and also called in the Air Force who did particularly good work with close support bombing…. It was only by the grace of God and a lack of aggressiveness on the enemy's part that 2 Company was not overrun. We were stretched in a thin red line along the stopbank with both flanks open and a determined assault may have dealt with us very quickly. In fact I do not think the enemy realised we had [only] one Company in that sector.’2

The Germans opened fire with a variety of weapons, including faustpatronen, on 4 Company's Kangaroos when they drove along the Budrio road towards the Gaiana. The leading platoon (No. 16) turned off to the right behind a house, where casualties occurred while the men were climbing out of the Kangaroos. Only 17 Platoon reached the stopbank, but left the entrenching tools in the Kangaroos; and as the men could not dig in, their effective strength was reduced to three or four by the enemy's enfilading fire from both flanks and by the fire of the supporting tanks and artillery. Meanwhile 18 Platoon was obliged to take shelter about 150 yards from the stopbank in a lateral ditch, on which the enemy was able to range with his mortars. This platoon also had many casualties.

The officer commanding 4 Company (Major Bullen3) noticed that the enemy, who apparently had concentrated his force farther north (opposite the approaching 22 Battalion), had quickly switched his infantry to 27 Battalion's front. Through his glasses he could see the Germans diving across the gap in the bank where the bridge

1 Col G. P. Sanders, DSO, m.i.d.; Auckland; born England, 2 Sep 1908; Regular soldier; BM 4 Bde 1940–41; GSO II NZ Div Apr–Dec 1941; CO 26 Bn Jun–Jul 1944; 27 (MG) Bn Nov 1944–Oct 1945; 27 Bn (J Force) Oct 1945–May 1946; Director of Training, Army HQ, 1949–53; Commander, Fiji Military Forces, 1956–58.

2 W. F. Titchener, quoted in 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion, p. 484.

3 Brig A. B. Bullen, CBE, DSO, ED; Canberra; born Otahuhu, 25 Feb 1916; cashier; wounded 30 Apr 1945.

page 467 used to span the river. ‘The right flank was wide open and remained so until 22 came up under cover of 25 pdr. smoke…. By the time Kangaroos had removed the wounded we found ourselves theoretically occupying 350 yards of stop-bank with a coy. H.Q. and remnants of 16 Platoon, totalling 9 or 10 men on one flank and about 3 in Jessup's [17 Platoon]1 position on the other….’2 All the platoon commanders were wounded, two sergeants dead and the third wounded.

It was intended that 1 Company should replace 4, but Bullen withdrew his surviving men before the relief arrived. At dusk the enemy had set fire to the house occupied by nine or ten men of 16 Platoon and Company Headquarters, and as he had received no orders from Battalion Headquarters since the start of the attack and no reply to wireless messages relayed through the artillery, Bullen decided ‘that there was little purpose in being cooked, so I gave orders for the remaining few troops to make a run for it. Which they did.’3

Sanders ordered 1 Company, which had been in reserve near Villa Fontana, to occupy the near stopbank when darkness fell. This the company did without interference, with a platoon on each side of the road. Thus 27 Battalion had secured a foothold on the bank. Its casualties on 17 April were 19 killed and 64 wounded.4

After passing Villa Fontana 22 Battalion planned to push to the Gaiana with B Company leading in Kangaroos accompanied by tanks from C Squadron, 19 Regiment, followed by D in a second line in support, and then by C on foot in reserve. It was intended that B Company, after securing the near stopbank, should establish a bridgehead over the river, and that D should pass through and enlarge the bridgehead or gain the next bound. This plan, however, had to be abandoned: instead, B Company was to gain a strong foothold on the near stopbank.

The mortars laid a smokescreen across the immediate front, and B Company's Kangaroos advanced into intense mortar and small-arms fire. They stopped 30 or 40 yards from the stopbank. ‘The first thing we saw as we jumped out of the Kangaroos was a line of paratroopers’ heads and shoulders above the bank, firing at us. Not one man in the platoon was hit in the charge to the stop-bank, thanks to the covering fire, small arms, etc., from the Kangaroos and other sources. A hand-grenade battle then followed. Never have I seen anyone dig so fast and furiously in all my life.

