Italy Volume II : From Cassino to Trieste
I: From the Savio to the Lamone
DURING the absence of the New Zealand Division, Eighth Army continued its advance beyond the Savio River to the Ronco, which crosses Route 9 about two miles short of the town of Forli and flows northward across the Romagna plain alongside Route 67 to join the Montone River a mile or two from the city of Ravenna, near the coast. The army crossed the Ronco on 31 October, but because of bad weather did not enter Forli until seven days later. In the week of fine weather which ensued the enemy was driven back to the line of the Montone River, north of Route 9, and to the Rio Cosina, its tributary south of the highway. This advance permitted Eighth Army at last to open Route 67 (the Florence-Forli-Ravenna highway), which gave better lateral communication with Fifth Army.
By 16 November 5 Corps (Lieutenant-General C. F. Keightley) was brought to a halt. Reconnaissance north of Route 9 showed that the high stopbanks between which the Montone flowed, the very muddy approaches and the enemy's preparations for defence combined to form an obstacle which could be overcome only by a set-piece attack. South of Route 9 the enemy re-established himself in strong defensive positions, supported by tanks and self-propelled guns, with good fields of fire across country that was too muddy and soft to allow 46 British Division to manoeuvre its tanks.
An appraisal of the Allied armies' situation at this stage was not encouraging. Headquarters Allied Armies appreciated on 10 October ‘that active operations with all available forces should continue as page 287 long as the state of our own troops and the weather permitted in the hope that by then we should have at least succeeded in driving the enemy back to the general line of the Adige [a river north of the Po] and the Alps and in clearing up north-western Italy. Secondly, when full-scale operations ceased, there should be a period of active defence during which the minimum forces would be committed against the enemy and the maximum attention paid to rest, reorganisation and training of all formations in preparation for a renewal of the offensive as soon as the weather should permit.’1
During the next fortnight Fifth Army failed to capture Bologna, and the exhaustion of the troops and the shortage of replacements, both British and American, began to be felt. No longer could it be assumed that there was any likelihood of pushing the enemy back to the Adige before it became necessary to halt the offensive. The immediate objectives, therefore, were limited to Bologna and Ravenna. It had been proposed that Eighth Army should continue its offensive at least until 15 November to take Ravenna and draw off the enemy from Fifth Army, which went over to the defensive on 27 October to rest and prepare for a final attack on Bologna. ‘If this plan was unsuccessful,’ wrote General Alexander, ‘then we should have to accept the best winter position that could be managed….’2
General McCreery, commander of Eighth Army, did not think three weeks would be long enough to rest the American divisions or to lull the enemy sufficiently into a sense of security on the Bologna front; he therefore suggested that the date be postponed a week or two, which also would allow his army to complete its programme of rest and regrouping. Shortly after the New Zealand Division was taken into reserve, the problem of resting the whole of 1 Canadian Corps was solved by making 5 Corps responsible for its immediate right flank protection, putting 12 Lancers in the place of 1 Canadian Infantry Division, and assigning the rest of the Canadian Corps front as far as the coast to Porterforce (consisting mainly of dismounted armoured regiments). Consequently Eighth Army, which now disposed only 5 Corps and 2 Polish Corps, would be in a better position to undertake the task assigned to it towards the end of November, when three fresh divisions—the two Canadian and the New Zealand—would again be available. It was anticipated that these divisions would be capable of fighting until mid-December.
McCreery's immediate intentions at the end of October had been that 5 Corps and the Polish Corps should continue the attack in the better going on the left of the Eighth Army front, with the object of attracting German formations from the Bologna front and, if possible, of capturing Ravenna as well as Forli; at the end of November the three fresh divisions were to be thrown into the fortnight's all-out effort to take Ravenna, if the city had not fallen already.
