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New Zealand Engineers, Middle East



1 Cdn Corps will extend its front to the left in order to take over the sector at present occupied by 56 Div. and will est a brhead over the R FIUMICINO on night 11/12 Oct preparatory to advancing along HIGHWAY 9 in the direction of BOLOGNA.

The execution of the redeployment placed the New Zealanders in the centre of 1 Canadian Corps and involved a move wherein 2 New Zealand Division's left boundary became its right boundary, with its new left boundary on the line of the Rimini-Cesena railway.

The German generals had also decided that the seaward flank could take care of itself, or rather that the weather would do it for them, but that their inland flank was not secure. It was in fact in some danger of being turned, for the left wing of 5 British Corps had crossed the Fiumicino and was sitting above the German right wing. A fighting withdrawal to the next river line was therefore in order.

The above piece of omniscience is a background for what follows.

The New Zealand Division's role was to protect the flank of the attacking 1 Canadian Division as it thrust along the axis of Route 9 towards Cesena, about eight miles distant, but the immediate objective was the Pisciatello River, four miles and three water jumps—the Rio Baldona, the Scolo Rigossa and the Scola Fossalta—away.

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The switch to the new area was effected by 6 Brigade's going into reserve and 5 Brigade then moved into the line.

Infantry patrols felt their way up to and across the Fiumicino during the early hours of 11 October and reported that the enemy weapon pits were unoccupied, whereupon the Maoris began to trickle across the river and form a bridgehead. They were soon followed by 23 Battalion. The combined bridgehead was not expanded to any extent for enemy tanks might appear before supporting arms were over the river. The instructions the sappers received about bridging are in the Headquarters 2 New Zealand Divisional Engineers war diary:

plan of military movements

the advance to the savio, october 1944

10 Oct. 2330 Hrs. Ring from G Ops to say Tedeschi pulling back. Adjt to 6 Fd Coy to line up recce of br site for first light and warn bridging pl.

11 Oct. 0400 Hrs. Ring G Ops wanting br to come forward. 6 NZ Fd Coy and Br Pl sent fwd. G Ops want second br and 7 Fd Coy put on job at 700048.4

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Pursuant to instructions Lieutenant Hunter and a reconnaisance party from 6 Field Company left forthwith and returned at 4.30 a.m. with the required information. There was a road from San Mauro which crossed the river and entered Gatteo, a mile north of the river and presumably within the enemy lines. The bridge of course was blown, but with roads being the only possible axis of advance for wheels, Lieutenant Hunter proposed to replace it with a 100 ft treble-single Bailey.

Sixth Field Company, poised for a quick getaway, had the first panel on rollers at 8.20 a.m. before the infantry were properly in possession of the far side of the obstacle. Four hours later, in spite of some intermittent shelling, traffic was moving over the bridge and the reassured infantry were probing around the outskirts of Gatteo.

Owing to the desire of HQ 2 NZ Division to have two bridges on the one and a half mile long 5 Brigade front, No. 2 Platoon of 7 Field Company left some time after 6 Field Company for their job which proved, after some misunderstanding was cleared up, to be at another demolished bridge on a further road that led south-west into Gatteo. The approaches were cleared and building started at midday. Enemy reaction was immediate and continuous and the men were withdrawn until the somewhat fluid situation on the New Zealand right flank was stabilised. Maori Battalion transport was routed through the 23 Battalion area via the 6 Field Company bridge.

Fifth Brigade spent the rest of the day attaining a start line running through Gatteo to a point a quarter of a mile south of Sant’ Angelo village, which unlike Gatteo the enemy held strongly. He had sound reasons for doing so for the Rio Baldona ran through the village and the guns sited there commanded all roads leading to Gatteo. While the enemy held Sant’ Angelo, New Zealand infantry could not advance very far for lack of the vital road-bound support arms.

