NINE DAYS AFTER HANDING OVER on the Arno-Tiber Front, Tenth Indian Division moved forward through torrential rains, over mud-soup roads, to the relief of Fourth Indian Division on the line of the Rubicon. For a week well-nigh impassable tracks hampered troop movements and delayed the take-over. The men waited under the inclement elements with no more shelter than bivouac sheets provided. The effect of the weather on offensive operations is often emphasized in this narrative; it should be remembered that what hampers wheels and tracks can affect bodies as well. Only the highest discipline and assurance can sustain morale during comfortless days and nights in which nothing happens. It says much for Indian troops that during such periods they remained in good heart and in good health.
On October 3rd, 25th Indian Brigade took over from 7th Indian Brigade at Borghi, on the edge of the Rubicon Valley. 20th Brigade relieved 11th Brigade on the Montebello Ridge just north of the Marecchia. The Divisional front therefore ran north and south, with a sag in the centre. At its nearest point the Indian troops were little more than ten miles from the sea. Their mission was to thrust into the west in order to widen Eighth Army's battlefield. The countryside lacked the substance of the Tiber landscape. The hills were little more than bare, sharp ridges, slashed by precipitous ravines. The area was heavily populated; everywhere solidly built villages and farmsteads provided the enemy with ready-made pill-boxes and strongpoints. The village church with its observation tower and the high, thick walls of the village cemetery, supplied the nodal points of such defences. As Allied artillery and aircraft were loath to attack consecrated ground, the Germans established their headquarters in sanctuary and enjoyed a measure of immunity during the early stages of any battle.
Once in the line, Tenth Indian Division lost no time in getting down to business. On the night after taking over, King's Own clashed with a German patrol near Borghi, killing two scouts dressed in civilian clothes. The bodies identified One Hundred and Fourteenth Jaeger Division, old opponents from the Tiber basin, as on this front. Within forty-eight hours of arrival, a two-brigade assault went in. 20th Brigade struck from the Montebello positions for Sogliano, five miles to the west on the Rubicon. Starting four hours later, 25th Brigade also drove down the line of the Rubicon to clear San Martino. These attacks were destined to converge but not to meet, as the capture of either point would be sufficient to squeeze out resistance east of the Rubicon.
On the right of the Divisional front, King's Own, using artificial moonlight, went over to the attack at 0300 hours on the morning of October 5th. Skirting San Martino they swung left-handed and advanced from the south. Against fierce opposition the leading company burst into the village. Out of the darkness a heavy counterattack surged. The British troops were thrown back, losing fifty men. A company in close support refused to give ground, and throughout the day counter-attack after counter-attack broke down. That evening a troop of North Irish Horse tanks arrived, and King's Own smashed at San Martino again. By 2100 hours the village was in their grip. Before daylight 1st Durhams from 10th Brigade arrived up to strengthen the battle line.
On the left, 2/3 Gurkhas with tanks of North Irish Horse in support, led the thrust on Sogliano. After easy initial gains, stubborn fighting ensued at a cross-roads which offered the only breakaway route for the defenders. The Gurkhas stormed this position, and leaving a Mahratta company in garrison turned into the south, along the approaches to Sogliano. On arrival at the village the hillmen found themselves forestalled by fighting patrols of 1/2 Punjabis, their left flank neighbours, who on being held up on the approaches to Strigara, turned north and established themselves in Sogliano, afterwards exploiting into the north-west along a road which descends seven hundred feet with seventeen hairpin bends in less than a mile. This quick thrust served a notable end by seizing intact two important bridges across the Fiumicino River.
Early in the morning of October 6th, in thick fog and pouring rain, 1/2 Punjabis attacked Strigara anew. The abominable weather contributed its meed to the tenacious resistance of the garrison. The attack was suspended during daylight, but resumed immediately after dark, when the Punjabis were reinforced by two companies of 4/10 Baluchis. The Indians would not be denied, and after ninety minutes' fighting Strigara was captured.
