Italy Volume II : From Cassino to Trieste
II: From the Fiumicino to the Pisciatello
II: From the Fiumicino to the Pisciatello
After patrols from 21 and 23 Battalions had failed to reach the Fiumicino during the night of 27–28 September, the two commanding officers (Colonels J. I. Thodey and E. A. McPhail) agreed that it would be necessary to clear the east (near) bank before the attempt was made to cross the river.
Thodey ordered B and D Companies of 21 Battalion to advance in the morning of the 28th to the lateral road which had been the objective of the earlier attacks, and then to the river. The two companies had to cross ground under observation by the enemy occupying houses on the near side of the river, and consequently came under fire as soon as their movement was noticed. By midday, however, the leading men of B Company were at Casa la Torretta o Cagnona, on the lateral road. D Company was held up by shell and mortar fire at the Fosso Matrice, a ditch about 300 yards short of the lateral road. Both companies were supported by tanks of B Squadron, 18 Regiment.
McPhail also decided that morning to push his leading companies towards the river. C Company of 23 Battalion reached the lateral road, and B Company, on the left flank, continued on towards the Scolo Cavaticca, a drain about half-way between this road and the river. The supporting tanks of C Squadron, 18 Regiment, had difficulty in making their way over ditches and past demolitions.
Meanwhile, at midday, General Weir held a conference at Headquarters 5 Brigade to plan the attack over the Fiumicino for the coming night. It was decided that the two battalions should try to clear the enemy from the near side of the river in the afternoon as a preliminary to the attack. Beyond the river 4 Brigade was to take over from 23 Battalion the part of 5 Brigade's front south of the electric power pylons and was to provide left-flank protection for the Division. The 5th Canadian Armoured Division, on that flank, was to attack at the same time.
It was appreciated that the weather might cause the cancellation of these plans. A 40-mile-an-hour gale from the sea brought torrential rain, which soon made the ground sodden. The tanks did their best to keep up with the infantry, who struggled through the deepening mud, but their tracks became clogged, and they slithered and bogged down. Communications failed, tanks and infantry lost each other, and at one stage some tanks were out in front unprotected. Gunpits were flooded and the guns had to be pulled out of them. The rivers rose rapidly, and the engineers were impeded in their work on roads and bridges. Under such conditions page 249 it was no mean achievement for 5 Brigade to reach the Fiumicino late in the afternoon, but the attack which was to have been made across the river that night had to be cancelled.
It was a wretched night for men without shelter. Many of the houses had been shot to pieces, and slit trenches filled with water. Vehicular movement was extremely difficult and in places impossible. Most of the tanks were bogged, and even jeeps were hopelessly stuck. The evacuation of casualties, including men suffering from exposure and exhaustion, and the delivery of food and ammunition to the forward troops demanded the most strenuous effort.
Machine-gun and mortar fire had prevented B Company, 21 Battalion, from advancing beyond Casa la Torretta o Cagnona, but A Company had gone ahead on the left of D, which had reached the river bank. A few enemy still remained on the near side of the river on 23 Battalion's front, but most of them departed next day, when A and D Companies relieved B and C. On the coastal flank the Greek brigade, supported by tanks of C Squadron, 20 Regiment, and the Staghounds of C Squadron, Divisional Cavalry, still faced fixed defences including pillboxes. After an artillery stonk on a building on Route 16 a patrol found that two of three machine-gun posts had been knocked out; the third ‘had no fight left, and the Turcomen were only too glad to give themselves up.’1
The Canadians also cancelled their planned assault over the Fiumicino because of the rain. The previous night (27–28 September) a company of the Irish Regiment of Canada (a battalion of 11 Brigade) had waded across the river, but had been surprised not far beyond it by a superior force of German infantry and tanks, and had lost nine men dead and 50-odd taken prisoner. This disaster ‘taught a useful lesson: not again in Italy in the 11th Brigade was a company dispatched to take a battalion objective.’2 The New Zealanders were to learn a similar lesson three months later, when a platoon of 25 Battalion was lost on a stopbank of the Senio River.
1 War diary, Div Cav.
3 Lt-Col J. N. Anderson, DSO, m.i.d.; Te Awamutu; born Okaihu, 15 Apr 1894; civil engineer; OC 19 Army Tps Coy May–Jun 1941; 5 Fd Pk Coy Sep 1941–Oct 1942; 6 Fd Coy Oct 1942–Jul 1943; CRE 2 NZ Div Sep 1942, Apr–Jul 1944, Aug–Nov 1944; CO Engr Trg Depot, Maadi, Jan–Aug 1945.
