CHAPTER 18 — The Last Campaign
The Last Campaign
AFTER some weeks in a static role on the Senio, men wanted leave and relaxation, but Colonel Thomas made it very clear that the return to Camerino was primarily to give the battalion time for solid training. The journey back was over well-known roads and the companies were soon accommodated in the same houses as on their previous stay in Camerino and Mecciano. The local Italians gave a warm welcome to their old friends; several of the women appeared in their ‘Sunday best’ and the exchanges of hospitality were both numerous and generous.
After two days on light duties preparing billets and improving roads, the battalion settled down to hard training, with a fresh emphasis on discipline and efficiency. First priority was given to the NCOs' ‘School’ in which seventy-four of the 23rd's NCOs were given a ten-days' concentrated course of instruction by Major McArthur and his staff—WO I W. J. Tait, WO IIs L. J. Lang1 and N. D. J. Reed,2 Second-Lieutenants J. R. McIntosh and D. P. Corrigan,3 and, for the latter half of the course, Lieutenants J. Smail4 and F. J. Miles.5 After the usual speedy revision of the routine phases of infantry training, the ‘School’ concentrated on problems of the attack in preparation for the push to the Po. Similarly, after some tough route marches and other hardening exercises such as the climbing of Monte Primo, the rest of the battalion concentrated on weapon training, live shoots, river crossings, co-operation with tanks, tank-hunting and night manoeuvres. For many of the new reinforcements, there was an element of freshness about much of this training, and, for all, there was the certainty that what they practised in March they would perform as ‘the real thing’ in April.page 435
The stress laid on training during this period meant that organised entertainments were on a more limited scale than in earlier periods out of the line. Nevertheless, visits from the YMCA Mobile Cinema, ENSA and Italian orchestral concerts, and dances such as the one organised for the troops by the Communist Party of Camerino, helped to keep the men from going stale. When there was no night training, most men found pleasant distractions from the more serious business of army life in the homes of their Italian friends. C Company's diary for March 1945 states: ‘The hospitality of the local inhabitants greatly compensated for the lack of entertainment and many were the invitations extended to the men of our Coy to visit their homes. This, together with the many touching scenes on our leaving the area, was conclusive evidence of the excellent behaviour of the troops during the stay and of the esteem in which they were held by the people of the district’.
During this period, the Battalion Headquarters officers’ mess was established in the Poggio Maddalena, the country mansion of the Marquise Zucconi. On the occasion of a memorable dinner to General Kippenberger, and again at a lunch for Mr W. J. Jordan, New Zealand High Commissioner in London, the Marquessa placed at the disposal of the officers her dining room, crystal, linen, cutlery and crockery, and even assisted with the floral decorations. General Kippenberger greatly assisted the Colonel in his efforts to bring the battalion up to the highest pitch of enthusiasm for the coming battles by speaking of the unit's past history, of the grand characters he had known in it—Reg Romans, Peter Norris, Ted Thomson, Herbie Black and others—of the fine team spirit that had always animated the 23rd, and of the fact that he had never known it fail to take its objective. Such an address from such a man was a tonic to all who heard it.
On 18 March Padre Harding conducted a most impressive memorial service for the members of the battalion who had lost their lives in the recent fighting. On 23 March General Kippenberger took the salute at a full-dress rehearsal for the GOC's parade which was held on the following day. Lieutenant-General McCreery, the Eighth Army Commander, and General Freyberg inspected the battalions of 5 Brigade on the latter occasion. General Freyberg told the CO later that he was most impressed by ‘your magnificent, truly magnificent 23rd Battalion.’page 436
Colonel Thomas's private diary for this month demonstrates that the efforts to build up the martial qualities and to inculcate afresh the team spirit for which the unit had been famous were markedly successful. It also shows something of the spirit which stirred the commander himself, and through him the officers and the men who came under his influence and leadership.
‘19/3/45. On Saturday morning I took the marching-out ceremony for the NCO school and was so impressed with their change in ten days that I could hardly speak to them. The Brigadier was present and inspected them—said they were up to OCTU standard. They really have put their hearts into it…22/3/45. This morning I have been round the companies, inspecting ‘A’ in detail and watching ‘C’ at range practice. The Battalion is in wonderful fettle, the discipline is as good as ever it was and the spirit is old 23 through and through. And to think I once had a terrible apprehension about commanding a battalion—why there is nothing more exhilarating in the whole world! Everything works smoothly, we have a grand team and I am the captain. And I am truly content and grateful. 25/3/45. Yes! I think this month must be one of the happiest of my military life. Everything is going so very well…. the big parade was taken by the commander of the Eighth Army, Genl. McCreery. Ah, but the boys were grand, steady as rocks. Heavens! I was proud of them. Everyone came forward and congratulated me on the 23rd's turn-out. Kipp in his quiet way, and dear old Kipp is never effusive, said: “I'm proud of you, my boy. Old Reg would have loved to have seen the Battalion today”. So you can see I am really extremely happy.’
Parades, football matches and other engagements all passed into history as the time drew near for the 23rd to live up to the praise given its efficiency and other qualities. On 30 March the CO gave his company commanders their orders for the move up to Forli, which was to precede joining in the grand attack on the Senio. Securing surprise as to both the time and place of this big set-piece attack was highly important, and therefore various refinements of the normal security precautions were introduced: although the departure of the advance party no doubt raised suspicions, the men were not told of the real nature of the move until the 9 a.m. church parade on 1 April, the day on which the move began at 5 p.m. The men were urged to tell their Italian friends in the interests of security what they themselves had previously been told, namely, that they were merely leaving on extended manoeuvres. All company page 437 signboards and other evidences of an intention to return were left in the area to be removed some days later by the rear party. New Zealand badges and titles were not removed until the convoy was a considerable distance from Camerino, when the vehicle fernleaf signs were replaced by the quite different ‘H’ signs and serial numbers of the ‘Howe’ Division. With these stratagems giving an indication of the importance of the occasion, the battalion returned to the Forli area on 2 April.
Several officers and senior NCOs had left the unit to take overdue furlough in New Zealand or to take appointments with the Prisoner-of-war Repatriation Unit in England.6 The gaps were speedily filled and all the company commanders for the forthcoming attack were experienced and well known in the unit. They were Captain Duncan (HQ Company), Major Harrison, later replaced by Lieutenant E. Taylor (Support), Major Marett (A), Major McArthur (B), Major Emery (C), and Major Cox (D).
The strategic situation on the Senio had scarcely changed since the New Zealanders had last been in the line in early March. The Germans still had twenty-five divisions in Italy, which showed that the long uphill struggle of the Allied forces there had served a useful purpose. Five of these divisions were on the Senio, with 98 Division opposite the sector taken over by the New Zealand Division. The Eighth Army intention was to destroy the enemy forces south of the Po and thus prevent their manning the fortress area in southern Germany. By this time, the Germans had been deserted by their best ally, winter, a force which in January and February had provided conditions highly advantageous to the defending forces, especially on the river lines. Now it was the drier period of spring: in place of mud, tanks would encounter dusty roads and green fields with firm, hard ‘going’; the level of the water in many rivers and canals had dropped to depths easily manageable by infantry on foot. No longer was there any serious danger of seasonal rains which might hold up an advance.page 438
The Eighth Army plan was to attack on a three-divisional front with 8 Indian Division on the right, 2 New Zealand Division in the centre, and 5 Kresowa (Polish) Division on the left. Beyond the Senio lay the even more strongly defended (it was understood) Santerno, and then the Sillaro, Idice, Reno and Po rivers. The first attack was designed to take the leading troops across the Senio, to establish a bridgehead over the Santerno and to begin the advance northwards. In the New Zealand Division, the first phase of the attack was to be made with two brigades forward, the 5th on the right and the 6th on the left, and the comparatively new 9 Brigade in reserve.7 In 5 Brigade, now under Brigadier I. L. Bonifant,8 the assaulting units in this first phase were to be the 21st, on the right, and the 28th, on the left, with the 23rd in reserve.