The feasibility of this plan was questioned, however, when the allotment of artillery ammunition for November was known. Eighth Army had been obliged from the middle of October to scale down its expenditure to a basic rate of 40 rounds a day for each field gun, 30 for each medium, and 20 for each heavy. Now that the forecast for November and December threatened a further reduction to 25 rounds for field guns and 15 for mediums and heavies, there was doubt whether the reserves would be sufficient. McCreery reported to Alexander that if the operations planned for November were carried out, there would not be enough ammunition for the more important programme planned for December. Nevertheless he was told that the offensive was to go ahead as planned. A world survey of artillery ammunition had revealed that the supply was greater than had been expected. The allotment for December might be increased, but in any case every economy was to be practised, and Eighth Army's apportioning to its corps was to be cut drastically to build up the essential reserves.
Eighth Army gave instructions on 18 November for the final phase of the battle in which it was engaged. Faenza, the next town beyond Forli on Route 9, and the high ground to the south-west and on the west bank of the Lamone River were to be secured as a starting point. The objective was not more than eight miles distant, but the terrain was no easier than that already traversed.
Fifth Corps planned to advance in three phases: in the first 4 and 46 Divisions were to seize crossings over the Cosina stream (about midway between Forli and Faenza); in the second they were to continue the advance to the Lamone (which crossed Route 9 immediately in front of Faenza), and 10 Indian Division was to be committed on the right or left of 4 Division according to the demands page 289 of the situation; and in the third phase, for which detailed orders had not yet been issued, the corps was to cross the Lamone and capture Faenza. The corps was to be given the greatest possible support by medium bombers of the Tactical Air Force and light and fighter-bombers of the Desert Air Force, whose programme would allow for the vagaries of the weather.
Fifth Corps also was to have additional artillery support, which included the three New Zealand field regiments. The New Zealand artillery group, totalling 430 vehicles, left the Division's rest area in the Apennines on 17 November, followed the familiar Route 16 to Rimini and continued north-westward along Route 9 to a staging area near Cesena. The guns, now under 5 Corps' command, were disposed within a mile or two to the north and west of Forli. They were to fire a barrage to assist in an attack on a mile-long stretch of the Cosina between Route 9 and its confluence with the Montone north of the highway.
A strong German raid shortly before the attack was about to start (at 2 a.m. on 21 November) prevented the left-hand battalion (2 Cornwalls) of 10 Brigade, 4 Division, from approaching the stream on the route chosen for it, and by dawn only one company had reached the objective on the far bank north of the railway. With the help of the artillery this company beat off several counter-attacks by infantry and tanks and captured some prisoners. The assault by the other assaulting battalion (1/6 Surreys) of 10 Brigade was broken up by minefields and machine-gun and mortar fire, which caused many casualties. Keightley therefore called off the attack. The company of Cornwalls was withdrawn from its isolated position across the stream under cover of artillery smoke.
Fifth Corps made a fresh plan: 4 and 46 Divisions were to clear the German outposts east of the Cosina on the night of 21–22 November, and if the resistance weakened, 46 Division was to cross the stream, with 4 Division protecting its right flank; otherwise (if resistance had not weakened) both divisions were to attack the following night. On the right of 4 Division, 10 Indian Division was to relieve 12 Lancers and prepare to cross the Lamone north of Villafranca di Forli.
The clearing of the ground inside a loop of the Cosina south of Route 9 was completed during the night of the 21st–22nd, and the attack across the stream succeeded next night. A bridge was captured on 46 Division's front before the enemy could demolish it, an Ark gave an additional crossing, and the tanks joined the infantry on the far side. Mud and the enemy's artillery and machine-gun page 290 fire did not prevent 4 Division from also getting both infantry and tanks across. The New Zealand Artillery supported the attack during the night and next day.
By nightfall on the 23rd the left wing of 5 Corps thus was firmly established across the Cosina on a front of three miles south of Route 9, and the Polish Corps had made some progress on the higher ground in the foothills of the Apennines. These successes, and an improvement in the weather which gave better going for the tanks, left the German 26 Panzer Division with no choice but to pull back to the shelter of the Lamone River, which meant that 278 Division, on the banks of the Montone, had to protect its exposed right flank, three miles in length, between the two rivers.