The fighting developed into a slogging match with guns, mortars and machine guns, in which each side tried to knock down the houses the other was occupying, destroy his weapons and vehicles, and harass him as much as possible. ‘By 30 September the Fiumicino farms were already beginning to look like a Flanders scene in 1917.’1 A brief improvement in the weather permitted Allied fighter-bombers to attack targets beyond the Fiumicino; and on a moonlit evening two German Junkers 88s dropped bombs before they were chased away by the anti-aircraft barrage. That night (30 September–1 October) 28 Battalion relieved the 21st and 22 Battalion the 23rd, and A Squadron replaced B Squadron of 18 Armoured Regiment.
Eighth Army planned to regroup and continue the advance into the broadening plain on a three-corps instead of a two-corps front, with the Polish Corps on the coastal sector (where it was to take the place of the New Zealand Division, which would go into reserve), the Canadian Corps in the centre and 5 Corps on the left. The move forward of the Poles, however, was delayed by the worsening weather.
At this stage General Sir Oliver Leese relinquished command of Eighth Army to head the Allied Land Forces in South-East Asia; he was succeeded on 1 October by Lieutenant-General Sir Richard McCreery, who had commanded 10 Corps since the landing at Salerno. McCreery modified the plan for regrouping: he decided to transfer the Poles to the mountainous left flank with the intention of passing them down one of the river valleys to outflank the enemy opposing the main body of Eighth Army in the plain. It was 17 October before the Poles were ready to begin this manoeuvre. Meanwhile, during the first 10 days of the month, the stalemate continued on the Canadian Corps' front, where plans for an assault across the Fiumicino were made and cancelled because of further heavy rain.
Apart from the persistent harassing fire and the bombardment of selected targets (the accuracy of the enemy's fire suggesting that he knew the locations of reserve units and headquarters as well as of forward posts), the main activity on both sides was patrolling, which often led to clashes and casualties. The aim of the New Zealand, Canadian and Greek patrols was to learn as much as possible about the river and its banks (which were mined) and the enemy's positions and habits, in the anticipation that an improvement in the weather might permit the resumption of the offensive. In expectation of their second winter in Italy, the troops were issued with battledress and winter clothing.
General McCreery prepared for a two-corps attack along an axis parallel to Route 9. His plan was for 5 Corps to capture the town of Cesena on Route 9 and cross the Savio River south of the highway, and for the Canadian Corps to cross the Fiumicino, the Rio Baldona and the Scolo Rigossa and then exploit north-westwards.
The New Zealand Division, which was to make the assault alongside 5 Canadian Armoured Division, began to relieve 5 Brigade with 6 Brigade on the Fiumicino River front. Because of the ‘untankable’1 state of the ground and the nature of the fighting, the Division had more tanks and armoured cars than it could employ but needed more infantry. An ad hoc battalion called Wilderforce,2 therefore, was brought into the line under 6 Brigade's command and in the evening of 5 October took over from 22 Battalion on the right, while 25 Battalion relieved the 21st on the left. During the next two nights 25 Battalion was replaced by the other two battalions of 6 Brigade, which then held the river front with, from right to left, Wilderforce, 26 Battalion and 24 Battalion, and with 25 Battalion in reserve and 19 Armoured Regiment in support.3 About the same time 5 Canadian Armoured Division replaced 12 Brigade with the 11th.
2 Commanded by Lt-Col N. P. Wilder (CO Div Cav) and comprising two infantry companies formed from B and C Sqns, Div Cav, a third from 33 Bty, 7 A-Tk Regt, and a platoon each of Vickers guns and heavy mortars.
3 In addition 6 Bde was to command 24 Army Fd Regt (SP) RA, 31 A-Tk Bty, 2 MG Coy, 8 Fd Coy, and A Coy 6 Fd Amb, and was to have in support 20 Armd Regt (less one squadron) and a squadron and troop of 1 Assault Regt RAC/RE.
The enemy had abandoned the whole of his Gothic Line defences (except on the unimportant extreme western flank), but had prevented Fifth Army from debouching from the northern Apennines on to the Lombard plain. In the central mountainous sector, however, Fifth Army's penetration towards Imola and Forli, two towns on Route 9 south-east of Bologna, forced apart the inner wings of Fourteenth and Tenth Armies and threatened to cut off 76 Panzer Corps (of Tenth Army) on the Adriatic flank. To meet this threat Fourteenth Army was reinforced and absorbed the reserves which might have been available to the hard-pressed Tenth.
