2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
Viserba and Bellaria
The anti-tankers pushing forward in support of the infantry had meanwhile endured a good deal of fire from guns, mortars and tanks. The Mios of A and D Troops, 31 Battery, had crossed the Ponte d'Augusto and then D Troop advanced with page 649 the Maoris to the Scolo Brancona. A Troop moved inland along Route 9, the Via Emilia, and then two Mios were detached to cover a gap between the two forward battalions. In this position they were shelled relentlessly and Gunner Corkill13 was killed.
It was a busy day for the field gunners, who fired over 20,000 rounds. Next day, the 24th, they fired less than half this amount; but they had plenty to do preparing for a night attack across the Fontanaccia. From new positions west of Rimini, with the 5th Field forward, north of Viserba in agreeable surroundings handy to the beach, the New Zealand field regiments and the 17th Canadian Field fired a 320 r.p.g. barrage to help 6 Brigade across that river, and the 24th (SP) Field, RA, and the 4th page 650 Medium fired concentrations, while 1 Canadian AGRA carried out a CB programme. E Troop of 42 Light Ack-Ack Battery, after trouble getting into suitable fire positions under shellfire, marked the boundary lanes with Bofors tracer. The flat country allowed the gunners to revive tactics hitherto unused since the desert days.
The SP regiment gave close support to 22 Battalion on the coast and the other field regiments fired as FOOs required. A Sub-battery of heavy mortars bombarded the coast road for an hour and then fired on call. By night and in daylight on the 25th C Troop alone fired three tons of mortar bombs in support of 22 Battalion.
The attack was not a complete success; but it gained valuable ground and, with this as a lever, the enemy was forced back to a new line based on the River Uso. For Captain Donaldson,14 commander of F Troop of the 5th Field, and his jeep driver, Gunner Haste,15 the attack was the beginning of a two-day ordeal. They drove at the heels of the infantry in the only unarmoured vehicle in the attack. Several times the jeep got off the track in the dark, but Haste's good driving and his disregard of the heavy machine-gun and mortar fire through which he had to pass enabled the OP to give timely support to 25 Battalion. Donaldson brought down fire several times in the night and next day was aggressive and skilful in helping the infantry to consolidate their gains. Haste also operated the wireless set and therefore, like Donaldson, had to be on the alert 24 hours a day. They made a splendid team and Donaldson was awarded an MC and Haste an MM, both of them ‘immediate’.
Other OP parties also met trouble. Captain Franks16 of E Troop of the 6th Field, for example, was stranded with his party when his wireless vehicle was disabled by shell splinters. He tried to get forward on foot with a portable wireless set, but ran into heavy machine-gun and sniper fire. With only tommy guns and rifles his party engaged the enemy, overcame the opposition at dawn on the 26th, and captured several prisoners. Then Franks advanced on foot, passed through the FDLs, and established his OP in front of them, bringing down battery and regimental concentrations from there with good effect.page 651
The 4th and 6th Field moved forward on the 25th alongside the 5th Field north of Viserba. Next day the 4th Field advanced again, this time to the outskirts of the long, straggling village of Bellaria, the northern end of which still harboured Germans. In the evening Captain MacKay of the 5th Field crossed the Uso with a Divisional Cavalry patrol and established an OP so far forward in the town that for a day or two it was some 200 yards in front of the infantry. For the 4th Field most targets were extremely close and the gun crews could not help feeling uneasy about the many night tasks, knowing that their guns could easily be located by flash-spotting and were well within range of enemy mortars. For several days and nights they were heavily shelled and mortared. After a time, however, 26 Battery took over a local café as a cookhouse and the gunners enjoyed the almost forgotten luxury of sitting down at tables for meals and being waited on.
Major Angell of the 6th Field had his OP in a house south of Bellaria and on the 26th it received a direct hit from a heavy shell. Angell was wounded in the head and suffered concussion; but he insisted on evacuating wounded infantry in his OP vehicle. He had his wounds treated at the RAP of 25 Battalion and then set off back to his OP. On the way he came under heavy fire and had to crawl along a series of drains; but he reached the OP and for the next two days provided excellent support for the infantry. Then he consented to being relieved. It was typical of Angell's performance throughout the campaign and for it he earned an MC.
On the 27th Gunner Scorgie17 of E Troop of the 5th Field was left in charge of the OP wireless vehicle while the FOO reconnoitred forward. While Scorgie was passing fire orders the vehicle came under heavy fire which lasted for two hours. He carried on in that exposed position, remaining at the wireless set so as not to break contact with the troop, and did not move to the protection of a nearby house until the orders were complete, by which time the firing had died down. Lance-Sergeant Ennis,18 also of the 5th Field, a most experienced line maintenance signaller, connected his OP by telephone on the 27th three hours before the Greek infantry arrived on the scene. To the casual observer the field artillery seemed to operate like a well-oiled machine; but it took such efforts as these to create page 652 that appearance. Again on the 29th it was only because of the disregard of Gunner Jones19 of the same regiment for his own safety that the line communications to E Troop OP were maintained despite many breaks caused by heavy and persistent fire.
