Italy Volume II : From Cassino to Trieste
III: The Halt at the Senio
III: The Halt at the Senio
By 17 December 5 Corps' spearheads had reached the Senio. The New Zealanders patrolled to the river, but the enemy still held positions on the near bank, especially in the vicinity of the Route 9 bridge site. The 10th Indian Division secured small bridgeheads farther upstream, but was compelled to withdraw when they were counter-attacked. This division could make no further progress until the supply situation improved and the enemy was cleared from the environs of Faenza.page 330
The first New Zealanders to reach the bank of the Senio were members of a patrol from D Company, 22 Battalion, who approached the winding river south of Castel Bolognese unopposed in the evening of 16 December. That night and subsequently patrols from 23 Battalion were prevented by machine-gun, mortar and artillery fire from getting close enough to examine the Route 9 crossing of the river. B and C Companies of 22 Battalion, in the Casale-Osanna area, were consistently and at times heavily shelled and mortared, and had to vacate several houses which were badly hit. Patrols reported that the river near Casale was some 30 feet wide and swift-flowing between 12-foot banks; they did not find suitable sites for bridges.
Contact was made with 10 Indian Division on the left flank. On 5 Brigade's other (northern) flank 28 Battalion occupied positions between Route 9 and Celle. In the afternoon of the 18th 7 Platoon of A Company, accompanied by three tanks, occupied a house across the highway without opposition. German infantry and tanks counter-attacked a few hours later, but were driven off by accurate artillery and mortar fire after coming within 200 or 300 yards of the house.
Meanwhile 6 Brigade continued its north-westward advance on the right of 5 Brigade. The two leading companies of 25 Battalion (B and D), after reaching Route 9 beyond Faenza, were intended to wheel left and carry on towards the Senio between the highway and the railway; the other two companies were to be relieved near the cemetery by 2/10 Gurkhas. B and D Companies killed or captured a few Germans but were hampered by rows of grape vines and by small-arms, mortar and shell fire; even with the support of tanks from A Squadron, 20 Regiment, they were unable to get closer than about 1500 yards of the Senio during the night of 16–17 December.
The 24th Battalion, which was to advance on the right flank, crossed the Lamone River in the afternoon of the 16th and continued north-westward around the rear of the 25th. By nightfall its B and D Companies were between Route 9 and the railway and the other two companies south of the highway. B Company's right-hand platoon crossed the railway but came under fire and withdrew. A Company was held up at a road and railway crossing less than half a mile from the outskirts of Faenza. B and D Companies pushed on north-westward and captured Pasotta, a group of buildings about 100 yards over the railway and 2000 yards from the Senio. Two platoons (13 and 15) remained at Pasotta, where for the time being they were the only New Zealanders north of page 331 the railway. Like 25 Battalion, the 24th (supported by tanks from B Squadron of 18 Regiment) could go no farther towards the Senio because of the German defensive fire.
Sixth Brigade was then directed north-eastward beyond the railway and thus parallel with the south-east bank of the Senio. A Company of 24 Battalion cleared the railway crossing where earlier it had met the German strongpoint, but met further opposition in some houses about 300 yards away. B Company crossed the railway on the left of A and reached a group of buildings at Lanzona. The advance was continued in the early hours of the 18th, with the support of tanks, artillery, mortars and machine guns. A Company reached Bocca di Vino, at a road and track junction about half a mile beyond the railway, and B Company a house about a quarter of a mile farther north-west.
Unfortunately the tanks, from B Squadron of 20 Regiment, were delayed by mines and were not in a position to assist the infantry when the enemy counter-attacked at 6.45 a.m. A Company's commander (Major I. G. Howden) reported that German tanks ‘proceeded to blast the houses, but our troops held on in the hope that tank support would come….’ By 7.30 a.m., however, the company was compelled to retire from Bocca di Vino. Some men of 9 Platoon, several of them wounded, had to be left behind; four of the wounded were recovered, but six men, including an officer, were taken prisoner. Meanwhile B Company had found that the house it was supposed to capture was a pile of rubble, so was obliged to return to Lanzona.