In the Adriatic sector the enemy's withdrawal across the Fiumicino River had been just in time; in fact the crossing had been ‘indescribable. Some guns were practically washed away. We even lost some men by drowning….’1 The copious rains, which prevented Eighth Army from exploiting its earlier success, gave Tenth Army a breathing space which emboldened it on 3 October to view the resumption of the offensive on the Adriatic front ‘more confidently than before, as the weather has allowed the divisions there some time to build up their strength and improve their positions indepth….’2 Next day, however, it was pointed out that, as all the reserves had been passed over to Fourteenth Army, ‘it would be necessary to adopt a mobile policy if the enemy renewed his attacks on the Adriatic.’3
On Route 9 the Germans were able to move troops to the part of the front where assistance was needed most urgently at any time. They succeeded in re-establishing cohesion south-east of Bologna and prevented Fifth Army from breaking through to Route 9; south of the city they stopped the very strong thrust by 2 United States Corps along the axis of Route 65, the highway from Florence through the Futa Pass. Fifth Army continued to exert unrelenting pressure, but the German tactics of blocking all the routes which descended the valleys to the plain and of holding the dominating heights between the valleys, combined with the bad weather and the exhaustion and shortage of men, compelled General Clark to suspend the offensive on 27 October.
Although 1 Canadian Corps had been obliged to postpone its attack across the Fiumicino River because of the weather and the state of the ground, 5 Corps had begun to advance in the foothills south of Route 9, where the rains had been less damaging. During the night of 6–7 October troops of 10 Indian Division on the corps' left wing crossed the Fiumicino and in darkness and pelting rain next evening took the 1600-foot Monte Farneto, overlooking the valley of the Savio River south of the town of Cesena. The rest of the Indian division and 46 British Division (on its right) crossed the Fiumicino and joined in the process of outflanking the enemy on the line of the river. On the 10th 46 Division captured Longiano, a town about two miles south of Route 9 overlooking the Scolo Rigossa. The 90th Panzer Grenadier Division therefore withdrew along the highway from the Fiumicino to the Rigossa. The same day 56 British Division crossed the Fiumicino at Savignano (on Route 9) and its engineers bridged the river.
Fifth Corps' progress thus confirmed General McCreery's appreciation that during the rainy season the foothills and the going astride Route 9, from the Rimini-Cesena railway southward, offered better opportunities than the sodden plain, and that as crossings were secured over the upper reaches of the rivers the enemy would be forced to retire in the plain. McCreery therefore directed the Canadian Corps to take over Route 9 from 5 Corps and thrust along the highway while 5 Corps, with two divisions, continued the attack through the foothills. On 9 October General Burns assigned to his divisions their roles in the new plan: 1 Canadian Infantry Division was to relieve 56 Division (which had suffered many casualties in the recent fighting) and continue the advances along Route 9, while north of the Rimini-Cesena railway 2 NZ Division was to relieve 5 Canadian Armoured Division and form a strong guard for the Canadian infantry division's right flank. Burns wrote in his diary that the divisional commanders ‘pointed out the very bad going and expressed the opinion that we might be drifting into the carrying on of an offensive in similar conditions to those of last autumn and winter, where the hard fighting and numerous casualties resulted in no great gain.’page 256
The regrouping gave the Canadian Corps a front extending eight miles from the sea to 1000 yards south of Route 9. To permit the concentration of the corps' effort on the left wing, an aggregation called Cumberland Force was organised to hold the line of the Fiumicino from the coast for three and a half miles inland; commanded by Brigadier I. H. Cumberland, it was composed initially of Headquarters 5 Canadian Armoured Brigade, 3 Greek Mountain Brigade, the New Zealand Wilderforce, the dismounted Royal Canadian Dragoons (armoured car regiment)1 and supporting Greek, New Zealand and Canadian arms. The New Zealand Division was in the central sector, with 5 Infantry Brigade forward on the northern side of the railway. It was intended that 1 Canadian Infantry Brigade should take over from a brigade of 56 Division on Route 9, but when it was learned that the enemy on that part of the front was withdrawing, it was decided that the Canadian brigade should push through–instead of relieving–the British brigade and advance in bounds along Route 9 until it re-established contact.
The first encounter was just short of the Scolo Rigossa late in the afternoon of 11 October. A battalion of 1 Canadian Brigade drove the enemy back across the canal and next day secured a bridgehead 500 yards deep. As 5 NZ Infantry Brigade at this stage was about two and a half miles behind their foremost positions, the Canadians sent another battalion forward between the road and the railway to protect their lengthening right flank.