For a brief period it looked as if the defence might be crumbling. The Division was well on the way to the Fiumicino and Artillery Headquarters worked hard on a fire plan for a setpiece attack across the river on the night 28–29 September. But the weather exercised a veto and all was cancelled. Rain filled gun pits, communications became haphazard as tanks and other vehicles picked up telephone lines in the mud and broke them, and those 4.2 mortars not flooded out had to double their rate of fire to complete the tasks allotted. The 5th Field were scheduled to move near Bellaria; but only 27 and 28 Batteries managed to do so. Both were shelled and mortared with exceptional violence and accuracy and 28 Battery lost two men killed and four wounded.20 After dark on the 29th this battery moved back to its former position. The 6th Field claim in their diary to have ‘knocked out a Tiger tank’; but all that is certain is that, after medium and field guns engaged it, the tank stopped firing at houses on the 5 Brigade front.
An operation instruction of the 30th stated hopefully that it was ‘considered likely that the enemy will be forced to withdraw North of R. Po shortly’; but Captain MacKay of the 5th Field had been told by Italian partisans two days before that the Germans had been working for three months on the Fiumicino positions and the next few days provided no indication that they proposed to abandon the river line without a hard fight. The softness of the ground greatly favoured the defence, obstructing the forward movement of bridging equipment and reducing activity on the front mainly to patrolling and artillery and mortar fire. The 5 Brigade diary mentions ‘artillery househunting duels’ and there were many ‘murders’ on SP guns across the river and on concrete pillboxes in the coast sector, now occupied by 3 Greek Mountain Brigade.
The 6-pounder troops of 34 Battery supporting the Greeks reported several bombardments more violent than any they had previously experienced and it seemed that the Germans greatly resented the presence of the Greek brigade. It was an ominous feature of the fighting that enemy artillery was very strong in page 653 this sector and was using much-improved methods of bringing down concentrations of fire. The New Zealand guns fired more than 200,000 rounds in September and the heavy mortar battery also kept the NZASC ammunition lorries busy in the last week of the month.21 October seemed likely to be just as busy.
In the last night of September there was a full moon in a clear sky. Much Luftwaffe activity had been reported on forward airfields and trouble was expected. All ack-ack guns in the forward area, including those of the 14th Light Ack-Ack, were therefore combined for barrage firing at night. When two bombers came over in brilliant moonlight the result was highly spectacular. Almost every ack-ack gun on the front opened fire. For a few brief minutes the moon and stars paled and the sky was full of leaping tracers and bursting shells. The bombers dropped a few HE bombs and many butterfly ‘baskets’ and then hurried off. The 14th Light Ack-Ack fired 2180 rounds—the first fired at aircraft since May. It all seemed fun until it was learned that two men had been wounded in the bombing and that one of them, Bombardier Arnold,22 later had to have a foot amputated. The tractor D1 was slightly damaged.
The next action of the 14th Light Ack-Ack was unique: it was a naval engagement. A K-Boot, a fast 14-foot motorboat designed to carry and launch radio-controlled torpedoes of a primitive kind, was heading up the coast past Rimini 1000 yards off shore on 1 October. A Field Security sergeant asked Major Patterson, second-in-command of the ack-ack regiment, to fire across the bows of this suspicious-looking craft. G1 and G2 of 43 Battery were sited by the coast road north-west of Rimini and Patterson ordered G1 under Bombardier Alexander23 to do so. G1 fired 11 Bofors rounds at 2000 yards. The boat stopped and seemed to be drifting towards the shore. G2 under Bombardier Willis24 fired a magazine of Bren bullets across the bows and the boat turned seawards. G2 therefore followed up with three Bofors rounds, one of which seemed to disable the motor. The boat began to drift southwards; but the crew continued to tempt fate and made no attempt to come ashore. Willis therefore fired 11 more rounds at intervals and compelled page 654 the Germans to abandon their craft, which afterwards sank. There had been three occupants, but only two landed and the third, who was wounded, was presumed drowned. After a considerable quantity of the Adriatic was emptied out of the two prisoners, they gave valuable information to the Canadian Intelligence staff.
In the afternoon the 4th Field discovered two Germans in a dugout under a haystack in C Troop area. They refused a call to surrender and a gunner therefore fired a tommy gun into the hole. Both Germans were wounded and one of them died. The incident was small in itself; but it gave rise to apprehension about possible enemy infiltration and prompted a thorough search of the whole regimental area.
20 Sergeant D. McKenzie was killed and Gunner F. R. Stent died of wounds.
21 NZASC deliveries in September included 228,446 rounds of HE and 19,580 of smoke.