CHAPTER 17 — Winter on the Senio
Winter on the Senio
The ensuing period of winter warfare now became an affair of regulated spells of duty in the front line, followed by intervals of rest at Forli or Faenza. Veterans of France and Flanders might have recalled days when such conditions were the invariable rule, but for soldiers of the present war they were novel and exceptional.
Christmas celebrations were scarcely over when 24 Battalion received warning orders to relieve 25 Battalion in the same positions that it had recently handed over. B Company was caught by shellfire while waiting in a large house at the debussing point near Faenza, but apart from this the relief went off without incident. Before daylight on 29 December the battalion was settled in with all four companies forward—A on the left between La Palazza and the Senio, B on its right holding the line of a road running south-east, C in and around San Pietro in Laguna, and D on the battalion's right, south-east of the village, in touch on its flank with the London Irish Regiment of 56 Division.
A Company faced the enemy on two fronts—towards Casa Galanouna, a strongpoint to the north-east, and also towards the Senio River on the battalion's left flank. On this side the Germans were so close that at night they could easily be heard talking or digging. Every night at eight o'clock came the sound of a horse-drawn cart rumbling down a road that led towards the river, stopping at each of the houses to deliver rations. This conveyance appears to have been invulnerable to a degree. ‘It soon became a nightly vigil to wait for the first sound of the approach of the horse and then ring up for the mortars to lay down a concentration on the spot. It is not known if the beast was merely a phantom horse or that it bore a charmed life, but no matter how much trouble was brought down around the unfortunate animal's ears, he, or some other horse, was page 301 always back on the job the following night.’1 On the same road, near Benedetta, a nebelwerfer was seen firing and its position reported. Spitfires shot up the vicinity, and although it was not known whether the gun was definitely put out of action, it did not fire again from that same spot. Facing towards their other front, the men of A Company could see the enemy changing his pickets by daylight near Casa Galanouna, but so many trees grew in the intervening space that small-arms fire was of no avail and the mortars had to be called upon again.
Colonel Hutchens wasted no time in taking steps to discover exactly where the enemy lay in front of his other three companies. Snow fell on 31 December, and the ground was lightly covered when a patrol from B Company went forward 800 yards the same night to find Casa Nova unoccupied. No. 10 Platoon at once went out and took possession. Next morning Lance-Corporal McDonald2. and two men went further forward to investigate a wine factory building. After covering about 200 yards they were fired upon by snipers and sent to ground, McDonald himself being badly wounded in the head. A smoke screen called for by Captain Pirrie was laid down to allow them to retreat, but although the two men got safely away they could not bring McDonald in without a stretcher. Later a stretcher-party went out under protection of a Red Cross flag and brought the corporal in, but he died of wounds some days afterwards.
Moving north-east along the road leading from San Pietro in Laguna to discover whether it was safe for the passage of tanks, 15 Platoon of C Company advanced nearly 1000 yards without being fired upon or coming across any mines. On the right D Company had much the same experience, finding both Casa San Domenica and Casa Quattrina to be clear of the enemy. Reports sent back by these patrols convinced Hutchens that a large space of ground was his for the taking, and on the night of 30-31 December three companies moved forward at his orders. Before dawn D and C Companies had advanced 1000 yards north-east, with B Company guarding a flank drawn back to face the Senio and maintain touch with A. Two new page 302 roads were thus thrown open to the supporting tanks, which also moved up before daylight.
