Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Italy Volume II : From Cassino to Trieste

I: The Offensive Abandoned

page 347

I: The Offensive Abandoned


IT was still Fifteenth Army Group's intention that Eighth Army should cross the Senio River and Fifth Army strike towards Bologna. The date for launching the attack had not been settled, but the opinion was growing at Eighth Army's headquarters that, with the exhaustion of its troops and the heavy drain on its reserves of ammunition, its contribution to a combined offensive could be only on a limited scale.

General McCreery wrote to General Clark on Christmas Day asking that the timing of the two-army attack be reconsidered. He pointed out that Eighth Army's fighting during the last half of December had used half a million rounds of 25-pounder ammunition, and the availability of only 612,000 rounds during the next five weeks would not permit a major operation other than the forcing of the Senio and advance to the Santerno. The original target date for the attack by Fifth Army was to have been on or about 7 December. The three weeks of fighting which Eighth Army had completed since then had reduced by that length of time its capacity to conduct a simultaneous offensive with the Americans. Consequently, if a joint attack were launched, Eighth Army's effort possibly might be expended by the time Fifth Army most urgently needed assistance.

Meanwhile planning went ahead for 5 Corps' attack: in the first phase the New Zealand Division on the right and 10 Indian Division on the left were to establish bridgeheads across the Senio, and in the second they were to link in a firm corps bridgehead; they were then to advance northward or north-westward to the Santerno River. The 56th Division, which was to protect 5 Corps' right flank and be prepared to relieve New Zealand troops on both page 348 sides of the Senio, was ordered to advance to the river as rapidly as possible. An adequate roading system was to be constructed for the Indian division, and a conference to co-ordinate the objectives of the Indian and New Zealand divisions was held on the morning of 27 December. In General Freyberg's opinion this ‘wasted a lot of time…. All plans put forward were found to founder in the ammunition shallows.’1 It was no surprise when Corps advised the New Zealand Division in the evening that the attack across the Senio was cancelled.

A German offensive launched on Fifth Army's front on the 26th disrupted the Americans' deployment for the two-army attack. It had become evident shortly before Christmas, Field Marshal Alexander later wrote, that the enemy was planning an attack down the valley of the Serchio River, which debouches into the Arno basin at Lucca, near the west coast. ‘There had been no activity on this front for a very long time, since it was quite impracticable for the Allies to attempt a crossing of the mountains at this point; and for this reason it had been treated by both sides as a quiet sector….’2 It was lightly held by 92 US Division, a Negro formation.

By the evening of the 27th the German 148 Division and troops of the newly-formed fascist Monte Rosa and Italia divisions had penetrated five miles down the valley. An attack by a force of this size might not have been serious, but 10 days earlier the enemy had launched his vastly greater Ardennes counter-offensive on the Western Front, and the possibility of a similarly desperate effort in Italy could not be ignored. If the enemy could exploit across the Arno River and seize Leghorn, ‘it would be a major disaster for the whole Allied front since through that port came all the supplies for Fifth Army and in its neighbourhood there were very large dumps of military stores.’3 Therefore 1 US Armoured Division and two brigades of 8 Indian Division were diverted to the threatened sector, and by the end of the month had completely restored the situation. On the 28th, however, General Truscott ordered ‘a further postponement of planned operations pending clarification of the situation on the west flank.’4

Although Fifth Army had had comparatively little fighting in the last two months, its shortage of ammunition was almost as serious as Eighth Army's because reduced allocations to the Italian theatre had prevented the accumulation of a substantial reserve.

1 GOC's diary. Eighth Army could have ill afforded the large quantities of ammunition expended on the New Zealand Division's attack on the night of 19–20 December.

2 The Italian Campaign, 12th December 1944 to 2nd May 1945, p. 22.

3 Ibid.

4 Fifth Army History, Vol. VIII, Annex 1- ‘D’.

page 349 Consequently Field Marshal Alexander, realising how very poor were the prospects of reaching Bologna that winter, decided on 30 December to abandon the plan for the Allied offensive and ‘to go on the defensive for the present and to concentrate on making a real success of our Spring offensive.’1


Two days before this decision was reached, 5 Corps had advised the New Zealand Division that there would be no attack across the Senio before 7 January. General Freyberg presented a short-term and a long-term policy to an orders group conference on 28 December. He said that if Fifth Army attacked there would be two operations on Eighth Army's front: the Canadian Corps was to clear out the pocket of enemy still east of the Senio, and at the same time 10 Indian Division was to cross the upper reaches of the river. The 43rd Gurkha Brigade was to pass from the New Zealand Division to 10 Indian Division. The chance of the New Zealand Division participating in the Indian Division's operation might occur four days later (not before 11 January).

