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New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force (Volume III)

CHAPTER 10 — The End In Italy

page 236

The End In Italy

BY the autumn of 1944 the Allied armies had broken into the Gothic Line, that strong system of fortifications which the enemy had prepared to defend northern Italy. But before our troops could fight their way through the last mountain barriers severe weather intervened. And as the valleys filled with mist and the roads turned to quagmires, it became evident that holding operations were all that could be undertaken until the advent of spring made it possible to resume the offensive on a grand scale.

Close air support was thereupon reduced to the minimum required for strictly local operations and the main task of the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces became the reduction of the enemy's fighting capacity in readiness for the final reckoning. To achieve this it was necessary to deny him freedom of movement and access to his sources of supply— in other words, to disrupt his lines of communication, particularly the frontier rail routes. The enemy divisions which remained in Italy would then be cut off and without the resources to carry out sustained operations; the transfer of large forces to reinforce other fronts would also be impracticable.

The railway and road through the Brenner Pass connecting Verona with Innsbruck was still the main lifeline for the enemy forces in Italy and it therefore received high priority for attack. In January 1945, despite twelve days on which the route was shrouded in thick cloud, a total of 1725 tons of bombs were dropped by medium bombers of Tactical Air Force, with Avisio, Rovereto and San Michele as their main targets; British and American heavy bombers also joined in striking hard at rail targets, notably at the Verona marshalling yards. The combined assault during this month made the Brenner route impassable for fifteen days and probably for another five; photographic reconnaissance also showed little rail activity south of Trento. In February better weather produced better results. Nearly 5000 tons of high explosive from medium and heavy bombers, together with over 1000 sorties by fighter–bombers, so devastated the Brenner route that at no time was it open to continuous through traffic. During March ten to twelve blocks at a time were common and on one occasion there were fifteen on the vital stretch between Verona and Bolzano. Similar havoc had meantime been wrought upon the railways in the page 237 north–eastern frontier zone. By the end of March the Brenner and other routes were little more than a series of disconnected stretches of track, and German stocks of petrol had been so much reduced that any considerable movement by road of troops or supplies was out of the question. The neutral Swiss were so impressed that they now hastened to conclude an agreement with the Allies which forbade the passage of war materials through their country between Italy and the Reich. The blockade of northern Italy was thus virtually complete.

Along with this onslaught on the frontier railways, a considerable air effort was directed against enemy communications immediately behind the battle area. Medium bombers paid particular attention to the lines leading to Milan, Turin and Genoa, while fighter–bombers cratered tracks and broke bridges, especially in the areas north of the Po and east of the Adda River. Night fighters struck at road convoys both in the central Po valley and farther north. Dumps and installations were also attacked, and as the date of the land offensive drew nearer the onslaught upon them in all areas mounted steadily. Ships sailing along those stretches of the Adriatic coast still under German control were also bombed, for in desperation the enemy had resorted to using small vessels and barges to supplement his dwindling supplies.

In all these various ways the air forces did their utmost to ensure that the enemy would be as weak as possible when the time came to launch the final land offensive.

Towards the end of March 1945, General von Vietinghoff took over command of the German forces in Italy in succession to Field Marshal Kesselring, who had been recalled to assume the command of the collapsing Western Front. The enemy forces in Italy were still strong for Hitler seemed determined to hold this front, possibly because he still retained visions of a last stand in a Southern Redoubt amidst the crumbling ruins of his Third Reich. General Alexander's armies, which comprised seventeen divisions, four Italian combat groups, six armoured and four infantry brigades, were now faced by twenty– three German and four Italian divisions. Of these, sixteen German divisions and one Italian held the Apennine–Senio line, with two German mobile divisions in reserve, the remainder of the enemy forces being stationed in the north–east and north–west, where Yugoslav partisan activities in the neighbourhood of Trieste and Allied movements on the other side of the Alps kept them fully occupied.

