New Zealand Engineers, Middle East
CHAPTER 23 — To Ronchi
The sappers at the Lido di Roma bridging course returned to the Division on the last day of March just in time to pack up for the return to the Senio. The re-entry to the battle area was to be made strictly incognito, with all signs and insignia removed as part of a deception plan whereby it was hoped that the convoys would be assumed to indicate merely an internal relief.
The intention was that Eighth Army and Fifth Army should secure a large bridgehead in the Po valley as the first stage of an advance into north-eastern and north-western Italy. Eighth Army was to attack through the Argenta Gap between Lake Comacchio and low-lying country which had been flooded, and at the same time was to thrust westwards over the Senio, Santerno and Sillaro rivers to Budrio; Fifth Army then was to open its offensive with Bologna as the objective, and the two armies were to establish the Po valley bridgehead around Bologna and Ferrara. The wide alluvial plain, now firm of surface, offered free movement to hitherto road-bound vehicles; many of the innumerable irrigation ditches were dry and grape vines, hung on wires like green laundry, provided cover from view. Birds sang, frogs croaked and wild flowers bloomed underfoot. It was the Italian spring again.
The immediate object was to break the Senio River line and secure a bridgehead over the Santerno River beyond. Fifth Corps was to attack with 8 Indian Division, right, and 2 NZ Division, left, and left of the Kiwis was the Polish Corps.
The New Zealand assault was to be made by 5 Brigade on the right and 6 Brigade on the left. Fifth Brigade would have, initially, an open right flank, for there was an interval between it and the left flanking Indian brigade. In this gap was the village of Cotignola which 27 Battalion of 9 Brigade was to capture at the earliest opportunity.1 The earliest opportunity was much too late for 7 Field Company because 27 Battalion was coming up in armoured troop-carriers—Kangaroos in military page 678 jargon—and that meant that Cotignola would remain uncaptured until the 5 Brigade bridges were across the Senio.
The Engineer units settled in and around the small town of Granarolo, six miles north of Faenza. The sappers shrugged their shoulders in the Italian manner when they realised that the Poles had inherited all their winter's work, for the new Divisional sector was some three miles seawards of the roads they had built and maintained throughout the winter.
It was, however, some recompense that the infantry were responsible for all secondary roads in the area; the Field Companies were to care only for the brigade main axes and Divisional routes forward to the river.
The area had not been thoroughly mineswept and the sappers walked warily until they had checked all tracks forward to the FDLs. There were enemy posts still on what was regarded as ‘our bank’ and minor battles went on for days until the last German was deprived of his grandstand. Engineers are not keen on working under close observation, and as they were going to be very preoccupied with the near floodbank, the chasing away of the enemy was a matter of favourable comment.
Equipment and personnel began to arrive for the Assault Squadron, as is shown by these extracts from the Squadron war diary:
2 April: 3 Valentine bridge layers and 4 Avres were collected from 4th Armd Bde. We are now beginning to look more like an Assault Squadron and are getting a rough idea of our tasks in the approaching attack.
3 April: Two Sherman dozers and one Valentine collected. We are getting a pretty good fleet together now. The Squadron was split up into troops today. No. 1 Troop has Capt Menzies as OC and Lt Ridley2 as 2 i/c. No. 2 Troop has Capt Fenton3 as OC and Lt McGregor as 2 i/c and Lt Logan4 attached. Lt Tapley5 went to Hq.
4 April: One Sherman and one Ark were delivered from the 4th Bde and they arrived OK despite having learner drivers. Also collected two Humber scout cars from FDS. Tank drivers left to collect Honeys.
On 5 April the Squadron moved forward to the crossroad village of La Bernada near the Lamone.
5 April: The two troops and HQ all settled in different casas within a radius of half a mile. All personnel except transporter drivers and tank crews were ferried up on 15 cwts and scout cars successfully. At 1700 hrs 1 – 6 tonner, 3 Jeeps 3 winch trucks (3 tonners), 3 – 15 cwt and 3 half tracks were collected and equally divided among the two fighting troops and HQ. The three troops can now move independently of one another.
During this period 5 Field Park Company had collected from Corps dumps and delivered to the infantry units concerned with the initial crossing of the river some seventy-five assault boats and five kapok assault bridges. The CRE also had under command, in anticipation of numerous small obstacles to movement, E Squadron of 1 Assault Brigade, RAC/RE; an extra bridging train, No. 2 Platoon of 1 NZ Ammunition Company, which in turn was increased by six three-tonners from NZ Supply Company, came under command of 5 Field Park Company. The extra bridging detail was commanded by Captain Williams6 and divided into two trains of 17 and 18 load-carrying vehicles, each with a full 110 ft Bailey bridge plus spares—the two high-level bridges for the Division. Fifth Field Park Company had also taken under command 309 Company, RASC, and Colonel Hanson was maintaining road communications with 565 Field Company, RE, in the rear areas.
In addition to the mechanical resources of the Division, there was available as needed a variety of fauna new to biology. These were:
Kangaroos: Sherman tanks stripped down for the conveyance of infantry.
Crocodiles: Flame-throwing tanks towing trailers of fluid.
Wasps: Flame-throwing Bren carriers, more mobile but with a shorter range than Crocodiles.
Ducks: Officially DUKW, American serial letters indicating a buoyant lorry driven over land on six wheels and through water by propeller.
Weasels: Amphibious small tracked vehicles.
Fantails: Amphibious tanks stripped of turrets and internal fittings. The driver sat at the rear and could lower the page 680 front to act as a loading ramp. It could carry an antitank gun or a Bren carrier. The tracks were fitted with ‘grousers’ which acted like small paddle wheels in the water.
Engineer thinking and planning had been to put down two assault low-level bridges immediately the infantry cleared the Senio River and two high-level bridges for the Divisional wheels, but the GOC altered this by announcing at a Corps conference that 2 NZ Division would have four tank bridges open for traffic before dawn. Perhaps he did not remember that high-level bridges were much longer and took more time to erect, but he smiled happily at Colonel Hanson who was with him. The CRE swallowed convulsively and set about doubling his low-level bridge component order and selecting extra sites from the air photographs.
In this connection it is worth mentioning that the enemy discouraged close scrutiny of the Senio River and there were many conflicting reports concerning the water gap. The distance between the stopbanks was clear enough on the photos, but reports of the width and depth of the water itself varied widely. Recourse was made to measuring up from maps the watershed of the Lamone, which was in our hands, and that of the Senio which was not. As both waterways were in the same type of country, it followed that the Senio water volume would be proportional to the catchment area, and the calculation was made that the water flow of the Senio should be from 50 to 60 feet wide.
In point of fact the reports were accurate enough for the areas reported upon, but a tangle of blown bridge debris had collected above a weir west of San Severo and formed something of a dam so that the water backed up into a deep narrow lake.
The Field Companies swept the route to their bridge sites and marked turnarounds for the use of the bridging trains as the vehicles were unloaded; officers from Divisional Cavalry Battalion who would be in command of sapper covering parties were shown their areas of operations; guides for the transport memorised their landmarks, for although artificial moonlight was to be laid on, the smoke and dust could largely cancel out that advantage.7page 681
The allocation of bridge-building tasks, with lengths of bridge according to the varying widths of the wet gap, were:
7 Field Company: one 40 ft single-single low-level and one 100 ft double-single high-level bridge.
8 Field Company: one 60 ft single-single low-level and one 100 ft part double-single and part single-single high-level.
6 Field Company: one 40 ft single-single low-level.
28 Assault Squadron: one scissors bridge.
E Assault Squadron, Royal Engineers, under command of the CRE for the operation, and 28 Assault Squadron were to give close support to the armour which would be hurrying to the aid of the infantry—as soon as the sappers made that possible.
By the night of 8 April there was little left to do. A series of conferences had assured that all officers concerned were fully briefed in their part of the Engineer plan for the assault crossing of the Senio—briefed in everything that is except the date.
The unblooded 28 Assault Squadron was still receiving equipment—‘UCV arrived from Sigs complete with bells much to the joy of HQ. Operation Order No. 1 issued by Maj Brooke-White. As the time for our first operation draws near everybody is very keen and morale is excellent. Dust nuisance very bad and 2 I/C cannot get his hair cut.’