The same night (the 17th–18th) the enemy counter-attacked Pasotta, but was beaten off while burning haystacks lit up the scene. This illumination prevented the defenders (13 and 15 Platoons) from withdrawing—had they wished to do so. A Tiger tank surprisingly did not open fire, perhaps because the enemy expected to recapture the house intact. Some German infantry returned at dawn and began digging slit trenches close to Pasotta without troubling to ascertain whether anybody was there. The New Zealanders opened fire, killed an officer (upon whose body was found a key to codewords, maps marked with enemy positions, and other useful documents) and wounded two men; the rest escaped.
The 24th Battalion now held a line which was a north-westward prolongation from the Scolo Cerchia (which turned south just beyond Faenza). The enemy brought down intense shell and mortar fire: 70 mortar bombs were counted in the vicinity of Pasotta in an hour.
West of 5 Corps, the Polish Corps had crossed the Sintria River and reached the Senio; the Canadian Corps, on the seaward flank, had crossed the Lamone River and the Canale Naviglio, which runs north-eastwards from Faenza, but had made little progress in very hard fighting north of Bagnacavallo. Eighth Army, therefore, was still some distance short of the Senio between Route 9 and the coast.
Meanwhile some important changes had taken place in the Allied command. Field Marshal Alexander became Supreme Allied Commander Mediterranean on 12 December in succession to Field Marshal Wilson, who was to lead the British Joint Staff Mission in Washington, and Lieutenant-General Clark left Fifth Army to take Alexander's place at Headquarters Allied Armies in Italy, which was redesignated Headquarters Fifteenth Army Group. Lieutenant-General Truscott, who had commanded the US 6 Corps at Anzio and in southern France, assumed command of Fifth Army.
Clark intended to continue the existing pattern of the offensive: he instructed the Eighth Army Commander (General McCreery) to ‘proceed with current operations with the object of launching an attack to force a crossing of the Senio River in conjunction with the Fifth Army's attack’,1 which he hoped to deliver against Bologna shortly before Christmas.
Eighth Army's pressure on the Adriatic flank had shown results: the enemy had brought 90 Panzer Grenadier Division from reserve to aid 305 Infantry Division and on 9 December had thrown it into battle against 5 Corps south-west of Faenza; shortly after the Canadian Corps' attack over the Lamone River, he had taken 98 Infantry Division from Fifth Army's front and rushed it across to bolster 356 Infantry Division; he had also committed 29 Panzer Grenadier Division to relieve 26 Panzer Division on the New Zealand Division's front north-west of Faenza. Thus he had been compelled to relieve two of his divisions opposing Eighth Army and bring in an additional division at the expense of the front south of Bologna, where evidently he had discounted the possibility of an offensive by Fifth Army in the prevailing bad weather.
1 Clark to McCreery and Truscott, 20 Dec 1944, in Operations of British, Indian and Dominion Forces in Italy, Part III, Sec. B, Appx 1–2.
It had been intended that Fifth Army should open its offensive against Bologna when Eighth Army had seized bridgeheads over the Santerno River, but it was now decided that the Fifth would have to attack when the Eighth was on the Senio instead of on the Santerno. Eighth Army, therefore, was to resume the offensive on the night of 19–20 December to secure the east bank of the Senio between Route 9 and the sea, and Fifth Army was to be prepared to launch its attack on Bologna three or four days later. After crossing the Senio, Eighth Army was to drive the enemy beyond the Santerno; it was to develop its main effort from Imola (on Route 9) towards Budrio (north-east of Bologna), and was also to make a strong secondary effort (which might become the primary one if the situation developed in its favour) farther north through Lugo and Argenta to Ferrara, on Route 16.