Thus in two days Tenth Indian Division had cleared the line of the Rubicon on a front of approximately five miles. The axis of advance now turned into the north-west towards Monte Farneto, where a triangle of precipitous and difficult terrain confronted the assault brigades. Its apex was at Cesena, eight miles to the north. It was bounded to the north-west by Route 9 from Rimini to Casena. To the east the valley of the Savio divided these bad lands from the equally rugged foothills of the Apennines. These blunt upland capes thrust into the path of Eighth Army; until they were secured substantial forces could not find elbow room for battle, nor fan out on to the northern plains. These ten square miles of broken ground were held in strength and a major battle loomed.
Facing the left of the Indian front, two high bare hills stood sentinel. On the right Monte Farneto, sixteen hundred feet high, was protected by a maze of deep-cut watercourses, impassable to vehicles and in wet weather next to unscalable by men. More than two thousand yards to the west of Farneto stood Montecodruzzo. This abrupt buttress rose thirteen hundred feet above the plain, with steep and trackless slopes. Its crest marked the beginning of a long ridge arching into the north, which gradually fell away into hillocks towards Cesena. Along the summit of this ridge the hamlets of Montecodruzzo, Monte Del Erta, Monteguzzo and Monte Chicco possessed the natural defences of precipitous slopes, deep ravines on either side, and difficult approaches along a razor-backed crest. Behind Monte Farneto a similar system of ridges worked into the north in higgledy-piggledy fashion by way of Monte Spaccato, Monte Leone, and Monte Reale. Standing a few hundred feet above the flourishing town of Cesena, Aquarola represented the northern extremity of these features.
Tenth Indian Division was now confronted with its sternest test. The flexible tactics which had won ground at low cost in the Arno and Tiber valleys were no longer of avail. Two German divisions, strong and full of fight, held these ridge systems. Only a frontal assault could dislodge them, and that assault must go in against every obstacle that the terrain, the weather and the enemy could impose.
It was a mountaineers' battlefield, and at this juncture Tenth Division had the good fortune to inherit 43rd Gurkha Lorried Brigade. This acquisition allowed General Reid to commit a strong force to the attack. On the night of October 6th, 20th Brigade opened the offensive. At 2000 hours. 2/3 Gurkhas and 3/5 Mahrattas trudged off on a long night march into the north. In the early hours they closed up on Monte Farneto. The pelting rain and the impenetrable night served well, for the enemy apparently had decided that hostilities were impossible in such weather. His forward positions were unmanned, and the two battalions swept over their objectives with little loss. At dawn the chug and roar of tanks announced the arrival of North Irish Horse, only an hour behind the infantry---a magnificent performance for tracked vehicles over such terrain.
The enemy was dumbfounded and disorganized. It was only at noon that the routine counter-attack mustered in the north. By this time the Divisional artillery had ranged; when an enemy force of battalion strength struck at Monte Farneto, it was thrown back. As a second counter-attack developed, the Air weighed in with fighter-bomber attacks. That evening Northumberland Fusilier machine-gunners backed the infantry in smashing a third assault. All night and all next day counter-attacks of varying strength proved equally fruitless. A forward section of Mahrattas was destroyed in the mortar barrage which preceded one rush. Another section under Lance Naik Keshav Shinde disappeared in the melee as their enemies swept over them, but they emerged battling to clear their post with bomb and bayonet. An enemy order picked up on the battlefield instructed the Germans that they must regain Monte Farneto or perish in the attempt.
On the evening of October 7th, 25th and 10th Brigades went into action against a ridge taking off from Monte Farneto into the north. Within seventy-five minutes of leaving their start lines 3/18 Garhwalis beat down opposition and swept over Monte Gattona and San Lorenzo. Thirty-eight killed and fourteen prisoners were the trophies of this sharp encounter, which cost the Garhwalis less than a dozen casualties. To the south-west of the Garhwalis, 3/1 Punjabis ran into almost impassable ground, with deep nullah-like watercourses and gradients too steep to be searched by gun fire. A church on the left flank had been strongly fortified. Attempts to reach it failed. A similar situation confronted 2/4 Gurkhas of 10th Brigade, who attacked between the Punjabis and Monte Farneto. They had been directed on San Paolo, situated on a road junction to the left flank rear of Roncofreddo, one of the bastions of the enemy defences. The Gurkhas closed on the village to encounter another Mozzagrogna. House by house the hamlet was cleared, but as the battling hillmen fought forward fresh enemies sprang up behind them. As usual the cemetery and the church became the chief centres of resistance; among the tombstones ferocious fighting ensued. Dawn brought no cessation, for in the last hours of darkness the Germans managed to infiltrate reinforcements into the northern fringe of San Paolo. Throughout the day fighting flared up again and again. In the end the series of quick deadly clashes proved too much for the enemy, who withdrew the remnants of his garrison during the next night.