1 Lt R. W. Jessup; Howick; born Auckland, 1 Jul 1919; schoolteacher; wounded 17 Apr 1945.

2 A. B. Bullen, quoted in 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion, p. 486.

3 Ibid, p. 487.

4 Of the 78 men of 4 Company who went into the attack, 10 were killed and 36 wounded.

page 468 The ground was like concrete. We cussed another crowd who had borrowed our sharp shovels earlier, and never returned them. The paratroopers seemed to have an endless supply of grenades which they rolled over the bank. So to fool and annoy them (and also to save our own supply of grenades) we would occasionally throw over empty bully beef tins or sods of dirt…. The Teds1 fired two bazookas into a Kangaroo on our left flank which burst into flames, causing the ammunition on board to explode. The noise and heat was terrific.’2

One of the Kangaroos did not get near the stopbank. It ‘bumped and jolted along with funereal speed until our Tommy driver ran us into a large ditch. The Kangaroo pitched nose downwards and became immovable. Everyone scrambled out and started to run forward in the open field to the nearest house about 120 yards away. The whole section made it without mishap.’3 By 4.30 p.m. B Company of 22 Battalion was strung out along the stopbank for about half a mile or so north of the road. The 22nd's casualties were only one killed and five wounded, and 19 Regiment, whose tanks had supported both 22 and 27 Battalions, had lost one killed and six wounded. Two squadrons of Divisional Cavalry Battalion dug in behind the 22nd to protect 9 Brigade's right flank.


Meanwhile, on the morning of 17 April, 2 Battalion of 6 Gurkha Rifles, in Kangaroos, led 43 Lorried Infantry Brigade's advance along the Medicina-Bologna road, south of the railway on 9 NZ Brigade's left boundary. The supporting tanks of 2 Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment, went ahead and reported that the Gaiana was held by the enemy. A and D Companies of 2/6 Gurkhas, ordered to cross on a wide front, attacked about midday. They took the enemy by surprise, but suffered many casualties before some of their men reached the objective beyond the river. They began to take prisoners from 4 Parachute Division, but when the enemy ‘saw the state of our men they grabbed up arms again and dived into trenches, and got away.’4 Late in the afternoon every Gurkha who had crossed the river had been killed or wounded, ‘but they held on until no ammo left and came back at last light.’5

Major Titchener, whose 2 Company of 27 Battalion was nearest to the Gurkhas, was totally unaware of their daylight attack across

1 ‘Teds': short for the Italian Tedeschi, meaning Germans.

2 Eye-witness account quoted in 22 Battalion, pp. 429–30.

3 Ibid., p. 429.

4 War diary, 2/6 Gurkha Rifles.

5 Ibid.

page 469 the river. ‘Perhaps I was too interested in my own sector but I neither saw nor heard any sound of fighting on my left.’1

At a divisional conference in mid-afternoon, just before the Gurkhas began their attack, Brigadiers Barker and Gentry reported on the opposition 43 and 9 Brigades already had encountered, but General Freyberg was still looking ahead to the Idice: ‘I think we are up against a screen—a good shelling is what they need. You will both keep pushing on after dark. You should get through easily at night. Push, but no further than the next ditch during daylight. There will no doubt be a battle on the Idice.’2 He wanted 9 and 43 Brigades to keep going until they were close to the Idice, and 5 and 6 Brigades then to ‘go in in a properly co-ordinated attack after one afternoon at least of proper softening. If we can paste him on that then there will be only the Reno and the Po.’3 Ninth and 43 Brigades were to be made completely mobile; 5 Brigade would be lorry-borne and it and 6 Brigade in turn would have to be shuttled forward in lorries; as many bridges as possible were to be put over the Idice; the use of parachutists to secure a bridgehead on the Reno or the Po was being studied. ‘I will put the 12 L [Lancers] through and try to find a suitable route to the Po and then push the task forces up quickly…. It will require fast movement and deep recce before we commit you on account of possible demolitions…. If you get a chance to jump the Idice do it, but I don't think you will get the chance.’4

Later in the afternoon, after 43 Brigade's abortive crossing of the Gaiana, Barker told Gentry that he felt his brigade could not attack that night, but he was reluctant to admit to the GOC that he could not satisfactorily carry out the orders he had been given. Gentry therefore went to Divisional Headquarters to explain the situation, as he himself ‘was convinced by this time that it would not be a good attack…. I arrived to find the General having dinner…. He accepted my advice to call the attack off for 24 hours….’5 It was decided that both 9 and 43 Brigades should do no more that night than send out strong patrols and go forward if they could without fighting and occupy any ground abandoned by the enemy.