The Allies, however, had one great advantage—their overwhelming air superiority which, quite apart from its achievement in weakening enemy resistance, had enabled our ground forces to make their preparations for the coming offensive with complete immunity and in possession of full information about the enemy's dispositions and possible page 238 counter moves. The air force now retained in Italy by the Germans was almost negligible and during the first three months of 1945 its activity had been so slight that our fighter pilots seldom had opportunity for combat. The only enemy operations maintained with any regularity were reconnaissance sorties, some of which in March were flown by a small detachment of jet aircraft. But it is doubtful whether they met even the minimum intelligence requirements of the German Army.

The morning of 9 April was unusually quiet with little activity either in the air or on the ground. Then, in the early afternoon the storm burst as 1750 Allied fighters and bombers went into the attack. Wave after wave of Fortresses, Liberators, Marauders, Mitchells, Baltimores and Bostons swept over the enemy lines, and as their bombs exploded clouds of dust rose across the Senio. A carpet of 1692 tons of bombs was laid by the heavy bombers in defended areas west and south–west of Lugo; medium bombers saturated gun positions in the vicinity of Imola with 24,000 twenty–pound incendiaries; and as soon as these carpets had been laid, fighter–bombers went screaming down upon command posts, divisional headquarters, gun positions, buildings, battalion and company headquarters, causing consternation and confusion among the enemy troops in the forward areas. Our guns then opened up with a heavy barrage and in the evening the Eighth Army attacked across the River Senio. Its first objectives were quickly captured and soon British, Indian, Polish and New Zealand troops were fighting their way forward beyond the fortified floodbanks at which they had gazed so enviously all the winter. One New Zealand pilot who was above the battlefield that day with an army observer has recorded this impression of the combined ground and air assault:

‘We watched from the air,’ he says, ‘and saw a dense mass of dust arising from the heart of the defensive positions across the Senio. Stretching right back to the coast was a double line of white smoke flares, the final of the two just on our side of the river being orange, with Lugo a mile or so beyond. As we cruised beneath the bomber stream, we suddenly saw a carpet of dust almost below us and hastily steered clear. That evening we again watched the terrific offensive from the air. Flame–throwers of the Eighth Indian and Second New Zealand Divisions, leaning against the Senio stop–banks, poured a grim barrage of flame at the hapless enemy in dugouts. All along the line, little flashes of flame flickered through the evening haze. The mighty roar of the barrage ceased abruptly at regular intervals for just four minutes when fighters swept in to strafe the German positions and dive–bombers hurled bombs at their vital points. It was awe inspiring enough to watch; no wonder many of the wretched prisoners captured next day were in a stupefied daze.’

That night RAF Liberators continued the air attack and bombed strongpoints barely a mile in front of the Eighth Army, their targets page 239 being marked by shells emitting red smoke. On the following day Lugo was taken and within a week, during which air support ceased neither by day nor night, Argenta had been overrun and the Eighth Army was moving on through the Gap to Ferrara. Meanwhile the Fifth Army had opened its attack in the central sector on 14 April, heralded, as on the eastern flank, by an intense aerial offensive. The troops soon fought their way through the mountains and then closed in on Bologna from the south–west just as units of the Eighth Army came in from the east.

The enemy, realising that disaster was upon him, now began to withdraw northwards across the Po. Our medium, light and fighter– bombers immediately threw almost their entire effort both by day and by night against the river crossings. And since the permanent bridges had already been destroyed some months previously, they were able to concentrate on the congested ferry sites and pontoon bridges. The destruction they caused was enormous. Behind the retreating Germans the railway at the Brenner Pass was a shambles, as were all the other rail lines which they might have wanted to use. Thus thousands of enemy troops were soon trapped or immobilised by the Fifth and Eighth Armies. Pursued by Allied armour and harried by the air forces, they had been obliged to abandon what remained of their equipment and transport. By the end of April there remained only four German divisions which bore any semblance to fighting formations.

The end came quickly. On the right the Eighth Army raced up the plain, captured Padua, Venice and Treviso, and heading for Trieste, established contact with the Yugoslav forces under Marshal Tito. In the centre the Fifth Army made for Verona and the Brenner and linked up with an American army from Bavaria. On the left it reached Turin and from Genoa it made contact with French troops which had moved along the Riviera. But before the last of these events occurred, the struggle was really over. German emissaries had come to Alexander's headquarters with proposals for surrender, and after brief negotiations the whole of the German forces in Italy laid down their arms in unconditional surrender on 2 May 1945.