The signal that announced the day and the hour was sent at 10.30 the next morning and is reproduced in full. It read:
In lieu of AF C 2136—
From HQ 2 NZ Div Engrs 091030 B
5 NZ Fd Pk Coy
27 NZ ME Coy
E Aslt Sqn RE
6 NZ Fd Coy
28 NZ Aslt Sqn
7 NZ Fd Coy
8 NZ Fd Coy
325 top secret (.) op buckland (.) Subject to last minute changes timings as follows (.) D Day 9 Apr (.) H Hr 1920 hrs (.) ack
Engineer command on 9 April 1945 was as follows:
Headquarters 2 NZ Divisional Engineers
Col F. M. H. Hanson
Maj R. C. Pemberton
Lt C. S. Fraser
2 Lt N. C. McLeod
Lt G. C. O'Hara, NZ Divisional Signals attached
6 Field Company
Maj P. W. de B Morgan
Capt R. W. Morris
7 Field Company
Capt J. S. Berry
Lt J. L. Lawson
Lt L. P. M. O'Keeffe
Lt S. J. Mathews
Rev. E. F. Farr, Chaplain attached
8 Field Company
Maj C. Clarke
Capt A. A. Treloar
Lt A. A. Begbie
Lt D. A. Hudson
Lt F. Boxall
27 Mechanical Equipment Company
Capt L. F. Farampage 683
28 Assault Squadron
Maj J. Brooke-White
Capt K. C. Fenton
Lt G. McGregor
Lt J. W. Ridley
Lt E. C. Tapley
5 Field Park Company
Capt M. H. Kemp
Lt E. W. Whiteacre
The morning of 9 April was much the same as recent mornings on the Senio front: the odd report of a gun sending a shell over and the answering crack of the reply; an occasional ‘recce’ plane taking a look around and a hard white frost melting in the warmth of the sun.
About 2 p.m. Fortresses and Liberators in waves of twenty, flying high up against the blue of the afternoon sky—they appeared to the sappers to be wing tip to wing tip—roared up to and across the Senio.
The lesson of the Cassino road-destroying heavyweight missiles had been learnt, for these planes were dropping small fragmentation bombs. For an hour they followed overhead, wave after wave, scattering 2000 tons of exploding metal. Then the guns, hundreds of guns, opened fire and the ground shook and the air quivered with the speeding shells. Then the fighter-bombers dived on their targets, then more gunfire, then more page 684 planes…. But there was still something new to come. At last light Wasps and Crocodiles rushed up the floodbank to spew streams of liquid flame across the river. Finally the steel curtain of the barrage, after blasting awhile on the far bank, moved forward and the infantry, hidden in the dust and smoke, quickly crossed the river on rafts and kapok bridges; it was then the turn of the sappers.
Major Lindell's plan was for 7 Field Company's No. 1 Platoon (Captain Berry) to search the far stopbank for mines (in the doing of which Corporal Jorgensen8 laid the foundations for an MM), then place and blow a series of charges along a grade that would assist the dozer operator in the formation of a route for wheels and tracks over the obstruction. No. 2 Platoon (Lieutenant Lawson9) would build the high and No. 3 Platoon (Lieutenant Annabell) the low-level Baileys on 5 Brigade front.
There will be much mention of low-level bridging in this account and at a risk of undue repetition the essential differences page 685 between the New Zealand and British systems of construction must be emphasised. The vital point is that, although they are referred to in this and other histories as low-level, they were in fact water-level bridges. Brigadier Hanson has contributed his views on the point:
‘The New Zealand low level Bailey bridge is quite unrelated to the low level Bailey as so described in “Engineers in the Italian Campaign”.10 The British low level Bailey used up much more equipment than our bridge and was launched in the orthodox manner with launching nose etc. Our bridge was either pushed out with the end resting on a folding boat or it was built completely in situ with a folding boat or some form of raft or trestle to act as a supporting platform during the building work. It was not usual to leave out any bottom chord pin as suggested in the Blue Book. As a matter of fact the British and other Divs. in Italy never understood or appreciated our low level Bailey. The two outstanding merits of the New Zealand low level Bailey were the speed of erection and the use of minimum material.’
The bridging train, in this case the attached Ammunition Company platoon (Captain Williams), left Granarolo at a time which brought it near its unloading point at the appointed hour. It is of course axiomatic that when there are a number of bridges to be built simultaneously there must be the most rigid control of traffic circuits. No vehicles of any description were permitted between the assembly area for bridging trucks and the site of the bridge until the sapper officer in charge advised that he no longer needed unhindered use of approach roads. It further follows that crossroads within artillery range are natural targets. Defensive fire from the direction of Cotignola, east of the New Zealand sector, upon the Agrippano crossroads set one truck on fire and ditched a second so that traffic in any direction was completely blocked.
Efforts to winch the ditched vehicle out had to be abandoned and a dozer was used to push the obstruction out of the way. Captain Williams's coolness in standing unsheltered on the target area while efforts were made, first to winch and then to clear the obstruction, was duplicated several times while his platoon was attached to 5 Field Park Company and was recognised by the award of an MC.page 686
Referring back to the Ammunition Company's trouble at the Agrippano crossroads, three trucks of components had got safely to Lieutenant Annabell's bridging party before the interruption, and in spite of having to take cover from time to time as the enemy sprayed the river line the sappers had the bridge across the wet gap by 1 a.m. An hour and a half later the approaches were finished and the dozer was working on the far bank. It is on record that 150 vehicles crossed this bridge by first light. The bridge was built at a cost of one killed and one wounded, and Lieutenant Annabell, whose example had no little influence on this pre-eminently successful effort, was later mentioned in despatches.
The high-level site was 200 yards farther to the right on the exposed flank of 5 Brigade and was subjected to quite heavy fire from mortars and guns in the Cotignola area. Sergeant Archibald11 distinguished himself first in leading the mine checking party and later in the actual bridge-building, during which nine sappers were hit, two fatally. Part of his MM citation reads:
‘The heavy fire continued during the bridging operations and the Platoon suffered severely in casualties, but by his personal example and inspiring leadership Sgt Archibald rallied his men to complete the bridge by early morning, thus contributing to the rapid build up of support weapons in the bridgehead.’
Traffic was passing at 8 a.m. and a section of sappers, held for the purpose, then took over the maintenance of both bridges.
Sapper Hooper12 was also awarded an MM for endurance and gallantry at this bridge. He was engaged in carrying explosives across the river for blowing a gap in the top of the floodbank where the far end of the high-level bridge would be positioned. Until the mine-clearing party had made lanes, he picked his way as best he could through a belt of Schu mines so that there would be no delay in getting the vehicles through to the infantry. He carried on for three hours through mine-infested country and under shellfire until all the necessary explosive had been delivered.
A New Zealand war correspondent who managed to get himself attached to the Engineers for the occasion wrote this page 687 impression of 7 Field Company at work on its low-level bridge. It would apply with equal force to all the crossing jobs put through that night. His account ran:
‘At midnight last night I sat on the stopbank on the Senio river and watched the 7th Field Company, New Zealand Engineers, build a low-level Bailey. Behind us the big guns roared and crackled through their unending chorus of death as they hurled a creeping barrage ahead of the infantry battalions steadily advancing through the night two miles in front.
‘The top of the stopbank cut a straight black line across the light as we approached, except for one deep gap where a dozer snorted back and forward, steadily deepening the approach to the bridge. In the 40 foot chasm between the stopbanks, where you had to peer into a man's face to distinguish his features, the company moved about its task with the precision and assurance of men working in broad daylight.
‘On a ledge half way down big lorries driven through the gap had been loaded off, and all the materials lay in orderly stacks in their order of need. One man stood by to indicate the place of each piece called for.
‘Across the long steel beams lay planks forming temporary bridging on which to build the bridge. As the last plank was laid the first side section of the bridge was carried on to it and the next was right behind and instantly tied to it. Before both sides had been completed, transoms and decking were going into place between them and as one watched these unhurried quiet-speaking experts, the bridge seemed to grow as if by magic. Actually, long before daylight tanks were rolling across it and speeding north in good time to take up their battle stations.’
Major Clarke's plan for the 8 Field Company assignment was for No. 1 Platoon to build the high-level and No. 3 Platoon the low-level Bailey for 6 Brigade. No. 2 Platoon was responsible for maintenance.
