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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

The Gaiana Canal

The Gaiana Canal

Next day, 18 April, Artillery Headquarters prepared a far heavier programme and a much deeper barrage for a night attack, and the 4th Field moved forward to Medicina so as to be able to reach the finishing line.36 The commander of the Gurkha brigade wanted a slightly slower rate of advance than usual. ‘My fellows have very short legs’, he said. ‘They have short legs but they move them mighty fast’, General Freyberg replied. ‘They'll keep up all right.’ At Corps Headquarters there was some anxiety that Freyberg might be too extravagant with artillery ammunition. But, after first underestimating the importance of the Gaiana position, he now felt that the enemy, by posting his troops well forward on this line, had exposed himself to what might prove to be a knockout blow. At lunch he remarked, ‘This will be the most important battle we have fought in Italy’. There were two worries. The stubborn and skilful paratroops, fanatical Nazis to a man, even under a holocaust of shells might inflict heavy loss on the attacking infantry. Or they might slip away and the shells would explode on empty ground.

Guns and programmes were checked and rechecked. A special late Meteor telegram went out at 8 p.m. Corrections were made. Then at 9.30 one of the greatest of the NZA bombardments began and the enemy was there to receive it. The barrage started with the equivalent of six field regiments (including 105s) and two medium regiments on a frontage of 3600 yards page 717 along the Gaiana stream. After a jump of 500 yards and then a half-hour pause, it began the first of 31 lifts to a depth of over 3000 yards, in conjunction with a CB bombardment of 18 hostile batteries, a CM programme, and many timed concentrations, all ending at 1·40 a.m. on the 19th. A field battery, four medium regiments, a heavy battery and a heavy ack-ack battery fired the concentrations and a light ack-ack battery marked the boundaries, including dummy ones on both flanks.37 It was about the same number of guns as in Spaniel, but they fired 60 per cent more shells.

The barrage, as Nicholson of the 6th Field says, ‘opened with a mighty roar and for 30 mins blotted out the line of the canal’. The moon was up and there were no searchlights to start with. When the medium guns lifted their fire the infantry began to move up to the stopbanks, led by the flame-throwers. As the 25-pounder fire lifted, Nicholson continues, ‘we could see from RHQ the Crocodiles and Wasps going in to make the night sky lurid with their fierce tongues of flame…. It was a fascinating and appalling sight that made even the Senio show seem tame. Apart from the few who got away, little over 200 dazed and horrified prisoners survived that murderous attack.’

This was true of the enemy on the stopbanks and their immediate environs; but the enemy was posted in greater depth than had been bargained for. Well-dispersed and well dug in, paratroops survived and fought on. But their fighting spirit was ‘badly impaired’ by the barrage and they found the flamethrowers ‘very alarming’, according to an intelligence summary next day. The commander of a paratroop battalion deserted, an unparalleled occurrence, and he claimed that the barrage was the worst he had experienced—worse than at Velletri in the break-out from the Anzio beach-head. The 5th Field diary, on the other hand, remarks that the stiffening of resistance by the paratroops as compared with the German infantry previously encountered was ‘very noticeable’, and that their use of guns and mortars ‘is far more aggressive’. The 6th Field diary mentions ‘very heavy opposition’ and says that the enemy ‘fired many DFs with arty, nebels and mortars in FDLs and page 718 fired airburst shells back at gun areas’. What the enemy fired, however, was a mere bagatelle compared with the 72,491 rounds fired under NZA auspices in Operation Austin—nearly 30,000 of them by the three NZA regiments.

The enemy retreated slowly before 9 Brigade on the 19th and there were many calls for support from the 4th Field. Lieutenant-Colonel Nolan had personally deployed his OPs, and he skilfully controlled the fire of his own regiment and at times of other regiments. He was later awarded a DSO and, though the citation mentions 18 April, it was clearly this day that was chiefly intended.

The 5th Field moved to near the large village of Villa Fontana and did not like their new surroundings. There were the familiar vineyards and orchards with knee-high corn between the trees; but there were also stretches of open, bare country, unfenced and with very few casas and even more canals, streams and ditches than before. The casas and the crossroads (often close to each other) attracted much fire. The digging was hard and some troops used explosives to make holes for gun pits. They soon found, however, that the enemy was watching and was quick to bombard the scene of such an explosion.

The 4th and 6th Field both moved very early on the 20th to the same general area, close to or astride the Gaiana, and they were shocked by what they saw of the battlefield contested by the Gurkhas and paratroops. The green uniform of the paratroops identified many bloated bodies beside the muddy stream. The banks were blackened by flame-throwers. Here and there dead Gurkhas and enemy lay side by side. Some of the German bodies, as the 5th Field diary says, ‘had been ground into the road by the advancing tanks’. ‘Even in the fading light the destructive effect of that fierce barrage was evident on the ground’, Lieutenant-Colonel Nicholson says, ‘but it was not till I passed over the canal next day with Bde HQ that the full devastation struck home. At no other time in this war had I seen such evidence of massed dead in the wake of an attack.’

36 This fire plan, like all others from Operation Buckland onwards, provided for DF tasks on both flanks as well as the front after the barrage was fired. The Division was out in front and its flanks were never properly covered.

37 The medium regiments were the 5th, 75th, 76th and 78th, the heavy battery was 61 of the 32nd Heavy, and there were 307 Battery of the 55th Heavy Ack-Ack and 195 Battery of the 52nd Light Ack-Ack, as well as the 1st RHA, the 23rd and 142nd Field, and all but a battery of the 15th Field. The flash-spotters and sound-rangers of 46 Survey Battery helped to provide the HB locations, and 5 Survey Troop of the 7th Anti-Tank did much of the surveying-in of regiments.