As a consequence of this plan, the 21st and 28th went straight into the line while the 23rd remained back. During the week of waiting for D-day, the 23rd was therefore able to practise various methods of assaulting enemy positions in and behind river stop-banks. In particular, it tried out ways and means of destroying wire entanglements with bangalore torpedoes and by tearing them down with the aid of light anchors or grappling irons dragged by tanks. Of some importance to other units was the 23rd's experiment in constructing and using ramps from which Wasp and Crocodile flame-throwers were able to shoot their flames across a stopbank. So impressed was General Freyberg by the demonstration that the battalion's Wasps staged on the Lamone that he asked that it should be repeated two days later for the benefit of officers from other units. At the repeat performance—to quote Corporal Somerville—‘the place was lousy with Generals and Brigadiers and it was a really impressive sight and awesome to the imagination if one considered himself on the receiving end of the jet of fire.’ The Churchill Crocodiles belonged to an English unit, the commander of which made a wisecrack at the expense of some Support Company men who were struggling with a bogged Wasp: ‘I fail to see how you can keep up your adjectives and your identity as “H Div” too.’
On Sunday 8 April the orders for what was rightly termed ‘the biggest attack ever to be launched in Italy’ were passed down to the men, but the date of D-day was not revealed. Padre page 439 Harding celebrated Holy Communion at 7.30 a.m. and held another church service later in the day. Padre Callaghan conducted a service, with Mass, for Roman Catholics in the early afternoon. Officers of supporting arms attended a co-ordinating conference at Battalion Headquarters and completed plans for co-operation in the different phases of the attack. They included Major Caughley9 and Captain Thomson10 from 5 Field Regiment, Major W. Ryan11 from A Squadron 18 Armoured Regiment, Major Henton12 and Lieutenant Steel13 of 32 Anti-Tank Battery, and Captain Paddison14 of the 4.2-inch Mortar Battery. So far as preparations for the attack and for all possible contingencies such as routes forward, priorities for vehicles, supplies of ammunition, evacuation of the wounded and the like were concerned, they were as complete as human ingenuity and long experience in battle procedure could make them. The result was a general air of expectancy and confidence which recaptured the atmosphere on the eve of Alamein. But this time, the superiority of Allied equipment, air support, artillery and tanks, was more marked than ever before. The men knew that some 1640 aircraft, from Flying Fortresses and Liberators to modern fighters, were to be used on the 5 Corps front. With wisdom bought at Cassino, the commanders had decided to use 20-pound fragmentation bombs which would do maximum damage to communications, vehicles and enemy morale without cratering roads or creating other problems for the advancing troops. Nearly 2000 tons of these bombs were to be dropped. The 356 guns on the New Zealand front were to fire 140,000 shells in the initial bombardment and just as many in the subsequent advance. Immediately after the artillery barrage lifted from the Senio line, the Wasps and Crocodiles were to dash forward and flame the far banks.
Typical of the fighting soldier's outlook on the eve of the great push are the entries for 8 April in Lance-Corporal J. McDowall's diary: ‘Went to church. Good service. Major gave us the griff after dinner. Fullscale show—1640 aircraft and the page 440 biggest concentration of guns in the war. They hope to break him. 21 & 28 go so far over the Senio and then 23 Bn takes over from 21. If all goes well, we should have a good time. This should be the last big push in Italy. Pray God everything goes according to plan. Received snaps from Mum. Great looking at them. Snaps are a great tonic, also airletter from Mum and one from May. Busy getting weapons and ammo ready.’
Had morale not been high on this occasion, no excuse could have been offered. The men had been rested out of the line. They were fully and efficiently trained and magnificently equipped. They were taking the offensive again with the odds very much in their favour. All the war news was good: 7 Armoured Division, veterans of the mobile war in the desert, were approaching Bremen and the Russians were also pressing forward into Germany. C Company's diary gives the best contemporary impression of the sanguine outlook of the 23rd. ‘Everyone felt extremely confident. Morale was high with the sight of the huge piles of ammunition, the densely populated gun-lines, and the daily moving up of more and more equipment. The OC attended a conference at Div HQ at which the GOC outlined the OP [operation] order for the initial phase of the attack. The Coy's spirits and confidence were even more increased when they heard of the colossal support, both from the air and the ground, that they were going to receive, when they made the assault.’
Early on 9 April came the word, confirming what every man really expected, that this was D-day. At 9 a.m. all the 23rd companies moved forward and dug in immediately behind the attacking units of 5 Brigade. Final orders were given: B Company was detailed to protect the brigade's right flank after the forward units had crossed the Canale di Lugo if protection were required; if the CO became a casualty, Major McArthur was to take command until the arrival of Major Grant, the second-in-command. During the wait for the aerial armada to come over, Colonel Thomas, Padre Harding, Lieutenant Burtt, and Second-Lieutenant Pat Gresson (Intelligence Officer) visited all the companies. Thomas noted later: ‘We visited each small group in each platoon and gauged their spirit. I had never seen them better. They knew the coming show was well jacked up, the support terrific. I felt extraordinarily proud of them and their spirit, and experienced a thrill of achievement, to see how effective the hard training, discipline and the NCO school had been.’ The unit diary described the same spirit in fewer words: ‘Everyone in grand heart and “rarin’ to go”.’page 441
At 1.50 p.m. the bombing programme began. For an hour and a half, the heavy bombers pounded the area between the Canale di Lugo and the Santerno. Then the fighter-bombers attacked the nearer area from the Senio to the Lugo. At 3.20 p.m. the artillery bombardment opened. From then till 7.20 p.m., with five ten-minute breaks during which the fighter-bombers engaged the enemy, the bombardment continued. After the flamethrowers had done their work, the attacking infantry began to cross the Senio. By this time, the front was clouded with smoke and the spring freshness of the air destroyed by the acrid smell of cordite and burning oil. Waiting in reserve increased the tension for some, but shortly after 9.30 p.m. the first bedraggled and bomb-shocked prisoners began to arrive at the forward collecting post established at the 23rd's headquarters. Knowing their turn was near, most members of the battalion tried to snatch some sleep before morning.
Only at 4 a.m. on 10 April did the 23rd move forward. The rate of advance was slow on account of the crush of vehicles on the road and using the bridge the engineers had already constructed over the Senio. This did not matter as the orders given had categorically insisted that units should not advance beyond the Lugo until after 12.30 p.m. on 10 April because the heavy bombers would be employed in softening up the enemy defences on the Santerno up to that hour. As it moved up to its reserve position behind the 21st, A Company took ten prisoners from positions that had been by-passed. The 21st was held up just after midday and, according to plan, the 23rd passed through the Auckland companies at 2 p.m.
Coionel Thomas's account of his reconnaissance forward, prior to launching his companies into battle, is noteworthy for its tribute to two of his men. ‘Pat Gresson and I moved forward to see how the battle was progressing. The driver of my jeep I have had since the Florence days, Pte. Gordon McKenzie,15 a fearless and willing Scotsman to whom nothing however dangerous is a trouble. When I leave the jeep and go on foot because of the danger, Mac without a question follows with his tommy gun. The other lad is Stan Gilchrist,16 already recommended for gallantry with a rifle coy, who operates the two wireless sets on the jeep—the 48 set to the companies and the page 442 22 set to Brigade HQ. Stan has not been with us long but it only takes the first day of action to know he is the goods. He just doesn't know fear.’
Conforming with the Maoris on their left, the 23rd attacked at 2.30 p.m., with two companies—D on the right and A on the left—forward. Keeping about 400 yards in rear of the forward companies, B and C Companies began their advance a little later. The bridges over the Lugo had been blown but the canal was not a serious obstacle to tanks. But one tank was knocked out as it began to cross. Colonel Thomas therefore page 443 arranged for the supporting artillery and the tanks with the 21st to fire and cover the crossing of the remaining tanks. This small operation went well and the 23rd, with the tanks of A Squadron 18 Armoured Regiment, managed to reach the Scolo Tratturo without much trouble. Here, however, both companies came up against determined opposition. D's leading platoons, 16 and 17, were pinned down by Spandau and mortar fire, most of which came from the right of the railway embankment. No. 18 Platoon, from farther back, engaged the enemy with Brens and Piats used as mortars and thus enabled the leaders to take cover. Major Cox organised supporting fire, and about 4.30 p.m. D Company launched a determined assault on the enemy strong-point and succeeded in reducing it. The leading sections killed some of the enemy and took six prisoners.