The short-term policy was one of holding the ground already gained until it might be necessary to regroup and push a brigade through to occupy a position on the flank of the Indian division and burst out west of Castel Bolognese. The GOC described the Division's disposition for defence against counter-attack. ‘Nobody can tell but the enemy may be encouraged by the move of divisions to Greece and the knowledge that there is very little behind us, to have a go at Faenza.’2 Each of the two infantry brigades would have two battalions in the line; the 5th also would have one battalion at Faenza and one at Forli, and the 6th two at Forli. The reserve group, Campbell Force, was to protect Faenza and the gun positions north-west of the Lamone River, and was to link up with 6 Brigade; it might be required to hold on the line of the Scolo Cerchia if the enemy counter-attacked from the ‘Senio pocket’. Although the Division was on the defensive, the GOC insisted that ‘we should be offensive on the patrolling front and use our tanks.’3

Sixth Brigade continued to patrol the approaches to the Senio and gather information about the German defences and the river. A raid early on the morning of 27 December on a house occupied by a platoon of 26 Battalion had been repulsed without loss except to the enemy. ‘The upstairs pickets had hardly had time to give the others warning of the Germans' approach before three bazooka

1 The Italian Campaign, p. 23.

2 GOC's papers.

3 Ibid.

page 350
the italian front, 31 december 1944

the italian front, 31 december 1944

page 351 bombs exploded inside the building. This was the signal for the enemy to rush the back door, but two men on duty there opened fire and killed the leading German. Everyone inside the house was firing by this time and the Germans were forced to vacate their positions near the house. Grenades were tossed into the out-buildings, and the whole area was brought under intense LMG fire which induced the enemy to retire.’1 A quickly laid artillery stonk caught the Germans as they recrossed the stopbank. ‘Subsequently it was learned that the patrol consisted of 45 men, equipped with blankets and spare ammunition; its intention had been to occupy the house as a strongpoint. The stonk had caused many casualties.’2

Divisional Cavalry Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel N. P. Wilder) relieved 26 Battalion in the late afternoon and evening of the 27th, and was told that the enemy protected his front with minefields and occupied the near slope of the stopbank. The 26th had been making use of trip flares and listening posts, and it was essential to have tanks in the area. The following afternoon and evening 25 Battalion was relieved by the 24th, which took over the positions along the line running approximately south-eastwards from La Palazza through San Pietro in Laguna.

On the night of the 26th–27th 28 (Maori) Battalion completed the relief of 22 Battalion in 5 Brigade's southern sector. The 2/6 Gurkhas of 43 Brigade, whose patrols had clashed with the enemy in the vicinity of Route 9, were relieved on 29 December by two companies of 23 Battalion, which came under 21 Battalion's command until that battalion was relieved by the 23rd next day. The 21st then took over 23 Battalion's role with Campbell Force in Faenza. Replaced by 19 Armoured Regiment (less a squadron in close support of the infantry in the vicinity of Route 9), 18 Armoured Regiment went back to Forli.3

Forli, the B Echelon town about seven miles from Faenza, ‘half ruined and bulging at the seams with a very mixed collection of soldiers, was no more attractive than Faenza. It was the same flat, ugly industrial town. Certainly there were more ways of killing time there. There was a NAAFI canteen and a picture theatre, both always overcrowded with Tommies and Kiwis…. There were

1 26 Battalion, pp. 481–2.

2 Ibid., p. 482.

3 When the various reliefs were completed, the groupings on 30 December were: 6 Bde with under its command 20 Armd Regt, a crocodile troop of 51 R Tks, 33 A-Tk Bty, 2 MG Coy, and a company of 6 Fd Amb, and in support 6 Fd Regt and 34 Mor Bty; 5 Bde with under its command one squadron of 19 Armd Regt, 32 A-Tk Bty, 1 MG Coy, and a company of 5 Fd Amb, and in support 5 Fd Regt, 34 Mor Bty, and a squadron of 19 Armd Regt in an indirect fire role; 4 Armd Bde (Campbell Force) with under its command 18 Armd Regt and 19 Armd Regt less a squadron, 31 A-Tk Bty and 27 (MG) Bn less 1 and 2 Coys, and with 21 Bn and a company of 4 Fd Amb on call, and 4 Fd Regt in support.