10th Brigade had despatched 4/10 Baluchis to seize ground on the approaches to Montecodruzzo. In an advance along slopes slashed by innumerable ravines, the Baluchis encountered heavy going. Whereupon 43rd Brigade, was ordered to concentrate on this flank, and to devote itself to the assault on the western ridge system.
On the right of the Divisional battlefield 3/1 Punjabis, thwarted in their first assault, succeeded brilliantly on the night of October 9/10th. In an attack on Roncofreddo, they swept through the town in dashing style. Unfortunately Lieut.-Colonel Clifford was killed next day, the second commander of this battalion to fall in Italy.
No rest was vouchsafed the enemy. When, after fanatical resistance, he relinquished San Paolo, the Durhams of 10th Brigade passed through at once to attack Monte Spaccato, on the next ridge to the north. As at Monte Farneto the miserable weather was turned to good account. During a period of ground mist the Durhams, who were no mean woodsmen, found a number of gaps in the enemy's defences and filtered through. When the sun broke out, the Germans, going about their morning chores, found "C" Company of the North Countrymen embedded in their midst. Fierce hand-to-hand fighting followed. All company officers became casualties, but the Durhams clung to their positions. Two bodies could not occupy one space so the enemy, throwing in a counter-attack as a screen for his purpose, fell back to a reserve line of defence.
By the evening of October 10th Tenth Indian Division was master of the forelands of the peninsula of high ground which blocked the way to the plains. Only on the extreme left, where 4/10 Baluchis had encountered tough going, did the enemy hold ground below the main crests. 43rd Brigade now entered the battle. On the night of October 11th, although neither tracks nor wheels nor animals could negotiate the greasy rain-soaked slopes of Montecodruzzo, three companies of the 2/6 Gurkhas made their way up the hillsides. One company walked into an outpost of the Twentieth German Air Force Division. The, sentries slept. Three were killed and six captured without alarm. At first light the hillmen stood on the crest of Montecodruzzo, having seized the hamlet and the large square church. It is difficult to understand how the enemy, at a time when he was rising to frenzy in his attempts to regain Monte Farneto, should have allowed its companion ridge system to have been virtually unguarded. Indeed of the two features Montecodruzzo was of greater importance, as it ran at right angles to the crests against which the other brigades of Tenth Division were launched, and so constituted a flank menace to successive enemy defence positions. Yet for the two days 2/6 Gurkhas continued to consolidate and to prepare for the next phase with little interference from the enemy.
On the afternoon of October 12th, after a long and arduous march, 2/10 Gurkhas arrived at Montecodruzzo. Two companies immediately pushed forward towards Monte Del Erta. Once again Germans on outpost were found asleep, and fifteen prisoners taken. Tenacious resistance from enemy-held houses slowed down the progress along the narrow ridge, but after bitter fighting, in which elements of two German divisions were identified in successive counter-attacks, the Gurkhas established themselves in the Monte Del Erta. From Montecodruzzo, 2/6 battalion moved up to leap-frog their comrades and to push through to Monte Chicco, the last high knoll and dominating position, which stood above the river Savio where the triangle of high ground approached its apex.