Meanwhile 10 Indian Division was reported level with the New Zealand Division's right flank; it hoped to push on during the night and expected to make fairly good progress because it was opposed only by 278 Division. A captured map showed that in the

1 W. F. Tichener, letter, 1957.

2 GOC's papers.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Maj-Gen Gentry, letter, 1957.

page 470 sector between the flooded land near Lake Comacchio and the Apennines 278 Division, 4 Parachute Division and 1 Parachute Division, grouped under 1 Parachute Corps, had swung round in their withdrawal to face south-east instead of east. Seven battalions of 4 Parachute Division had been identified by prisoners captured on the New Zealand Division's front. The enemy had manned thickly the Gaiana anti-tank obstacle and had fought hard, using nebelwerfers and more artillery than the New Zealanders had encountered for some time. This resistance could be expected to continue on the 18th, either on the Gaiana or the Quaderna, to delay Eighth Army's approach to the Idice. Not only did the enemy require time to prepare ‘what he has named the “GHENGIS KHAN” line on the IDICE, but he must also swing back his flank in the mountains South of Route 9 to link up with it. We may therefore expect him to fight as hard as the morale of his troops and the state of his equipment will allow.’1

Major Cox told the GOC that it had been established, after checking, that the Division had destroyed seven Tiger, six Panther and six Mark IV tanks and four self-propelled guns since the start of the offensive. The 161 prisoners taken on 17 April brought the Division's total to 30 officers and 2312 other ranks. Freyberg telephoned the corps commander to give him this information, and added, ‘It is going to be a long tough job to get through the paratroopers.’2 Harding arranged for additional field and medium artillery for the Division, and said he would inquire about extra Crocodiles (of which the Division already had eight). He also confirmed that there was no change in Fifteenth Army Group's plan to destroy the enemy south of the Po. ‘I personally think your thrust will pay the best dividend because it is the most immediate threat….’3

General Freyberg was busy on the telephone that night. He discussed harassing fire with the CRA. The Germans opposing the Division were ‘fresh from the mountains and haven't been shelled for some time. We will have to educate them.’ He obtained an assurance from Gentry that the enemy had not gone, and told him, ‘Do not fight tonight. It is no good having a little bridgehead.’ He advised 5 and 6 Brigades to be sure to get plenty of rest, and he assured Barker that it was ‘going to be tough, but OK, we will put some solid harassing in front of you tomorrow.’ Barker said the enemy had panicked at Medicina the previous night, ‘but the para boys fought like hell against us today. We gave them everything we had—fought them hard and they still came back on us.

1 2 NZ Div Intelligence summary, 17 April.

2 GOC's diary.

3 Ibid.

page 471 We killed a lot of them today because of their sheer bravado. They are really fanatical.’ The General replied, ‘After we have finished with them they will be in a ripe state to yield us plenty of PW!’1


Before the postponement of the attack that night orders had been given for 9 Brigade's part in it: after the relief of 22 Battalion by Divisional Cavalry Battalion, these two battalions, with Divisional Cavalry on the right and the 22nd (passing through the 27th) on the left, were to have attacked across the Gaiana. Divisional Cavalry, with A and C Squadrons forward, completed the relief of the 22nd before midnight, and while it was still dark sent out patrols to the river, which in that sector had less than a foot of water in it.

The patrol from A Squadron found that the enemy was not very numerous on the far bank but was well sited and strong in automatic weapons, which responded to the fire put down by the rest of the squadron to cover the patrol. A wounded parachutist, from 3 Company, Sturm Regiment, was brought back. The patrol from C Squadron, farther downstream, ‘ran into trouble from automatic weapons dug in on the same bank and were driven back over the water after suffering a man wounded, whom they were forced to leave behind. But the squadron commander, Major Maclntyre2 … immediately organised another patrol, himself in command, which rushed back over the river, silenced the weapons in question, and chopped their crews about properly while the wounded man was being carried back to safety.’3

The following afternoon (18 April) the enemy succeeded in infiltrating amongst C Squadron. ‘This attack was contained, but not before Maclntyre again had occasion to strike a blow. This time he climbed into a knocked-out Sherman tank and brought its machine gun to bear on the enemy, inflicting casualties, and pinning them down until fire from the supporting tanks of 19 Armoured Regiment could drive the enemy off.’4

Otherwise Divisional Cavalry was disturbed only by nebelwerfer and mortar stonks. A patrol from 1 Company of 27 Battalion, sent out near the road-bridge site in mid-afternoon on the 18th, went 250 yards along the reverse slope of the stopbank without seeing the enemy but found trenches which had been vacated recently.

