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Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy

Attack on Gothic Line

Attack on Gothic Line

At this time the Germans were defending the Gothic Line, a formidable defensive system in considerable depth, embracing the entire breadth of the belt of interlocking ranges of the Apennines across Italy. The eastern sector ran along the Foglia River and was anchored at the Adriatic town of Pesaro. While the main mountain ranges stopped short of the coast, high foothills running almost to the sea provided excellent defence positions. Once an attacking army won past Rimini, 20 miles up the coast from Pesaro, it was thought that the Gothic Line defence system would be turned. It was expected that once the Eighth Army entered the Po Valley it would be able to exploit rapidly across the plain. Optimism at the ability to force the pace was to be sadly disappointed. Rivers and extensive canalisation north of Rimini continually hampered progress. Instead of making the expected rapid advance, Eighth Army entered upon a long and discouraging period of nearly four months' fighting, crossing numerous river obstacles in winter weather in operations that can best be described as the ‘battles of the rivers’. The operations did, however, tie down German forces that might otherwise have been used to help oppose the Allied advance in Western Europe.

Eighth Army began its attack towards the Gothic Line on the night of 25 August, and by the end of the month it was breaking into the defence system along the Foglia River. Pesaro fell to the Poles on 2 September. Canadian and British troops continued the advance on the narrow coastal strip and farther inland. On 10 September 2 NZ Division came under command of 1 Canadian Corps for an operation which it was hoped to make a mobile one of break-through and exploitation.

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Eighth Army pushed on until it was held up at the San Fortunato Ridge, which dominated Rimini and commanded the eastern entrance to the Po Valley. After heavy fighting, the ridge fell to the Canadian Corps on 20 September, and the next day Greek and supporting New Zealand troops entered Rimini and the Canadians crossed the Marecchia River to enter the Po Valley. At this stage 5 Brigade came up to pass through the Canadian bridgehead and continue the advance towards Ravenna, while 4 Armoured Brigade was also committed on the narrow coastal strip between Route 16 and the sea. As ADS to 5 Brigade, A Company, 5 Field Ambulance, set up in a small stable just south of Rimini on the 20th and admitted a large number of wounded on the 22nd, during which day its area was shelled and a jeep driver wounded.

On the 23rd 6 Brigade took up the attack, and A Company, 6 Field Ambulance, had reached a field just south of Rimini in the afternoon. A few shells landed among nearby olive trees at nightfall. Another screeched past into a hedge. Then one burst with a sizzle and a shattering explosion in a ploughed strip at the edge of the field, and the unpleasant humming of splinters started a rush to transfer bedrolls to the irrigation ditches. The shelling continued for about an hour, and inevitably, with the concentration of units in the vicinity, men were wounded. The ADS reception section set up and admitted and treated 25 casualties.

The night that followed was bitterly cold, and the blankets were drenched with dew when, at 5.30 a.m., one of the men went rushing along the ditches, prodding and shaking the men and imparting the dismal news that they had to be up and mounted and ready for an immediate move. Soon lethargic figures were groping around in the dim grey light of approaching dawn, packing gear and clambering on to the trucks, where they waited, with occasional descents to stamp up and down to warm their feet, until a welcome ‘Come and get it’ rang out from the cooks' truck. After breakfast there was more waiting around, the company finally moving off at midday.

Meanwhile, 6 Brigade was advancing. A Company, 6 Field Ambulance, passed through the outskirts of Rimini and set up the full ADS in the local cemetery, a mile or so north of the town. A typical Italian cemetery, it was completely walled in and crammed with graves, each bearing a porcelain photograph of the occupant. Some of the graves and the coffin receptacles that lined the walls page 387 had been blown open by direct hits, and the smell of old corpses hung in the air. However, it was sheltered and warm, and the men contentedly erected their bivouac tents among the tombstones.

Casualties were coming back from the battalions, and during the afternoon and evening of the 23rd the ADS admitted 55. Most of them were frankly startled on being hauled from an ambulance car into a moonlit cemetery.

At 7.45 p.m. on the 24th, 6 Brigade delivered a heavy attack that carried it on to the crossroads at Bordonchio, seven miles to the north. Men lined the tops of the cemetery walls to watch the guns, a long, flashing line in the darkness to the rear, as they poured out the barrage. The infantry advanced against formidable difficulties. The enemy laid down heavy shellfire along the whole front, and his troops occupied and fortified every house. Nearly 200 wounded were carried back to the ADS during the 24th and 25th.

During the 26th troops of 6 Brigade reached and crossed the Uso (Cæsar's Rubicon); the Germans had withdrawn from Bellaria, a small seaside town beyond. Part of A Company moved forward up Route 16 to establish the ADS a mile south of Bordonchio. The bleak, muddy patch of ground was by no means a pleasant change from the grassy, sheltered, albeit somewhat odorous cemetery. The only house was badly damaged and polluted by cattle, which the Germans had taken into the lower rooms and slaughtered. Later in the day the carcases were towed away by a jeep, and after being thoroughly cleaned some of the upper rooms made fairly good billets. Most of the men, however, erected bivouac tents in the open or burrowed into a couple of nearby haystacks.

The ADS was now in the vicinity of the RAPs, and casualties were frequently carried in direct from the field, without any preliminary treatment. Civilian casualties were often accompanied by tearful relatives, desperately pleading for information about their destination from busy orderlies, who had not the faintest idea what it would be.

A continuous stream of refugees passed along the road. Some were astonishingly cheerful; but the majority, naturally enough, looked wretched and hopeless. Young mothers carried babies and helped aged parents. Older mothers urged on their reluctant children. All were burdened by such belongings as they could carry. page 388 One family of albinos passed, completely fed up and squinting helplessly.

The 27th brought wind and rain, which continued throughout the following two days. The refugees, looking up uneasily as shells from the heavy and medium guns to the rear roared over into the German positions, still plodded southward through driving squalls that frequently blotted out the flat, desolate landscape.

Occasionally the road came under fire, the bursting shells sending up fountains of earth and mud, while the ground, soaked by the heavy rain, became a sea of ooze wherever transport moved off the hard road surface. Large areas were flooded completely.

During the evening and night of the 28th, a series of particularly strong gusts of wind flattened many of the bivouac tents and half-flooded the slit trenches beneath. The evacuation section struggled with the thrashing tarpaulin, and tried to anchor the ropes with slabs of masonry where the pegs persistently dragged out of the soggy ground. Fortunately, the situation was under control when a party of wounded Tommies was carried in. One, with a penetrating shrapnel wound in the head, heaved himself aimlessly about like a stranded fish until quietened by an injection of morphia.