Italy Volume II : From Cassino to Trieste
V: The Capture of Rimini
V: The Capture of Rimini
The Greeks had more fighting on 20 September against elements of both 1 Parachute Division and the much less warlike 162 page 224 (Turcoman) Division, but at the end of the day the battered old town lay only a mile ahead.
By this time the Germans had reluctantly decided that they could no longer hold the San Fortunato feature and with it the Rimini corridor. That morning General Traugott Herr, commanding 76 Panzer Corps, asked Vietinghoff's permission to withdraw his artillery across the Marecchia River as a preliminary to a general withdrawal. Kesselring, anxious to buy time for an orderly retirement all along the line and fearful that ‘the open country’ beyond Rimini would cripple the defenders, at first withheld his assent but acquiesced in the early afternoon. He was disappointed to hear that evening that instead of defending Rimini house by house, in order to enfilade the Allied advance, the paratroops would leave only rearguards behind in the town. He insisted, as a condition of holding the Viserba canal, two miles north-west of Rimini, that tanks should be put into the line. Tenth Army was given permission to withdraw on the left wing during the night of 20–21 September, ‘thereby breaking off the Battle of Rimini before their own formations south of the Marecchia have become exhausted and incapable of preventing a breakthrough to the plains.’1
Meanwhile the New Zealand Division had been making ready to take advantage of just such a collapse. An order of 18 September instructed the Division to break through the enemy defences immediately south-west of Rimini and to pursue and destroy all enemy forces between Rimini and Ravenna. The planning for the first phase proved to be too pessimistic. In a series of four alternative plans, it was contemplated that at best 5 Brigade group would be needed to establish a bridgehead across the Marecchia for 6 Brigade to exploit, and that at worst 5 Brigade would have to capture San Fortunato, 6 Brigade establish the bridgehead and 4 Armoured Brigade pass through in pursuit. As it happened, the Canadian Corps' battle for San Fortunato went so well that it became possible on 20 September to assume that the New Zealanders would have the entry into the plain forced open for them.
1 War diary, Tenth Army.
It remained only to occupy the ground vacated by a beaten enemy as he drew back across the Marecchia. While on the left the Canadians breasted up to the river, the Greek brigade moved on Rimini itself, whose capture, though tactically a mere aftermath, would be a symbol of Eighth Army's victory. Rimini fell because the loss of San Fortunato made it untenable. Except for sniping, sporadic bursts of spandau fire and occasional shelling from the western environs, the entry of the Greeks and their attached troops was uncontested. The Germans had thought better of their overnight plan to leave a strong rearguard.
Soon after dawn on the cold, blustery morning of 21 September two New Zealand subalterns, Second-Lieutenant Cross,1 of 19 Regiment, and Second-Lieutenant Maurice,2 this regiment's liaison officer with the Greeks, walked towards the apparently deserted ruins of Rimini along Via Venti Settembre, a street named for the anniversary of the previous day.3 They were looking for mines and demolitions. At the Ausa River, which bounds the city to the east, they found the bridge only partly demolished and still offering men and light vehicles access to the old quarter. After reconnoitring a route for tanks into the main square, Piazza Cavour, they called up 11 Troop and its infantry escort, 8 Platoon of 22 Battalion. By 6.30a.m. the men on foot had entered Piazza Cavour. The tanks, by mutual aid, managed to ford the river, but since rubble blocked the direct route to the centre of the city, they made a circuit of its southern ramparts. About seven o'clock they clattered into the main square from the west, drove up the steps of the Palazzo dell'Arengo and parked under the portico. A few minutes later Greek infantrymen began to appear in the square. With a proper respect for protocol, a civilian who announced himself as the Mayor of Rimini produced a document drawn up in English, Greek and Italian and prepared to hand over his city to the latest of its many conquerors.
First as a port and railway junction and then as the eastern anchor of the German Apennine defences, Rimini (with a normal population of 30,000) had been attacked by Allied bombers since the end of 1943. As the battle approached, it had come under fire from Allied naval and field guns. The Germans had levelled large areas and more recently had blown bridges and collapsed buildings to block Eighth Army's progress.
One venerable bridge, however, was spared, the Ponte d'Augusto, a stone arch that since the time of Tiberius has spanned one of the channels by which the sprawling Marecchia flows to the sea past the western edge of the old city. Whether saved by German policy or oversight,1 it gave the New Zealand tanks and infantry a quick route westwards to a second branch of the Marecchia, where the Route 16 bridge had been completely destroyed. Here German machine-gunners lay in wait for rash pursuers.
While the Marecchia, the last obstacle before the plain, thus stalled the New Zealand advanced guard, farther upstream infantry of 2 Canadian Brigade made good their crossing. Drenched by an overnight rainstorm, a company of Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry pressed on over the swollen river and by 9.50 a.m. was established across Route 9. It was a simple, prosaic piece of infantry routine: a few men walked cautiously across a road and began to dig in. Yet it marked the end of an era far more aptly than the flaunting of flags above the rubble of nearby Rimini. Behind lay the memorials of Eighth Army's past—San Fortunato and the Gothic Line, Florence and the Paula Line, Cassino and the Gustav and Hitler lines, Orsogna and Ortona, and farther back still, beyond the many rivers and hills, the toe of Calabria, where the army had first touched Italy one year and 18 days ago. Ahead lay the vast continuity of the Lombard plain.
1 There is a conflict of evidence as to whether charges were laid under the bridge.
Field Marshal Kesselring recommended to the German High Command that he should withdraw his forces behind the major obstacle of the Po, where he could regroup while employing every possible delaying device south of the river. A timed programme for this movement—given the codename AUTUMN FOG (Herbstnebel)— had been worked out at a conference at HQ Tenth Army on 30 August. The scheme was submitted to Hitler by the Army Group C chief of staff (Lieutenant-General Roettiger) on 23 September, but as might be expected was flatly rejected; Kesselring received orders the same day to adhere to the basic intentions of defending the northern Apennines and western Alps.
On 27 September he again asked Hitler for authority to initiate AUTUMN FOG. He based his plea on the continued Allied pressure on his southern front, the possibility of amphibious landings on the Riviera and along the Adriatic coast, and the growing threat of an Allied breakthrough in the Bologna area. But he was told on 5 October that ‘the Fuehrer, for political, military and administrative reasons, had decided to defend the Apennine front and to hold upper Italy not only until late autumn, but indefinitely.’1
Roettiger, after his return from Germany, quoted Hitler as having said that ‘a withdrawal of the front behind the Po might be too much of a shock for the German people.’ The wartime production of industrial northern Italy, still working at high pressure, could not be sacrificed, and ‘the loss of the Po plains would have a most deleterious effect on the food situation, as it would mean that the food supplies for the forces committed in Italy would have to come from Germany.’2
Before Kesselring made his second appeal to Hitler, Vietinghoff had ordered the corps and divisional commanders of Tenth Army ‘not to relinquish one foot of soil to the enemy without inflicting heavy casualties…. The enemy's reserves are not inexhaustible. Heavy casualties in particular would press very heavily on him. The battles of Ortona and Cassino have demonstrated this….’3
2 Appendix to war diary, Tenth Army.