By the evening of 10 October 5 NZ Brigade had completed the changeover with units of 5 Canadian Armoured Division on the Fiumicino River front, with 28 (Maori) Battalion on the right and 23 Battalion on the left. Patrols from these two battalions and from the Princess Louise Dragoon Guards (of 12 Canadian Infantry Brigade), which was protecting the Division's right flank, found that the enemy had fallen back from the river, which 5 Brigade proceeded to cross on the morning of the 11th. Sappers of 6 Field Company finished erecting a 100-foot Bailey bridge on the San Mauro – Gatteo road shortly after midday, and farther north 7 Field Company began to work on the approaches to a bridge site at Fiumicino village.
By that time 5 Brigade had advanced against negligible opposition to the Rio Baldona, a small stream which ran diagonally across the front about a mile and a half from Gatteo on the left and through Sant' Angelo on the right. The enemy blew up the bridge over the Baldona at Sant' Angelo—but later replaced it with a footbridge. The Maoris, taking 11 prisoners on the way, reached the stream in little over an hour without loss to themselves; and a little later 23 Battalion, which had farther to go, also had men at the stream and in contact with the Royal Canadian Regiment on the left flank. The supporting tanks, coming up in rear, found that the ground still was not hard enough for movement off the roads.
At the Rio Baldona C Company of 28 Battalion, on the right flank, suffered casualties from shell and mortar fire. Lance-Corporal King2 courageously led his section in charges which destroyed two German strongpoints. Although part of D Company crossed the stream, the Maoris made no immediate attempt to go farther. On their left A and D Companies of 23 Battalion also crossed but were at once brought to a halt by shell and mortar fire.
Fifth Brigade's progress created a salient south-west of Sant' Angelo, which the enemy still retained as a strong outpost for his front along the Scolo Rigossa. This hamlet commanded a network of roads to the north, south, east and west, and the positions of the Princess Louise Dragoon Guards which were protecting 5 Brigade's right flank; it was also directly in front of the Royal Canadian Dragoons of Cumberland Force, on the other side of the Fiumicino River. The enemy had allotted this part of his line to two battalions of 20 German Air Force Division under the command of 26 Panzer Division; on their left were troops of 1 Parachute Division (whose front ran to the sea), and on their right a battalion of 26 Panzer.1 It was presumed that the enemy was holding Sant' Angelo to protect 1 Parachute Division's right flank for a further night, if possible, while the paratroops withdrew behind the Scolo Rigossa or the Pisciatello River.2 Brigadier Burrows ordered 28 Battalion to attack Sant' Angelo.
A Company was given the task, with the support of a troop of tanks and with a platoon from B Company in reserve. The artillery began a half-hour programme of concentrations on the Sant' Angelo area at 2.30 a.m. (13 October). As soon as the Maoris began their 500-yard advance, their commander (Captain Christy3) was wounded by shellfire, and as there was no other officer with the company at the time, Second-Lieutenant Ransfield,4 of the attached platoon from B Company, assumed command. The guns laid on another stonk to prevent the expected reinforcement of the Germans holding the hamlet.
The Maoris made a fresh start at 5 a.m. They came under machine-gun and mortar fire after going about 300 yards, but continued to a house by the road from Sant' Angelo to the Fiumicino. The enemy concentrated mortar, bazooka and machine-gun fire on this house and around it. Realising that the position could not be held without strong support, Ransfield withdrew his men to the troop of tanks, which had been halted by a demolition on the Gatteo – Sant' Angelo road.
1 29 Pz Gren Div had been pulled out of the line between 1 Para Div and 26 Pz Div to strengthen 76 Pz Corps' right wing south of Cesena, and then had been transferred to Fourteenth Army to stiffen the resistance against the American drive on Bologna.
Meanwhile patrols from 23 Battalion made several unsuccessful attempts during the night to reach the bridge over the Scolo Rigossa at Gambettola with the object of holding it if it was still intact. Eventually the enemy blew the bridge when a patrol was about 200 yards from it. He held Gambettola with a battalion of 9 Panzer Grenadier Regiment, 26 Panzer Division, and had an outpost at Point 120, a road junction and railway crossing about 400 yards south of the town.
Early on the morning of 13 October Major-General Weir ordered 5 Brigade to ‘tidy up’ its front, which was two miles wide, and to bypass Sant' Angelo when it resumed its advance, but to hold one company back to face up to the hamlet. Brigadier Burrows told his battalion commanders that the brigade might be required to attack across the Scolo Rigossa that night, and gave instructions for 28 Battalion to secure a line covering both Sant' Angelo and the German positions beyond the Scolo Rigossa, the Princess Louise Dragoon Guards to protect the brigade's right rear, 23 Battalion to get up to the Scolo Rigossa and reconnoitre for bridge sites, and 21 Battalion to be prepared to relieve both forward battalions if necessary.