Lieutenant Begbie, whose diary has been quoted in earlier chapters, was in command of the mine-clearing party drawn from 3 Platoon. He writes:
‘The infantry went across immediately the Wasps and Crocodiles had burnt out the Teds’ stopbank. By this time we were in position near Granarola about 400 yards behind the Inf. As soon as the Inf went over the top I moved up with my mine clearing section and blew the cut. Then Hec Sinclair13 and I page 688 crossed over with Don Donovan14 (Div Cav covering party) and went forward on the recce. Finally selected a suitable route to the main road and then went on to Barbiano with one section of Div Cav under a Cpl (Graham —–). I sent Hec15 back to carry on clearing the route out. We ran into two Tiger tanks near Barbiano just as they had bowled a couple of 25 Bn. Turned back and I wirelessed “road good to point 212”. Saw the Major at ADS (Helluva din going on the whole time Moaning Minnie in action). Waited the removal of Tigers and carried on prodding. Major Clarke said to go forward again to Barbiano. Did so. Heavily shelled on Dead Cow Corner. Lost two of my cover party. One stomach wound and one leg fracture. Reported road clear to 212 and suitable [for] tanks or wheels. Shelled on my way back. Lost one of my sappers (Alex Mee16) with leg wound.’
The train carrying the components for 8 Field Company's two bridges was not troubled by the German gunners until it reached the building site but neither trucks nor drivers were injured.
The area around the sites was checked, and the dozers were called up and working on the access routes by 9.45 p.m. Ten o'clock saw both platoons flat out; the low-level bridge was across at 2.30 a.m. and open to tanks at 4 a.m. Two hours later the high-level was also open to wheels. Two sections of No. 2 Platoon (Lieutenant Boxall17) went up at early light to maintain the bridges and approaches, for which job they had a dozer and four tipper trucks from Mechanical Equipment carting rubble. A shell landed by the dozer and wounded Lieutenant Bydder,18 who was in charge of the forward maintenance.
Sixth Field Company bridge, detailed by Major Morgan to No. 3 Platoon (Lieutenant Quinn), was situated between the two brigade main access routes and would put traffic on roads leading to both Cotignola and Barbiano. The approaches were ready and building started by 11.30 p.m. The area was shelled sporadically and one of the covering party was wounded, but work was not interrupted. Exactly three hours later all mines page 689 had been lifted from both banks of the river, the bridge was ready for use and the dozer was making a track across the far stopbank. A culvert on the road to Cotignola completed the platoon's work and it returned to the Company area at 4 a.m.
The only place where the Senio was narrow enough to be spanned by a scissors bridge was between the 6 Brigade main artery and the 6 Field Company bridge, immediately below a blown weir.
No. 1 Troop, 28 Assault Squadron (Captain Menzies), was given the job of putting down a crossing place for the armour. The sappers found the enemy side of the near stopbank cunningly littered with mines of all descriptions—Schu mines, S-mines, Teller mines, Topf mines, and most dangerous of all, R-mines. The combination of dust and battle smoke made visual searching hopeless and it was necessary to clear a lane to the site with mine probes. Captain Menzies led the lane-clearing by personally lifting, disarming or destroying in situ, thus encouraging the new sappers in their first joust with sudden death. An armoured dozer got off the track in the murk and went up on a mine. Captain Farnell, who was supervising his Squadron's first effort, called up an attached 27 Mechanical Equipment Company D6 and meanwhile cleared a track to recover the damaged Sherman dozer. The driver, Corporal Anderton,19 though suffering from blast and shock, was anxious to get working again and as soon as the replacement arrived he took over its operation.
When the site had been prepared the scissors bridge was let down on solid timber foundations and Menzies led his mine-prodding party to the far bank, where another lane was cleared for the D6 to work on the exit track.
The thin-skinned D6 operated by Corporal Read20 crossed the scissors and was followed by a Kangaroo. Three anti-personnel mines that had been missed exploded under the weight of the machine, but Read carried on until he detonated a deeply buried anti-tank mine. Almost simultaneously the Kangaroo found a mine that the dozer had missed. The dozer was not damaged but the Corporal was badly shaken and four sappers in the Kangaroo were wounded, the first casualties in 28 page 690 Assault Squadron. Despite his shaking up Read carried on grading a track over the stopbank. For this and later deeds of determination he was awarded an MM.
Other bridges were now nearing completion, so by direction of the CRE the project was abandoned and the armour was rerouted via the nearby 6 Field Company crossing. The scissors remained as a standby and a monument to gallant work by a squadron out on operations under difficult conditions for the first time. Captain Menzies' example and leadership were recognised by the award of an MC.
It is worth while at this point to study a table, taken from a contemporary official publication, which shows the numbers of bridges built and the times taken by the three Eighth Army divisions in the Senio assault.
|On the Indians' front:||By 4 a.m.||A low level Bailey|
|By 5 a.m.||An ark crossing|
|By 8 a.m.||A second low level Bailey|
|By 9 a.m.||A third low level Bailey|
|Also a class 9 bridge that was damaged when a tank attempted to cross, and was finally abandoned.|
|On the New Zealanders' front:||Six crossings—a scissors bridge, three low level Baileys and two Baileys level with tops of floodbanks—the first completed at 1.30 a.m., the last at 6.30 a.m.|
|On the Poles' front:||By 8 a.m.||A floating folding boat bridge|
|By 9.30 a.m.||A low level Bailey|
|By 10.45 a.m.||A second folding boat bridge|
|By 12.45 p.m.||A second low level Bailey|
|By 7 p.m.||A mobile Bailey, completion of which had been delayed by the connecting link snapping when all was ready for launching.|
All six New Zealand bridges were tank bridges.21 The Poles had no tank bridges over by daybreak and it was only with difficulty that a few tanks got across on the Indian sector.page 691
Of course, conditions were different on the other two sectors, where possession of the near stopbank was not gained before the main assault commenced, as was the case with 2 NZ Division. It will be noticed that the times do not correspond exactly with those given in the previous pages, which are when the bridges were passing traffic. The actual building of the bridges was one job and the preparation of approaches and exits a separate consideration.
Later river crossings confirmed the superiority of the New Zealand sappers' methods.
‘For the type of river and canal encountered from the senio to the po, the low-level Bailey built in situ at the bottom of the riverbanks, only a few feet above water, was by far the speediest means of getting tanks and Divisional transport forward. These low level bridges were invariably completed in half the time required to build and launch by orthodox means the 100 to 150 feet Bailey bridge at natural (not flood) bank height above water. Furthermore, owing to the greatly reduced span length at the bottom of the banks, a great deal less Bailey bridging was expended, a very important factor when supplies are short and replenishment difficult.
‘Another advantage of the low level Bailey is the fact that down at the bottom of the river banks there is considerable cover from enemy fire; there were occasions when work would have been interfered with and delayed had a high level Bailey been under construction whereas on the low level bridge the work went ahead comparatively smoothly.’22
‘E’ Assault Squadron crossed the Senio ahead of the armour and escorted it forward. At first light the infantry was on the line of the Canale di Lugo, which had already been treated by the bombers as an enemy defended position—which meant that hardly a building remained standing.
The Santerno River, which it was hoped to gatecrash, was about two miles away with the Scolo Tratturo in between.
Twenty-eighth Assault Squadron had got up before daylight and was waiting for the infantry to attack beyond the Canale so that tank crossings might be prepared. There was, however, page 692 page 693 very little water in the Canale and it was thus not a serious obstacle to tanks, but three crossing places were prepared for use if wanted.
The Scolo Tratturo caused some delay but the infantry had it behind them by late afternoon and were nearing the Santerno. Both Assault Squadrons dozed crossings and each put down an Ark in the Scolo Tratturo.
The infantry exploited through the shattered enemy defences up to the Santerno River; 5 Field Park Company replenished its bridge holdings and moved into Granarolo; 6 Field Company reported to Headquarters 5 Brigade near Budrio and 8 Field Company settled in with Headquarters 6 Brigade near Barbiano. Seventh Field Company stayed put, with all men who were not resting after the night's work engaged on road maintenance with 27 Mechanical Equipment Company, which had made Granarolo its base. Twenty-eighth Assault Squadron and ‘E’ Squadron, RE, were in close support near the Santerno. Farther afield, the Indians had already forced a small bridgehead and the Poles, after mastering determined resistance, were coming up fast. The enemy was certainly off balance for odd parties were trying to deliver rations behind our forward defended posts; 28 Assault Squadron collected its first batch of prisoners while they were engaged in this pursuit. ‘Things became fairly static while a set piece attack on the Santerno was being jacked up. The OC and four of his staff made a recce in the Honey and bumped into some Jerries. They took nine prisoners and a ration cart and two ponies.’