1 GOC's diary.

2 Brig the Hon. D. MacIntyre, DSO, OBE, ED, m.i.d.; Hastings; born Hastings, 10 Nov 1915; sheep-station manager; MP 1960–; CO Div Cav Bn Aug 1945–Jun 1946 (J Force); Associate Member of Army Board, 1960; Minister of Lands, 1966–.

3 Divisional Cavalry, pp. 403–4.

4 Ibid., pp. 404–5.

page 472 From their house near the stopbank 2 Company's sharpshooters continued their duel with the German snipers and by the end of the day claimed 13 of them. A patrol crossed the river near the demolished railway bridge, where the water was found to be up to the men's chests. The patrol was climbing the far bank when the enemy opened fire, but got back without casualties. After that the enemy remained alert and shot at any movement he could see over the crest of the near stopbank.


‘It is now clear that his [the enemy's] plan is to fight us to a stand still on each of the three fronts where he is threatened, i.e., in the mountains, here, and at the Argenta Gap,’ Major Cox told the divisional orders group conference at Headquarters 9 Brigade on the morning of 18 April. ‘All his reserves have been committed to this end.’1 These included 29 Panzer Grenadier Division at Argenta (where already 5 Corps had begun to breach the gap) and 90 Panzer Grenadier Division astride Route 64 south of Bologna, ‘and he has concentrated all he could on our front.’2 Seven parachute battalions had been identified on the ground, six of them holding the front opposite 9 and 43 Brigades. These were two battalions each of 12 and 10 Parachute Regiments, and one battalion each of 4 and 11 Parachute Regiments. Against the whole of the Polish Corps there were only five battalions of similar size, and opposite 10 Indian Division only the weak 278 Division. Cox said the enemy had put his Tiger tanks on the Indian division's front, and his Panthers, of which there were seven or eight, with the parachutists facing the New Zealand Division. In reserve behind the parachutists was 26 Panzer Division, which had 50 Mark IV tanks and two fairly weak regiments of infantry. ‘Although the parachutists have fought well against us here, there is plenty of evidence to show that their move across was made in the utmost confusion. Yesterday they passed a message in clear to Para Corps— this was the first time they have done this since TUNISIA. There is no sign that they intend to go back from the GIANA unless perhaps their flanks go. I think they have 800 to 900 men at the most in the area [extending] 2000 yds each side of the railway.’3

The conference then proceeded to discuss the plan for the attack. Brigadier Gentry said the enemy was dug in on the other side of the near stopbank and also on the far bank. ‘They apparently have

1 GOC's papers.

2 Ibid.

3 GOC's papers. Later advice was received from 13 Corps which indicated that there were at least 1000 men on this part of the front.

page 473 not got many men but are very strong in weapons. The situation is most suitable for flaming. After discussion with my Bn Comds we all agreed that another SENIO technique is what is needed.’1 Brigadier Barker said 43 Brigade was now firm with 9 Brigade on its right. ‘We are on the near bank there—they are having rather a hard time. Further to the left we are about 400 yds back from the bank and patrolling up…. I agree with the technique of withdrawing and then stropping him….’2 It was decided that the two brigades should withdraw their men 500 yards after nightfall.

The intention, stated in the divisional operation order that afternoon, was to cross the Gaiana and Quaderna and continue the advance to the Idice River. The 9th and 43rd Brigades were to attack at 9.30 p.m. in accordance with an artillery programme. The infantry assault on the Gaiana was to be accompanied by a flame-throwing attack directed on to both stopbanks. The engineers were to construct at least two assault crossings on each brigade front over each obstacle, and 5 and 6 Brigades were each to provide an infantry company as close cover for the sappers working on these crossings. After the capture of the objective the two leading brigades were to exploit with tanks and infantry to the line of the Idice; the other two brigades were to be in divisional reserve and were to be prepared to follow up the advance, 5 Brigade in rear of the 9th and 6 Brigade in rear of the 43rd.