Fifth Corps' immediate plan was for the New Zealand Division to attack north-eastwards to clear the enemy from the ground between the Naviglio Canal and the Senio River, and for 56 Division to cross the Lamone River and clear the ground on the New Zealanders' right between the Lamone and the Naviglio.
Details of all phases of the attack were discussed at this and another conference in the evening. The General indicated that in the event of 6 Brigade ‘getting well through’, the 5th might have to take over on its left, and 10 Indian Division would then be asked to relieve 5 Brigade. ‘We want to ensure that if 6 Brigade gets a bridgehead we can consider going over. In the meantime the only thing we have promised to do is clear Route 9….’2
The Division's orders, issued that evening, stated that its intention was to attack north-eastwards with 43 Gurkha Brigade on the right and 6 Brigade on the left3 to open up Route 9 west of Faenza. The infantry was to advance at the rate of 100 yards in six minutes, for about 2500 yards on the Gurkhas' front and 3000 on 6 Brigade's.
The artillery barrage was to open at 9 p.m. on 19 December, pause for 36 minutes at 10.40 p.m. and finish at 12.50 a.m. on the 20th. Ten field regiments and four and a half medium regiments—more than 300 guns altogether—were to participate in the bombardment; their tasks, in addition to the barrage, were to fire timed concentrations on known enemy locations and a counter-battery and counter-mortar programme.4
Sixth Brigade's object was to secure a line extending about 2500 yards south-eastwards from the Senio River near La Palazza along a lateral road through San Pietro in Laguna towards San Silvestro (in 43 Brigade's sector), with 24 Battalion on the right, 25 in the centre and 26 on the left.
3 In addition to its own infantry units, 43 Bde had under command 48 R Tks, 82 A-Tk Bty RA and 3 Ind Lt Fd Amb, and in support 23 Army Fd Regt RA and 221 Fd Coy RE; 6 Bde had under its command 20 Armd Regt, 33 A-Tk Bty, 3 MG Coy and a company of 6 Fd Amb, and in support 6 Fd Regt, 34 Hy Mor Bty and 8 Fd Coy.
4 In addition to the New Zealand regiments, 1 RHA and 23 Army Fd Regt were under command, and 4 Med Regt RA, three field regiments of 56 Div, two field regiments of 10 Ind Div, 1 Army Group RA, one Polish medium regiment and 40/14 Lt AA Regt RA were in support.
About dawn on the 19th, however, reports from civilians and the sound of demolitions indicated that the enemy was withdrawing from his positions north of Faenza. Divisional Cavalry heard 20 or 30 explosions in the direction of the Naviglio Canal. The Gurkha Brigade, without opposition, occupied San Rocco and by evening had troops within half a mile of San Silvestro. Despite the many mines in the vicinity, the engineers completed a bridge over the Scolo Cerchia.
On 6 Brigade's front the enemy appeared to have vacated some of his foremost houses and to be on approximately the line of a track scarcely half a mile north of the railway. Support Company of 23 Battalion took possession of an empty house at Fabbriche, between the Senio and the Maoris' houses near Bastia Nuova, and the enemy abandoned another house at Fabbriche when it was demolished by tanks of C Squadron, 18 Regiment. The tanks also engaged Pieve del Ponte, closer to the river, but the enemy did not give up this locality, although some of his men ran from houses there.
Despite the reports of the German withdrawal on the Gurkhas' front, General Freyberg decided not to cancel the attack that night. After visiting the three infantry brigades he declared that the enemy was ‘holding very tight on the left. Battle is on.’1 At a divisional conference in the afternoon it was resolved not to alter 6 Brigade's plan ‘by a single gun’, but to start the barrage for 43 Brigade about 400 yards ahead of the line it was on already. The GOC said that at a certain stage he would tell 5 Corps he had ‘reached his limit’; 56 Division was then to go up on the right, and 43 Brigade go into reserve. Later the New Zealand Division might cross the Senio on its own front or do a ‘left hook’ through 10 Indian Division.