page 352 New Year parties, farewell parties for the “old hands” leaving for New Zealand, and parties to celebrate nothing in particular except the existence of a big wine factory up the road, full of stocks that needed drinking up before they got too old or someone else beat you to them. There were occasional dances … for, unlike Faenza, this place was full of civilians. But all these pleasures had no sparkle. Outwardly and inwardly, this was the depth of winter indeed.’1

The engineers ‘carried on with the never-ending task of keeping communications open in spite of snowstorms, frozen slush and thaws.’2 In 10 Indian Division's sector 7 Field Company, assisted by an Indian pioneer company, widened and metalled a road along a ridge near Pideura and formed a way down towards the Senio River. This was known as Armstrong's track because of the work done by the Mechanical Equipment Platoon3 under Captain Armstrong.4 The track was in view of the enemy-held village of Cuffiano and therefore had to be constructed at night and carefully camouflaged with netting before daybreak.


Although the offensive had been abandoned for the winter, it was still necessary for Eighth Army to secure a line which could be readily defended and which would serve as a jumping-off place for the spring offensive. This line, on both 5 Corps' and the Canadian Corps' fronts, became ‘inevitably, and not disadvantageously,’5 the Senio River, which was scarcely half the size of the Lamone, the Savio and other water obstacles already crossed.

The enemy, according to information gathered by Intelligence, had seven battalions east of the Senio, of which five or six were on the New Zealand Division's front. An attack by 6 Brigade to the north probably would meet at least three battalions with an average strength of 200 men.

General Freyberg told General Keightley on 30 December that he thought ‘it should be a big crack. I think 56 Div should come in with us,’6 and also that the attack would use a good deal of ammunition. Keightley replied that he would be pressed by the Army Commander to use as little ammunition as possible, and

3 The Mechanical Equipment Platoon was originally attached to 5 Fd Pk Coy but became 27 Mechanical Equipment Company on 10 January 1945.

4 Maj G. K. Armstrong, DSO, MC, m.i.d.; Dunedin; born NZ 4 Feb 1915; civil engineer; OC 27 Mech Equip Coy Jan–Jun 1945.

5 Operations of British, Indian and Dominion Forces in Italy, Part III, Sec. C, p. 141.

6 GOC's diary.

page 353 suggested using tanks as much as possible; he also wanted to choose a day when the Air Force would be able to give its support. Freyberg conferred with Brigadiers Parkinson and Queree, and then told Keightley, ‘There is a body of opinion that we should waste as little time as possible, start tomorrow and use tanks. The amount of ammunition required will be 2000 to 3000 rounds.’ The corps commander agreed to this, and the GOC concluded: ‘We shall go ahead then, and test the market.’1

Patrols sent out by 24 Battalion during the night of 30–31 December met no enemy, and before daybreak the battalion and tanks of A Squadron, 20 Regiment, without opposition, occupied houses half a mile or so north-east and north of San Pietro in Laguna. Fine weather during the day permitted the Air Force to attack many targets close to the enemy's forward positions, including houses just across the river from Divisional Cavalry Battalion. Probably because of this fighter-bomber activity 6 Brigade had a quiet day.

After hearing of 24 Battalion's gains early in the morning, the GOC told the corps commander that he considered the enemy could be expelled from the north without any trouble, but would continue to hold a bridgehead east of the Senio until forced out; he also said, ‘we can't go to the north and then go to the south afterwards. If they say the latter is on I would rather stay where I am.’2

It was decided to continue northward. Orders were issued in the afternoon for the Division to be prepared to clear the enemy salient east of the Senio in conjunction with an attack southwards by the Canadian Corps. Sixth Brigade was to be directed on Cassanigo (beyond the Sant' Andrea – Felisio road), and 5 Brigade was to be responsible for the protection of the left flank; 56 Division was to advance northward in conformity with 6 Brigade's right flank.

The CO of 24 Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Hutchens) held a conference on New Year's Eve to define the battalion's objectives and the artillery, mortar, machine-gun and tank support. It appeared at the time that all enemy vehicles and heavy weapons had gone back across the Senio and only an infantry screen had been left on the battalion's front.