The actual crossing of the Santerno began that night (10 – 11 April). The river itself had been straightened and there were actually two beds, one almost dry, the Santerno Morto, winding in a series of loops and the other, the canalised Santerno, constrained between floodbanks, which cut across the old river loops so that some were on our side and some on the enemy-held side of the water barrier. It was a strong position solidly prepared for defence, and it could have been a hard battle had not the German 98 Division, from the enemy point of view, been largely a write-off after its hammering on the Senio. Many of the concreted strongpoints were without garrisons.
On the 11th, while the action on the Santerno was developing, 7 Field Company moved up to a crossroads village between page 694 Budrio and Barbiano. No. 1 Platoon, already warned, built a 70 ft double-single Bailey over the Scolo Tratturo on the Divisional axis west of Lugo. It was a straightforward job with no interference.
Major Morgan was instructed to get a 40 ft low-level bridge over the Santerno in support of 28 (Maori) Battalion, which in the early afternoon had built up a small bridgehead. There was little choice of sites for the whole area was under observation from the enemy-held village of Sant’ Agata. The stopbank was charged and blown without casualties, but a dozer would have been a sitting shot until the Artillery had supplied smoke around the site and high explosive in great quantities on Sant’ Agata. Sapper Strahl,23 preparing the approach route for the bridging trucks, was under such heavy fire that he was in the middle of filling a crater when a shell landed a few feet away from his machine and blasted away most of the spoil he had already pushed into the hole. It was after 6 p.m. before it was possible to get the components on to the site. Sergeant R. J. Roberts, in command of the bridge-building operations, had a difficult night for an enemy machine-gun post out on the flank frequently sprayed the area with bullets. He kept his team working at full efficiency by the force of his own example and by placing a sapper with a Bren gun well clear of the bridge, but in a position to fire long bursts in the direction of the German post. As soon as the bridge was down Sapper Strahl drove his machine across and dozed an exit route so that the crossing, sited at a point where the canalised river crossed a loop of the Santerno Morto, was passing traffic at 1.30 a.m. Strahl was awarded an MM, and the night's work was the first of several that were recognised by the award to Sergeant Roberts of an immediate DCM.
The Maoris were delighted to have their support weapons with them before the dawn as there were Tiger tanks in the vicinity. The Commander 5 Brigade was also appreciative of the sappers' efforts.
‘E’ Assault Squadron, now reduced to half a squadron,24 was assisted by a dozer from 28 Assault Squadron, trucks from 27 Mechanical Equipment Company and sappers from 6 Field Company in preparing the approaches for an Ark in support page 695 of 6 Brigade. It was a difficult job, which was tackled by positioning a single Ark without ramps in the river and ramping down the banks to the level of the Ark. The approaches were too soft, however, and a second Ark, with two ramps, was placed on top of the first one. It was ready at 5 a.m. About the time the double Ark opened for traffic, 7 Field Company was warned for another bridging job, this time on the Santerno and a quarter of a mile to the right of the 6 Field Company low-level bridge. The bridgehead had been sufficiently widened by this time and Sant’ Agata sufficiently silenced. There was some enemy mortaring but not enough to prevent 27 Mechanical Equipment dozing the approaches. The bridging train arrived at 11 a.m., by which time the home stopbank had been blown and access to the site finished. The bridge, one 80 ft and one 40 ft span built on a steel crib pier, was open to traffic at 7 p.m. on the 12th.
A high-level bridge on 6 Brigade's axis was the task of 8 Field Company and was sited on the southern crossing of the loop that 6 Field Company had already bridged on its north end. The preliminary work, in spite of some interruptions, was completed by 8 a.m. and the bridge, a 110 ft double-single with a steel crib pier, was finished at 1 p.m. and dozers working on the far bank. Traffic was passing through at 8 p.m.
The infantry brigades, with 19 and 20 Armoured Regiments in support and each tank regiment with a detachment of 28 Assault Squadron attached, had deployed on the far side of the gate-crashed Santerno before daybreak. The policy was still ‘Forward’ and the next objective was the Sillaro River, five miles and several scolos, fossas and canales away.
At midnight 12 – 13 April the enemy supply centre of Massa Lombarda had been occupied on the heels of the departing garrison, and by first light the infantry were consolidating along the Scolo Zaniolo, a thousand-odd yards east of the town. Twenty-eighth Assault Squadron had a busy time with small dozing jobs, but the enemy had not been able to blow the culverts and progress was rapid.
But infantry, like other troops, must have time off to sleep and it was now necessary to reorganise. Fifth Brigade was to drop back into reserve, 6 Brigade to sidestep to the right and occupy the 5 Brigade front, while 9 Brigade moved into the area vacated by 6 Brigade.
Seventh Field Company moved up to a crossroads near Massa Lombarda, 5 Field Park and 27 Mechanical Equipment settled page 696 themselves in the town, and 8 Field Company maintained communications to the southwards. Sixth Field Company, warned to assist 28 Assault Squadron which was to support 9 Brigade up to the line of the Sillaro, also shifted to the vicinity of Massa Lombarda.
The barrage preceding the approach to the Sillaro opened at 2.30 a.m. on the 14th, with the sappers checking the roads for mines behind the attacking infantry and armour. As far as the page 697 engineers were concerned the advance went through with little trouble, except that No. 3 Platoon, 8 Field Company, had to put a 50 ft single-single Bailey over the Scolo Gambellaro.
The Engineer tasks for the Sillaro were for 8 Field Company to put down two crossings, a 40 ft low-level Bailey and a drum and fascine culvert for the use of 6 Brigade, while for 9 Brigade 6 Field Company was to build two low-level bridges. Finally ‘E’ Assault Squadron had the job of making an Ark crossing.
It was possible to make a close study of the bridge sites, for the enemy, perhaps to avoid the flame-throwers, was not holding the stopbanks. He wa no doubt depending on gun and mortar fire to break up an attack before it reached his FDLs. ‘E’ Assault Squadron ‘recce’ party reported that the only suitable place for an Ark bridge was just beyond the right boundary fo the barrage. A party from 8 Field company (Lieutenant Roy25) blew the bank for the Squadron before the attack commenced, but enemy fire delayed the actual laying of the bridge long beyond the timetable set down.
The reader will have noticed that the great proportion of decorations for gallantry under fire since the Senio crossing had been awarded to dozer operators. The Sillaro assault was to continue the trend. Sapper Fisken 26 during the afternoon of the 15th was working on the approach from Massa Lombarda to a bridge site when he came under harassing fire, which continued throughout the afternoon and became heavier as he approached the river. Fisken never left his machine until the job was finished and later received an MM.
Sapper McIntosh27 was awarded a similar decoration for similar conduct when doing the same kind of job. His machine was twice put out of acion by shell splinters and twice he repaired the damage and carried on. He never stopped until the approach track was made, and as soon as the bridge was over he crossed and dozed the far bank.
Incidentally it should be noted that about this time 5 Field Park Company, instead of inhabiting rear areas and despatching bridging trains as requested, became in effect a front-line unit. Major Malt considered that the place for his Tactical Headquarters was just beyond small-arms range, where he could page 698 quickly assess the bridging components likely to be required for any crossing, and that the correct area for his stores vehicles was just outside artillery range.
This followed from the fact that there was no point in having trucks and loads destroyed when they might be wanted urgently for a river or canal crossing; even the most experienced sappers with the greatest skill for improvising are useless if the components fail to arrive. The bridging train drivers had need for all the path-finding gifts the gods had laid in their cradles, for as soon as their vehicles were unloaded they had to deduce where the Corps bridge dump might have moved to since last report, and somehow get there to reload and return ready for the next assignment. Major Malt's immediate DSO citation mentions this reversal of 5 Field Park practice and his habit of always arriving to take action when a knocked-out vehicle or a halt in traffic blocked the road, so preventing the delivery of bridging material.
Lieutenant Harvey28 (No. 3 Platoon, 8 Field Company) continued a record of river crossing that had begun at Cassino by so encouraging his men to ignore spasmodic interference that their drum and fascine project was ready with both sides dozed at 1 a.m. He then organised a party to tape and minelift two routes across country for about 400 yards to a good metalled road. He also shared the next honours list with an MC.