In the meantime, A Company, with 7 and 9 Platoons forward, had come under tank and small-arms fire against which no progress could be made over the particularly open ground in front of them. Mortar fire caused 8 Platoon, in reserve, five casualties, including Lieutenant Rodley17 wounded. Major Marett now tried to continue the advance with the help of the tanks, but no sooner did the leading tank try to cross the canal than it was knocked out by a direct hit and effectively blocked the crossing. Marett and his Company Sergeant-Major, ‘Toby’ Thomas, reconnoitred the front and found little opposition on the extreme left flank. Colonel Thomas decided to act on this information and to by-pass the enemy strongpoint. Another item of news which persuaded him that to advance on the left would be the wisest policy was secured from one of D Company's prisoners. This man stated that a Tiger tank was concealed behind two houses on A's immediate front. The plan now decided upon provided for D Company to move forward along the railway embankment while A executed a wide left-hook which would bring it back to its axis of advance some distance behind the enemy strongpoint. Both companies began their advance at 9.30 p.m., after the artillery and heavy mortars had softened up the area to be crossed. A Company made contact with the Maoris on the left and then advanced as planned until it ran into a minefield about 200 yards short of the Santerno. Further reconnaissance showed that the enemy covered this minefield with Spandau fire. A's leaders were able, however, to locate and mark a gap in the field. D Company also made good progress and was able to occupy houses just short of the river.page 444
The reserve companies were now ordered forward. C went to support A but attempted to clear the strongpoint en route. After something of a fight, in which Private Reed18 displayed conspicuous courage in charging an enemy post, C Company left the enemy to their fate and followed A's route round to the left. The enemy put up a series of flares, some of which called down DF artillery fire, but as this fell harmlessly some distance to the rear of the battalion, it merely caused amusement. Next morning, finding themselves by-passed and cut off, the Germans in this strongpoint, over thirty in number, surrendered under the white flag, some to the 21st and some to the anti-tank platoon of the 23rd. B Company had little difficulty in following D, especially as the railway line marked its right flank. Both B and C Companies took up reserve positions immediately to the rear of D and A. The rest of the night was spent in getting the supporting tanks forward to the companies and in ‘marrying them up’. On what had been something, if little, more than an approach march to the Santerno, the 23rd had taken 60 prisoners for the loss of 2 killed and 10 wounded.
In preparation for crossing the Santerno, Colonel Thomas sent out patrols in the early morning of 11 April. Sergeant Eric Michie19 of 16 Platoon led the most daring and the most successful of these patrols. Indeed, his was the only one to penetrate the minefields, reach the river and come back with information vital to the planning of the operations of the next twenty-four hours. Michie himself reconnoitred the river and the far stopbank despite the fact that the Germans were periodically mortaring and machine-gunning the area. So severe was their fire at most places along the near bank that other patrols were forced to report their inability to reach the river.
The day of 11 April was spent in completing preparations for the attack which was to go in at one o'clock the next morning. Most of the men rested in houses, some of which had to be cleared of enemy, with the result that the 23rd took forty-seven prisoners for the day. Around 6 p.m. A Company patrols to the river cleared some Spandau posts on their left front. This apparently insignificant success was of more importance than was at first appreciated. These particular posts had been pinning down the Maoris farther to the left and holding up their advance. Now the Maoris probed forward, found a stretch of page 445 the river free of mines, and not only crossed in strength but also got two anti-tank guns up to ensure holding this bridgehead. Colonel Awatere20 rang the 23rd to thank it for its assistance and to notify it of the position of his men. Colonel Thomas reciprocated by thanking the Maoris for establishing the bridgehead over the Santerno, which he now proposed to use to get two of his companies across without the risks and casualties which would almost certainly attend a frontal assault on a defended stopbank.
Accordingly, at 8 p.m., the CO instructed C Company to cross the Santerno via the Maori bridgehead, to wheel right and cross the railway embankment. Then, with the aid of the tanks it was hoped to get up to it, the company was to take a group of houses outside the village of San Agata, an important part of its objective. The CO planned to pass A Company with tanks through in the rear of C and swing in behind San Agata with these two companies while D Company engaged the enemy with a limited frontal assault. The plan was more easily formed than executed.
As C Company approached the river, the enemy shelled the crossing where the engineers were constructing a bridge and the company had two men wounded. From Major Reedy,21 the right-flank Maori company commander, Major Emery discovered that the enemy had swung his defences at right angles to the river and appeared to be holding the line of the railway embankment. Accordingly, he attacked towards the railway with 14 Platoon, under Lieutenant Mosley,22 and 15 Platoon, under Lieutenant Robb,23 while sending 13 Platoon, under Lieutenant Eric Holland, to clear the stopbank of the Santerno as far as the point where the railway crossed the river. Nos. 14 and 15 Platoons pressed home their attack, killing a number of Germans in the process. They proceeded to dig in on the embankment, with the enemy holding firmly on the far side at some places. No. 13 Platoon quickly completed its task on the stopbank and was now directed to attack and capture the railway station. This it did against light opposition, only one page 446 prisoner being taken. The railway station was now held as a firm base for further operations and as a rendezvous for the tanks.
The situation along the embankment was confused for some time. At some points there were lively exchanges, with grenades being thrown by both sides at short range, and tommy guns and pistols were in constant use. At one point, Corporal Charles Monaghan, one of the coolest men in the company, led his section against a trouble spot, crawled up the embankment and pushed, rather than threw, grenades almost into the faces of the enemy. Those Germans not killed withdrew and a 14 Platoon party found a house near the station unoccupied, although the enemy was obviously holding on both sides of the embankment farther along towards Massa Lombarda.
On his radio, Major Emery inquired from Battalion Headquarters as to the progress of the tanks and whether or not he should attack San Agata. The CO ruled that this attack should not be launched until the supporting tanks were up with the infantry. Emery was in the very act of reporting ‘sector quieter now’ when two hand or rifle grenades landed at his feet, literally blowing his operator, Corporal Bluett,24 over and indicating that the ‘quietness’ was only relative. This ended radio contact with Battalion Headquarters for the night.
Major Emery and his Company Sergeant-Major, WO II ‘Andy’ Allan,25 a man whose sterling qualities had long been a source of quiet inspiration to the company, now proceeded to tidy up the situation on the railway embankment and to prepare for the attack on San Agata. Lieutenant Holland was sent to find a suitable crossing of the embankment for tanks and then to bring up the tanks. Nos. 14 and 15 Platoons, meanwhile, tried to dislodge all enemy posts from the embankment.
No. 15 Platoon crossed the embankment in pursuit of an enemy section but ran into a much larger party of enemy. ‘Halt! Who goes there?’, called Lieutenant Robb, somewhat to the amazement of his older soldiers. The reply was a hail of bullets which sent 15 Platoon to ground. The enemy was apparently reacting strongly to the threat offered by the establishment of the expanding Maori and 23rd bridgehead and was reinforcing with fresh troops.page 447
Then followed one of those incidents which, even if of no particular military importance, live on in soldiers' memories simply because of their dramatic character. As the enemy fire thickened, Major Emery stood on the top of the embankment, careless of bullets and disregarding the fact that he was clearly silhouetted with the artificial moonlight behind him. Waving his walking-stick, he shouted, ‘Surround them, Mr. Robb! Surround them!’ Catching something of the spirit of his company commander, Lieutenant Robb took up the call and shouted out, ‘Righto chaps! Surround them!’ A few men moved out to the flanks and exchanged further shots with the enemy but, as the opposition appeared to be formidable, no very serious attempt was made to complete the encircling process.
Soon after Major Emery had shouted a third time, ‘Surround them, Mr. Robb!’, a Tiger tank nosed its way round the corner of a house and began to advance towards the 15 Platoon men. ‘Whose tank is that, Major Emery?’ inquired Robb. The fearless major, probably by this time more hopeful than certain, replied, ‘One of ours, Mr. Robb! Carry on! Carry on! Surround them!’ But, as the tank opened fire, and as they had already exhausted their supply of Piat bombs, the 15 Platoon men decided that the reverse slope of the embankment was the only safe place for them and they made a dash for safety. As they approached the embankment, their intrepid commander waved his stick again, shouted, ‘Back, C Company! Back!’ and pointed to the enemy.