General Keightley telephoned in the evening to say that he had seen General McCreery, who had agreed that the attack was to go on. Freyberg commented that he did not really know whether the enemy was ‘falling back now or not, but at any rate it was too late to do anything.’ Keightley thought it might be ‘a very big thing if we caught him on the move.’2
Fifth Brigade, whose role was to support the attack with neutralising fire on the far side of the Senio and on strongpoints in advance of the barrage, used its mortars, M10s and 18 Regiment's tanks. Two companies of 27 (MG) Battalion put down harassing and defensive fire across the river, and a third company fired on the roads parallel with 6 Brigade's line of advance; altogether the Vickers guns fired nearly 100,000 rounds. The enemy reacted vigorously to the artillery barrage and 5 Brigade's demonstration, especially with shell and nebelwerfer fire in 23 Battalion's sector near the Route 9 crossing.
During the attack 24 Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel R. L. Hutchens), farthest from the Senio River in 6 Brigade's sector, advanced with D Company on the right and C on the left, followed by A and B. Each company had a troop of tanks of B Squadron, 20 Regiment, in support, and C also had a troop of M10s. Shortly after crossing the start line 17 Platoon of D Company ran into a minefield and shellfire, which caused 15 casualties, including its commander killed; it was replaced by the reserve platoon (No. 18), and the company was on its objective by 1 a.m. C Company was opposed at Casa Busa, about midway between San Silvestro and the Senio, but was ordered to leave this place for B Company and continue on to its objective; it consolidated in and around San Pietro in Laguna at 1.30 a.m. A self-propelled gun caused some concern until the supporting tanks knocked down the house from which it had been firing. B Company, following C, took Casa Busa, and A Company mopped up pockets overrun by D. Altogether the battalion's casualties on 19–20 December were seven killed and 21 wounded.
1 Reports differ as to whether this was from ‘shorts’ in the barrage, enemy concentrations, or both.
2 Maj C. W. Taylor, ED; Gisborne; born Gisborne, 19 Jan 1912; clerk; twice wounded.
3 25 Battalion, p. 555.
The 26th Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Fairbrother1), on the left flank, was set the difficult task of holding a long front: its objective was from the crossroads at La Palazza (about two miles north-east of Route 9) to the Senio stopbank 250 yards away, and then south-westward along the winding river to just south of the railway. Fairbrother decided to commit all four rifle companies: C (on the right) and D (left) were to go about half-way; B was then to pass through and advance to the objective in the vicinity of La Palazza; two platoons of A were to follow C and D in a mopping-up role, and the third was to protect the engineers who were to clear the road to La Palazza. The supporting arms, excluding the Mortar Platoon, which was to go into position behind the start line, were to stay at Faenza until called forward when the road was open. At first it was intended that the companies, after reaching their objectives, should wheel left and advance on to the stopbank, but shortly before the attack began ‘the Colonel learned that the eastern stopbank of the river was extensively mined; acting on orders, he told his company commanders to stop short of the river bank.’2
The battalion motored from Forli to Faenza early on the 19th, and marched along Route 9 to the start line in the evening. Within a few minutes of the beginning of the attack the battalion came under artillery and mortar fire, which caused most of its casualties, but it met little opposition on the ground. C and D Companies were in position about 12.30 a.m., and B an hour later. Each turned to face the river, which placed B on the right, C and A in the centre, and D on the left. They did not close up to the stopbank. The tanks of C Squadron of 20 Regiment arrived before dawn. The 26th Battalion's casualties were 12 killed and 45 wounded.
1 Brig M. C. Fairbrother, CBE, DSO, ED, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Carterton, 21 Sep 1907; accountant; BM 5 Bde Jun 1942–Apr 1943; comd in turn 21, 23, and 28 (Maori) Bns, Apr–Dec 1943; GSO II 2 NZ Div Jun–Oct 1944; CO 26 Bn Oct 1944–Sep 1945; comd Adv Base 2 NZEF, Sep 1945–Feb 1946; Editor-in-Chief, NZ War Histories.