It now seemed probable that the enemy had moved his guns and armour back behind the Senio, leaving no more than an infantry screen on the hither bank, and on this supposition 24 Battalion was directed to improve its position by taking ground towards the river—an operation which entailed a swing round of its front from north-east to north-west. On the left flank A Company (Major Howden) had naturally the shortest distance to go in gaining its objective at Galanouna. B Company (Captain Pirrie) was to capture the wine factory at Pasolini, while C (Captain Turbott) took over its existing positions. D (Major Macdonald) had the longest journey, its task being the capture of Palazzo Toli, after which posts were to be established at Villa Gessi and Claretta, a quarter of a mile from the Senio's banks. Zero hour was at 12.30 a.m. on 1 January, and while assembled ready for the barrage to open ‘the waiting men witnessed a really splendid sight…. The Germans were celebrating the birth of the New Year in the good old fashioned way, and along the whole front, as far as the eye could see, streams of tracer bullets, light anti-aircraft shells and coloured flares weaved across the midnight sky’.3
A Company attacked with one platoon only, No. 7, which advanced on Galanouna under fire, not only from its own objective but also from Pasolini on B Company's front. A tank came forward to assist, escorted by a section of 9 Platoon, and Galanouna was captured with the loss of six wounded. The Germans, nine of whom were taken prisoner, had apparently been caught in the act of throwing a New Year party, for a variety of food and drink was found set out on a table, in the centre of which stood a Christmas tree.
B Company was decidedly less fortunate. Advancing towards the wine factory in bright moonlight with 10 and 12 Platoons forward, it ran into heavy fire when still a long way from its objective. Four men were killed and three wounded. On asking for direction from Battalion Headquarters, Captain Pirrie was ordered to withdraw his company.
Nor was D Company more successful. As 17 Platoon page 303 approached a house in front of Palazzo Toli, it ran into a semi-circle of fire directed from close range by an enemy obviously well prepared. Leaving three men killed, the survivors withdrew, carrying off six wounded. Meanwhile 18 Platoon had rushed Palazzo Toli, but once in possession its men found themselves under fire from three sides. Two of them were wounded, and in response to a call for stretcher-bearers, Private Kirk,4 a medical orderly, led a party of three towards the house. Kirk was intercepted and taken prisoner, but the others managed to get away. Though practically surrounded, 18 Platoon succeeded in holding off the enemy, but since our attack had failed elsewhere the platoon's predicament was precarious in the extreme, and steps were at once taken to relieve it. No. 16 Platoon and the troop of tanks supporting D Company moved close in and opened up with everything they possessed on the German positions around Palazzo Toli, producing such a volume of fire that the enemy, whether he withdrew or merely kept quiet, did nothing to impede the evacuation of 18 Platoon and its two wounded men, who were brought away on improvised stretchers.
No. 7 Platoon was withdrawn from Galanouna when it became evident that the attack had failed. Before dawn the battalion was back again in its former positions. D Company was relieved the same night by a company of 25 Battalion, after which it went back to a position in battalion reserve.
It was on this night that the Bn had its first experience of the enemy's new rocket gun and several shells fell in the area. There were many ears cocked at the unfamiliar sound when the gun first opened fire with a noise like the gargantuan grunt of the nebelwerfer, though pitched in a higher tone. The period spent in flight of the projectile consisted of an eerie silence, as the usual wail of the multiple mortar was missing, but the shell, on landing, created a terrific blast effect which [was] felt for a large radius around the point of impact. One man, who was about a hundred yards away, had a sensation similar to being struck violently in the back by a log and was blown to the ground, while several other shells of a similar type, which landed some fifty yards from C Company HQ, knocked the 48 radio set from the table several times, and an armchair down the stairs from the room above.5page 304
On the night of 2 January 13 Platoon of C Company patrolled forward to Palazzo Toli, from which D Company had recently been driven. A solitary German was taken prisoner, but otherwise the building was untenanted. The news was wirelessed back to Company Headquarters, and soon afterwards the other two platoons arrived. Two more stray Germans were captured in a dug out some way forward of the position. Twenty-four hours later 13 Platoon sent out another patrol to reconnoitre Pasolini, near the wine factory that had been B Company's objective. No enemy was to be found, and the remainder of 13 Platoon moved up to find that 11 Platoon of B Company was already in process of occupying the wine factory. This building, however, had been so greatly damaged by our bombing that both platoons spent the night in Pasolini. Next day, at dawn, 7 Armoured Brigade passed through the battalion lines to clear the enemy from the Senio's eastern bank. Three hundred prisoners were captured and many pockets of resistance destroyed. Taking advantage of the enemy's discomfiture 14 Platoon occupied Gessi, and two sections of D Company, temporarily attached to C, went on to Claretta, where they found the ground thickly sown with mines. The whole of the battalion's original objective was now captured and contact made with the London Irish at Claretta. Snow fell on the afternoon of 6 January, and next day 26 Battalion came up to take over. The 24th went back to Forli, having lost nine men killed, 20 wounded, and one prisoner. Thirty-two Germans had been captured.