The building party from No. 1 Platoon had the earthworks ready by 1 a.m. in spite of heavy harassing fire which Sergeant Berridge,29 in charge of the job, did not allow to interfere with progress. There was some delay while waiting for a replacement for a truck that an unlucky shall had wrecked, killing the driver and wounding two others. Shelling in the area was heavy at the time and there was some confusion in the RASC bridge train, but Berridge got control and soon had the components moving again. He worked with his team and held them together through a rather bad time until the bridge was finished at 4 a.m. on the 15th with one New Zealand casualty. For this and previous displays of courage and coolness Sergeant Berridge was awarded an MM.
On 9 Brigade's front 6 Field Company had many delays from enemy harassing fire and No. 2 Platoon (Lieutenant Erickson30) page 699 did not finish the job until 5 a.m. To ensure that there is no delay in the actual building of a bridge, it is of the utmost importance that the components be laid out in the proper order and sequence. In this case the laying-out area was on top of the bank. The bridging party itself was comparatively safe in the stream bed under the shelter of the stopbanks, but Corporal Crook's31 assignment was to stay with the components and have them ready on demand. This he did under fire that became heavy at times; he also later received an MM.
‘Platoon moved forward again. Barrage at 9 p.m. while 27 Battalion went in to attack. Meanwhile we erected a low level Bailey across the Sillaro river—usual procedure now of a bulldozer cutting through the stop bank to get our bridging trucks through. A burning Sherman tank gave Jerry plenty of clues and he shelled us wounding Johnny Cederman33 and Fred Battersby.34 Neither very seriously hurt. Rather glad when the job was finished though.’
Sappers in both companies not employed on bridges carried out the usual approaches and forward road work in company with 27 Mechanical Equipment Company; 28 Assault Squadron crossed with the tanks and assisted with dozer work when required. Three major bridging jobs in seven nights—something would have to crack soon.
The infantry cut right through the defences beyond the Sillaro, and as soon as the tanks and 28 Assault Squadron were across they began to exploit forwards. The rate of advance was conditioned by the time it took the engineers to doze crossings over the minor waterways for the troop-carrying Kangaroos and armour. At dusk the Division had made three miles and was on the outskirts of Medicina.
It was a day of comparative rest for the Field Companies, as only those not building bridges the previous night worked on the brigades' axis roads.page 700
By the afternoon of the 17th the infantry had made another three miles and were on the near stopbank of the Torrente Gaiana, about a mile beyond Villa Fontana. The Torrente probably had earned its name, for unlike any of the numerous minor waterways crossed since leaving the Sillaro, it was constrained between floodbanks. Twenty-eighth Assault Squadron, which had had another day of getting wheels and tracks over ditches, closed its war diary with the comment: ‘There are three fairly sticky canals in front of the Idice and we are expecting a busy day with our equipment. Weather fine.’ At this point the Division again regrouped; 6 Brigade was withdrawn for a spell and the New Zealand Division now deployed 9 Brigade on the right and 43 Gurkha Lorried Infantry Brigade, which had come under command, on the left.
Future Engineer activity was predicted in 2 New Zealand Division Operation Order No. 57 issued on 17 April, codeword austin. The opening paragraph summarised the situation thus:
‘The enemy is holding the line of r gaiana in the Div sector in str[ength], with elements of six bns of parachutists in the line or in close res[erve]. They are dug in on “B” stopbank, with the intention of checking our further adv to the idice line, the breaking of which would compromise his entire def posns in the bologna area.’ The intention was for the New Zealand Division to cross the Gaiana and Quaderna and continue on to the Idice. The Engineers were to construct at least two crossings and would be protected by a company of infantry as close cover.
It is not necessary to emphasise that assault bridging, to quote a portion of Major Armstrong's DSO citation, ‘depended as much on bulldozing operations as upon actual bridge construction itself. Therefore in the crossing of the senio, santerno, sillaro, and the gaiana many bulldozers were employed on the Divisional front. Frequently under heavy shelling Major Armstrong moved from site to site, offering advice here and a helping hand there, to ensure that his machines were operated at maximum efficiency.’
It was another two-brigade operation with 9 Brigade, right, and 43 Gurkha Brigade, left. No. 225 RE Company saw to the Gurkhas' communications while 6 Field Company and page 701 27 Mechanical Equipment Company were responsible for 9 Brigade's water crossings. Twenty-eighth Assault Squadron, less one troop under command 6 Field Company, was still with the armour. The 6 Field Company plan was for No. 2 Platoon to open the axis for Divisional Cavalry Battalion and No. 1 Platoon to do likewise for 22 Battalion.
The barrage opened at 9 p.m., first as a ‘stander’; then flame-throwers, one to fifty yards of front, went into operation before the infantry opened the assault across the Gaiana. This succeeded after heavy fighting, and one by one the water barriers fell to bayonet and Tommy gun; first the Gaiana, then the Scolo Acquarolo, and finally the Torrente Quaderna. At early light the infantry were between Villa Fontana and Budrio, two miles beyond the Quaderna.
No. 1 Platoon, working on the right of the main road and assisted by 27 Mechanical Equipment machines, were delayed almost from the start of the Gaiana crossing. They were under constant shellfire and the close-support infantry company lost three men repulsing a fighting patrol which had felt its way around the end of the barrage and had halted the work for some time. Lieutenant Gilmour35 had been wounded and a sapper killed. The high stopbank, the heavy defensive fire and sniping had caused so much delay that at 3.30 a.m. the first obstacle had not been crossed.
It was decided to open the main highway, and Captain Keller, detailed to make a ‘recce’ of the new axis, returned for a tank to remove an enemy post that had been overrun. A reserve dozer made a crossing at the demolished bridge site and the party pushed on to the Acquarolo, where they found the bridge intact. The next obstacle, the Fossatone, was a branch of the Quaderna and needed a lot of work.
The area was under defensive enemy fire, and the blast of a shell that wounded Captain Keller lifted the dozer into the air and damaged its mechanism. The operator, Sapper Blacktopp,36 was very shaken but made repairs while Keller, propped up on the side of the road, directed the work until the crossing was through. They were later decorated with MC and MM respectively. The soft-skinned machines were left at this point and an armoured dozer from an attached section of 28 Assault page 702 Squadron, driven by Corporal C. H. Anderton, took over. Owing to the lack of experienced Sherman dozer operators he had been working his machine with a minimum of sleep since he was blown up on the Senio, and he received a well merited MM in the next honours list.
No. 2 Platoon did not have quite so much enemy fire to put up with. Corporal Read, in charge of the Mechanical Equipment dozer working on that axis, lost his operator wounded, and when he thought the partly trained replacement was not operating in the darkness to the best advantage, he mounted the machine and continued working it throughout the night. When the platoon reached the Fossatone they found that No. 1 had also arrived at the same crossing owing to the diversion previously mentioned, and both pushed along the main road to the north fork of the Quaderna.
The bridge was gone, but the place was suitable for a scissors and the attached section of 28 Assault Squadron was called up and successfully laid one. The armour was then able to get up to the infantry before any counter-attacks were mounted.
In front of Budrio the Division reorganised again, with 5 and 6 Brigades forward in anticipation of the next thrust which was intended to put the Idice River behind Eighth Army's lines.
Sixth Field Company, now in reserve, snatched a few hours' sleep before improving several crossings with drum culverts and a couple of small Baileys.
The infantry advanced again at daybreak on 20 April and met an enemy quite unprepared to receive them. German Intelligence had assured reinforcements that had been force-marched to the Idice that the enemy was still miles away. We were also said to be held up in front of Budrio. This was true up to a point, but actually Budrio had been bypassed and the infantry were on the near stopbank before the defence was aware of it. A small bridgehead had been secured by mid-afternoon, and by a stroke of luck a ford capable of passing tanks over the water gap had also been found.
This was really outside the New Zealand Division's left boundary but it was no time for niceties; the support armour crossed at dusk, and armour supporting the Poles in a thrust to Bologna also used this crossing.
At daybreak on Saturday, 21 April, the forward troops found themselves in a country where bridges were unblown, roads uncratered and houses undamaged. The Americans of Fifth Army and Poles of Eighth Army were in Bologna, and the page 703 enemy divisions which had managed to disengage were in head-long flight in an endeavour to put the Po River between them and destruction, while the combined Air Forces were seeing to it that the retreat was a hazardous affair.
All Engineer bridging work on the Idice was finished in the late afternoon, by which time the infantry brigades had crossed and enlarged the bridgehead and were marching against negligible opposition and, more important from the sapper point of view, over bridges and canal crossings that had been charged but not fired.