The sounds of revelry as the enemy celebrated the New Year were heard on many parts of the front. While waiting for the start of their attack, the 24 Battalion men ‘witnessed a really splendid sight…. along the whole front, as far as the eye could see, streams of tracer bullets, light anti-aircraft shells and coloured flares weaved across the midnight sky.’3

1 GOC's diary.

2 Ibid.

3 24 Battalion, p. 302.

page 354

The 24th Battalion's advance, in bright moonlight, necessitated a swing round of its front from north-east to north-west. On the left flank, therefore, 7 Platoon of A Company had the shortest distance to its objective at Casa Galanuna, about half a mile along the road from La Palazza to Felisio. The platoon came under fire from Galanuna and also from Villa Pasolini, near the road junction about a quarter of a mile away, but captured eight or nine Germans and killed and wounded others, at a cost of six men wounded. Apparently the enemy at Galanuna was caught during a New Year party, for which food and wine were set out on a table with a Christmas tree in the centre.

While advancing towards Villa Pasolini, B Company came under severe machine-gun fire about 300 yards from its objective. Four men were killed and three wounded, one of them mortally. The company commander (Captain Pirrie1) consulted Battalion Headquarters and was ordered to withdraw.

D Company also ran into trouble. When 17 Platoon was within 30 yards of its objective, a house about 200 yards short of Palazzo Toli, the enemy, who was dug in in front of the house, opened fire in a semi-circle. The platoon was compelled to retire; it brought out six wounded men and left three dead. Meanwhile 18 Platoon rushed Palazzo Toli (600 yards north-east of Villa Pasolini) and gained possession, but was practically surrounded and in a precarious position. Accompanied by tanks of A Squadron, 20 Regiment, 16 Platoon moved in close and opened fire with all weapons, which forced the enemy either to lie low or withdraw while 18 Platoon, carrying its wounded on improvised stretchers, evacuated the house.

When it became evident that the attack had failed, 7 Platoon was withdrawn from Casa Galanuna, and before dawn on New Year's Day the whole of 24 Battalion was back in its former positions. Brigadier Parkinson reported to the GOC that the enemy ‘was in every place we attacked. He was expecting an attack.’2 The 24th Battalion had had eight men killed and 20 wounded and had taken eight prisoners and killed ‘a good few’. The GOC told the corps commander how the battalion had been opposed, and said, ‘I am very much against these little attacks which don't succeed.’3

Meanwhile 25 Battalion had relieved two companies of the London Irish of 167 Brigade, 56 Division, and placed two of its own companies in the line on the right of 24 Battalion. The two battalions rearranged their dispositions on the night of 1–2 January

1 Maj R. Pirrie, MC, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Scotland, 10 Mar 1914; male nurse; wounded 26 Mar 1943.

2 GOC's diary.

3 Ibid.

page 355 so that each had two companies forward, one in immediate reserve and one farther to the rear. The same night 5 Brigade side-stepped to the right (north) when a battalion from 10 Indian Division replaced 28 (Maori) Battalion in the sector south of Route 9, and the Maoris took over from Divisional Cavalry (which went back to Forli) north of the railway. The 23rd Battalion continued to hold the sector astride the railway and highway.

By the afternoon of 2 January it was obvious that the enemy had gone from his positions immediately to the north. The London Irish, on 6 Brigade's right, reached the crossroads near Cassanigo Vecchio (about half a mile south of Cassanigo) without opposition. South of the Sant' Andrea – Felisio road, 25 Battalion discovered that Casa Nuova and Fondo Cassanigo were unoccupied, and 24 Battalion found only two or three stray Germans at Palazzo Toli. Next day 25 Battalion took Palazzo in Laguna and 24 Battalion Villa Pasolini, a nearby wine factory and Casa Galanuna, all of which had been vacated by the enemy.

The commander of 1 Canadian Infantry Division (Major-General H. W. Foster) had discussed with General Freyberg timings and other details of attacks by the two divisions to clear the enemy from the pocket between them. A plan was decided upon for 6 Brigade to continue its northward advance, but later this was cancelled, and on 3 January the GOC told a divisional conference that 56 Division would try to push the enemy out of his salient east of the Senio and thus link up between the New Zealanders and Canadians.

In case the enemy should attempt a counter-attack, which Freyberg thought might be possible, the New Zealand Division had taken ‘completely adequate defensive measures. There are 100 tanks distributed in depth right back to Forli; also plenty anti-tank guns. If we wanted him to do his war effort harm we would want him to come in on our position here. If we are properly prepared and our plans are co-ordinated then he will take a pretty hard knock….’1 The Division's policy, although defensive, was to make the enemy's tenure on the near side of the river as unpleasant as possible, but the ammunition supply was getting ‘tighter and tighter every day.’2


The enemy was still holding on the south-eastern side of the Senio River in two places, north of Ravenna (which the Canadians

1 GOC's papers.

2 Ibid.

page 356 had captured on 4 December) and south of Bagnacavallo. He would have to be cleared from both before Eighth Army could establish a satisfactory winter line.