The attack was due to start about daybreak on 12 October, and the sappers attached to the infantry swept the roads into Gatteo and a dozer filled two large road demolitions in the village. Eighth Field Company was occupied in clearing and maintaining all tracks from Routes 9 and 16 into the New Zealand sector. It was still not possible to do much work on the MAORI bridge, as the 7 Field Company job was called. The infantry trudged through the muddy fields to the pause line on the Rio Baldona, the enemy garrison of Sant’ Angelo sent page 645 their bridge over that same obstacle sky-high but did not give any indications of vacating the key point, and by midday 7 Field Company finished its bridge. Although generally known as the Maori bridge, to the sappers who built it it was the Angus bridge, named after Lieutenant Angus Black5 who was in charge, and who packed his kit for return to New Zealand as soon as the job was finished.

There was a pitched battle with infantry attacking German strongpoints and the artillery pumping shells into Gatteo and Sant’ Angelo respectively before the advance was resumed in the late afternoon.

Twenty-third Battalion, which owing to the direction of the Scolo Rigossa had the greater distance to go, was lucky to find the bridge over the Baldona-Gatteo-Gambettola road intact and so had the comforting presence of supporting tanks. By late afternoon both 5 Brigade battalions were established in houses on or near the Scolo Rigossa, but the Maoris were being annoyed, almost threatened, by the obstinate enemy in Sant’ Angelo.

During the night the Maoris tried, first with a fighting patrol and later with a company, to enter Sant’ Angelo but were not successful.

The 13th and 14th of October were routine days for the sappers while the forward infantry closed up to the Scolo Rigossa. Several fine days had dried the surface of the ground a little, but the tanks and the wheels were still confined to the roads and had to run the gauntlet of shells from the Sant’ Angelo sector. There were, however, more planes in the air and the enemy strongpoints were given a torrid time. The Canadians on the left were not very far ahead with the main thrust and the troops on the right were still on the Fiumicino.

The Maoris sent two companies behind a heavy barrage into Sant’ Angelo on the night 14–15 October only to find that the garrison had departed. The enemy had in fact fulfilled their object in slowing down the rate of the New Zealand advance while a new defence line was being prepared on the Pisciatello River, three miles beyond the Scolo Rigossa.

Seventh Field Company began immediately to open the road from Gatteo into Sant’ Angelo and from Fiumicino village to the same locality, while No. 1 Platoon, under command of page 646 8 Field Company (Lieutenant Hudson6), already briefed, stood by to replace the Rio Baldona bridge in Sant’ Angelo with a 60 ft single-single Bailey. They were on the job about 2.30 a.m. and had a clear run for nearly an hour when Spandau bullets began to hit the panels and the sappers halted work. The Maoris asked if they could do anything to help the pakeha bridge builders and it was arranged that three Maori Brens would engage the German machine gun if it opened fire again. It did open again but not for long, and the bridge-building went forward for another couple of hours before the sappers were chased off the job again, this time by shellbursts which wounded three men.

The shelling persisted intermittently and the bridge was not across by daylight. Colonel Anderson then asked for air cover while the Bailey was being launched. Six Spitfires arrived soon after the request, smelt out the self-propelled gun that had been causing the delay and silenced it. An armoured dozer also came up to help in the launching and the bridge was finally completed by 11.30 a.m., so that access was now available on the New Zealand right flank for road transport up to the Rigossa.

Patrols felt across the Rigossa towards Gambettola during the night of the Maori attack and confirmed the impression that the enemy was withdrawing again. Twenty-third Battalion built up a cautious bridgehead and entered Gambettola. The Canadians were in the tactically important Bulgaria village, so a troop of tanks was sent to Gambettola via Bulgaria before the sappers had a bridge across the Scolo Rigossa.