The 4th Division turned north on 24 November to begin the destruction of the German forces between the Montone and the Lamone. General Keightley ordered 10 Indian Division to cross the Cosina on Route 9 and also advance northward, on 4 Division's right. This advance was expected to secure the early capture of the Casa Bettini bridge over the Montone about five miles north of Forli. Porterforce was to screen the Canadian Corps' approach to the Montone north of this bridge.
The New Zealand Division was to relieve 4 Division, which was to hand over its specialised equipment, including ‘Wasps’, ‘Weasels’ and ‘Littlejohns’,1 to the New Zealanders and Indians.
The 46th Division advanced almost unopposed to the west bank of the Marzeno River, which joins the Lamone just south of Faenza. The Route 9 bridge over the Lamone at the entrance to the town and a bridge spanning the Marzeno above its confluence with the Lamone had been demolished, but an Ark was placed in the Marzeno, and by the evening of the 24th two battalions of 128 Brigade were across this river. While the brigade was preparing to cross the Lamone on the 26th, however, steady rain began to fall. The single Ark over the Marzeno was incapable of carrying heavy traffic, and the route beyond it soon became muddy and treacherous. Meanwhile 4 Division advanced on the north side of Route 9 to the Lamone; 10 Indian Division began to clear the west bank of the Montone towards Casa Bettini, but was thwarted by German strongpoints in houses short of the bridge.
1 Wasp: device which threw an ignited jet of inflammable liquid 70 or 80 yards from a Bren carrier. Weasel: an amphibian developed from an American light cargo carrier originally designed for use in snow; its light construction and wide tracks made it suitable for swampy ground, but its low freeboard made it unsuitable for navigation in other than calm water. Littlejohn: 2-pdr anti-tank gun with a tapered bore to increase its muzzle velocity; its mobility and high penetrating power made it particularly suitable for river-crossings.
Fifth Corps intended to capture Faenza and continue the advance along Route 9. In the first phase, which was expected to last until about 1 December, 46 Division (on the left) was to cross the Lamone south of Faenza, the New Zealand Division (in the centre) was to cross this river north of the railway line, which ran through the northern edge of the town, and 10 Indian Division (on the right) was to secure the bridge over the Montone at Casa Bettini and also cross the Lamone. At the conclusion of this phase 1 Canadian Corps would take over the whole of 10 Indian Division's sector. In the second phase, which was to last five or six days, 10 Indian Division was to relieve the 46th (which was to pass to the command of 10 Corps) and complete the capture of the Pergola- Pideura ridge, south-west of Faenza; the New Zealand Division was to extend its left on to Route 9 and continue the advance. From 5–6 December 5 Corps proposed to keep going on both sides of Route 9, with the New Zealand Division on the right, 56 British Division in the centre, and 10 Indian Division on the left.
The Division came from the Apennine rest area in two stages, the first to the vicinity of Cesena, and completed the relief of 4 Division on the night of 26–27 November, with 5 Brigade on the right and the 6th on the left. The Division's sector extended about 6000 yards along the Lamone River, from the vicinity of the village of Borgo Durbecco (on Route 9, separated from Faenza by the river, over which the bridge had been demolished) to Scaldino. The Lamone wound in a series of bends in a general easterly direction across 6 Brigade's front and then took a more northerly course across 5 Brigade's front. Sixth Brigade placed one battalion (the 26th) in the line, and kept the other three (24, 25, and Divisional Cavalry) back at Forli; 5 Brigade had 22 Battalion (on the right flank) and 21 in the line, and 23 and 28 Battalions in reserve. The infantry was given the usual support of tanks, anti-tank guns, mortars and machine guns.2 The New Zealand artillery returned from 5 Corps to the command of the Division.
The two brigades sent out many patrols at night to obtain information about the stopbanks along the Lamone—which varied from 15 to 25 feet in height—the width, depth and current of the water, and suitable crossing places. The enemy had made a stronghold in the hamlet of Ronco, just over the river on 22 Battalion's front.