On account of the importance of the Chicco position, it had been decided to synchronize its assault with a similar attack on the parallel ridge system to the east, where Monte del Vacche occupied a similar knoll at the northern extremity of the high ground. To expedite this operation, Durham Light Infantry lost no time in exploiting their success at Monte Spaccato. On October 12th a daylight patrol worked across the Soara Valley, on to the forward slopes of the rising ground to the north. "A" company followed up, and after a sharp fight, in which twenty-three prisoners were taken, established a firm grip upon the crest of the ridge. Simultaneously, on the left, 2/4 Gurkhas moved against Monte Bora , situated on a subsidiary spur of the main saddleback. When the leading company was held up, Major Scott brought forward a second company to attack from flank. His men were caught in the open by enemy tanks which raked them with high explosive and machine-guns. Major Scott was wounded but remained with his men. At dawn next morning both Gurkha companies dashed at the objective. Major Scott's men thrust directly against the centre of the German resistance, a thick-walled farmhouse with out-buildings, which spat fire in all directions. The company was pinned down but their commander snatched a Bren gun from a dead man and raced in, firing as he ran. Struck again, he went down, but was on his feet at the head of his Gurkhas when he fell riddled within ten yards of the enemy. His men surged over the farmhouse and wiped out the garrison. A heavy enemy shoot compelled a temporary withdrawal, but other companies immediately moved up and retook the position.
The stage was now set for the master assault on Monte Chicco. At 2200 hours on October 13th, 2/6 Gurkhas passed their start line with "D" Company leading. The tiny hamlet of Monteguzzo, built on a knife-edged ridge, was overrun after a stiff resistance. "B" and "C" Companies pushed through, and savage fighting developed among the bare hummocks of the narrow crest.
Swept from the crown of the hill, the Germans rallied and infiltrated along the slopes clinging tenaciously to every yard of ground. Bomb squads crept up to toss grenades into groups battling their way forward on the summit above them. For a mile behind the fighting enemy artillery searched the ridge top, so that supplies and reinforcements ran the gauntlet of incessant shellfire. By dawn, 216 Gurkhas had reached Monte Chicco, to be held up by furious assaults from three sides. Both 2/8 and 2/10 battalions sent companies forward, and the struggle mounted in bitterness throughout the day. Fighter bombers from the Corps "Cab-rank" intervened with well-timed and accurate dive attacks on enemy mortar teams. Major C. W. P. Head, artillery liaison officer, followed the thick of the battle. As the day wore away, he embodied more and more artillery in his fire plan. By evening all the Divisional gunners were enrolled in a box barrage programme which protected the flanks and front of the heavily engaged hillmen. When night fell a heavy shoot by spandaus and mortars seemed to presage a continuation of the tense struggle, but it turned out to be deception fire, under cover of which the Germans withdrew. By dawn the fighting had died away, and the Gurkhas walked freely along the high ground above the deep valley of the Savio.
On the parallel ridge system, 4/10 Baluchis, who had been held up in front of the Soara Valley, likewise found their front empty next morning. They pushed on until at Monte Reale they could see above the diminishing ridges the spires and turrets of Cesena, less than three miles away. Cesena by now was almost in the grasp of the Forty-Sixth British Division, advancing from the south-east in the plain below. On the night of October 16th a Baluchi assault at battalion strength sent the last enemy rearguards scurrying from Monte Reale. A few hours later 3/1 Punjabis passed through and seized Aquarola, a mile nearer Cesena. The battle was not yet over. In San Demetrio, on a lower and intermediate ridge, the enemy stood at bay. For fourteen hours the battle ebbed and flowed around the church and square. Two platoons of Punjabis infiltrated during the night, and having established themselves, beat back assault after assault. A German tank moved up and shelled them at point blank range. Even then the panzer grenadiers could not close. At dawn the Punjabis emerged from their battered refuges to find the Germans gone.
Tenth Indian Division had accomplished its mission. In this skilful and bitter fighting it had doubled the width of the front through which Eighth Army might advance on to the plains. Its next directive called for an abrupt change of direction. With British troops converging on its immediate front at Cesena the axis of advance wheeled from north into the west, where beyond the Savio Valley the enemy lay entrenched in a series of strong hill positions. Even before the close of the Monte Chicco-Monte Reale fighting, patrols of both 25th and 43rd Brigades had explored the eastern banks of the Savio, mopping up rearguards and selecting crossings. There were no roads leading from the ridges into the valley below, and the main lateral road (Route 71) followed the enemy's side of the river. It was essential that the Savio should be crossed at once. As ostentatiously as possible (in order that the enemy might be led to believe that the full strength of the Indians was arrayed on the eastern bank), 2/6 Gurkhas, from 43rd Brigade, and 3/18 Garhwalis from 25th Brigade, sent strong fighting patrols to probe the river line. The Garhwalis effected a lodgement on the far bank at San Carlo, five miles south of Cesena, and the Gurkhas with less difficulty crossed some three miles further up the river.