No great damage had been done by the enemy fire. The darkness had saved 15 Platoon. Although it was clear that little progress could be made without tank support, Emery was in no way daunted or discouraged as he joined his men on the reverse slope. That the spirits of the men were not seriously lowered may be briefly illustrated. In a nearby ditch, Private Doug Smith26 was chuckling away. His neighbour asked, ‘What's the joke?’ and Smith replied: ‘I'm just laughing at old Tuan—how when he was telling us of the thousands of aircraft and hundreds of guns that were going to support our attack, he said, “And if there are any enemy left, we'll bloody well annihilate them”, and how when he was telling us how we were to attack down the river instead of across it, he said, “We'll roll the enemy up like a carpet”. This is how we're doing it.’
Meanwhile, 14 Platoon had also struck trouble. A large party of enemy had tried to cut the men off from the embankment page 448 when they advanced from it. Lieutenant Mosley's men engaged this party in a fire fight which lasted for several minutes before the enemy withdrew. No. 14 Platoon now rejoined Company Headquarters and 15 Platoon on the embankment.
About 1 a.m. on 12 April, in the absence of radio communications, Second-Lieutenant McIntosh arrived at C Company headquarters with a message from the CO concerning the attack to be made by the other companies with the tanks. Half an hour or so later, A Company arrived on the scene. In crossing the Santerno, Major Marett left 9 Platoon behind to provide infantry protection for the tanks of D Company when they crossed by the Bailey bridge and had to be escorted down the river to the point where D made its crossing on foot. This platoon had to wait some time at the bridge and then found it impossible to get the tanks over the railway embankment. A bulldozer was required to clear a track but none was available for some hours.
In the meantime, 7 and 8 Platoons and C Company again tried to clear the enemy from those points on the embankment they still occupied. The A Company men moved out to the left to take some houses on the road which ran under the railway line and on to San Agata. Partly as a result of the sound leadership and great determination shown by Sergeant James Russell,27 they managed to kill or drive back the first enemy they met. Weight of fire forced them to halt at the first of the houses captured and later Major Marett pulled his men back to rejoin C Company.
Lieutenant Holland had been unable to find any crossing for tanks over the embankment and it seemed that the subway or tunnel under the railway line would have to be used. Nos. 14 and 15 Platoons, with several exchanges of fire with the enemy, managed to reach the subway just before dawn. En route, Privates Sowman28 and Ramsay fired their Piats from the top of the embankment at the enemy tanks and Lance-Corporal Cliff Vaux29 led his section in a vigorous local counter-attack.
One of the A Squadron tanks approached the subway but was knocked out by a direct hit. This showed only too clearly that a Tiger tank was covering this route through the embankment. About the same time, Lance-Sergeant O. L. Howat, who page 449 had been, with Sergeant McIndoe, one of the principal leaders in the series of short charges on Spandau and other posts, was wounded. Private ‘Groppi’ Gilchrist30 raced to his assistance and, despite a second burst of fire which cut Gilchrist's jacket in several places and wounded Howat again, he finished bandaging the wounded man and then coolly carried him to safety. Private Dave White,31 one of the most popular men in his platoon, was fatally wounded at this juncture. His wounds were dressed under fire by Private Johnnie Mayo.32 On this and other occasions, both Mayo and Gilchrist displayed the complete disregard for danger and self which many men, especially stretcher-bearers, whose names have not been recorded, showed when comrades were wounded.
After some fruitless attempts to make headway and striking tough opposition, C and A Companies decided to consolidate along the embankment. Colonel Thomas had already decided that his plan for taking San Agata from the west had failed. As early as 2.15 a.m., he had sent B Company down to the right to cross the river where 8 Indian Division was reported to have effected a crossing. B Company was then to come in on San Agata from the opposite side to that on which C and A Companies were placed. Major McArthur and his men marched down the near side of the river till they found the Indians, and they also found that the report of a crossing was quite premature. Unfortunately, 10 Platoon, under Lieutenant Warwick Hobbs,33 came under mortar and SP gun fire and sustained casualties, six men being wounded, including Sergeant W. H. Jones.34 B Company returned to its houses to await further orders.
By now all reports coming into Battalion Headquarters confirmed that A and C Companies were fully engaged along the railway embankment, through or over which they could not pass their tanks. The CO therefore somewhat reluctantly decided to commit D Company to a frontal assault across the Santerno and on to San Agata. Sergeant Michie's earlier reconnaissance page 450 now proved of the greatest value and, no doubt, the efforts of C Company had drawn off some of the enemy. In any case, 18 Platoon, under Lieutenant Lee,35 made a vigorous crossing and secured part of the far bank. Major Cox now passed 16 Platoon, under Lieutenant Frank Miles, and 17 Platoon, under Lieutenant Logan,36 through 18 Platoon. This was done successfully. Some Germans, including a few moving back from the river-bank, were taken completely by surprise and the platoons moved straight into San Agata, where they occupied the best of the houses.
Delighted at the more or less unexpected speed of D Company's success, but somewhat worried about its isolated position in ‘Tiger’ country, Colonel Thomas now despatched B Company to reinforce the position on D's right flank. With 11 Platoon leading, B Company crossed the river at first light without opposition. When a short distance across, the leaders wheeled right and approached a string of German dugouts in the far stopbank from the rear. Spectacularly led in their assault by Second-Lieutenant J. Smail, 11 Platoon raced down the stopbank, whooping like Red Indians and firing their weapons at any sign of German resistance. The surprise gained, both by the direction of the attack and its hearty momentum, speedily reduced the opposition and, within a very few minutes, over thirty prisoners were taken. Seeing Germans making their escape both through the houses to the east of San Agata and through the fields, sections under Corporals Mervyn Staples37 and Jim Tither38 gave chase. Both sections added considerably to the bag of prisoners. After taking different routes, they joined up on the road about 400 yards away. Somewhat breathless and therefore not in a fit state for accurate shooting, they speeded the fleeing Germans with some rapidly fired shots. No. 10 Platoon, under Lieutenant Hobbs, continued to move down the stopbank, where it captured another five prisoners before consolidating on the right of 11 Platoon in an area where, later in the morning, the Indians came up on their right flank. No. 12 Platoon crossed the Santerno after the excitement was over and dug in on the left of 11 Platoon and nearer to San Agata. It took two prisoners and found a store of weapons.page 451
When Colonel Thomas made his rounds of the companies in the early hours of daylight, the situation was reasonably good. A and C were still being shelled but the enemy showed no signs of being aggressive. B and D were without tanks or antitank guns. The CO formed the D Company platoons into a triangular defence system in their houses. While in San Agata, he ‘witnessed a grand feat of co-operation with our air-force: a Tiger tank, one of those which had worried C and A Companies, suddenly opened fire down the street, horribly close, but a flight of fighter bombers, cruising only a few hundred feet up, saw our plight and swooped into the attack, their bombs falling only some 300 yards from where we stood, and showering us with rubble. We put up a smoke candle recognition signal, just in case, in answer to which the flight leader zoomed low over our heads, waggled his wings, and swung into the attack again.’
Later in the morning, Private Gunning39 of 11 Platoon, on forward picket duty, saw a tank approaching slowly. He sent a hurried call back to Company Headquarters and the FOO there quickly brought a ‘stonk’ down. In addition, the watchful fighter-bombers also bombed the menacing Tiger. Apart from intermittent shelling and mortaring, the companies were left alone by the enemy. The bridgehead over the Santerno was thus well established and, as the policy was to allow the enemy no rest and no time to reinforce, within a few hours another advance was begun.
As the Indians had drawn level with B Company on the right, the Maoris had reached Ventura on the left, and, farther left again, 6 Brigade was making good headway, Brigadier Bonifant decided to launch another attack at 2 p.m. Zero hour was later postponed till 4 p.m. as 6 Brigade was to join the attack and needed the additional time for reorganising. For the attack the artillery provided a barrage lifting 100 yards every three minutes. The 23rd attacked with two companies forward, B on the right and C on the left, and two back, D on the right and A on the left.