Headquarters Divisional Engineers' war diary opens on 22 April with the following:
‘Fine and hot. Units all moving forward, opening, improving and maintaining routes. It is becoming difficult to fulfil all engr commitments and still keep moving fwd with stores, engr supplies.’
This was the day the Division crossed Route 64, the main highway between Bologna and Ferrara and the escape route from the fallen city of Bologna. It was also the day that the New Zealand Division changed its axis of advance from west to north and at long last, after similar intentions at the Sangro and again at Cassino, spearheaded the break-through.
The Reno River was now the objective, but before the last mad gallop begins let us get the sapper units lined up at the starting post.
Fifth Field Park Company, located at various villages around Budrio, was preparing to shift up as a company to San Alberto, about four miles short of the Reno River, on the morrow.
Seventh Field Company, after finishing its job at the Idice, followed the 5 Brigade axis, checked two unblown bridges across the Scolo Zena, threw a 50 ft double-single Bailey across a demolition on Route 64, stopped outside Bentivoglio and put a 40 ft single-single Bailey across the Canale Navile which skirted the village.
Eighth Field Company, following 6 Brigade, threw a bridge over the Savena Abbandonato, another over the Canale Navile, and ended up in San Giorgio, where those sappers who were not bridgebuilding worked all night on the road between the Canale and San Giorgio.page 704
Twenty-seventh Mechanical Equipment Company, which had moved daily since the assault on the Sillaro, was across the Canale Navile two miles or so south of Bentivoglio. Detached from the unit were Lieutenant Marshall37 and ten other ranks marched out to 7 Field Company with two D6s for work on 5 Brigade access; Lieutenant Fraser and ten other ranks marched out to 8 Field Company with two D6s for work on 6 Brigade access; Lieutenant Clarke38 and nine other ranks to 6 Field Company with a D6 and a D8 to work with 9 Brigade, at the moment in support.
Twenty-eighth Assault Squadron, which had been advancing with the leading armour, wrote: ‘Today was a busy one for the Squadron. There was practically no opposition and everyone was trying to press on as quickly as possible. Both troops were flat out and three fascines were successfully used. Checking for mines and demolitions was carried out and Route 64 crossed. The whole squadron was moved forward and spent the night in the neighbourhood of Bentivoglio. The roads were crammed and moving vehicles about was a trying business as everyone was trying to get forward at once.’
The infantry rode on anything on wheels or tracks the ten or so miles to the Reno River. It was shallow but wide, and the Division was told to sit down and wait for support arms as all bridges were down.
Seventh Field Company on the right flank commenced a 160 ft Bailey (120 ft double-single on a pier and 40 ft single-single) between rail and road-bridge sites. It was begun at 9 a.m. and finished at 4.15 p.m. Field Marshal Alexander and the Army Commander (General McCreery) stayed a while to watch the building, and General Freyberg was the first over as soon as the approaches were ramped by 27 Mechanical Equipment Company's dozers.
Three miles west of this, 8 Field Company had a 210 ft Bailey (110 ft double-single and 100 ft single-single continuous) ready at 8 p.m. Two miles farther west again 6 Field Company found and opened a ford, and nose to tail for miles back columns of transport converged on the Reno crossings.
Fifth Brigade was away early in the morning (24th), again on wheels for Bondeno. Patrols reconnoitred the final three miles to the Po River. The Po was not swift but it was wide, with a page 705 water gap ranging between four and five hundred feet. It was flanked by a flood plain and by stopbanks as high as thirty feet in places. There were of course no bridges—the bombers had seen to that.
Lieutenant Mathews39 (7 Field Company) went with a patrol to look for a crossing and reported that he had found a German ferry with good approaches and in apparently good order.
Twenty-seventh Mechanical Equipment Company and 28 Assault Squadron arrived during the morning: ‘On the road again at 1000 hrs and once again with a terrific stream of traffic and finally harboured up at an area adjacent to Bondeno and about three miles from the Po River. We were there informed that the Squadron was to have a rest and for the first time since leaving the Senio 14 days ago the whole show was together again.’
Sixth Brigade column, moving up on the left of 5 Brigade, was halted in Bondeno by the unbridged Panaro, a tributary of the Po. Either the RAF or the Partisans had removed the original crossing and German engineers had been in the process of replacing it. The brigade had a three-hour halt while 8 Field Company, making use of the uncompleted enemy structure, incorporated it in a 70 ft single-single Bailey.
Ninth Brigade, still in reserve, was concentrated south of Bondeno. It had used a route to avoid the congestion and had been fortunate with its canals and ditches, of which there had been a multitude.
Fifth Field Park Company moved to San Agostino on the far side of the Reno; if the Company had been busy lately—from the crossing of the Senio to the passage of the Reno, inclusive, it had supplied 730 feet double-single and 1170 feet single-single of Bailey components—it was only a foretaste of what was to come.
In preparation for the bridging of the River Po, Major Malt took under command, in addition to his present strength:
237 A/Tk Battery with 12 Stormboats and 40 all ranks.
FBE Platoon from the Polish Corps and 57 all ranks.
239 GT RASC with 16 Ducks and 35 other ranks.
1804 Bailey Bridge Detachment and one Class 9 and one Class 40 support raft and 15 other ranks.
Detachment ‘X’ Squadron, 1 Assault Squadron, with 8 Fantails and 34 all ranks.page 706
In the absence of air photographs, which did not arrive in time for the proper planning of the Po River crossing, the water gap was measured by compass triangulation which later proved reasonably correct. But for bridging purposes air photos are vital in order to decide on the nature of the riverbanks and the distance of bank seat or bridge end from the edge of the water or edge of the bank.
Early plans for the first New Zealand major river crossing envisaged the employment of all three Field Companies as follows:
One Field Company plus 2 dozers: One Class 9 FBE bridge and approaches.
Two Field Companies plus 4 dozers: Approaches and landings for two Class 40 rafts and providing assistance in operating Fantails, Stormboats and Ducks.
In the case of an evening assault this work could have been completed before daylight, so enabling tanks, anti-tank guns and other support weapons to get into position for possible counter-attacks. As it happened only one Class 40 and one Class 9 raft were available. The final plan therefore was that 7 and 8 Field Companies would build and operate a Class 40 and Class 9 raft respectively, and in addition, each with two Mechanical Equipment dozers, they were to assist in operating Stormboats, Ducks, and tracked landing vehicles and to provide approaches to and from the water. Sixth Field Company was to construct the folding-boat bridge.
For the Po River enterprise the following equipment was issued by 5 Field Park Company:
6 Field Company: approximately 450 feet FBE.
7 Field Company: 8 Ducks, 6 Stormboats, 4 Fantails, 1 Class 40 raft.
8 Field Company: 8 Ducks, 3 Stormboats, 4 Fantails, 1 Class 9 raft.
The Po River in the New Zealand area, about 300 yards of deep water, posed something of the problems of an opposed seaborne landing. The enemy might have been able to re-form again in spite of all the havoc caused by the Air Force—horses dead and alive covered a wide area and all the impedimenta of a retreating army was piled in heaps along the stopbanks: men, animals and machinery killed by the rain of destruction from the air.page 707
The actual crossing was something of an anti-climax—the mighty waterway that could have been the scene of a bitterly opposed and hard-fought action remained undisturbed. Here is the operation as viewed by the war correspondent previously quoted:
‘po river bank, April 25—From where I stand the broad stretch of the river is seething with activity. Men and machines are streaming across in every type of river craft from assault boats to a huge tripartite Bailey raft. “Ducks” and amphibious troopcarriers ply a continuous ferry service, loaded to the gunwales with figures in battle dress. It is Anzac Day on the Po river. Here the river is at least 300 yards wide and the bank below me drops vertically into at least eight feet of water…. The banks on each side are littered with the wreckage of German barges, pontoons and planking. There are the remains of a wooden bridge just near by—a substantial structure which once led to a camouflaged road through trees to the other side. Downstream, at least one buttressed ferry landing is visible among the veils of camouflage nets.
‘A pontoon bridge grows visibly to the accompaniment of much poling and splashing which lends the scene almost the air of a river carnival. On this bank bulldozers grunt and clank on the approaches to the bridge over which will pass the main stream of the Division's traffic. The carnival atmosphere is added to by spectators on the bank—engineers waiting for more material to come up, and infantry waiting passage.
‘Up river moves a small powered assault boat in which stand the GOC, Lieut-General Sir B. C. Freyberg, VC, Brigadier Parkinson and Colonel Hanson.