The careful reader may have noted that 20th Brigade disappeared from this narrative after relief at Monte Farneto. During the bitter fighting on the saddlebacks, Central India Horse had been exploring the upper Savio in search of fords. At Cella, well to the south of Montecodruzzo, a shallows was discovered. On October 20th, 20th Brigade with three field regiments under command, unobtrusively and without opposition crossed the stream at this point and turned into the north. Moving rapidly through the hills, by the evening of October 21st the patrol screen was approaching Monte Cavallo. the first of the fortified positions west of the Savio. The Brigade was ordered to attack three hours after a similar assault was launched by 25th Brigade upon Tessello, two miles further north.
At 1700 hours on October 21st, 25th Brigade began to cross the Savio through San Carlo. King's Own in the lead immediately deployed, and moved up a broad spur leading into the hills. 3/18 Garhwalis infiltrated on to high ground along a narrow re-entrant, while 2/4 Gurkhas headed directly up the slopes towards Formignano, a village prominently perched on the crest of the ridge. Concurrently 20th Brigade closed up from the south against Monte Cavallo, less than a half-mile south of Formignano. 2/3 Gurkhas led the latter advance, with 3/5 Mahrattas in close support.
The night was dark and weather conditions appalling. Everywhere the dogged infantry slogged through squelching mud. Before midnight all five leading battalions were committed to stubborn fighting. Situation reports at dawn showed no objectives gained. King's Own and Garhwalis had been thrown back by a savage counter-attack from a newly arrived assault battalion. 2/4 Gurkhas were no more than halfway to Formignano. On the slopes of Monte Cavallo 2/3 Gurkhas and 3/5 Mahrattas were pinned down.
An episode during the counter-attack on the Garhwalis deserves to be recorded. The Indians ran out of ammunition and the over-bold enemy closed in for the kill. Naik Trilok Singh, with his section's last round spent, told his men to sit tight. He would go and fetch an enemy machine-gun. He stalked a spandau crew as they crept forward, killed them in hand-to-hand fighting, and brought back gun and ammunition in time to beat off the next counter-attack single-handed. Unfortunately this fine soldier died later in the day while covering the withdrawal of his section.
During October 22nd 1/2 Punjabis moved up to reinforce the fighting line, while 2/6 and 2/10 Gurkhas crossed the Savio to fill the gap between 20th and 10th Brigades. That evening for the first time in Italy, 20th Brigade staged a set piece attack behind a heavy shoot. 10,000 shells were cast on the enemy positions; a general assault went in all along the line. On the slopes of Monte Cavallo, 2/3 Gurkhas crept forward; a swift rush out of the dark won home everywhere. Strong parties of the enemy were mopped up; a havildar engaged in clearing houses flushed nineteen Germans with smoke grenades and took all prisoner. 3/5 Mahrattas passed through the hillmen and after bitter and confused fighting closed upon the crest of Monte Cavallo. The defenders struck back in reckless counter-attacks, during which the Mahrattas held their fire until the Germans were silhouetted on the skyline above them. At first light on October 23rd Monte Cavallo was captured. The exhausted Germans for once failed to muster sufficient strength for the customary counter-attack.
Indian Sappers and Miners working at top speed had thrown two Bailey bridges over the Savio. Supplies and support weapons now reached the fighting men in the hills. 43rd Brigade retrieved the two battalions loaned to 20th Brigade, and began to leap-frog into the north-west. 20th Brigade thrust in the same direction on a slightly different axis, and likewise made ground rapidly. 25th Brigade turned due north, to cleanse the broken ground above the west bank of the Savio. By the sad irony of war, in the course of an advance in which little except bickering occurred, three outstanding personalities of Tenth Indian Division were killed. The O'Neill, commanding North Irish Horse, was struck by a shell. Major Anandrao Kadam, a highly esteemed Mahratta company commander and athlete, who had risen from the ranks, fell, together with Captain "Tim" Hodge of 68 Field Regiment, one of-the best-known artillery officers in the Division.