It was a busy day for the Engineers: 7 Field Company put in the approaches and assisted with a scissors bridge across the Rigossa south of Gambettola, and then put in a drum culvert alongside the scissors. Sappers not so occupied worked on the roads and the Company ended the day by helping to establish an Ark bridge a mile eastwards of the scissors. No. 1 Platoon, 8 Field Company, had finished the bridge at Sant’ Angelo as already mentioned and the greater part of 6 Field Company was standing by to build a 70 ft double-single Bailey in place of the drum culvert and Ark at Gambettola as soon as the shelling ceased. The job was eventually postponed until the next morning. There were, in addition, mines to be searched page 647 for and lifted along the banks of the Rigossa and the usual road maintenance that was second nature to the sappers not detailed to specific tasks.

In a review of the Engineers' activities during this period Colonel Anderson commented:

‘Demolitions continued to give trouble and the Mech Equip Platoon wrought wonders in the way of repairs. The shovels were kept close behind the advance loading bricks from damaged houses in S MAURO, GATTEO and GAMBETTOLA. This was the only “metal” available and proved very effective in surfacing repaired demolitions and filling soft places.’

The constant preoccupation with drainage problems might again be mentioned. The water table is very close to the surface in this part of Italy and any damage to side drains by shell-bursts or skidding vehicles completely destroyed sections of the road. Movement other than by road was impossible and, except for short stretches such as bridge approaches, new construction was out of the question. If it had not been for the spoil taken from damaged houses it is possible that the advance might have been halted for lack of communications.

During the following two days the infantry worked towards the Pisciatello, which had some claims to be called a river for on the New Zealand sector it was 50 feet wide and ran between stopbanks 15 feet high.

Corps Engineers took over all work south of the Scolo Rigossa, and No. 1 Platoon, 8 Field Company, still under command 7 Field Company, built a 50 ft single-single Bailey at the north road-exit from Gambettola. Seventh Field Company, close behind the infantry, culverted several waterways (including the Scolo Brancona) for wheeled vehicles and wondered when the tanks would be able to move freely across country again. There had been no rain for a week and the artillery wheels were taking to the fields. The tank regiments were in fact beginning to think again in terms of working as a brigade spearheading a break-through. They had been thinking like that off and on for the year they had been in Italy.

Fifth British Corps from the south and 1 Canadian Corps from the west were now closing in on Cesena, a town of some importance situated on the Savio River, which at that point flowed north, whereas the Pisciatello ran roughly from west to east. The immediate plan was for 2 New Zealand and 1 Canadian Divisions to establish crossings over the Pisciatello and page 648 push on to the Savio; the New Zealand plan was to force the Pisciatello with 6 Brigade and exploit to the Savio with 4 Armoured Brigade.

Sixth Field Company, less No. 2 Platoon, retained under command of the CRE for bridging work, was to support the armour. More particularly, a ‘recce’ party (Lieutenant Whiteacre7) in armoured cars was to move with 20 Armoured Regiment and another (Lieutenant Skipage) with 18 Armoured Regiment. A third party (Lieutenant Jackson8) reported to 22 Battalion headquarters.

Eighth Field Company would, as usual, support 6 Brigade and would have the services of a section of armoured bulldozers and a section of AVREs for work on the bridge sites. These would then pass to the command of 6 Field Company. Once the river was bridged 6 Field Company would be responsible for getting the tanks on to their objectives and 8 Field Company would be responsible for the following wheeled traffic.

The infantry advanced behind a barrage about midnight 18–19 October and confirmed what was already suspected—that the enemy had again decided on a fighting withdrawal behind the Savio River and was in the process of doing so.

A scissors tank and an Ark tank were placed in position but the scissors tilted after the first tank crossed. A spare was called up but the sappers considered that it would have suffered the same fate as the first one because of the soft banks. Colonel Anderson then sent his reserve bridging platoon (2 Platoon of 6 Field Company under Lieutenant Hunter) forward to put down a 40 ft single-single Bailey.