Recent concentrations of enemy troops in this part of the line suggested the possibility of a counter-attack, and 24 Battalion moved back to Faenza after spending only three days in Forli. Civilians were evacuated from a wide strip of land along the Senio's eastern bank, positions were reconnoitred north of Faenza, and our troops were warned to think in terms of defence for the time being. Two small bodies of reinforcements had joined the battalion when it relieved the 26th on 17 January in very much the same positions that had been handed over ten days previously. The ensuing spell in the line, which lasted ten days, was more or less uneventful, the troops being employed in wiring, laying mines, and all the usual activities of positional page 305 warfare. Snow lay six inches deep and the men wore white smocks while moving about in forward areas. This was a fairly satisfactory form of camouflage, although care had to be taken not to stand against a dark background of trees or vines. At night the frozen snow crackled loudly underfoot, and it seemed to those whose business took them near the German lines that they must be making noise enough to wake the dead.
Back in Faenza once more, a persistent rumour took shape when men of the 5th Reinforcements, and those of the sixth who had seen service in Fiji, were drafted out and sent back to Forli on the first stage of their journey to New Zealand. On the 3rd of February, the day of the leave party's departure, the battalion returned to the line to relieve the 25th in a sector north of that previously occupied, opposite Felisio, a village held by the enemy on the Senio's western bank.
A Company, under Captain A. G. J. Robertson now that Major Howden was second-in-command, had its headquarters at Casa Bolesia on the battalion's right flank, with two platoons forward and one in support. In the centre B Company straddled a road leading to the Senio's banks, while C Company, with headquarters at Casa Benina, looked straight across the river towards Felisio. D Company was in reserve in rear of C.
Most of the houses in this area had been systematically destroyed or badly damaged by enemy shellfire, and living conditions were trying, more especially so as rain accompanied by milder temperatures thawed out the snow, bringing mud and slush in its place. The enemy had excellent observation over all our positions from the church tower of Felisio, and moving about during hours of daylight was not to be lightly undertaken. In this sector too the German troops were confident to the point of carelessness, revelling noisily by night and exposing themselves recklessly by day until taught that New Zealanders were not opponents to be trifled with. Sound carried far in the still winter nights and shooting up the horse-drawn ration cart again became a nightly practice. Once, after a specially vigorous strafing, the horse could be heard galloping furiously away into the distance.
‘An unusual incident’, writes Captain Robertson, ‘which brought a touch of colour into the normal front line existence, was the arrival page 306 one day of an English girl in the forward areas. She parked her truck behind the house occupied by 9 Platoon and then trotted away to the Tommy sector6 to deliver cakes from the YMCA. On her return journey she called in to 9 Platoon and issued cakes to several members there. We thought she was rather plucky, as the road had been under fire during most of the time we were there.’
On a sunken road running parallel with and a few hundred yards from the river, 10 Platoon maintained an outpost which was visited nightly by a patrol. One of these patrols had a curious experience, described as follows in 24 Battalion's narrative of the period:
It wasn't easy going at all through the ooze which clung to the boots, and Pte Blain was silently wishing himself somewhere else at the moment instead of slithering about there in dark with a container of tea strapped on his back. He brought up the rear of the little party and his thoughts were many miles away when he heard a sound which made the hair rise at the back of his neck. From somewhere in the darkness behind him came the sound of footsteps swishing through the mud—stealthy footsteps, whose owner was apparently keeping just out of range of vision.
He stopped and listened. The footsteps ceased also. Still not certain of his hearing he moved on again to catch up with his comrades, and those weird and ghostly footsteps resumed their patient following.