B and C Companies of 23 Battalion relieved A and D, and C Company despatched 13 Platoon (Lieutenant Cox2) to the Rigossa. Before they reached Point 120, the leading men of this platoon were pinned down on open ground by machine-gun fire. All available weapons harassed Gambettola before 13 Platoon, now supported by two tanks, resumed the advance. One tank was knocked out on the road, the other bogged in soft ground, and the infantry retired under machine-gun fire to a large house about 150 yards from Point 120. The Germans shelled, mortared and machine-gunned the house, and came close to capturing it. When 13 Platoon withdrew at dusk, the action had cost two men killed and five wounded, as well as the temporary loss of the two tanks. A patrol from 14 Platoon was sent without support towards the Gambettola bridge site but was caught by machine-gun fire, with the result that the leader was killed and three of his men wounded and captured.page 261
Two tanks, in hull-down positions with B Company, near the bank of the Scolo Rigossa farther downstream, used their Browning machine guns against Germans who could be seen in trenches and dugouts only 80–100 yards away. A tank gunner saw tracer bullets ricocheting from a haystack so fired incendiaries which set it alight, together with the vehicle concealed in it.
Appreciating that the situation was not favourable for pushing on to the Gambettola bridge site that night, Burrows told 23 Battalion not to go any further, and strengthened the front by bringing B Company of 21 Battalion into the line between 28 and 23 Battalions.
An improvement in the weather permitted fighter-bombers of the Desert Air Force to attack German tanks, guns and other targets. The ‘cab-rank’ aircraft, on call from ‘Rover Paddy’,1 were very effective. Apart from this air activity and exchange of fire by the artillery (despite stringent restrictions on the expenditure of ammunition), tanks, mortars and machine guns, however, there was little activity on 14 October, except south of the railway, where 1 Canadian Infantry Brigade captured the village of Bulgaria, about three-quarters of a mile west of Gambettola. This gave the Canadians a substantial bridgehead across the Scolo Rigossa, but the enemy was still up to the line of the Rigossa on 5 NZ Brigade's front and the Fiumicino River on Cumberland Force's front.
General Freyberg, who resumed command of the New Zealand Division from General Weir on 14 October,2 gave first consideration to the situation at Sant' Angelo, which the enemy held as an outpost on 5 Brigade's right flank. He told General Burns that the Division was prepared to take Sant' Angelo with a battalion attack that night. Another battalion could then be brought up to get a crossing over the Rigossa west of the hamlet; the Rigossa could be bridged and the GOC could then decide whether to relieve the battalion in the bridgehead or to send 6 Brigade through.
1 ‘Rover Paddy’, ‘Rover David’, etc., were the names given to air support control detachments which operated in forward observation positions with wireless links to aircraft in the air or to airfields, and with line communication with divisional or brigade headquarters, and sometimes in contact with forward battalions, companies or squadrons. A ‘cab-rank’ was a group of fast aircraft—usually three to six Kittyhawks—on call through one of these detachments or the air staff captain at a divisional or corps headquarters. The ‘cab-rank’ aircraft were in the air over the front for a specific time (e.g., 20 minutes).
2 Maj-Gen Weir officially relinquished command of 2 NZ Division on 17 October and was appointed to the command of 46 British Infantry Division on 4 November.
The sappers began work as soon as they could on the opening of a route from Gatteo to Sant' Angelo, where a party from 8 Field Company started to build a 60-foot bridge over the Rio Baldona. The bridge-building was interrupted by shelling, which wounded three men, but after daybreak six Spitfires silenced a self-propelled gun which probably had been the cause of the trouble. The bridge was completed shortly before midday.
The Maoris' attack on Sant' Angelo had coincided with a withdrawal forced upon the enemy by 5 Corps' continued outflanking successes in the Apennine foothills south of Route 9. The enemy's ability to hold the line of the Scolo Rigossa in the plain had depended on his retention of a ridge south of Cesena and east of the Savio River valley. By 14 October 5 Corps had captured the commanding heights on this ridge. The previous day Tenth Army had ordered 76 Panzer Corps to withdraw into reserve west of Cesena a regimental group of 90 Panzer Division, which was defending the sector astride the railway and Route 9 south of Gambettola, but the corps commander (General Herr) told General Vietinghoff on the 14th that the attacks on Route 9 (by 1 Canadian Infantry Brigade) had made this impossible without withdrawing the whole line. Vietinghoff then authorised a fighting withdrawal to the Pisciatello River. Although the units of 90 Panzer Grenadier Division and 26 Panzer Division began to retire from the Scolo Rigossa between Gambettola and Sant' Angelo, no immediate withdrawal was made by the regiments of I Parachute Division whose front extended forward of the Rigossa to the Fiumicino River on the corps' left flank.