The attack went well. The Tiger tanks which had troubled the battalion during the night and earlier in the day were again encountered as they did their best to delay the advance. They were covering the German evacuation of Massa Lombarda, which had been something of a forward base, headquarters area page 452 and supply centre. No. 11 Platoon, leading the B Company advance, had to deploy on several occasions. Second-Lieutenant Smail and Sergeant Sharp40 did good work in keeping the attack moving, and again Corporals Staples and Tither led their sections with commendable determination. When machine-gun fire from tanks held up the leading elements, Private O'Donohue,41 the platoon wireless operator, quickly got accurate messages back which enabled the heavy guns to shell the area in which the tanks were operating. Unfortunately, at this stage, Corporal Staples was badly wounded by machine-gun fire from a pillbox. Under fire, Second-Lieutenant Smail and Corporal Tither got him into a safe position whence a stretcher-bearing party, which included the Padre and Private Strathern,42 got him back to the RAP. The three supporting tanks, under Sergeant Alex Mowat,43 came forward and dealt effectively with the ground opposition. Nos. 10 and 12 Platoons then passed through 11 Platoon and, taking some twenty prisoners, pressed on to the objective, the road line east of Massa Lombarda. In 12 Platoon, when Lieutenant McMillan44 was wounded, Sergeant James R. Wilson45 took over the platoon and, showing initiative and personal bravery of a high order, he led his men in a number of charges on enemy posts just short of the objective. Nos. 10 and 12 Platoons, with their supporting tanks, also left several German dead on their route forward.
C Company had a somewhat similar experience to B's. Profiting by the battalion's earlier experience, the company by-passed a tank which was troubling it and left it to the oncoming tanks. Lance-Sergeant Reg Edmondson46 distinguished himself in wiping out a troublesome machine-gun post at a time when the momentum of the attack appeared likely to be lost. Corporal Mathieson,47 who had been particularly active in the operations of the previous night, again showed himself to be aggressive in page 453 attack. ‘His courage … did much to maintain the high morale and fighting spirit that enabled the company to successfully withstand the determined enemy counter-attacks at a most critical stage of the general advance,’ states the citation for Mathieson's MM. Until he was shot through the head, Corporal Bullimore48 also led his men in determined fashion. C Company lost contact with B on the right for some four hours but retained touch with the Maoris on the left. The company's tanks also got diverted and did not advance with the infantry, but the tanks with the Maoris played an important part in shooting 13 and 14 Platoons on to their objective. The company diary recorded that ‘The Coy was in excellent spirits and a good killing mood and many Germans were killed’. Tiger tanks twice forced the leading section to withdraw somewhat from the objective, but eventually two troops of tanks arrived to assist C Company. About an hour later, after Lieutenant Mosley had established contact with B Company, both companies advanced beyond the objective into an area in which the New Zealand artillery was still conducting harassing shoots.
A and D Companies had comparatively uneventful advances. They both came under some shell and mortar fire: A had two casualties and D one. The repeated moves of Battalion Headquarters gave Lieutenant Burtt and his men in the signals platoon plenty of work. Sergeant Ted Glass49 time and again displayed great energy and courage in getting line communications established and maintained.
The Brigadier had planned to resume the attack with another artillery barrage at two o'clock the next morning. This was keeping up the pressure in earnest, especially as many of the men had had no proper sleep for three days. When Colonel Thomas heard about 9 p.m. that the forward companies were beyond the day's objective and meeting no resistance, but were troubled with shells from their own artillery, he promptly got the shelling stopped and secured through Brigadier Bonifant a change in plans, namely, the cancellation of the barrage for 2 a.m., together with permission to press on immediately to the next objective. Consequently, the advance was resumed at midnight. Mainly mounted on the tanks, the 23rd pushed on another thousand yards before bedding down for a few hours' sleep. On 12 April the battalion had taken 112 prisoners for the loss of 4 killed and 20 wounded.page 454
By 6.15 a.m. on 13 April, the Brigadier was receiving reports of successes all along the New Zealand front. The enemy were streaming back across the Scolo Zamolo. The wisdom of pressing on was manifest. He therefore ordered the 23rd to advance to the Scolo Zaniolo. This was digging in the spurs with a vengeance, but no one objected to further efforts which promised to secure a genuine break-through. By 6.45 a.m., therefore, Colonel Thomas in his jeep was leading the forward companies, mounted on their tanks, along the road. After the CO had pulled into a house where he established his forward headquarters, the tanks went another quarter of a mile along the road before they were fired upon. The infantry jumped off with amazing rapidity and set about engaging the enemy.
In his report, made later that day, Second-Lieutenant Smail, commanding 11 Platoon, described the encounter on his front: ‘Cpl Tither was sent round to stopbank on left supported by tank fire. It was discovered that the opposition was at least 3 or 4 hundred yds away and while moving Cpl Tither was wounded. A small party recced house immediately right, taking one prisoner, and a proper appreciation was able to be made. While directing his tp from his turret Sgt. Mowat, who was held very high in the pl's esteem, was fatally shot through the stomach. Major McArthur came up to see trouble and brought 240 rounds gunfire down on the enemy's line, plus smoke. He extended 12 Pl left of us and we advanced, while the tanks gave covering fire on known positions, across open country on the left of the road. The tanks did not move forward with us as they had been under bazooka fire. Unfortunately, the enemy had withdrawn but could be seen running in the distance and 10 Pl took several prisoners and had plenty of long range sniping. This was our objective and the Brigadier refused us permission to advance as we were over the bomb line. We unwillingly consolidated in casas and have been here ever since. Morale of the platoon has been exceptionally high throughout and, all told, we have had only three casualties and three evacuated sick. We have taken over 50 prisoners.’
On the left, C Company, now in touch with 21 Battalion, which had come up to relieve the Maoris, pressed home a vigorous attack with excellent supporting fire from its tanks. Practice in battle drill was producing tank-infantry co-operation of a high order. With two troops of tanks giving the support required, the company took its objective ‘despite the enemy who remained and fired to the last. They were all killed, the page 455 Coy not being in a mood for prisoners after being fired at until the last minute’.50 The battalion's total of prisoners for the day was 48. The casualties could hardly have been smaller for such an advance and such a gain—only one man had been wounded in the 23rd, although, as noted by Smail, the tank sergeant had been killed.
Fifth Brigade now rested for two and a half days while 6 and 9 Brigades kept up the pressure in the advance to establish a bridgehead over the Sillaro River. This rest was most necessary because not even success piled on success could carry men forward indefinitely without a good sleep. The company seconds-in-command had done a good job in keeping hot meals up to the attacking companies. They now got showers as well as bedrolls and clean clothes forward to the weary and dirty men. Thereafter, as C Company diary chronicled, ‘Everyone slept, rested, showered and changed clothing and morale was once more 100 per cent’.
By this time, the Eighth Army was meeting with such success that it was decided to continue pushing forward and to modify the plan whereby the Fifth Army was to join in to make the break-through. Consequently, while 5 Corps continued to advance along the coast, 13 Corps, composed of 2 New Zealand Division and 10 Indian Division, was to push across the plains. As 10 Indian Division was still moving down from the mountains, the demands on the individual New Zealand brigades were somewhat reduced by placing 43 Gurkha Lorried Infantry Brigade under General Freyberg. On the afternoon of 16 April, by which time 6 and 9 Brigades had reached the Scolo Mantanara, orders were given for 5 Brigade to pass through 6 Brigade that night, with the 23rd taking over from the 25th.
With D Company forward on the right and A on the left, the 23rd advanced at 5 p.m. and, without striking any serious opposition, progressed about a thousand yards from 25 Battalion's FDLs. Demolitions and canals held up the tanks and support weapons. The CO called a halt at midnight, by which time ten prisoners had been taken with no loss to the 23rd. At 5.30 a.m. next day, 17 April, with A and D Companies still in the lead, the battalion pushed on and covered another two miles before the tanks were again held up by a canal. The infantry advanced another thousand yards to a line on which they were ordered to halt. On the previous day, Brigadier Bonifant had announced that 999 prisoners had passed through the 5 Brigade page 456 cage and he offered a bottle of brandy to the men who brought in the prisoner who raised the total to 1000. Major McArthur and Private Holloway51 shared the honour; the bottle was shared more widely. B Company took four prisoners, one of whom was selected to be No. 1000 for the campaign and was hurried off in a jeep to the brigade cage as 21 Battalion was expected to be racing its first prisoner of the day back at the same time. The jeep driver and Holloway met the Brigade Commander himself and persuaded him to make one job of guiding them back to the cage and picking up their brandy. The 23rd took thirty-one more prisoners that day before a halt was called and the lead surrendered to 9 Brigade and the Gurkhas somewhat earlier than had been expected.