‘Colonel Hanson and his men were prepared to go on with the job of bridging and ferrying even if the crossing had been opposed. It is a pleasant relief to them to work under such perfect conditions, as, even so, this river constitutes the greatest natural barrier encountered by our engineers in Italy. Now the work goes on with the clockwork precision of a manoeuvre.
‘All this has followed nearly two weeks of the fiercest fighting on the Italian front. There is no doubt about it now—to us there never was. The New Zealand Division was the spearhead in this battle of annihilation. Our troops were the first across the Senio, the Santerno, the Sillaro, the Gaiana, the Quaderna and the Idice. The New Zealand Division is one of the very few formations who went forward on the afternoon of the 9th and page 708 are still advancing without rest. Now the New Zealand Division has a new honour—that of being the first of the Eighth Army across the Po. That has been the easiest one of all.’
But to be more specific. During the eve of Anzac Day (24 – 25 April) 5 and 6 Brigades crossed the Po in assault boats without hindrance. Close behind the leading companies came the Ducks ferrying anti-tank guns, jeeps and mortars for local protection until tanks were available for the purpose.
Seventh Field Company unloaded the trucks, prepared the landing stages and then called up the Class 40 raft components—actually a Bailey bridge section on powered pontoons.
When assembled it was captained by Lieutenant Annabell, who free-ranged the first tank across the river at 10.30 a.m. There were four propulsion units to be co-ordinated and it was there that the training at Lido di Roma showed its value. Three tanks per hour were ferried across by this craft.
Fifth Field Park Company sent the Works Section along to lend a hand and they were employed on the far bank at the landing site.
On 6 Brigade's front 8 Field Company got the Fantails away and then began work on a close-support Class 9 raft which, when it was ready, No. 2 Platoon operated until dark, when No. 3 Platoon took over. No. 1 Platoon had in the meantime moved up river about a quarter of a mile and inspected the remains of an enemy heavy pontoon bridge. They built a new loading stage, salvaged a floating section from the pontoon bridge, and with the improvised raft commenced ferrying 20 Armoured Regiment tanks across. Four tanks and a dozer were safely transported when the raft, partly through becoming water-logged and partly through the falling tide, grounded on a sandbank about 3 a.m. on 26 April. This job, taking half a dozen lines to describe, took most of the day to get ready.
No. 2 Platoon then took over the salvage job, got the fifth tank off and replaced the section with another salvaged piece of pontoon bridge, but it was too badly holed and at midday joined the other fragment at the bottom of the river, upon which the project was abandoned.
Sixth Field Company jobs were to cut corduroy, assist with the approaches and put a folding-boat bridge across the Po between the other field company bridges. It was ready at 5.30 p.m.
The crush of traffic was terrific and it was days before all the Divisional vehicles were beyond the Po, but early in the morning page 709 of 26 April 5 and 6 Brigades were off again for the Adige River, 16 miles away, the second largest in Italy, and by nightfall were organised for another assault crossing.
Fifth Field Park Company took more attachments under command for the Adige River crossing: FBE from the Poles; 549 GT Company, RASC, carrying a Class 9 and Class 40 rafts; 239 GT RASC with Ducks and a detachment of ‘X’ Squadron with eight Fantails.
Seventh Field Company, responsible for the 5 Brigade axis, had a full and detailed programme for the Adige River crossing.
No. 1 Platoon had the job of bridging the Tartaro River at Canda. The foundations of a demolished bridge were used to build up crib piers but the site was not good and there was a lot of compressor work involved, and when it was finished in the early hours of the morning (27th) it was not very satisfactory. Twenty-eighth Assault Squadron later strengthened it.
No. 2 Platoon was called up to the Adige in the afternoon to work on tracks for Fantails and other river crossing equipment. The infantry crossed in assault boats about 8 p.m. and shortly afterwards anti-tank guns and other weapons were being ferried across to their support.
No. 3 Platoon was called out at 1 a.m. to build and operate a Class 40 raft and sent a guide to 5 Field Park for the equipment. The usual preliminary of setting out access tracks was put in hand on arrival, but rain starting at 2.30 a.m. made the tracks very sticky.
There were other complications too.
Eighth Field Company moved up on 6 Brigade axis under orders to find and make access for Fantails, Ducks and amphibious tanks, build a Class 40 raft and put across an FBE bridge. No. 3 Platoon got the attached crossing craft into the water on time, but when 1 Platoon arrived at the site chosen for its raft it found 7 Field Company in the same area and on the same job. The track was made and two pontoons unloaded when rain stopped further work. No. 2 Platoon prepared approaches for an FBE bridge and then found that there was no bridging material available for the site.
Sixth Field Company completed the confusion by arriving in the same area to put across an FBE bridge, but the Polish bridging train got lost and failed to appear. ‘Spent all night in a barn waiting for Polish bridging train to arrive. Heavy rain all night so not sorry really. No sleep for anybody.’page 710
The Poles had in the meantime been located by spotter aircraft in a neighbouring divisional sector and brought back to their correct destination. They arrived at 9 a.m. (27th) and work began forthwith, but owing to a mishap with a D6 which sank a half-floating bay, the bridge was not ready for use until mid-afternoon.
Seventh and 8th Field Companies started to construct their Class 40 rafts soon afterwards, 8 Field Company from a new site above a steel bridge smashed beyond repair by the RAF and still festooned with the bodies of Germans caught in the raid. ‘Teds are lying everywhere, heads off, arms off and generally messed up.’
Both ferries were ready between 8 and 9 p.m. and tanks crossed over at the rate of approximately four per hour. Seventh Company's raft worked on a wire cable but 8 Company's was operated by motors. On the first trip with a tank aboard one motor cut out and the fast current was too much for the remaining three. The ferry and tank finished up entangled in the ruins of the original bridge. The raft was extricated and the tank back on shore at 3 a.m., but no more motors were available and the raft was out of action until a ferrying cable could be obtained, which was not until first light on the 28th.
Ninth Brigade and 43 Gurkha Lorried Infantry Brigade had relieved 5 and 6 Brigades and were now miles away. Partisans in northern Italy had risen and the scattered German forces were faced with the unenviable position of having to fight the armed populace until their regular enemies turned up, or surrender to the Partisans to whom the Geneva Convention meant little. If the Partigiani had a grudge against anybody, German or Italian, or even just felt like shooting somebody, that was that.
It will therefore be understood that from now on enemy formations were encountered which were willing to surrender on demand or after having made a token resistance. Those that insisted on fighting were bypassed to cool down or to be rounded up by the Partisans.
On the sapper front such a brush occurred at Este, a few miles north of the Adige. Twenty-eighth Assault Squadron, having no suitable equipment for the fast-flowing river, had been resting until 9 Brigade took over, when the Squadron followed the tanks in close support. A brief action cost four casualties, only one serious. ‘A rush through from Este to Padua then commenced and Nos. 1 and 2 Troops went through with the tanks.’page 711
Sixth Field Company spent the 28th between the Adige and Este on road maintenance and then set off to find 9 Brigade. An almost non-stop night and day drive through the ecstatic countryside, with all bridges intact and roads fit for fast travelling although crowded to the point of distraction, brought the company into the 9 Brigade area at Porto Grandi, north of Venice, in the evening of the 29th. Seventh Field Company, less two platoons, moved with 5 Brigade. Nos. 2 and 3 Platoons worked the ferry on the Adige until a runner with a recall message sent them off hunting for the brigade, supposedly somewhere near Venice. Eighth Field Company operated its raft until relieved by an RE Company that evening (28th), when it moved with 6 Brigade to Este, where it rested for a couple of hours before pushing on to the River Sile. ‘The civilians gave the troops a warm welcome as they passed through the towns and villages and many wild looking partisans, armed to the teeth, were in evidence,’ was the entry in the Company war diary.
Lieutenant Begbie wrote of their reception in Padua:
‘What a welcome. I drove the Arm'd car through and you had to be careful you didn't run half a dozen people down every few feet. Flags were waving from every building (Royalist) and the folks were wild with joy. Kissing, cheering and hand shaking, they threw garlands of flowers and leaves all over us. Now we page 712 are jammed in a small suburb named Dolo and they are swarming all over our vehicles. Not 100 yards away a lone Ted is making his last stand in a house a little way off the road. The Partizans are firing back with automatic rifles. They're pretty merciless when they get them.’