An ‘intercept’ of a German radio message revealed that the enemy was pulling back to the line of the Pisciatello. Brigadier Burrows suggested to Colonel Thomas (23 Battalion) that he should test his part of the front with small patrols just before dawn on the 15th to ascertain whether or not the enemy was still there. The patrols found that he had gone. B Company established a platoon at a road junction on the northern edge of Gambettola, while a platoon from C Company entered the town from the south and took 15 prisoners. page 263 The first opposition was met by B Company when its leading platoon was pinned down by machine-gun fire only a short way along the road to the north; but C Company men reached the railway west of the town without hindrance.
Burrows decided that it was time to replace 28 Battalion with the 21st and continue the advance to the Pisciatello with 21 and 23 Battalions. But first it was necessary to bridge the Rigossa and bring up the supporting arms. Because there was so much to do, sappers from 6, 7 and 8 Field Companies and 5 Field Park Company were employed on opening routes: they lifted mines, cleared demolitions and bridged the Scolo Rigossa; they installed a ‘scissors’ bridge1 at Gambettola in time for the tanks of C Squadron, 19 Regiment, to cross and join 23 Battalion before midday; they had to postpone the erection of a 70-foot Bailey bridge because of persistent shellfire, but built a drum culvert which vehicles could use alongside the scissors bridge and placed an Ark bridge about a mile downstream from Gambettola. West of Sant' Angelo the tanks of A Squadron, 19 Regiment, forded the Rigossa.
B Company of 21 Battalion,2 which had gone into the line the previous day, was restored to its parent unit and, together with C Company, crossed the Rigossa in the afternoon of the 15th. The two companies formed up on the Via Staggi, a road running north-eastward from Gambettola, where they were joined by A Squadron's tanks. They began to advance about 4.30 p.m. but had gained only a few hundred yards when they came under mortar and machine-gun fire from houses to their north. One tank was set on fire by a bazooka. It was decided that both 21 and 23 Battalions should go no farther that night.
From prisoners—24 of whom were taken by the Division on the 15th—and other sources of information a picture was built up of the enemy's defence on 5 Brigade's front. His rearguards had fallen back to positions about half-way between the Rigossa and the Pisciatello, and as usual he had blown demolitions on the roads and tracks which passed over numerous streams and ditches. His tanks and self-propelled guns still south of the Pisciatello were shelled by the artillery and bombed by the Desert Air Force. With fine weather the fighter-bombers had a good day against these targets and houses occupied by the enemy.
1 A bridge carried on a Valentine tank with mechanism to unfold it (like a pair of scissors) and lay it in place.
2 21 Bn (like 23 and 28 Bns) was organised as a ‘battle group’ which included A Sqn of 19 Regt, a troop of 32 A-Tk Bty, a troop of 104 Cdn A-Tk Bty (M10s), a platoon of 1 MG Coy and a platoon of 7 Fd Coy.
Now that both 1 Canadian Infantry Division and 2 NZ Division had troops across the Scolo Rigossa, the Canadian Corps applied itself to the next stage of the advance, to the Pisciatello River. While 1 Canadian Brigade was to make all speed along Route 9, 5 NZ Brigade was directed to a stretch of the river between Macerone and Ponte della Pietra, north-west of Gambettola. Fifth Brigade was to advance with 21 Battalion on the right and 23 on the left, and with 22 (Motor) Battalion (from 4 Brigade) protecting the flank between the Rigossa and the Pisciatello. The Royal Canadian Dragoons (of Cumberland Force) relieved the Maoris at Sant' Angelo.
Although the sappers were unable to construct a Bailey bridge at Gambettola until next day, the supporting arms were able to cross the Rigossa by way of the drum culvert and the Ark bridge. Fifth Brigade resumed the advance on the morning of the 16th. C Company of 21 Battalion entered the village of Bulgarno, three-quarters of a mile north of Gambettola, and the battalion then waited for further orders, as it had been instructed to do. A Company, 23 Battalion, headed along a road north-west of Gambettola until halted by mortar fire about a mile from the Pisciatello.