The GOC told Gentry by telephone that the artillery support would be ‘a total of 192 fd pieces which will fire about 100,000 rds, or 100 rds per individual paratrooper opposite our front. In addition 48 × 5.5s and 24 × 4.5s with a bty of 7.2s and a bty of 155s.’3 He also advised Barker about the artillery, and said, ‘Early news of a withdrawal is very important. Test the market at dusk.’ He then warned Gentry to watch out for an enemy withdrawal. ‘This is the greatest bombardment we have ever put down.’4 He also told Cox, ‘This will be the most important battle we have fought in Italy…. They're worried sick at Corps and Army that we're going to shoot off all their ammunition to-night. So we are. But we are the only ones in position and ready to do so, so why shouldn't we?’5

‘It was,’ thought Cox, ‘almost melodramatically appropriate that this battle, which, given good fortune, should be our last major

1 GOC's papers.

2 Ibid.

3 GOC's diary. According to the war diary of HQ 2 NZ Div Arty, the attack was to be supported by the three New Zealand field regiments, 1 RHA, 23 Army Fd Regt, 142 Army Fd Regt (105-mm.), two batteries of 15 Army Fd Regt, 5, 75, 76 and 78 Med Regts, two batteries of 61 Hy Regt, 307/55 Hy AA Regt and 195/52 Lt AA Regt.

4 GOC's diary.

page 474 action in Italy and perhaps in the war, was to be waged against the parachutists. They had dropped on to us on the Corinth Canal in 1941, and in Crete.1 In Cassino 1st Para Division had been our opponents in what was perhaps the ugliest battle of the war. In front of Florence we had met 4th Para Division. 12th Para (Sturm) Regiment, which now occupied the left flank of the Giana, had provided the glider-borne troops who had led the assault on Crete. On just such a sunny day as this we had stared up through the olive-trees at their slow, wide-winged, silent craft swooping down on to us. The 12th Storm Regiment was something more than just one unit in a big corps. From it had been drawn the cadres to rebuild the parachutists after Crete, to transform them into the elite of the German Army under Nazism, brutal, strong, with an almost masochistic willingness to die.2

As he waited for the barrage to open, General Freyberg paced backwards and forwards in his caravan; he was worried that the enemy might not be there on the stopbanks of the Gaiana. ‘He had to justify this tremendous expenditure of shells. He had to show results, German casualties in dead, wounded and prisoners on the morrow. Above all he was gravely worried about our own casualties. Even with the Gurkhas to help this must be our last attack, or at the best our last but one. Yet he knew the Division was desperately anxious to be in the open warfare which must come soon, and which had been promised to the Eighth Army all the way up Italy. He knew too that we were better fitted, from our desert days, for open warfare than anyone else in Italy.’3


The guns opened at 9.30 p.m. on 18 April ‘in one of the most concentrated bombardments ever fired.’4 ‘… The flashes lit and flared like a hundred thunderstorms. The trees around us changed from lumps of soft, slumbrous darkness to shapes of green and yellow. The whole western sky was alive with bursting shells.’5

1 In Crete, the New Zealand history of the campaign, D. M. Davin (on pp. 84–5) describes the German 11 Air Corps, which invaded the island, as consisting of ‘a reconnaissance unit; 10 groups of transport aircraft; the Assault Regiment; 7 Air Division with its three parachute regiments and divisional troops; 5 Mountain Division … and corps troops.’ He concludes (p. 464): ‘But, in the words of General Student, “Crete was the grave of the German parachutist”; and the victory of our defeat was that never again, against Cyprus or elsewhere, were the parachutists launched from the air en masse to gain victory at the cost of crippling losses.’ Nevertheless the parachutists continued (on the ground) to be amongst the most formidable opponents who faced the New Zealanders in the Second World War.

3 Ibid., p. 130.

4 GOC's diary.

page 475 The artillery expended nearly 72,500 rounds, which brought the total expenditure since the start of the offensive at the Senio to over 320,000 rounds. The barrage started with the equivalent of six field regiments and two medium regiments on a frontage of 3600 yards along the Gaiana, lifted 500 yards, and at 10.30 p.m. began moving forward at the rate of 100 yards in five minutes to a depth of over 3000 yards, with a half-hour pause on the way. At the same time the heavy and medium guns, heavy anti-aircraft guns and mortars fired counter-battery and counter-mortar programmes and many timed concentrations, and the light anti-aircraft guns indicated the brigade boundaries and dummy boundaries on both flanks.