On the night of 18–19 April, the two forward brigades launched the last set-piece attack of the campaign when they attacked across the Gaiana against 4 Parachute Division. That night and until 11 a.m. on 19 April, C Company was under command of 43 Gurkha Brigade and was made responsible for protecting the forward engineers and their bridging equipment. As the left flank was exposed and the paratroopers had concentrated all the guns, rocket-firing projectors, nebelwerfers and other mortars they could secure in an attempt to stop the advance, C Company found, according to its diary, ‘the area the most unhealthy of the whole campaign’ and suffered casualties of one killed and five wounded. The company RAP men also had a busy time attending to wounded Gurkhas. As the paratroopers emerged from hiding when the attacking force had moved on, C Company had more than once to fight to secure the bridging site for the engineers.
Late on 19 April, 5 Brigade took over from 9 Brigade with the 23rd relieving the Divisional Cavalry on the right and the 21st relieving the 22nd on the left. No fighting took place that night. Intercept messages, however, indicated that 4 Parachute Division and elements of I Parachute Division, with supporting tanks, were pulling back to the Idice River, where the Genghis Khan Line was expected to act as the last and strongest set of defences before the Po. The New Zealand divisional intelligence summary, issued at this time, indicated that a determined resistance could be expected on the Idice. It stated: ‘It seems clear now that the enemy is pinning such hopes as he has to a policy of wearing us down in the belief that, if he can once take the momentum out of our thrusts, he will have time to page 457 regroup for the defence of the Po…. To our immediate South today, our neighbours maintained pressure and made some progress, while North of Argenta and in the Mountains below Bologna satisfactory progress and advances continued. They make the future in our sector all the more vital for, if the enemy cannot hold the Idice line here, his whole defensive system, not only south of the Po but on the Po itself is affected’.
With this information and determined that the enemy should not be allowed to hold the Idice, the 23rd began to advance at 5.30 a.m. on 20 April with A and D Companies forward. The German strongpoints in and around Budrio held up 21 Battalion on the left but, after getting the anti-tank guns to cover that flank, Colonel Thomas pushed the leading companies past Budrio and up to the banks of the Idice. A Tiger tank emerged from the Budrio area and fired a few shots at the 23rd men, the foremost of whom were soon a mile past this strongpoint. The by-passing of this enemy defensive position was a complete success since the river stopbanks were reached without any fighting. No. 7 Platoon captured intact, and with a team of five still manning the set, a complete wireless installation. Not to be outdone, 8 Platoon captured five prisoners who were quite unaware that the New Zealanders were anywhere near. By 11.30 a.m., 7 and 8 Platoons reported the near stopbank in their possession. After a quick reconnaissance, Major Marett reported that, although there were mines and wired defences, the enemy was not active and a crossing appeared possible. Colonel Thomas correctly summed-up the absence of enemy fire as due to their belief that Budrio was still holding out—as in fact it was—and therefore no attack was to be expected that day or night. He therefore decided to gatecrash the line and rely on the effect of surprise. On his instructions, Major Marett ordered Lieutenant O'Sullivan52 to take 9 Platoon across the Idice River while 7 and 8 Platoons continued to hold the near stopbank and gave covering fire when necessary. Although a few sentries woke up in time to fire some shots at O'Sullivan and his men, by 12.10 p.m. 9 Platoon was across the river without casualties and was occupying the nearest houses without any serious fighting. The platoon found two companies of Germans, with stacks of arms and ammunition, but totally unprepared for battle. As was discovered later from prisoners, these German troops had marched for two days from the Bologna area to take page 458 up positions on the Idice, where they were supposed to fight to the last round and the last man. Their march had been rendered more than arduous by the bombing and strafing of the Allied air force. Exhausted, they had arrived that morning an hour or two earlier and, understanding the attacking Eighth Army troops to be still miles away, they had taken their boots off and were resting in order to be fit to fight that night or the next day. ‘They were caught literally with their pants down and boots off,’ said the 23rd unit diary. O'Sullivan and his men attacked with vigour, killed 25 and captured 32, and, to quote Major Marett's report, ‘shot at and chased Germans too numerous to count—a chance that comes only once in a lifetime.’ Farther along the bank, 7 Platoon was sent across to reinforce 9's bridgehead. Its members had a little difficulty, but within an hour the two platoons were well into the Genghis Khan Line and available to assist D's crossing. A Company's success was the more remarkable as it had no casualties for the taking of forty-two prisoners.
Major Cox anticipated trouble from the Germans now fully alerted along the front. He therefore called up the unit Wasps and a troop of tanks and plastered the far bank with liquid fire and with tank-gun fire before sending two platoons of D Company across at 1 p.m. The leading section of 18 Platoon met heavy small-arms fire from a post that had not been burned out. Corporal Bell,53 the section leader, was wounded but Private ‘Tuck’ MacLeod54 stormed the post, killed two of the enemy and got his section far enough forward to cover the advance of the other sections.
No. 17 Platoon tackled a large house. Looking through a manhole in the wall of a basement, Lance-Sergeant Hume55 saw men, heavy and stupid with sleep, emerging from a dugout in the floor and joining a milling crowd. He also saw piled weapons in one corner and, when some men moved towards them, he opened fire and shot one. The others panicked and bolted for the back door. Hume and his mates took three prisoners but most of the Germans got away, although some fell to the Brens which had been quickly mounted upstairs by other members page 459 of 17 Platoon. The Bren and tommy-gunners upstairs ‘had some great shooting as the enemy ran, not only from this house, but from other houses in the vicinity’.
Within a few minutes, 17 and 18 Platoons took thirty prisoners and killed and wounded several others. The dumps of ammunition, the mortars and other paraphernalia all proved the enemy's intention to make a serious stand on the Idice. Major Cox ordered the destruction of some of these dumps in case the enemy recaptured them.
That the enemy, once roused to action, was not prepared to accept the result of this surprise attack was quickly shown by the amount of shell and mortar fire now directed at the shallow bridgehead. ‘During the afternoon, some of the most intense shellfire I have known was directed on us,’ wrote Colonel Thomas. This fire was kept up for most of the afternoon. The bridgehead remained shallow as the 23rd companies were ordered not to go more than 100 yards beyond the river as the Air Force was due to bomb the area in front. This it did, and A Company came in for a small amount of bombing and strafing because it was so far forward. Enemy parties had been probing during the afternoon. The first of these came marching down the road in single file as if they were quite ignorant of the presence of the 23rd men, who waited to open fire until they were able to shoot up a dozen or more.
According to the unit diary, the enemy launched a strong counter-attack about 6 p.m.56 If this had been a really strong counter-attack, the situation could have been serious as the afternoon's shellfire had prevented the engineers from erecting a bridge over the Idice, and consequently tanks and supporting arms had not reached A and D Companies. Whether or not the enemy seen near a series of dugouts were aggressively inclined, the D Company men proved competent to deal with them. Sergeant Robert Maitland dashed forward, firing his tommy gun, to challenge these Germans. When some took refuge in a dugout, he fired into it and forced the occupants to surrender. His example was followed by his men, who rounded up eighteen prisoners, including two officers, and forced others to flee in disorder. Fires in D Company's area continued to attract enemy shellfire but the company held on. On 20 April the battalion had taken 130 prisoners and had had three men wounded.page 460
Late that day, the Maoris came up on the right of the 23rd while, on the left, the 21st, having mastered Budrio, got three companies across the river at 8.30 p.m. Farther to the left, 6 Brigade had established a bridgehead of its own during the afternoon. In doing so, it had secured the only known ford over the Idice. This was to prove important as 5 Brigade was ordered to extend its bridgehead under an artillery barrage at midnight and needed to use the 6 Bridgade ford for getting its armour forward. The 5th's bridgehead was extended to a depth of 1500 yards, the tanks ‘married up’ with the infantry again and all was ready for the advance to be continued on a broad front at 8 a.m. on 21 April.
The advance did not begin earlier as the bomb-line had been reached. Once it did begin, with the 23rd again in the van of 5 Brigade, B and C Companies moved so speedily that some bridges and canal crossings were captured intact, although they had demolition charges fixed ready for firing. The advance was not entirely unopposed: one Maori company had four tanks knocked out while B Company of the 23rd had one tank ‘brewed up’ as the result of a direct hit. When 10 Platoon was held up about this time, Private J. J. L. Strathern rushed forward and, single-handed, captured four Germans who had been manning a Spandau post and had succeeded in wounding a comrade. Later in the day, Strathern successfully directed the fire of a 17-pounder Sherman against a camouflaged enemy tank which was threatening to hold up the advance. C Company met less opposition. Its advance was halted by the Brigadier, who insisted that the flanks had to be tidied up. On this day the battalion took 59 prisoners for the loss of 1 killed and 2 wounded.