The enemy had dropped back everywhere to the line of the Ronco, which paralleled the Savio ten miles further west. The river was in spate, a turbulent torrent twelve feet deep. The weather had broken completely, and every valley bottom was aswirl with storm water. 43rd Brigade on the night of October 25/26 closed up on the Ronco to the north of Meldola, and pushed a patrol across. Simultaneously
Naba Akhal Infantry, which had rejoined 20th Brigade on October 23rd, reached the river, about the same distance south of Meldola. Two companies crossed and seized a position on the western bank. Here they were isolated, without support weapons; but they immediately despatched strong fighting patrols which contacted groups of 15th Polish Cavalry Regiment, thus closing the front.
Although resistance along the Ronco was spotty, the enemy was known to hold substantial forces in the neighbourhood of Forli, a few miles away. The Divisional sappers at once set to work to bridge the river. An aerial ropeway was slung over a two hundred foot gap, and the remainder of Nabha Akals rode in slings to the west bank. Next day 43rd Brigade discovered a damaged aqueduct to the north of Meldola, which was made into a bridge by knocking down the side walls of the channel. The Gurkhas crossed and consolidated a shallow bridgehead. Tenth Division established advanced companies for two and a half miles on either side of Meldola, and the forward brigades immediately despatched strong forces to deepen the perimeter. On October 28th Nabha Akals drove enemy rearguards off the height of land between the Ronco and the Rabbi, the next river to the west. A rapid stroke by 43rd Brigade followed. In a thrust into the north 2/6 and 2/10 Gurkhas advanced across the open fields towards Forli. Both battalions after sharp fighting broke through the enemy defensive cordon, taking forty-five prisoners and killing many more. By now the Germans had had enough. On October 30th a wireless intercept revealed them to be retreating everywhere. Forty-Sixth British Division, Tenth Indian Division and Third Carpathian Division were all converging on the Forli airfields, and the Indians in the centre were squeezed out of their front. First the Gurkha Brigade, then 20th Brigade was withdrawn. Finally 25th Brigade handed over to British troops, and the Indians went back to well-earned rest.
These operations among the eastern spurs of the Apennines revealed Tenth Indian Division in its most adept role. Concealment, unobtrusive infiltration, followed by a violent pounce upon enemies taken unawares---so ran the tale of attack after attack. General Reid's slogans inculcated his division with a dominant idea in terms sufficiently simple to be understood, sufficiently explicit to serve as a standing guide and instruction. With vile terrain and abominable weather fighting half the enemy's battle, the Division refused to be held up, or even slowed down, in its relentless march across ridges and rivers. As has been pointed out elsewhere, the narrative must follow the fortunes of the infantry, and it is only on occasion that a "Shabash" can be given to the other half of the Division---the gunners, sappers, and men of miscellaneous services who shared in full the rigours of every occasion. The lot of artillery in mountain warfare is not a happy one, yet the British gunners throughout found means of intervening effectively on every call. Their losses were commensurate with their activities: during the advance along the Tiber Valley, 68 Field Regiment had more casualties than some of the infantry units which it supported. The sappers likewise were full partners in every enterprise. Without their clever improvisations and endless hours of work in the mud and rain, the enemy could not have been brought to battle. Colonel Datt's medical units achieved an astonishing level of efficiency, not only in the handling of casualties, but in field hygiene and in the prevention of ordinary illnesses. The anti-tank and antiaircraft regiments, in lieu of regular employment, became maids of all work. In the course of the advance 13 Anti-Tank Regiment raised mines, manned mortars, maintained smoke-screens, built Bailey bridges, and provided crews for field guns and howitzers. Between the Savio and the Ronco this regiment had rafted their guns, had winched them up cliffsides, had slung them across ravines on aerial ropeways, hand-hauled them through shallows, and towed them with oxen across the hills. 30 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment had been equally versatile: a field poet catalogued its enterprises in a blithe parody of "IF", the last stanza proclaiming:
If you can drive a tractor in the darkness,
Along a road that winds both up and down,
If you can winch a Bofors up the starkness
Of some foul mountain feature without frown;
If you can lay a line, or spot a mortar,
Or organize the traffic on its way,
If you know how to be a ration porter
Then you'll know why you joined the Light A.A."