The flame-throwers, which went in at 10 p.m., made a profound impression on all who saw them. ‘Their spurts of flame, red under the lightning flashes, showed again, again, again. All along the line of the river they glared, red and ugly. The black smoke mounted up into the stars.’1 ‘The fearful molten streams curved through the air and slobbered all over the river. Soon the levees were outlined in sizzling, licking fire and looked like walls of hot lava. At every fresh spout of the flaming fluid, the glare would light up the pillaring clouds of smoke giving the sky the appearance of a display of the southern aurora.’2 The bank ‘was just one sheet of flame, a sight never to be forgotten.’3

As soon as the flame-throwers finished, the infantry began to advance, and within a very short time the leading companies of Divisional Cavalry Battalion and 22 Battalion (the latter in the sector from which 27 Battalion had withdrawn) were across the Gaiana.

Divisional Cavalry, attacking with C (on the right) and A Squadrons, and with B and D mopping up in rear, made good progress in spite of hostile shell, mortar and small-arms fire. Mist, smoke and dust so reduced visibility that compasses had to be used to maintain direction. The leading companies were ‘virtually unopposed’ at the Gaiana ‘and covered the next 3000 yards without stopping. But, as soon as they reached the limit of the barrage area, the enemy was there again fighting back stubbornly…. to deny every yard of ground…. But the attackers too, flushed with the success of their advance, were to be denied nothing’4 and forced their way across the Quaderna. By 1.30 a.m. C and A Squadrons were on their objective and digging in round a group of houses just north of the Medicina-Budrio railway. The two mopping-up

2 B. C. H. Moss, quoted in 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion, p. 489.

3 R. H. Spicer, quoted in 22 Battalion, p. 430. Divisional Cavalry, pp. 405–6.

4 Divisional Cavalry, pp. 405–6.

page 476 squadrons, B and D, ‘also found the poor visibility an embarrassment almost as unpleasant as the continued fighting spirit of those paratroopers who had been bypassed’1 by the leading companies.

The 22nd Battalion advanced with C (on the right) and A Companies in the lead and with D mopping up enemy pockets. The men had expected to find the Gaiana quite shallow, but in places they waded up to their armpits in water and deep mud. Once clear of the river, however, they made steady progress and about 2 a.m. were reported on their objective beyond the Quaderna.

As Divisional Cavalry and 22 Battalion passed each water obstacle in the open flat country west of the Gaiana, 27 Battalion despatched companies to protect 9 Brigade's exposed right flank. Shortly after midnight 4 Company set off down the road from Villa Fontana and at the Gaiana turned downstream for about 1000 yards and made contact with the enemy. Later 2 Company crossed the Gaiana and went into position facing north-east astride the Scolo Acquarolo; 1 Company kept to the road until just short of the Quaderna and then went across country to some houses.

On the right of 43 Brigade two companies of 2/8 Gurkhas met diminished opposition in their advance to the Fossatone (between the Acquarolo and the Quaderna), where they established themselves on the far bank; the other two companies of this battalion passed through, met only disorganised resistance, and by dawn had men on the far bank of the Quaderna south of the railway. On the left flank, however, 2/10 Gurkhas met strong resistance and was prevented from reaching its objective. Two companies made good progress as far as the Scolo Acquarolo, but the other two companies, after passing through, could not get beyond the Fossatone.

The sappers of 6 Field Company, assisted by the bulldozers of 27 Mechanical Equipment Company, had difficulty in opening routes for the tanks and supporting arms of 9 Brigade because of the defensive fire which delayed them at the start and because of the German snipers and machine-gunners who had survived the infantry attack or had infiltrated from the right flank. The first obstacle, the Gaiana, had not been cleared in Divisional Cavalry's sector by 3.30 a.m. It was decided, therefore, to open the Budrio road instead. A crossing of the river was bulldozed at the demolished bridge site, and a party rushed on to the Acquarolo, where fortunately the bridge was still intact. The next obstacle, the Fossatone, was under defensive fire, and while working there Captain Keller2 was wounded

1 Divisional Cavalry, p. 406.

2 Capt A. A. Keller, MC; born NZ 8 Oct 1917; engineer cadet; wounded 19 Apr 1945; died Rotorua, 24 May 1956.

page 477 and a bulldozer damaged by shellfire. Although very shaken, the bulldozer operator (Lance-Corporal Blacktopp1) repaired his machine and carried on with the work, which Keller continued to supervise.

Meanwhile, in 22 Battalion's sector, crossings were bulldozed over the Gaiana and Acquarolo. This route then converged with the Budrio road to connect with the only crossing of the Fossatone. The ‘soft-skinned’ bulldozers were replaced at this point by an armoured Sherman dozer from 28 Assault Squadron, which placed a scissors bridge at the Quaderna. The railway bridge over the Quaderna was captured intact.