2 26 Battalion, p. 472.
When he heard about 6 a.m. that the tanks were with 6 Brigade's infantry, the GOC said it was most important that the brigade should get the Senio crossing: ‘The Gurkhas are on the way now. Push on as hard as you can….’ The policy was for 6 Brigade to go to Felisio, and 43 Brigade for Casanigo (farther east) and Sant' Andrea (near the Naviglio Canal). The crossing of the Senio that night (20–21 December) ‘might well save another operation.’3
The Division, however, was unable to exploit 6 Brigade's gains. In daylight on the 20th the enemy was able to prevent any further northward advance. A platoon from B Company of 24 Battalion and a troop of tanks could not conform with what was intended to be a thrust by 25 Battalion. A patrol from A Company of the 25th was despatched to a road junction about 1000 yards beyond La Palazza, to occupy it if unopposed and then continue on to the Felisio bridge; the rest of the company was to be ready to follow. The patrol was pinned down by machine-gun fire well short of the road junction and returned without several men who were wounded. Two of the wounded came back later to report that their officer was dead; another man died of wounds while a prisoner of war.
Any chance of seizing the Felisio bridge intact had long since gone: the Divisional Artillery had reported at 9 a.m. that observation from the air had found it demolished.
A party of engineers from 8 Field Company who set out in a scout car to remove a demolition charge was ambushed by some Germans in a ditch alongside the road between La Palazza and the road junction which had been the 25 Battalion patrol's first objective. The driver and a wounded corporal escaped, but a sergeant and four sappers were taken prisoner. The car contained codes and marked maps.
To close a small gap on 25 Battalion's left flank D Company established a standing patrol in a house between La Palazza and the Senio. Already 28 Battalion had moved troops into the area between Route 9 and the railway to link 5 and 6 Brigades and thus give the Division a continuous four-mile front near the south-east bank of the river. The Gurkha Brigade, by occupying San Silvestro and other positions between San Pietro in Laguna and the Naviglio Canal, completed the Division's north-eastern front of about two and a quarter miles between the Senio and the Naviglio.
Meanwhile 167 Brigade of 56 Division had crossed the Lamone River not far from Faenza and taken up a line between that river and the Naviglio Canal east of San Silvestro. By the end of 20 December, therefore, 5 Corps' line north of Route 9 ran from the Lamone near Ronco to the Senio near La Palazza.
The attack by 6 NZ Brigade on the night of 19–20 December, according to a German report, ‘wasted an enormous amount of ammunition.’1 On the 18th 15 Panzer Grenadier Regiment of 29 Panzer Grenadier Division held a narrow bridgehead forward of the Senio River, but that night adopted a new grouping in great depth; next morning most of 15 Regiment was in defensive positions on the west bank of the Senio, ‘with battle outposts in about battalion strength left in the bridgehead, accompanied by an artillery OP.’
1 Report by 29 Pz Gren Div on fighting against 2 NZ Div in the Faenza area, in Preparations for Defensive Campaign in 1945, issued by C-in-C SW. The GOC 29 Pz Gren Div (Gen Dr Fritz Polack), when interviewed in August 1945, said, ‘we counted 94,000 shells in hours’ on the night of 19–20 December.
General Clark informed the commanders of Fifth and Eighth Armies on 20 December—five days after the deadline set by General Alexander at the end of October for the cessation of the offensive—that ‘the time is rapidly approaching when I shall give the signal for a combined all-out attack….’1 General McCreery was to be prepared to assault across the Senio at the same time as Fifth Army struck northward at Bologna.
The Canadian Corps had begun an attack towards the Senio on the same night (the 19th–20th) as the New Zealand northward attack, and had overrun Bagnacavallo and reached the river on the 21st, but the enemy still held a salient east of the Senio between the Canadians and 5 Corps and another north of the Canadians.