German troops in the vicinity of Ruffio and in the village itself, between A Company and the river, were bombarded by the artillery. One of the supporting tanks was immobilised by an anti-tank gun, but scored a direct hit on its assailant, and later the infantry captured the gun, its crew and tractor. Elsewhere B Company came upon 15 Germans who were ‘apparently just waiting to be collected’.1
On 5 Brigade's right the Royal Canadian Dragoons and Wilderforce discovered on the morning of the 16th that the enemy had fallen back beyond the Rigossa on most of the front, but 1 Parachute Division still held firmly on the Fiumicino line opposite 3 Greek Mountain Brigade, nearer the coast. A 12-man patrol from A Squadron, Divisional Cavalry, was unexpectedly counter-attacked at the Rigossa by about 40 paratroopers, who drove them out of a house by knocking it down with bazookas. The patrol leader (Second-Lieutenant Purchase2) and his men held out in another house until the counter-attack was broken up by artillery and machine-gun fire. Six of the patrol were wounded, and two of the wounded captured. The Germans returned with a horse and cart, under a Red Cross flag, to collect their own casualties, who were thought to be more numerous.
1 War diary, 23 Bn.
2 Lt G. W. R. H. Purchase, MC; born NZ 21 May 1911; telephone mechanician; twice wounded.
The enemy was expected to hold the Pisciatello as a main line of resistance, with outposts in front of it. General Freyberg's plan was to direct 5 Brigade on Macerone (a village on the far bank of the river north of Bulgarno) and on the crossing by Casone (farther upstream, north of Ruffio). If the enemy was not holding this line strongly, 5 Brigade was to secure a bridgehead over the river that night (16–17 October). Fourth Brigade was to bring 18 Armoured Regiment from the coast and, rejoined by 22 Battalion, was to give 5 Brigade right-flank protection east of Bulgarno—or was to exploit north if required. Sixth Brigade's task would be to pass through 5 Brigade's bridgehead over the Pisciatello.
The boundary with the Canadian division was to be adjusted to run approximately north from Bulgaria through Ruffio to the Pisciatello. The Canadians intended to push along Route 9 with 1 Infantry Brigade and to bring in 2 Infantry Brigade on the right to seize a frontage on the Pisciatello which included the crossing by Ponte della Pietra, formerly in the New Zealand sector.
Early in the afternoon of the 16th 21 Battalion set off northwards with the object of reaching the Scolo Fossalta, about half-way between Bulgarno and the Pisciatello. B and C Companies made fairly slow progress under shell and mortar fire, and when within range of the German outposts, about three-quarters of a mile from the Pisciatello, were held up for some time by small-arms and machine-gun fire. Towards evening C Company closed up to a lateral road just beyond the Fossalta, but B Company did not get quite so far. Infantry of 22 Battalion and tanks of A Squadron, 18 Regiment, were established at various points north of the Rigossa to protect 21 Battalion's right flank.
The enemy seemed to be preparing to counter-attack down the road from Ruffio, but a ‘murder’ shoot by the artillery and fire from the tanks put an end to the aggressive intentions he may have had against A Company, 23 Battalion, which was on the Ruffio crossroads by nightfall. Meanwhile Colonel Thomas had decided to send D Company on an outflanking movement along roads west of the Bulgaria-Ruffio route. This took the company unintentionally into the Canadians' sector—which was realised when the roads ahead were shelled by Canadian guns. The company removed itself to the Bulgaria-Ruffio road. During the day 21 and 23 Battalions took over 70 prisoners; their own casualties were two killed and 10 wounded.
General Freyberg told General Burns that 5 Brigade expected to be on the line of the Pisciatello River that night (16–17 October) and that 6 Brigade would cross the river next day. It was his page 266 aim to establish a bridgehead with the infantry so that the armour could go through.
The New Zealanders, however, did not reach the Pisciatello that night, although 21 Battalion made some progress towards it. D Company, on the road leading north from Bulgarno, was brought to a halt by mortar and machine-gun fire from German outposts south of the river, but pushed on again when this fire diminished, and not long before dawn approached the Scolo Olca, a drain within half a mile of the river, where it again came under fire. Seven men sent to examine a house were surrounded by a more numerous enemy, who killed an NCO, mortally wounded another man and took the rest prisoners. A Company, on a secondary road farther west, reached the Scolo Olca and captured two Germans who were unaware of the New Zealanders' approach. About 6.30 a.m. Brigadier Burrows told Colonel Thodey that 21 Battalion was not to attempt to go any farther at this stage. The two companies therefore consolidated, with the enemy still between them and the river. They had taken a dozen prisoners.