Along the river both sides brought down harassing and defensive fire, limited on the New Zealand side by the meagre supply of artillery, mortar and machine-gun ammunition. Because the 25- pounders were not allowed to exceed 10 rounds a gun each day, their shooting was augmented by tank gunlines provided by 18 and 20 Armoured Regiments.
1 GOC's diary.
2 In addition to the four infantry battalions 5 Bde had under its command 18 Armd Regt (which also supported 6 Bde), 32 A-Tk Bty, 150/93 A-Tk Bty (SP) RA, 1 MG Coy, and a company of 5 Fd Amb; in support were 142 Fd Regt (SP) RA less a battery, half of 34 Hy Mor Bty and 7 Fd Coy. The additional troops under 6 Bde's command were 33 A-Tk Bty, 2 MG Coy and a company of 6 Fd Amb, and those in support were 18 Regt, half of 34 Hy Mor Bty and 8 Fd Coy. The 20th Armd Regt was in divisional reserve and 80 Med Regt, RA, and A Flight of 651 Air OP Sqn were in support.
Fifth Corps and the Polish Corps were both holding the east bank of the Lamone on a front which extended about four miles north-east of Faenza. The crossing of the river had to be postponed because of the heavy rain which began to fall on 26 November. By the evening of the 27th the rivers and canals had risen to a dangerous level, and at the end of the month the ground was still too soft and the Lamone too swollen. This of course gave the German 278 Division and 26 Panzer Division—the latter depleted to a fighting strength of less than 1000—time to reorganise and consolidate on the other side of the river, while 305 Division closed the gap created on the right of 26 Panzer Division by its hasty withdrawal across the Marzeno.
Plans for the resumption of the offensive by both Allied armies were agreed upon at an army commanders' conference on 26 November. After Eighth Army had crossed the Santerno River, which it was expected would not be before the end of the first week in December, because the Lamone and Senio rivers had to be crossed before the Santerno, the two armies were to launch a combined offensive to capture Bologna, the Eighth by a westerly thrust north of Route 9, and the Fifth by a northward push along Route 65.
2 A method of covering unmetalled lengths of road with timber to provide a platform for the passage of wheeled vehicles.
At this stage the Germans faced Eighth Army from behind a water barrier which began along the Lamone River and ended at the Fiumi Uniti (passing just south of Ravenna), and which was broken only by a five-mile switch-line between Scaldino (by the Lamone) and Casa Bettini (on the Montone). An attack by 10 Indian Division on 27–28 November failed to secure the bridge site on the Montone at Casa Bettini, which was needed to enable the Canadian Corps to move up on the right of 5 Corps.
The original intention that the Canadians should relieve the whole of 10 Indian Division was modified to avoid a wide dispersal of their effort. Now they were to take over only the right portion of the Indian division's sector, and consequently 5 Corps was to retain a front that would include a bridge (Ponte della Castellina) over the Lamone about five miles from Faenza and one built by the Germans at Gubadina, about a quarter of a mile upstream from Ponte della Castellina. When 10 Indian Division resumed the attack, the Casa Bettini bridge site was still its primary object, but it was also to try to take the Gubadina bridge intact and cross the Lamone. In addition the New Zealand Division was to send a force northward along the east bank of the Lamone and attempt to seize the same bridge (at Gubadina) and cross the river.