Such were the operations in which New Zealanders played their part with the RAF during the final stages of the Italian campaign. They had shared in, and often led, every type of air operation from fighter–bomber attacks on the actual battlefield to the long–range missions across the Alps by the heavy bombers; they had flown Spitfires on fighter patrol and attack, Mustangs on armed reconnaissance, Bostons to bomb enemy communications, Mosquitos on photographic sorties, Dakotas on transport and supply missions, and their contribution had been page 240 made with characteristic spirit and dash. Typical of that spirit was the action of one young fighter pilot, Flying Officer A. G. P. Newman of No. 145 Squadron. On a reconnaissance of the Po valley, he sighted some fifteen barges and at once dived to attack. His bombs fell short but, determined not to be frustrated, he went down again to strafe the barges with cannon and machine–gun fire, flying repeatedly up and down the river. He was then seen to turn and begin strafing a building on the river bank, and as he swept over it at very low level the target blew up. Unhappily Newman's aircraft was damaged by the blast and as he headed for base his engine caught fire. A few moments later the Spitfire hit the ground and exploded.

Flying and fighting with their squadrons, New Zealanders continued in action till the end. Fighter pilots, for example, shared in the low– level attacks which led to the collapse of enemy resistance in the Bologna area and bomber crews took part in the assault on enemy strongpoints at Bastia. And it is interesting to record that on 26 April 1945, when the RAF bombers based in Italy made their last major raid, New Zealanders, including two captains of aircraft—Flight Lieutenant K. B. Smith1 of No. 70 Squadron and Pilot Officer Struthers2 of No. 178 Squadron—were among those who flew with the Liberators. Their objective was the railway marshalling yards at Freilassing; with the target well marked by pathfinders, large explosions and many fires were started; some 300 waggons were destroyed, buildings burnt out and all lines blocked. The flight out and back was made in bright moonlight with the Alps gleaming white below, and the target itself was only a few miles from Hitler's famous ‘Redoubt’ at Berchtesgaden, which had been attacked that same day by Bomber Command. It was a fitting final sortie.

In the achievement of final victory in Italy the share of the air forces was undoubtedly great. Their disruption of rail and road communications had brought about the almost complete immobilisation of the enemy land forces and their relentless activity over the battle area assisted the advance of our armies at every stage. Had the enemy commanders enjoyed freedom of movement and safe and secure communications, with all that these imply, they must have held at bay and perhaps defeated armies many times larger than those commanded by Alexander. As it was, they had to contend with a steadily mounting offensive over and behind their lines which their own air forces were page 241 powerless to prevent or even hinder. General von Vietinghoff afterwards paid tribute to the work of the Allied fighter bombers. ‘They hindered essential movement,’ he said, ‘even tanks could not be moved by day. Their very presence over the battlefield paralysed movement.’ And he left little doubt about the effect of the air attacks at the opening of the final battle. ‘The smashing of communications was specially disastrous. Thereafter orders failed to come through at all or failed to come through at the right time. In any case the command was not able to keep itself informed of the situation at the front, so that its own decisions and orders came, for the most part, too late.’ Similar testimony regarding the work of the Allied bombers came from General von Senger, a corps commander in the German Fourteenth Army. ‘The Allied air attacks on the frontier route of Italy made the fuel and ammunition situation very critical …. Night bombing was very effective and caused heavy losses.’ He also declared that ‘It was the bombing of the river Po crossings that finished us. We could have withdrawn successfully with normal rearguard action despite the heavy pressure but owing to the destruction of the ferries and river crossings, we lost all our equipment. North of the river we were no longer an army.’

page 242 page 243

1 Flight Lieutenant K. B. Smith; born Manurewa, 13 May 1923; apprentice engineer; joined RNZAF 31 Oct 1942.

2 Flight Lieutenant A. B. Struthers; born Dalmuir, Scotland, 10 Aug 1921; commercial traveller; joined RNZAF 27 Mar 1942; killed in aircraft accident 17 Nov 1952 whilst serving with RAF.