On 23 Battalion's front patrols from A Company found that the enemy was very alert in the Ruffio area and despite an artillery ‘murder’ was still there in the early hours of the 17th. A patrol from D Company bypassed Ruffio without being detected and reached the Pisciatello about 50 yards from the crossing north of the village. The river appeared to be a major obstacle. This was confirmed by patrols from 2 Canadian Infantry Brigade, whose leading troops by morning were up to the Pisciatello between its junction with the Rio Matalardo (a tributary) and Ponte della Pietra, west of 5 Brigade's sector.
General Burns told General Freyberg on the morning of 17 October that he and General McCreery were anxious to get a bridgehead over the Pisciatello as soon as possible because the fine weather was expected to break within 24 hours. Freyberg asked Burrows (5 Brigade) and Parkinson (6 Brigade) whether they could establish a bridgehead. They were both doubtful because the enemy was ‘still fighting back’,1 but the GOC urged Burrows to try to get across and to hand over to 6 Brigade on the other side. It was intended that 6 Brigade should establish a bridgehead for 4 Brigade to pass through and then consolidate the ground behind 4 Brigade's advance.
1 GOC's diary.
A Company of 23 Battalion occupied Ruffio on the morning of 17 October, after three tanks had raked the village with their Browning machine guns for some time. The bridge over the Scolo Olca, between Ruffio and the Pisciatello, although prepared for demolition was still intact, but the enemy reacted to an advance beyond Ruffio with shell, mortar and small-arms fire. Fifth Brigade reported to Divisional Headquarters that there was ‘a shooting war’ on its front. The tanks of 19 Regiment and the artillery engaged many targets—guns, mortars, machine guns and occupied houses— and the Desert Air Force also was very busy. Reconnaissance aircraft reported that all the bridges over the Pisciatello between Route 9 and the sea had been blown.
In the afternoon 1 Company of 22 Battalion approached to within a few hundred yards of the river on 5 Brigade's right flank. Sergeant Palmer1 led a platoon assault on Casa Casalini, between the Scolo Fossalta and the Scolo Olca, with such dash that two machine guns were overrun and the rest of the enemy put to flight; five Germans were killed and four captured. Another platoon took possession of Casa Fossalta, farther to the east.
When rain began to fall at 2.30 p.m. prospects did not look too bright for continuing the advance with tanks. The road in 22 Battalion's sector became almost impassable for tracked vehicles, and 4 Brigade began to fear a repetition of the bogging it had experienced during the stalemate on the Fiumicino River. Nevertheless, General Freyberg ordered the brigade to proceed with the planned advance, providing that 6 Brigade was able to establish a crossing over the Pisciatello. Already 18 Armoured Regiment had come forward to the Gambettola area; and the 20th moved in heavy rain from the coast to the vicinity of the Uso River.
Fifth Brigade ended its seven-day spell in the line in the late afternoon and evening of 17 October, when 24 and 25 Battalions took over from the 21st and 23rd; 26 Battalion was in reserve in the Bulgarno area; A Squadron of 19 Regiment supported 24 Battalion and B Squadron the 25th. It was decided that 6 Brigade should not attempt to establish the bridgehead over the Pisciatello that night, but should send out patrols to reconnoitre for crossing places.
Farther west the enemy was more lively. B Company of the 24th twice attempted to patrol to a crossing place between Macerone and Bagnarola and was driven back each time by machine-gun and small-arms fire. The foremost troops of 22 Battalion (1 Company), on the Division's right flank, were exposed to fire from Sala and Castellaccio, villages to the east and south-east where Cumberland Force had not drawn level. The battalion was warned that attacks could be expected on 1 Company's positions, which were strengthened by a platoon from 3 Company.
The first attack came against the Royal Canadian Dragoons, farther south, who were forced back some distance, but were reinforced and regained their position. After a heavy bombardment about 50 paratroops attacked 1 Company's position at Casa Fossalta, held by two infantry sections under Second-Lieutenant Bassett.1 Using bazookas, grenades and automatic weapons, the Germans tried for four hours to break the defence. They retired at dawn but returned soon afterwards and were surprised and dispersed by tanks (from A Squadron, 18 Regiment) coming from the west and by infantry from the south. At least eight Germans were killed, many wounded, and six captured from 1 Parachute Division. The New Zealand casualties were seven wounded.
Wilderforce, the New Zealand component of Cumberland Force, sent out patrols between the Scolo Rigossa and Pisciatello River at dawn on the 18th. A patrol from 33 Anti-Tank Battery entered Castellaccio and killed four Germans, but withdrew (with one man wounded) because the village was strongly held and ammunition was running low.