That morale may remain high much longer when success is obvious, even despite physical weariness, was shown at this time. The relentless pressing on brought success after success at very low cost in casualties. Men grew more certain that a ‘break-through’ would be secured, with, soon after, the end of the war in Italy and in Europe. They were therefore not only willing but anxious to ‘push on’. The resting of the reserve companies and the well-handled inter-company reliefs helped to keep the men fit. Thus, after its big day on 20 April when it had led the gate-crashing of the Idice, A Company was in reserve and Major Marett could report: ‘Everyone was very cheerful and “Happy in the Service”.’page 461
April the 22nd proved to be one of the busiest and longest days of the campaign. About 1 a.m. C Company reported that the enemy had pulled back from its front. B Company confirmed there was no opposition to its patrols forward. Accordingly, at 4.30 a.m., A and D Companies were mounted on tanks and anti-tank portées and passed through the forward companies before 6 a.m. Meeting with only slight harassing fire and, in some places, with only token resistance, they advanced as mounted infantry until they reached what Marett described as ‘a very big and dirty canal’. Here the infantry dismounted, waded the canal, and advanced for some distance on foot before the tanks rejoined them. At this juncture the axis of advance took a right-angled turn to the north beyond the point where troops had cut Route 64, the German escape route from Bologna, which had fallen the day before.
A and D Companies rested in the early afternoon while a bad blow in the road was repaired. By 4 p.m., again mounted on their tanks and portées, they advanced again. In the village of Bentivoglio, the Germans had tried to block the road by blowing buildings across it, but, despite the delays caused by demolitions, the companies covered over 20 miles in the day. Battalion Headquarters moved at least eight times that day. The signallers, who had been maintaining communications with remarkable efficiency throughout the advance, gave up the attempt to lay lines to the companies and relied entirely on radio as in genuinely mobile warfare. The speed and distance of the advance caught the imagination of the men, who knew for certain that the ‘break-through’ proper had begun.
Sergeant W. D. Dawson, the Intelligence Sergeant, recorded in his private diary: ‘Advance continued during day with no Jerry opposition, and morning became one mad scramble to go forward and keep Bn HQ more or less organized…. had a great reception from the civilians on the way…. Everybody in high spirits because Jerry had broken, but all hot and bothered because we were running off our maps, and had to change boards hurriedly and frequently.’ Such a thing was unheard of in Italy and had not happened since the 23rd left North Africa.
When D Company attempted to capture the small town of San Pietro in Casale and found it strongly held, Colonel Thomas ordered Major Cox to by-pass it and trust to its surrender once its occupants knew they were completely cut off. This move worked, as it had done a number of times already, and the page 462 casualties which would have resulted from a frontal assault were saved. As it was, the battalion had only two wounded for the day while it took twenty-four prisoners, as well as leaving many more to be collected by those following on behind.
By 11.30 p.m., A and D Companies had reached the Reno River. By the time B and C Companies, who were picked up by RMT trucks at noon, caught the leaders, Major Marett and Corporal Anderson had reconnoitred the Reno and convinced the CO that an immediate crossing would be unopposed. As it was the turn for B and C Companies to take over the lead, A and D, in Marett's words, ‘just dropped where we had stopped and slept the sleep of the just’.
At 3 a.m. on 23 April, B and C Companies crossed the Reno without meeting any opposition. They advanced about 1500 yards and established a firm bridgehead. Describing his early morning visit to the forward platoons, Colonel Thomas wrote: ‘The men, of course, were bitterly cold, having been wet through wading waist high, but were making the most of things and were very cheerful and willing. Heavens! But they have done wonders during this show, nothing seems too much to ask of them, yet they often have no sleep for days on end.’
The 23rd took twenty-three prisoners on 23 April and, as if the date and number were aided by propitious fates, there were no casualties. That day and night the battalion got some sleep as 6 British Armoured Division moved across the 5 Brigade front and flanking formations conformed. Next morning, at half past six, the battalion moved in trucks some 15 miles on good roads through lovely fertile country to the Bondeno area, where the troops debussed and patrols went forward to the banks of the Po.
Ever since the landing in Italy in 1943, the Po had always been discussed as being the greatest obstacle the Eighth Army was likely to encounter in the whole Italian campaign. It was reported to be a quarter to half a mile wide, both deep and swift, with enemy defences of every description prepared on the far bank. A sternly opposed crossing of that river might well have seen the destruction and drowning of several battalions. But, as events were to prove, a natural obstacle constitutes a serious problem only when it is held by a determined enemy. Second-Lieutenant Smail took a reconnaissance patrol of eight men from his own platoon, and one each from C Company, the engineers and the tanks, down to the stopbanks at 11 a.m. They reported back nearly two hours later that they had met page 463 no opposition, the near stopbanks were 20 to 30 feet high and would thus hide any movement of troops from the sight of those on the opposite bank, the river itself was about 300 yards wide at this point and the current was slow. Although the patrol had been seen by Germans on the far bank, it had not been fired upon. A 21 Battalion patrol had gone further: it crossed the Po in an assault boat without a shot being fired. Colonels Thomas and McPhail were therefore preparing to make their crossings about 6 p.m. when they received orders to halt preparations and attend a conference at Brigade Headquarters. There, General Freyberg, his chief staff officers and his brigadiers were discussing details for a large set-piece attack to be launched the following evening. Thomas and McPhail managed to convince their seniors that any postponement would give the Germans time to man their defences and, especially as it was understood that 278 Division, so soundly beaten on the Senio and Santerno, was the enemy, that an attack that night would almost certainly succeed.
The attack was finally arranged for an hour after midnight that same night. ‘Ducks’, amphibious tanks, and assault craft arrived, and the staff at the various responsible levels completed the arrangements for the crossing. On and around the south banks, German convoys had been bombed by the Allied air force and all kinds of enemy equipment lay scattered in an untidy profusion. A few of the 23rd succumbed to the temptation of the day and turned over the more saleable items to the Italians at a price. But the great majority were too keenly interested in the long-anticipated crossing of the Po to worry about such trading. The attack was postponed till 1.30 a.m. in order to learn how much fire the Guards Brigade encountered farther down the river, but they, in turn, it was understood, were postponing their crossing until they learned whether or not the New Zealanders had run into an ambush. The lack of enemy interest and fire seemed to be just too good to be true.
At 1.30 a.m. on 25 April, B Company crossed the Po in assault boats without a shot being fired by the enemy. C Company followed quickly in ‘Ducks’. Second-Lieutenant McIntosh, in charge of the traffic arrangements on the near bank, reported back to a somewhat tensely anxious Battalion Headquarters, ‘there is not a sound except our chaps cursing’. A and D Companies, together with the unit's anti-tank guns, were now ferried across in ‘Fantails’, large boats with outboard motors. It was all very easy and amazingly tame. As Major Marett said: ‘After page 464 having thought on and off for 18 months of the problems confronting such a crossing, we received the biggest and most pleasant surprise of our lives when the Coy crossed without having a shot fired and were dug in as reserve Coy by 0300 hours 25 April’. No. 10 Platoon, under Lieutenant W. Hobbs, claimed to be the first Eighth Army infantry to cross the Po, while the 23rd anti-tank platoon held that its guns were the first supporting arms to have the same honour. ‘All, expecting the worst, were much relieved to find the crossing more like the Waikato on Regatta Day,’ wrote Lieutenant Ernie Taylor, now OC of the Support Group. In crossing the Po, many men realised an ambition they had cherished for a long time. Only when some owner of a diary mentioned that it was Anzac Day did men recall that it was the anniversary of a very much more costly landing. As it was, Corporal Shanks,57 the leader of the first section to land, quickly located some Germans but they just as quickly surrendered.
By 7 a.m. A Company's patrol of the CSM, WO II ‘Toby’ Thomas, Corporal Claridge58 and Private Wilson was entering the village of Ficarolo, which they reported practically free of the enemy. A Company proceeded to take it, together with the Mark IV tank, the 88-millimetre gun, and two self-propelled guns it contained. In other days, this haul would have been hailed as outstanding but now it was more or less taken for granted. A and B Companies took a few prisoners from 710 Fusilier Battalion, which apparently contained only young boys or old men. A forward observation officer, who climbed a tower in Ficarolo, reported white flags only and no decent targets within 10,000 yards. There was nothing for it but to get the trucks across and ‘push on’ again.