It was the spirit behind this versatility that broke the Nazi grip on Italy.
THE NARRATIVE must now retrace its steps, both in place and in time, and cross the mountains to Florence in mid-August. With order restored and public services functioning, Eighth Indian Division was again available for sterner employment.
After 21st Indian Brigade had been relieved in the city, the Division moved twelve miles to the east, into the Pontasseive area. Here the River Sieve flows down in a great bend along the foothills of the Apennines. Within this bend the enemy held a series of high spurs which constituted the outworks of the Gothic Line, barring entry into the narrow valleys by which the main roads climb over the crests of the mountains. Due east of Florence the first contours of this high ground are rounded and gracious, tree-clad and heavily cultivated; but as the ridges fuse into the foothills they tend to become sharp, rugged and irregular. The Indian front covered the intermediate stage of this transformation, in which thickly wooded hills rose about thirteen hundred feet above the river, and in which the rolling countryside had begun to yield to narrow summits and little crooked valleys.
The Supreme Commander had planned that when the attack upon the Gothic Line had been launched by Eighth Army, and the expected withdrawal in the Adriatic sectors had begun, Fifth Army would mount a massive assault across the Apennines with Bologna and the Po Valley as its objectives. Should, this stroke succeed, all German forces south of the Po would be trapped against the Adriatic Coast. The main Fifth Army attack was deputed to Second U.S. Corps, while Thirteenth British Corps protected the right flank of the Americans and conformed with their advance over the mountain. Thirteenth Corps at this time consisted of First British Infantry Division, Sixth British Armoured Division, and Eighth Indian Division, and was deployed with the Indians in the centre of the Corps area.
Beyond the intermediate high ground on Eighth Division's front stood the great wall of the San Benedetto Alps, whose crests rose to more than five thousand feet above the valley of the Arno. This barrier the Indians must penetrate. From a height of land not more than thirty miles to the north-east of Florence, a profusion of streams flowed down to the Adriatic bearing through parallel valleys into the northeast. The roads naturally followed these valleys, and for the advance over the mountains a number of alternative routes diverged from the great centre of Florence. For convenience these roads will be described in this narrative by their code names, and the graph on page 124 will show their relationship to each other. Route 67, a main highway which followed the Arno to the east before turning north-east along the valley of the Sieve, was known as Star Route. It debouched from the mountains at Forli. The second main road from Florence to the Adriatic followed a parallel course to the crest of the Apennines at Marradi from whence it forked into the valleys of the Lamone and the Senio. Sword Route lay in the Lamone Valley and Arrow Route in the Senio Valley, five miles further west. The grain of the ground was such that lateral roads were almost non-existent on the eastern slopes of the Apennines, and this circumstance was responsible for the early committal of Eighth Indian Division to battle. Less than fifteen miles above Pontassieve the only cross-road in the mountains linked Dicomano on Star Route with Borgho San Lorenzo on Arrow Route, and further west, both these routes with the main Florence-Bologna highway. This lateral road permitted the enemy to move his reserve troops from one sector to another, and afforded him alternative lines of communications through the mountains. It traversed the Sieve valley immediately under the outworks of the Gothic Line, and was regarded by both adversaries as a military property of first importance.
On arrival at Pontassieve, General Russell was warned by the Commander of Thirteenth Corps that Eighth Indian Division probably would be called upon to establish a bridgehead over the Arno. Investigations began immediately. 17th Brigade deployed in the hills south of the river, and fighting and sapper patrols began their search for approaches, shallow fords, and exits on the northern bank surmountable by vehicles. The river rose rapidly after rain storms, sometimes by as much as five feet in a night. This circumstance made it difficult to decide upon suitable crossings. On August 21st, 47 Field Park Company, after several unsuccessful attempts by other units, succeeded in raising the sluice gates at Le Sieve, which controlled the level of the river. This operation was carried out under enemy mortar and small arms fire.