Pte Blain caressed his tommy gun and the feeling of it gave him confidence. He caught up with the next man and whispered, ‘Hoi, there's someone following us.’ They both stopped and listened. Not a sound. They stopped three times to listen and each time the prowler followed suit, until later, as the silent party continued to paddle their way along the track, they were amazed to hear Pte Blain chuckling to himself. ‘That bloke following us’, he whispered, ‘is the tea swishing around in the container on my back, but it sounded like fifty Jerries after us.’
Since spring would surely herald our passage of the Senio and many another stream beside, river crossing became more than ever an essential part of training, and soon after 24 Battalion had been relieved in the line on 17 February an exercise was held on the Lamone. This river was the nearest obtainable page 307 replica of the Senio, with high flood protection earthworks or stopbanks on either side. After C and D Companies had carried out a preliminary practice south-east of Faenza, ‘the whole battalion made the crossing, and it was really a splendid performance which proved to be the forerunner of future events destined to play a large part in bringing about the downfall of the German armies in Italy. In the morning everything seemed to go all awry. Boats were swinging crosswise in the river, men were falling into the water, and altogether there was a fine mess, though it was secretly thought that there was a very large dose of skylarking going on, but nobody knows for sure. In the afternoon, however, the story was vastly different. The troops were in position under shelter of the stop-bank. Assault boats and kapok bridging were all in readiness and the men waited for the signal to move. It was just before the signal was given that General Freyberg arrived to witness the performance. He stood on the stop-bank with Brigadier Parkinson and Lieut-Col Hutchens and waited for the flare which was the signal for the assault to begin.
‘As soon as the flare went up, the first wave dragged the boats up the high bank and down into the water, paddling furiously across, while covered by men lining the bank behind them. Once on the far side, they advanced to the top of the bank while the second wave came over, running out the light bridging as they came. The third and final wave came over in shorter time, as they had everything to aid them across. It was a very smart piece of work, and the whole battalion was over in seven and a half minutes. One company claimed that all their men were over in six minutes.’7
The part of the line to which 24 Battalion returned on 24 February was well known to most of its men, for had they not themselves captured it all piecemeal during the first few days of January? B Company (Captain Turbott) lay astride the road leading towards the Senio from San Pietro in Laguna. The platoons of D Company (Major Macdonald) were grouped round Pasolini and the wine factory. A (Captain Robertson) held Claretta and Gessi, while C was in reserve at Borgo Liverani. This company was now under command of Captain page 308 Boord, whose long and successful career as Adjutant had come to an end when he left the battalion after operations on the Sangro to join the staff of a school of instruction in Egypt before returning to New Zealand on furlough. Most of the personnel of the Carrier Platoon, now partly disbanded, had been formed into a medium machine-gun platoon, which took its place in the firing line for the first time on this occasion.
The ensuing ten days spent in the line were comparatively uneventful and casualties were few. A series of countless small incidents, vital to those immediately concerned but only of importance in the aggregate, contribute to make up the history of positional warfare; of these no more than a few may be mentioned.
Close to the river bank on the battalion's left flank stood a house known as the ‘Rubble’, and occupied by the enemy, which proved so great a source of annoyance that after a few days Captain Turbott decided to take drastic measures. Having arranged for a tank to come forward, he took the driver's spare seat and directed its advance. The ‘Rubble’ was protected by a wall, still more or less intact, from the shelter of which the enemy conducted his harassing operations. The tank moved to within a hundred yards of this wall and then thoroughly demolished it with 31 armour-piercing shells. That night the sound of bricks being moved could be heard plainly. Possibly the enemy was removing dead or wounded, but no further trouble came from the house in question.
On 5 March, when the battalion was waiting to be relieved by Poles of 5 Kresowa Division, an enemy soldier came towards 10 Platoon waving a white flag. He announced himself as a Pole and said that four of his comrades also wanted to surrender but feared to come over by daylight. Representatives of the incoming Polish Battalion, who had come on in advance to take over, told the man to shout to his friends, telling them they might approach our lines in safety. One more Pole ran the gauntlet and gave himself up, to be received warmly by his fellow countrymen.