The tanks of the leading squadrons of 19 Regiment were held up at the Fossatone until the crossing there was completed, but later in the morning joined the infantry, B Squadron in support of Divisional Cavalry and C in support of 22 Battalion; A Squadron co-operated with 27 Battalion in protecting the right flank. In 43 Brigade's sector 255 Field Company, Royal Engineers, constructed a 60-foot Bailey bridge over the Gaiana on the Medicina- Castenaso road and opened a route for the tanks to the far side of the Fossatone.

On the night of 18–19 April and the following morning, C Company of 23 Battalion was responsible for the protection of the engineers working in 43 Gurkha Brigade's sector. ‘As the left flank was exposed and the paratroopers had concentrated all the guns, rocket-firing projectors, nebelwerfers and other mortars they could secure in an attempt to stop the advance, C Company found, according to its diary, “the area the most unhealthy of the whole campaign” and suffered casualties of one killed and five wounded. The company RAP men also had a busy time attending to wounded Gurkhas. As the paratroopers emerged from hiding when the attacking force had moved on, C Company had more than once to fight to secure the bridging site for the engineers.’2


The situation was reviewed at a divisional conference at 8.30 a.m. on 19 April. According to the general tone of the wireless interception the enemy was under considerable strain; typical messages were: ‘Enemy tanks in front of me.’ ‘I am now on new switch line.’ ‘Have you any further reserves?’ Some prisoners were still in a state of collapse caused by the flame-throwing.

1 L-Cpl M. R. Blacktopp, MM; Wellington; born Greymouth, 19 Mar 1922; PWD employee.

2 23 Battalion, p. 456.

page 478

Brigadier Gentry reported that 9 Brigade's attack had gone ‘according to plan’;1 both battalions were on their objectives. Brigadier Barker said many casualties had occurred on both sides, but more among the Germans than the Gurkhas. The enemy ‘definitely was holding in depth; our appreciation was wrong about that…. there was very stiff fighting and we got a bit behind the barrage…. The country is very open and rolling like the Salisbury Plain. The Poles are a very long way behind us and we are still getting fire from our left flank.’2

It was decided that 9 and 43 Brigades should stabilise on a line some time that evening and that both should be relieved after dark. In the meantime they were to try to push on if they could.

The Division had carried the Gaiana line and advanced beyond it, ‘but ground was not what we wanted,’ wrote Cox. ‘We wanted to destroy the German Armies in Italy this side of the Po, so that they could not get back into the Alps. At first it looked as if this time we had failed.

‘It was only when I went forward to the river line itself early the next day that I realised that this was not so. We had indeed hit the enemy as we wished. The first count of enemy casualties [about 200]3 had been too low. Along these banks in the stream, in their trenches, in houses and holes behind, lay the massed dead. Few battlefields in this war can have presented the picture of carnage which the banks of the Giana showed that day, this spectacle of Germans killed by the barrage, or caught crouching in their holes by the flame-throwers, or slaughtered in a hundred other ways. … There they lay in all their ghastliness, the youth of Germany, the pride of Hitlerism….’4

Brigadier Gentry says that when he walked over the ground where the flame-throwers had been used, ‘it was quite clear that it had been held in adequate strength to prevent any successful attack in daylight except possibly with very heavy air and artillery support. There were more dead Germans on the battlefield than I saw in any of the preceding operations.’5


The tanks going to Divisional Cavalry Battalion's support had not married up with the infantry at daybreak. The enemy threatened

1 GOC's papers.

2 Ibid.

3 The 2 NZ Div Intelligence summary based on information received up to 6 p.m. on 19 April says that the attack brought in over 300 prisoners, almost all of them from 4 Para Div, and inflicted many other casualties.

4 The Road to Trieste, pp. 130–1.

5 Letter, 1957.

page 479 to counter-attack at 6.45 a.m., but ‘this was beaten off by defensive fire called down on it from the guns behind. Throughout the earlier part of the day, most of A Squadron was in a decidedly delicate position. Enemy troops that had been overrun had manned their positions again on the banks of the Quaderna behind them; twice the squadron came close to being shelled by the 25-pounders, while they had also to suffer the enemy's 75-mm. fire. The cabrank planes also gave them several frights, so, until the arrival of B Squadron as reinforcement enabled the position to be held until the tanks did get up, A Squadron's predicament was not to be envied. Then D Squadron also came through and, together with the tanks, managed to push further forward to deepen the position.’1
situation on the morning of 19 april 1945

situation on the morning of 19 april 1945

German mortars, nebelwerfers and self-propelled guns were busy on 9 Brigade's front. The enemy's attempts to infiltrate or counter-attack on Divisional Cavalry Battalion's sector were broken up by the artillery; the houses he occupied and his self-propelled guns were shelled by the mediums.