The further continuation of the advance was considered at a conference at the New Zealand Divisional Headquarters on the morning of the 20th. The scheme was to face north with 56 Division, 43 Gurkha Brigade and the New Zealand Division, get the guns into position north of Faenza, reconnoitre the Senio, and cross the river north of Route 9. The CRE (Colonel Hanson2) pointed out that this would present a considerable bridging problem for the engineers. The plan might take four days because work would have to be done on the roads and bridges, and troops would have to be relieved. The alternative was to cross the river south of Route 9, on 10 Indian Division's front.
2 Brig F. M. H. Hanson, DSO and bar, OBE, MM, ED, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Levin, 1896; resident engineer, Main Highways Board; Wellington Regt in First World War; comd 7 Fd Coy, NZE, Jan 1940–Aug 1941; CRE 2 NZ Div 1941–46; Chief Engineer, 2 NZEF, 1943–46; three times wounded; Commissioner of Works, 1955–61.
General Freyberg told 5 Corps that the enemy was ‘pretty firm on the ground. If he does not go back it will need another operation to push him.’1 In the afternoon Corps confirmed orders that the operation to clear the enemy between the Lamone and Senio was to continue in two stages, the first a northward advance to a line between Borgo Sant' Andrea and Felisio, and the second to the corps' northern boundary, which crossed the Naviglio Canal at the village of Granarolo, 3000 yards south of the town of Cotignola (on the opposite side of the Senio).
Because of the length of the Division's front, about six miles, the GOC wanted to readjust his dispositions as a precaution against counter-attack. Fifth Brigade was to relieve the troops of the 6th south of the railway that night (20–21 December), carry out internal reliefs, and hold its sector with two battalions while the other two rested in Faenza and Forli. It was intended to resume the advance next day, with 6 and 43 Brigades directed on the line between Sant' Andrea and Felisio.
During the night, therefore, 21 Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel E. A. McPhail) relieved 23 and 28 Battalions between the railway and 22 Battalion. A and B Squadrons of 18 Regiment withdrew to Faenza, but C Squadron's tanks remained where they could support 21 Battalion if necessary against infiltration at the Route 9 bridge site or elsewhere. Seventeen-pounder anti-tank guns were sited where they could shoot down Route 9.
A mobile reserve called Campbell Force (under Colonel Campbell2) was formed on 21 December for defence against counter-attack in the vicinity of Faenza and to protect the Division's flanks if necessary. It comprised Headquarters 4 Armoured Brigade, 19 Regiment, an anti-tank battery, two machine-gun companies, and a battalion of 5 Brigade (at this stage the 23rd, billeted at Faenza— the 28th was at Forli); and was in touch with the artillery.
General Freyberg warned the officers attending a divisional conference on 21 December that they would ‘have to be teed up’ for the proposed combined attack by Fifth and Eighth Armies, and to plan for its starting on the 26th. In the meantime he wanted ‘to rest as many people as possible and at the same time to look at the task of getting the enemy back behind the Senio. I think myself he will go.’3 Brigadiers Parkinson and Barker, however, did not think the enemy was going, at least not at that stage.
2 Brig T. C. Campbell, CBE, DSO, MC, ED, m.i.d.; Christchurch; born Colombo, 20 Dec 1911; farm appraiser; CO 22 Bn Sep 1942–Apr 1944; comd 4 Armd Bde Jan–Dec 1945; Area Commander, Wellington, 1947; Commander of Army Schools, 1951–53; Commander, Fiji Military Forces, 1953–56; Commander, Northern Military District, 1958–59; Southern Military District, 1963–66.
3 GOC's diary.
The minefields near the river presented difficulties in crossing north of Route 9.1 When the GOC suggested to General Keightley that it might be better to go south of the highway because of the difficulties to the north, the corps commander replied that he would much prefer the Division to do so. Finally, after Keightley had discussed the matter with McCreery, the decision was taken to go to the south, and 6 and 43 Brigades were advised accordingly.