The Polish Battalion came up that night and took over. The 24th embussed behind the line and went back for the night to Forli.page 309
A spell of three or four weeks out of the line lay ahead, and from Forli the battalion passed through the old coastal battle- fields around Rimini to San Severino in the Potenza valley—a small town eight or nine miles from Castelraimondo, where billets were good and the civil population hospitable.
Training, which began after a few days' rest, was largely directed to river crossing and co-operation with armour. On 16 March 6 Brigade assembled at Castelraimondo for a ceremonial parade. Before the march past General Freyberg presented decorations and awards, ten of them falling to 24 Battalion. The majority of these had been earned at San Michele. Later in the month came the ‘organised raid’ on 21 Battalion, described as follows in B Company's war diary:
Trucks were waiting at the school at 8.30, and about that time we set off on the hour and a half journey to 21 playing fields. This journey was uneventful; most of us had seen the countryside previously but it was new to others. The change in temperature as we approached the valley was noticed by all. Our arrival at the ground coincided with the arrival of some of the 21 Coys and it became quite a problem trying to coax players to leave the presence of old cobbers of Papakura, Maadi, or Bari days in order to dress for battle.
This eventually accomplished, our Rugby team looked very neat in its new jerseys and white shorts. Unfortunately the boots were not so new, and those that were, advertised ‘Wog Trash’. Whether having our photo taken had unnerved us or not, the fact is that it took us some time to settle down, and for the first few minutes we had great difficulty keeping 21 off our goal line. But as the game progressed we seemed to gain momentum, and towards the end of the first half Lewis broke away to score near the posts and Jack Apps converted. The game seemed to lack coherence for the rest of the half, but the second half saw our backs going into action in good style. Whereas in the first half, 21 forwards had troubled our half by breaking quickly, our forwards now packed better and protected the half, thus enabling him to send away clear passes which, taken on the run, set our backs going. Play now became open and varied, and Garea, Williams and Lewis scored. The game finished with the score in our favour by 14 points to 4—the 4 points being a timely field goal by 21.8
After the game 21 players were invited to imbibe a few vinos from the 24 Bn store, and some thrifty persons even produced one or two bottles of real beer.page 310
While the Rugby game was still being fought out a game of hockey was also in progress. This was a very evenly matched game and the score of nil all showed it.
The game between 24 and 21 Bns was rather scrappy but we were unanimous in our opinion that this was no fault of the representatives from B Company….
It was noticed at this time that camaraderie was overcoming temperance, and that some were imbibing to an extent where they were taking their responsibilities as barrackers for 24 Bn much too light heartedly…. Fortunately what the sidelines lacked in spontaneous enthusiasm was made up by the spirited contest between the officers of 21 and 24 Bns. This game lacked nothing in the way of enthusiasm, even if at times it was misdirected. Even the spectators began to show signs of real spirit. The game ended with the score at 6–5 in favour of 21.
The day was now wearing on and as 1600 hrs approached, we began wishing our old cobbers the usual ‘Look after yourself’ or ‘Keep your head down’, and separated to our various trucks. At least some obeyed orders to this extent, but it was noticeable that most trucks did not have as many occupants as when they arrived. [The only possible conclusion] was that those missing were being entertained a little longer by 21…. But we cannot explain how such persons eventually got back to San Severino, although the pallid faces and tired eyes of the morning after testified to the state in which they arrived.
Most of those who had returned spent a very enjoyable evening at the Opera House where the Loreto orchestral show entertained them.
Three days later, 24 Battalion left San Severino at 6 p.m. and moved back to Forli by motor transport. On the night of 1 April it was once more on the Senio, having relieved the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers of 78 Division.
The battalion's casualties from 28 December 1944 to 10 March 1945 were:
|Died of wounds||–||5|
|Prisoner of war||–||1|
1 24 Bn Narrative of Events from 28 Dec 1944 to 2 May 1945.
3 24 Bn narrative.
5 24 Bn narrative.
6 For the first week 44 British Reconnaissance Group was on A Coy's right. This unit was then relieved by the London Scottish.
7 24 Bn narrative.
8 Each company of one battalion played the corresponding company of the other.