1 Divisional Cavalry, pp. 406–7.

page 480

On the right flank, between Divisional Cavalry and the Gaiana, 27 Battalion also was in action. Early in the morning 1 Company had turned north off the road on the eastern side of the Quaderna and cleared the enemy from a group of houses, but he continued to fire bazookas and small arms from some houses alongside the canal. Tanks of A Squadron, 19 Regiment, shelled these buildings and drove out some 15 Germans, who bolted for the stopbank. Two Wasps then rushed in to flame the bank, which caused panic among the enemy in the vicinity. For 100 yards or so on each side of the flamed ground the Germans discarded their weapons and fled into the open, where a 25-pounder stonk was brought down among them. Later a paratrooper captain walked in and surrendered.

This prisoner must have been the one described in the divisional Intelligence summary as ‘the first parachute officer-deserter we have ever had, and probably the first any formation has had in ITALY. … he was CO of I/10 Para Regt…. He had a long record of soldiering for the Nazis, having been a member of Condor Legion— the German forces sent to gain experience in the Spanish Civil War in 1937–38…. Last night's barrage was the heaviest he had ever experienced. It was worse than at VELLETRI, at the head of the ANZIO bridgehead…. His men had, however, been well dispersed in depth, and well dug in, and did not suffer heavy casualties from the actual barrage. Their fighting spirit was, however, badly impaired by it, and they found the flamethrowers alarming. One PW described what hit his sector last night as “something inhuman”.’1

The 22nd Battalion was ready to resume the advance in the morning, but waited to conform with Divisional Cavalry, which did not move until the trouble had been settled on the right flank. The two battalions set off about 2.30 p.m. B and D Squadrons of Divisional Cavalry passed through A and C, and, accompanied by the tanks of B Squadron, 19 Regiment, crossed the Rio Centonara Vecchia and reached the il Canalazzo, a short distance beyond, apparently without having met opposition. B and D Companies of 22 Battalion advanced swiftly towards the Rio Centonara Vecchia, but had difficulty in negotiating this obstacle because of mortar fire from the left flank. The tanks of C Squadron, 19 Regiment, went round to the right because self-propelled guns had the open ground on the left well covered. By nightfall the 22nd also was on the il Canalazzo.

This water channel, about two miles beyond the Gaiana and more than half-way to Budrio, was the limit of 9 Brigade's advance before it was relieved by 5 Brigade on the night of 19–20 April.

1 2 NZ Div Intelligence summary, 19 April.

page 481 Ninth Brigade's casualties during the period 13–19 April were 80 killed and 317 wounded;1 it claimed 747 prisoners.

Meanwhile 43 Gurkha Brigade's advance still was held up on the left flank because the Polish Corps was lagging behind the New Zealand Division. Late in the afternoon the Poles were reported on the line of the Fossatone about two miles south of 43 Brigade.

Not for the first time the New Zealand Division was ahead of the divisions on both flanks. General Harding telephoned General Freyberg at 6.55 p.m. to tell him that a battalion of 10 Indian Infantry Brigade had cleared the right flank up to the Quaderna. The GOC replied, ‘They nearly attacked us at the rear of 27 Bn— but we saw them off.’ In a later telephone conversation Freyberg asked the corps commander whether the Poles had come up into line. ‘I cannot find out where they are,’ he said. ‘… while they hang behind us we get shot up from the flanks…. One officer deserter says he thinks the enemy has enough troops to regroup unless we push him hard—that I feel is true.’2


The battle of the Gaiana did not attract much attention at the time. ‘Amidst the thunder of blows which were falling on the Third Reich, the hammering which the parachutists of 1st Para Corps got on the Italian front went almost unheard. Yet we can claim, I believe,’ wrote Cox, ‘that few nails were driven into the coffin of Nazism more thoroughly than this. On the Giana we were able to bring down such a blow on to the best German infantry on the Italian front that from then on, with steadily increasing speed, the way to the Po and the Alps opened up.’3

1 Div Cav Bn: 28 killed, 131 wounded; 22 Bn: 18 killed, 76 wounded; 27 Bn: 34 killed, 110 wounded.

2 GOC's diary.