At the same time that the 6 Brigade convoy was passing Mestre, a company of 22 Battalion (9 Brigade) was holding the portals of the Albergo Danieli, one of the leading hotels in Venice, against all comers. General Freyberg had decided that it would make a nice leave centre for his troops and had given orders that no soldier, Yank, Tommy or Italian, was to pass inside the front door. The Partisans had herded together and mounted guard over the survivors of the German garrison in Venice and were keeping a very careful watch for an excuse to liquidate some more of them.
Twenty-seventh Mechanical Equipment Company completed the approaches to the Adige River crossings and, after the transporters that had been left behind pending completion of the Bailey pontoon bridge on the Po had reported in, joined the rush to the Piave.
Twenty-eighth Assault Squadron was still with the armour, and 5 Field Park Company had got its vehicles to Padua.
At first light in the morning of the 30th, No. 2 Platoon, 6 Field Company, repaired and operated an enemy ferry on the Piave while the rest of the company stood by to build a folding-boat bridge as soon as the material arrived from Padua.
It was the last job for the Polish bridging train, and Major Malt took no risk of its getting lost a second time.
Work began at 5 p.m. and the 300-foot bridge was passing traffic at 9.30 p.m. Lieutenant Quinn was in command of this assignment, almost the last major bridging job of the campaign. His MC citation details his outstanding example in coolness and leadership from the Senio to the Piave.
Eighth Field Company moved into billets at Musile di Piave and commenced work on salvaging and strengthening enemy barges for use as floating piers for a Bailey bridge. The finished page 713 job consisted of five 50 ft single-single Bailey, two half-floating bays and three floating bays with four salvaged pontoons, two 84 feet and two 63 feet in length. The barges were strengthened by ‘tomming up’ from the bottom and by Bailey transoms placed across from gunwale to gunwale. Launching links were fitted between the bottom chords at the end of each spar and the top pin left out, thus giving the necessary articulation for difference in tide level and when weight came on the bridge.
Twenty-seventh Mechanical Equipment Company, besides grading a landing strip for observation planes, formed the ramps down to the river. The sappers carried on in pouring rain until midnight, by which time the dozer operators could not see their blades nor the carpenters their work.
No. 2 Platoon, snatching a few hours' sleep, was called out to repair a collapsed span on a bridge over a canal. They had first to retrieve a Staghound that had gone through the decking and caused the damage. There was comment regarding sporadic outbursts of firing well in the rear which was generally attributed to some ‘Teds’ being written off by the Partisans.
The general situation was that 9 Brigade was clearing up pockets of enemy, sometimes with and sometimes without a token resistance, and that the other brigades were scattered along a hundred miles of Italian highway, particularly between the Adige and the Piave. The two 7 Field Company platoons were still hunting for their unit headquarters and the 200-odd vehicles of 5 Field Park Company had got up from Padua to the vicinity of Porto Grandi. They were dispersed among the grape vines ready for an early start when 9 Brigade moved again.
A German coastal defence force approximately two battalions strong had decided to cut across the line of advance and march via Austria back to Germany. About midnight, while they were moving quietly and with no light showing, No. 3 Platoon of 7 Field Company ran into them. Almost before they knew what had happened, the leading trucks were captured and only Lieutenant Carnell41 and 21 sappers managed to get clear. The light from two burning 7 Field Company trucks disclosed the headquarters of 5 Field Park Company, which was also involved in the conflict. Six of their vehicles were soon on fire and twenty-eight surprised headquarters staff were taken prisoner.page 714
The uproar attracted immediate attention and the prisoners were released within a few hours with the tables completely turned, but the casualties in the fracas were:
5 Field Park Company—6 wounded and 3 attached other ranks killed.
7 Field Company—5 killed and 14 wounded.
Major Malt later wrote:
‘All Fd Pk was there, HQ alongside the road with unit behind them in the vineyards. We had a nasty few hours and were lucky to escape with no damage to vital bridging equipment. This scrap which was dash near the last one in the campaign came at the worst possible time for us because the unit had been in action continuously since the Senio and everybody was completely played out.’
Eighth Field Company recommenced work on their Bailey barge job at first light and knocked off at 10 p.m. with the jacking down and articulation of the span not completed.
‘With the war on its deathbed, the Division pressed north and east, along its last road, Route 14, skirting the head of the Adriatic Sea and leading to the port of Trieste. The last advance, 76 miles, was one long triumphal procession—flowers, kisses, wine, crowds half-mad with joy and affection. Ninth Brigade led the New Zealanders on this drizzling damp day of 1 May…. the Lancers and the armour pushed on, with 22 Battalion close behind, to a tremendous welcome in the large Italian shipbuilding town of Monfalcone, where partisans and Yugoslavs were holding processions in the main streets. The Italian flag was now giving way to the … red star of Tito's Yugoslavia.’ That was the limit of the day's advance.
Twenty-eighth Assault Squadron moved 18 miles in ten hours on 1 May and settled in the Town Hall at Musile di Piave.
Seventh Field Company moved on again with 5 Brigade that evening and thus recorded events in its war diary:
‘1 May 1720 hrs. Lined up and pulled in behind 5 Bde. Hell of a trip. Raining and very slow. Crossed Piave and had a fair run for a start but held up and pulled in to side of road at 0130.’
Fifth Field Park Company also travelled on through the night 1 – 2 May: ‘All-night move as traffic was nose to tail for whole page 715 distance. Bridge across Piave only taking 60 vehicles per hour, the whole move of 7 ½ miles took 8 ½ hours. Moved on again at 0830 got to new location ronchi.42 Good trip and good tar sealed roads.’
Eighth Field Company finished its bridge at 10 a.m. on the 2nd and packed up once more. ‘Moved at 1800 hrs to new billets at Ronchi at MR612927 arriving at 1900 hrs. According to civilian reports the enemy in Italy has today unconditionally surrendered but we have no official word of this,’ the Company war diary notes languidly.
‘2 May 0600 hrs. Started off again and made San Georgia by 1200 hrs. Living in a casa in town. Nothing doing all day. Heard on wireless that Hitler had had it.’
Corporal Thornton's diary describes the last hours of World War II for the New Zealand sappers as represented by No. 1 Platoon of 6 Field Company:
‘All day in one tightly packed convoy trying to get to Trieste. Sundry “Teds” had to be mopped up first though. Our platoon sniped at on outskirts and eventually passed into town just after dark—first Engineers into Trieste. My section removed tons of explosive from demolition chambers of a new reinforced concrete bridge near Monfalcone. Last forward sapper job of the war in the 8th Army! Platoon billeted in Grand City Hotel on waterfront. A whole battalion crammed in as well. Considerable trouble between Marshal Tito of the Jugoslav Partisans and the factions in Trieste as well as the NZers. Ray Mc (pl comdr) told me all resistance in Italy had ceased that day.’
The information was true enough. Colonel-General von Vietinghoff, German Commander-in-Chief, South-West Command, and Commander in Chief of Army Group ‘C’, had surrendered unconditionally and signed an instrument which provided for the cessation of hostilities at twelve o'clock noon GMT on 2 May 1945.page 716
It is fitting that the final paragraphs of this chapter should be written by the CRE 2 New Zealand Division:
‘I would like our history to include a word of praise for Corps and Army Engineers with their attached RASC bridge carrying sections. They had no easy task in moving bridging dumps forward to keep us supplied in the Divisional area and then the Construction Coys had no 40 hour week job in building Line of Communication bridges of a more permanent nature to ensure that ammunition and supplies went forward without delay to the fighting Divs. We must remember that 2 NZ Div. fought its way over rivers, canals and demolitions at a terrific pace and the poor old L of C Engineers, including attached American Engineer units, had to keep up; assault bridges are not meant to carry full maintenance supplies.
‘We often cursed when the Corps bridging supplies were not up but at the same time I realise full well what a fine achievement was theirs. Difficulty was sometimes encountered with Polish and Indian bridging trains owing to language difficulties. In our hurry we did not always understand each other as precisely as was really necessary and then plans would not always go right. Let us say “well done” to our supporting Engineers and bridging trains.’
7 The Senio operations were in fact the last in which artificial moonlight was provided for the New Zealand sappers. It is probable that the thrust was so quick and sustained that it was not possible to move the searchlights to conform with the advance. It is, however, a point to be remembered should the necessity ever again arise.
15 Sgt Sinclair was awarded the MM for gallant example and devotion to duty while lifting mines and clearing a road passage to the FDLs.
39 Lt S. J. Mathews, m.i.d.; Henderson; born Cook Is., 15 Feb 1916; poultry and fruit farmer.