Although the engineers completed a strong pontoon bridge and a Class 40 raft, made of several boats, was used for transporting tanks over the Po, it was a few days before the whole of the attached squadron of tanks caught up with the battalion. As the men moved forward through small villages north of the Po, they got a grand reception from the local Italians. Flowers and presents of eggs and vino were all received. ‘For lunch that day eggs were on the basis of at least 4 per man,’ says the unit diary. D and A Companies advanced to Berguarina, about four miles farther on, and captured some enemy vehicles in good running order.page 465
An early start on 26 April, with the 23rd still in the van, saw B and C Companies breast up to the Adige River, the second largest in Italy. The roads were littered with abandoned German equipment; count of guns overrun was lost; the enemy's organised resistance in that part of Italy had ended. On the other hand, it was evident that the men of the 23rd were also feeling the strain. Thus, Major McArthur reported: ‘At this stage it was very noticeable that the men were suffering from lack of sleep’, while Sergeant Dawson noted in his private diary: ‘Another advance towards the Adige River in afternoon but everything seemed disorganised, as everyone appeared to be very tired and not worrying whether show went well or not’. Nevertheless, a C Company patrol under Corporal Charles Monaghan obtained the information required concerning the stopbanks and approaches to the river. When his patrol was grounded by accurate small-arms fire, Monaghan continued alone until he had learned what he wanted to know. Major Emery commented: ‘It was a good job of work well done’. General Freyberg decided that the New Zealand attack over the Adige that night should be done by 5 Brigade on the right and 6 Brigade on the left. Once the bridgehead was established, 9 Brigade was to pass through and take up the chase. In the 5 Brigade sector, 21 Battalion was to attack on the right and the 23rd on the left. H-hour was fixed for 8.30 p.m.
The 23rd attacked with A Company on the right and D on the left. This attack was supported by tank fire only, Major Greenfield59 having got nine of his tanks from A Squadron 18 Armoured Regiment up in time. Colonel Thomas's account of this last attack of the battalion demonstrates both the commander's pride in his men and the smoothness with which experienced soldiers could execute such an operation. ‘First, the tanks let fly for ten minutes—very thrilling to watch as they were using tracer ammunition which crisscrossed and ricochetted in all directions. Then over went the sections in their small canvas boats, quietly but swiftly, no sign of panic, just everybody working as a well trained and confident team…. It really was a grand sight and I felt a thrill of pride to think that men could have done so much and yet do still more so cheerfully and efficiently when the need arose. A and D Companies did a magnificent job and were soon firmly established some 1800 yards over the other side’.page 466
The crossing was virtually unopposed. Some enemy defensive fire came down and D Company had five men wounded. Only slight resistance was met on the northern side and it was quickly overcome. The unit diary records that both A and D Companies claimed the honour of being the first across the Adige. The anti-tank guns were ferried across soon after the two infantry companies. Consolidation proceeded smoothly. The companies took thirty-nine prisoners.
Patrols forward of the objective in the morning established that some Germans were still in position. They captured another seventeen prisoners. In the afternoon of 27 April, 9 Brigade and some armoured cars passed through to exploit. Next morning, the Gurkha Brigade also passed through. The relief was complete. A and D Companies rejoined the battalion in and around Badia on the south side of the Adige and the 23rd got some hours of rest.
Although 5 Brigade had passed into reserve, there was still a need to keep up with the advancing troops. On 29 April the 5 Brigade units moved forward in RMT lorries, with the 23rd, for a change, the last battalion of the Division. What a forward move this was! On excellent roads, they passed through town after town, through Masi, Ospedaletto, Este, Padua, and through the Venetian Line, which had once been mentioned as likely to provide tough opposition, at 30 miles per hour. Intelligence reports from Divisional Headquarters indicated that prisoners were coming in, not in hundreds but in thousands. After midnight, the brigade convoy halted at a concentration area about 20 miles north-west of Venice.
On 30 April company groups from the 23rd were despatched to different villages which had not hitherto been cleared of the enemy, unless by the partisans who were now most active. These operations, originally termed ‘mopping-up recces’, were later more cheerfully entitled ‘liberating moves’. ‘Liberating’ a village entailed being the first Allied troops to enter, taking a slight risk of stopping a bullet from a sniper who did not know that the war was as good as over in his sector, and, more frequently, receiving the cheers, the flowers, the eggs, the wine and the kisses of the delighted populace. The mixture was not always the same, but the same ingredients were normally there. The war was now touched with elements of an Italian festival, but that it was a war was shown by the forty-nine prisoners taken.page 467
On 1 May, 5 Brigade moved forward to Ceggia, just north of the Piave. This move was made at a snail's pace, both on account of the traffic jams and the heavy rain which had made the approaches to the Piave soft and muddy. As it edged forward, the 23rd was told to keep moving until it reached the town of San Giorgio. Only at 11 a.m. on 2 May, after an all-night move in the rain, did the unit reach this destination. Very soon ‘liberating’ and prisoner-collecting parties were busily engaged. A small Battalion Headquarters party secured the surrender of some 500 Germans who were surrounded by, but refused to capitulate to, Italian partisans. The CO was called away by the Brigadier and Major G. S. Cox,60 the GSO II (Intelligence) at Divisional Headquarters, to assist in interposing New Zealand troops between the Chetniks of General Mihailovitch and the partisans of Marshal Tito. Colonel Thomas witnessed a colourful scene61 but was relieved to hear that 6 Armoured Division was taking over the responsibility for this 12,000 strong force of Yugoslav Royalists. This was, however, the 23rd's first introduction to the political volcano which was Trieste at this time.page 468
On the evening of 2 May the higher command sent word that all German resistance in Italy had ended that day. Ninth Brigade was busy in Trieste with the many Germans there who were not prepared to surrender either to Italian or Yugoslav partisans. Back in Divisional Reserve, the 23rd had little to do either with the delicate political situation in Trieste or with taking over the last of the prisoners. On 3 May the battalion moved to Castle Duino, the most palatial quarters in which the unit was ever billetted. Owned by an Austrian prince married to an American millionairess, this castle had nearly 150 rooms in excellent order. It was a grand place in which to celebrate the end of the European war on 7 May.
In its last campaign or term in the line, the 23rd casualties, totalling nine killed in action and died of wounds and sixty-two wounded, were light when compared with those in earlier campaigns. They were particularly light, too, for the number of battles fought and for the distance covered—225 miles through the wreckage of the German forces in Italy. Colonel Thomas spoke for his men when he said: ‘We all feel that the race from the Senio to here was a glorious and fitting end to the war in Italy’.
6 On 4 March 1945 the following officers marched out to Advanced Base: Maj J. A. Brittenden, Capts G. M. Dodds and G. L. Lawrence, Lts L. E. Smylie and C. B. Grant, and 2 Lts H. C. Anderson and J. P. Scanlan. On 3 April Maj H. J. G. Low, Capt A. F. Cooper and 2 Lt D. P. Corrigan left for New Zealand, while Capt J. A. Bevin left for England. On 15 April Maj J. R. Harrison left to become NZ Liaison Officer in Bombay. Senior NCOs to leave in early March included WO I W. J. Tait, the RSM, and WO II Ron Ritchie, CSM of HQ Company.
7 9 Brigade was commanded by Brigadier W. G. Gentry.
8 Brig I. L. Bonifant, DSO and bar, ED, m.i.d.; Gisborne; born Ash-burton, 3 Mar 1912; stock agent; CO 25 Bn Sep 1942-Jan 1943; Div Cav Jan 1943-Apr 1944; comd 6 Bde 3–27 Mar 1944; 5 Bde Jan-May 1945; 6 Bde Jun-Oct 1945.
41 Pte G. V. O'Donohue, m.i.d.; born Naseby, 20 Sep 1919; exchange clerk; deceased.
50 Major Emery's report.
52 Lt W. M. O'Sullivan, m.i.d.; Reefton; born Pleasant Point, 6 Nov 1916; clerk; wounded 10 Apr 1945.
56 This is denied by D Company men, who contend that enemy parties merely emerged from dugouts which they had failed to clear.