The 43rd Brigade, which was to have a rest, was relieved by 167 Brigade on 22 December. The boundary then followed a northerly line from Faenza, west of San Silvestro and east of San Pietro in Laguna, to the Sant' Andrea – Felisio road. In the New Zealand sector 6 Brigade's role was to hold its front without going any farther towards Felisio, but it was to try to get the enemy off the Senio stopbank if it could.
A New Zealand attack in conjunction with but after one by 10 Indian Division was considered at a conference on the 22nd. Further information was required on approaches to the Senio and its crossing places south of Route 9, and plans would have to be made for assembling a force to attack in a south-westerly direction. Two or three battalions and two squadrons of tanks might be required. Each brigade was to produce a small reserve of tanks and infantry, and 6 Brigade's front was to be held by two instead of three battalions.
The 25th Battalion expanded to the right to relieve 24 Battalion, which went back to billets in Forli; the 25th's sector then ran south-eastward from La Palazza approximately along the road through San Pietro in Laguna. Thus the Division held its front with one battalion facing north between the Senio and the boundary with 56 Division, and three towards the Senio River, the 26th between La Palazza and the railway, the 21st from the railway to the Osanna locality, and the 22nd on the left flank in the vicinity of Casale.
1 Colonel Hanson pointed out during this discussion that although Eighth Army in North Africa had patented the Scorpion (a tank fitted with flails for threshing a lane through a minefield), none of these machines was in Italy; they all went to France.
The enemy set fire to haystacks at night to hinder the patrols from 26 Battalion from reconnoitring the minefields and the banks of the river north of the railway. A German patrol which fired a bazooka at a house was driven off by the New Zealand occupants, but left two deserters who gave information about their company's positions (on the near bank of the river) and defences. Harassing fire by the artillery and mortars periodically checked the sound of digging which could be heard on the stopbank at night, but the enemy, apparently determined to get on with his work, replied with what was claimed to be equally heavy fire on the houses occupied by the New Zealanders.
The information gathered by the patrols was discussed at a divisional conference on 23 December. Brigadier Parkinson said 6 Brigade had been unable to get anybody closer to the Senio than the minefields, and was directed by the GOC to get to the river next night. Brigadier Pleasants reported on 5 Brigade's patrolling, and Colonel Hanson amplified the information from 22 Battalion, whose patrols had been accompanied by engineer officers. Two routes to the loop of the river west of Casale were merely muddy, narrow tracks which would require several days' work on them, and this was impossible by day or night on the more southerly route because it came under gunfire; the other crossing would require 100 feet of bridging and probably would take 16 hours to complete.
The GOC pointed out that when Fifth and Eighth Armies attacked, the New Zealand Division's operation would depend on communications and the state of the river; instead of conforming as planned with 10 Indian Division's flanks, therefore, the Division might have to establish a bridgehead at a place which would be more likely to stand up to bad weather. ‘We have to consider going north as well as south of Route 9. This operation would mean that we finish up with a bridgehead unrelated to the main attack that is going in in the south.’1 This was a question which would have to be decided by the Army Commander.
Although this supporting fire had been designed to saturate the enemy's defences—2200 shells were shot into the target area in a short time—it did not drive him out. No. 8 Platoon (Second- Lieutenant Rogers1) and a section of 9 Platoon followed a track towards Palazzo Laghi, which the company commander (Major Murray2) proposed to use as a control post. Before the men reached the house they were seen in the light of German flares and came under mortar fire. From the house the sections, two heading north-eastward and two westward, made their way as fast as they could along ditches to the stopbank. They were met by fire from posts in front and on the flanks, but climbed the bank and fought the Germans at close quarters. They won several hundred yards of the bank, but the enemy prevented them from consolidating by tossing grenades across the river and shooting with small arms at those who attempted to dig in on the crest.