On 30 November the Indian division captured Albereto, the centre of the enemy's resistance between the Montone and Lamone rivers, and loosed his hold on Casa Bettini. This opened the way for the Canadians to start crossing the Montone at dawn on 1 December, and they took command of the front from Albereto to the coast in the evening. The Indian division made strenuous efforts to reach the Lamone bridges at Gubadina and Ponte della Castellina, north-west of Albereto, but when men from 20 Indian Infantry Brigade closed up to them on the afternoon of the 2nd they found both bridges demolished.1
During a telephone conversation in the evening of 29 November General Keightley told General Freyberg that 10 Indian Division's attack did not depend on 5 Brigade's action ‘but would be very much helped if it went well.’ The corps commander added that the New Zealand Division ‘has the effect of attracting all Bosche troops round them like a magnet. He has every reason to know that when the NZ Division comes in something usually happens.1
D Company (Major G. S. Sainsbury) of 22 Battalion and C Squadron (Major Laurie2) of 18 Armoured Regiment, supported by artillery, mortar and machine-gun fire, were given the task of capturing a line from Casa di mezzo to Casa di sopra (about midway between Scaldino and Castellina) and exploiting to Ponte della Castellina. At a conference presided over by Lieutenant-Colonel O'Reilly it was decided that the force should capture Scaldino di sotto (north of Scaldino) and Casa di mezzo, and then, depending on how successful it had been, push on to the Castellina bridge.
At 8.30 a.m. on the 30th the infantry and tanks began their advance from the road east of Scaldino. The 25-pounders of 5 Field Regiment fired over 2000 rounds during the attack with good effect: Germans taken prisoner said the shelling had inflicted serious casualties. Although the ground was sodden, especially on the left flank, where the enemy resisted vigorously from the stopbank, the tanks gave excellent support to the infantry, who took Scaldino di sotto and, with the three platoons working independently, continued towards the scattered farm buildings of Rombola, Casa di sopra and Casa di mezzo.
1 GOC's diary.
D Company's centre platoon met misfortune in a minefield. Near a disabled tank one of two approaching German prisoners trod on an S-mine and escaped injury himself, but five New Zealanders fell wounded or severely shaken, and two of them died. This platoon and the one on the left cleared the ground between Casa di sotto and the river bank, completing an advance of 1200 yards, and by nightfall D Company was in possession of La Torretta and Casa di sopra as well as Casa di sotto, towards which a party of engineers opened a road. While clearing a booby-trapped road block two sappers were wounded, one of them fatally. D Company's casualties were three killed and five wounded. One of C Squadron's tanks had been knocked out on the minefield, and two immobilised by mechanical troubles; two casualties had occurred in a tank crew.page 297
The tanks withdrew and M10s helped the infantry consolidate on the freshly won ground.
That night 22 Battalion patrolled from La Torretta and Scaldino to the Lamone and to Gubadina without making contact. After a three-man patrol had scouted to Gubadina, 16 Platoon occupied a large house close to the river, and at daybreak on 1 December ‘unsuspecting Germans directly across the road stretched and settled comfortably around three spandau pits and strolled round a small house.’1 The platoon trained its Bren guns on the spandaus, and when two Gurkha scouts came up the road from the direction of Albereto, opened fire on the enemy while a section charged out to seize the house and five of its occupants. Apparently the German survivors of 22 Battalion's attack had retreated across the Lamone by a wooden bridge at Gubadina, but a party had returned to act as a battle outpost.
A Gurkha battalion relieved 16 Platoon later in the day, when 20 Indian Infantry Brigade took over Gubadina and the New Zealand and Indian divisions redistributed their troops.
A Squadron of 18 Armoured Regiment shelled the towers and belfries of Faenza which, it was suspected, sheltered German observation posts. A large tower collapsed ‘like an avalanche’2 in the afternoon of 1 December; another was destroyed the following afternoon, and others were damaged. During the shooting an elderly woman stood in the command post weeping and crying repeatedly, ‘la mia bella Faenza’. Faenza, a town with a history of sieges and sackings dating from 390 BC, was to be the centre of much of the New Zealand Division's activities in the winter of 1944–45.
From the jumping-off place secured by 10 Indian Division at Casa Bettini the Canadian Corps continued the northward clearing of the German switch-line positions between the Montone and Lamone rivers. On the left 1 Canadian Infantry Division captured Russi and turned westward towards the road and railway crossings of the Lamone on the way to Bagnacavallo. The Germans had withdrawn across the river, but 1 Canadian Infantry Brigade's attempt to seize a bridgehead was harshly repulsed by the German 114 Jaeger Division.
1 22 Battalion, pp. 389–90.