The more northerly of the enemy's two salients covered the southern shore of the Valli di Comacchio, the great lagoon near the coast, which gave him a potential base from which to launch an attempt to recapture Ravenna. By cutting the embankments of the Comacchio on one side of Route 16 and the high banks of the Reno River on the other, he had flooded wide areas west of the lagoon and thus created a narrow and easily defensible defile through which the highway passed at Argenta, 15 miles beyond Alfonsine (where Route 16 crosses the Senio, which flows into the Reno).

The possession of the southern shore of the Valli di Comacchio by Eighth Army would make it possible to launch flanking amphibious attacks in support of an advance along Route 16 through the ‘Argenta Gap’ when the Allies resumed the offensive. This could be an alternative to the succession of frontal assaults on the numerous river lines which would have to be faced in a westward drive farther inland; in any case it could accelerate the advance. The German High Command was aware of this possibility. General von Vietinghoff was told not to regard the Valli di Comacchio as impassable terrain where he could economise in deploying the troops of Tenth Army. The Allies had employed amphibious vehicles with success in Belgium and Holland, but apparently the enemy did not know of the shortage of such equipment in Italy.

In five days (2–6 January), when the frozen ground allowed tanks to be used with greater freedom, 5 Canadian Armoured Division, with strong support from the Desert Air Force, advanced to the Reno River (the northern bank of which lay close to the shore of the Valli di Comacchio) and the Adriatic coast, and in the process so alarmed the enemy that he made a violent and costly counter-attack. The Canadians took 600 prisoners, killed 300 enemy and wounded many more; their own casualties were less than 200.

At the same time 1 Canadian Infantry Division and 56 Division of 5 Corps eliminated the other German salient, between the Senio River and the Naviglio Canal south of Bagnacavallo. It had been decided that 5 Corps' forces already north of Route 9 between the Lamone and the Senio had little prospect of overrunning the enemy by the methods already employed. A fresh approach presented itself, however, when frost hardened the ground so that tanks could cross it and avoid the thickly mined roads, and a new type of equipment, the Kangaroo, could be tested. Turretless tanks modified to carry infantry, the Kangaroos were ‘designed to enable them to accompany tanks across country swept by bullets and page 357 artillery fire and arrive together on their objectives.’1 They had not been used in the Italian theatre. The success of the project would depend on its completion before a change in the weather started a thaw.

The Canadians made a diversionary sally to the Senio stopbank west of Bagnacavallo, on the northern side of the German pocket, in the afternoon of 3 January. Before the noise of this had died down, they began an assault across the Naviglio Canal at Granarolo (half-way between Bagnacavallo and Faenza), and by daybreak had secured the village and reached the Fosso Vecchio about half a mile beyond it.

Fifth Corps began its attack early on the morning of the 4th, and ‘the whole plan worked with extraordinary smoothness.’2 Accompanied by the Kangaroos (a squadron of 4 Hussars) carrying infantry (2/6 Queens), 7 Armoured Brigade, under 56 Division's command, passed through 24 NZ Battalion and set out from La Palazza on a mile-wide sweep along the bank of the Senio. To mop up the enemy cut off by this ‘left hook’, 167 Brigade advanced north-eastward farther to the right. Bombing and shelling almost silenced the enemy's artillery, and the new method of attack took him by surprise. By midday 167 Brigade had made contact with the Canadians at the Fosso Vecchio, and before the end of the day the east bank of the Senio was clear as far as San Severo, between the river and Granarolo. That night the enemy gave way all along the front. The Canadians crossed the Naviglio north of Granarolo and on 5 January reached the Senio opposite Cotignola. At a cost of few casualties, 56 Division had taken over 200 prisoners and the Canadiaans well over 100; many Germans had been killed or wounded.

To conform with 56 Division's northward advance, 6 NZ Brigade redisposed its troops to face the Senio on the night of 5–6 January; this brought 25 Battalion up on the right of the 24th.

1 Operations of British, Indian and Dominion Forces in Italy, Part III, Sec. C, p. 141.

2 Ibid., p. 142.