The enemy brought enfilading fire to bear from both flanks and began a bombardment with field guns, mortars and nebelwerfers. Almost half the attacking party became casualties: three were killed and 11 wounded. Rogers advised Murray at 8.15 a.m. that he could hold his gains on the stopbank no longer. Under the cover of smoke laid by the mortars, and carrying as many of the wounded as possible, his men returned direct through the minefield because the routes by which they had approached the river were now under fire. Private Prattley,3 who had taken charge when his section leader had been wounded and also had silenced a spandau crew with hand grenades on the stopbank, went ahead cutting trip wires so that his companions could get back quickly and safely.
1 Lt J. W. Rogers; Montalto; born NZ 21 Mar 1922; farmer.
2 Maj G. A. Murray, m.i.d.; Dunedin; born Gore, 3 Feb 1915; shop assistant.
3 Cpl J. F. Prattley, MM, m.i.d.; Temuka; born NZ 8 Jun 1923; labourer; wounded 17 Mar 1944.
4 Lt B. E. MacKenzie, MM; Christchurch; born NZ 21 Oct 1921; survey draughtsman.
Later in the morning stretcher-bearers went to the foot of the near stopbank, where several of the wounded had been left. They found that German stretcher-bearers, despite fire from both sides, had bound up the New Zealanders' wounds and moved them to a safer place. After an exchange of cigarettes and some discussion, the Germans allowed the New Zealanders to remove their wounded to 26 Battalion's lines.
This was not 6 Brigade's only attempt to establish a platoon on the stopbank of the Senio. An attack by 25 Battalion five or six weeks later also failed and incurred more numerous casualties.
Late on 23 December a Gurkha battalion (2/6) of 43 Brigade relieved D Company of 26 Battalion and D Company, 21 Battalion, in the sector between the railway and Route 9. The Gurkhas reported that the Senio was unsuitable for crossing by raft, Ark or tank in this sector, and Bailey bridging would be very difficult; also that crossing places on the southern side of the highway would be impracticable because the ground was thickly wooded and the stopbanks and adjacent areas sown with mines. Farther upstream, however, patrols from 21 Battalion found no mines near the river, which flowed between easily sloping banks (not stopbanks) 12 to 18 feet high, and saw a suitable place for launching kapok bridging.
1 The report of the discussion of this plan does not indicate where the Senio River was to be crossed.
On Christmas Eve carol singing was heard from many quarters. The General, in a special order of the day, sent greetings to all ranks of the 2 NZEF in Italy and the Middle East. ‘May this be the last Christmas that we spend away from our homes….’
Christmas Day was overcast and very cold, with snow still lying thinly on the rooftops, and for most men was exceptionally quiet. Those in the foremost positions were prevented from celebrating or from attending church services, except perhaps in small groups, because of the danger of moving about in daylight, but wherever possible the senior officers visited their men. Some Christmas dinners were postponed until the unit was out of the line, but many cooks prepared meals which marked the day as being one out of the ordinary. ‘As a result of recent expeditions organised by all ranks,’ 5 Field Regiment—which could not have been alone in this—had ‘an abundance of poultry … which, helped out by additional grants from NAAFI, provided everyone with a simply magnificent Christmas Dinner….’1
‘With great restraint’ most men had ‘accumulated a small hoard of beer from recent Naafi issues, and this together with a generous distribution from the National Patriotic Fund Board, provided a fairly adequate supply of Xmas cheer to observe Xmas Eve in traditional style….’2 At least one dinner ‘evoked praise from even the most hardened critics of army cooks.’3 The menu for an NZASC company included roast turkey, chicken and pork, roast and creamed potatoes, roast pumpkin, cauliflower and white sauce, oranges, nuts, beer, wine and cigarettes.
The following night the Luftwaffe raided the Faenza region three times; a large bomb struck the roof of the house in which the GOC's caravan was located, penetrated a floor and the outside wall, and came to rest on the roadway outside without exploding. Apparently no casualties occurred among the New Zealanders in Faenza during these air attacks, but the remaining civilians were not so fortunate.
2 War diary, HQ 4 Armd Bde.
3 War diary, Div Cav Bn.