All traffic was routed over the Ark bridge until the Bailey was ready and a more permanent structure was ordered to replace the Ark. No. 1 Platoon, 7 Field Company (Lieutenant O'Reilly), was detailed for the work, a 70 ft double-single Bailey; the first truckload of equipment arrived at 8 a.m. and traffic was crossing three and a half hours later. O'Reilly has recorded:

‘The bridge was open at 11.30 hrs exactly and almost the first jeep across was Tiny Freyberg's.9 Tiny is still convalescent, he has lost a lot of weight but looks very fit. It was quiet enough…. but we were extremely short of bodies and had to rope in page 649 everybody incl. cooks assistant, wireless operator, storeman, mechanic, MT corporal and drivers but they went like veterans. I'm very proud of them.’

During this period 18 and 20 Armoured Regiments exploited towards the Cesena-Cervia road. There was little sapper work except for the ‘recce’ officers. They were mounted in Honey tanks and were kept exceedingly busy feeling down lanes and across ditches for routes forward. They were followed by the leading tanks which smashed shells into every likely enemy hideout.

The armoured advance was continued the next day (20 October) and went without much difficulty due west to the objective, a lateral road just short of the Savio, behind which river the Germans had once again consolidated. Apart from a couple of small bridges put down by 7 Field Company and routine maintenance by the general sapper establishment, 6 Field Company detachments with the armour were the only engineers involved in active operations.

The Company war diary summarises the day:

‘General Bde operation continued from north east lateral road running from Cesena and continued to the east bank of the Savio. There was little opposition to this move but a lot of demolitions were met and our detachments were very busy. The Sherman Bulldozers worked continuously tho’ the AVRE's were not needed. In the evening we borrowed two thin skinned dozers from 8 Fd Coy in order to open up the supply road to 18 Regt. Once again the tanks managed to cross the open country with little difficulty tho’ this entailed a lot of recce work by the forward officers. A few mines were suspected and some were found but in no great quantities.’

Lieutenant Skipage, who commanded the sapper reconnaissance group with 18 Armoured Regiment, received an immediate MC for examining under heavy fire enemy minefields along the riverbank by day and reconnoitring the bends opposite the regiment's sector by night.

During this period Major Goodsir (5 Field Park Company) and Major Wallace (6 Field Company) marched out to furlough and were replaced by Majors Malt and Andrew.

Rumours, never entirely absent where soldiers gather, multiplied and flourished in the rear areas that night. That they were built on some foundation of fact was confirmed when an officer from each Company left as an advance party to some unknown destination the following day. Even a conference of officers to page 650 discuss road maintenance problems that evening was a tongue-in-cheek affair for it was then common knowledge that the Division was being relieved by 5 Canadian Armoured Division and the Kiwis were going back to an area near Iesi. The most widely held rumour, and a classic example of wishful thinking, was that the whole Division was en route to a tour of duty in Egypt.

During the advance to the Savio New Zealand Divisional Engineers built nine Bailey bridges. They comprised:

  • 3 100 ft Triple-Singles

  • 2 70 ft Double-Singles

  • 1 60 ft Double-Single

  • 1 50 ft Single-Single

  • 2 40 ft Single-Singles

They also built two Ark and three scissors bridges. Generally it was a busy period under arduous, very wet and uncomfortable conditions. The casualties were 5 killed and 19 wounded.

4 Fiumicino village.

5 2 Lt A. R. Black; Dunedin; born Dunedin, 25 Jan 1910; architect.

6 Maj D. A. Hudson, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Hastings, 13 Apr 1911; civil engineer; OC 5 Fd Pk CoyAug 1945; 5 Engr Coy (Japan) Oct 1945-Aug 1946.

7 Capt E. W. Whiteacre, m.i.d.; born NZ 23 May 1917; accountant.

8 Lt G. K. Jackson; Auckland; born NZ 4 Apr 1909; civil engineer.

9 Lt-Gen Freyberg was injured in an aircraft accident on 3 Sep 1944. In his absence 2 New Zealand Division was commanded by Maj-Gen C. E. Weir.