The next move was to bring 19th Brigade further east in order to organize a Divisional front. By August 24th Eighth Division was disposed south of the Arno on a sector of not more than two and a half miles, with 17th Brigade on the right, 19th Brigade on the left, and 21st Brigade in reserve. It was a tight fit, and General Russell's greatest need was elbow-room. The enemy fortunately solved his problem. During the night of August 23/24, Royal Fusiliers heard transport moving to the north-east along Star Route. It was the first indication of enemy withdrawal from outpost positions north of the Arno. On the following night, patrols reported the ridges above the northern bank to be clear. On August 26th both brigades forded the stream, establishing a bridgehead five miles broad and three miles deep. 7 and 69 Field Companies, Indian Engineers, went to work at once on bridges. 26 Light A.A. Regiment, which in the absence of the Luftwaffe devoted themselves to a miscellany of duties, laid down a smoke screen to cover the sites and the sappers. By August 27th in spite of incessant shelling, three bridges had been completed. Thereafter the supply services functioned without interruption. Beyond the river mule trains came forward to give the infantry freedom of manoeuvre and assurance of supplies across the broken ground and over the trackless spurs.
Both forward brigades now began to probe into the hills. The countryside was not unlike many parts of India, and the sepoys, accustomed from early childhood to hill climbing and a strenuous open air life, were completely at home. Sometimes by day, and always after dark, British, Indian, and Gurkha patrols worked forward through the narrow cobbled streets of the hilltop villages. Perhaps the enemy was gone, and the villagers, creeping cautiously from their cellars, would encounter strange men who gave them friendly grins and enquired after the Boche in queerly-accented but quite comprehensible Italian. Elsewhere a sharp challenge and a crackle of tommy gun fire might break the silence of the night before the German rearguards disappeared into the darkness. Sometimes sad tragedies awaited the liberators, as in the hamlet of Pervecchia, where a Royal Fusiliers patrol found the bodies of thirteen hostages who had been shot as reprisal for the killing of a German anti-aircraft gunner by the Italian partisans.
Early opposition was encountered near Tigliano, about six miles north of the Arno. Here a battalion of Seven Hundred and Fifteenth German Infantry Division occupied a ridge and showed no disposition to leave. The commander of 17th Brigade sent forward 1/5 Gurkhas with instructions to secure Point 526, south-east of the German position. Thereafter Royal Fusiliers would pass through and working along the crest would clear the ridge. At 2100 hours on August 28th, "A" Company of the Gurkhas crossed the start line, closely followed by "B" Company. Two hours later both companies silently closed on the enemy's first positions. Under heavy fire the Gurkhas overran the outposts, killing the garrison and sweeping through to the battalion objective. The Germans counter-attacked immediately, and fierce hand to hand fighting followed. A platoon of "A" Company, under Major Benskin, who had been hit three times, was forced back, but its comrades dourly held on in spite of raking fire and lack of cover. The left forward company had barely beaten back one assault when the next rush came. Out of ammunition, the Gurkhas in traditional fashion leapt with their knives to meet the enemy. Lance-Naik Raimansingh Rana found himself confronted with three adversaries. He struck down the first, but the blade of his kukri stuck in his opponent's skull. He snatched a spade from the ground and slew a second German. Two instant deaths unnerved the third Boche, who dropped his machine-gun and fled into the darkness, with the Lance-Naik in close pursuit, spade in hand.
By 0530 hours on August 29th, the Gurkhas firmly held all objectives. Royal Fusiliers passed through, and with them a squadron of 44th Canadian Armoured Regiment. By 1600 hours, the enemy had been chased from their positions in disorder. The British infantry's story is that the Canadian armour did the job. Firing at trees in order to obtain air bursts over the slit trenches, and setting fire to the woods by means of incendiary shell, the tanks hunted the Germans from their bolt-holes until the position was seized with only slight losses.
1/12 Frontier Force Regiment thereafter took up the running, and at first light on August 30th passed through Royal Fusiliers. During the preceding night the Germans had reoccupied a number of positions, and early in the day the Frontiersmen were pinned down by heavy machine-gun fire. As dark fell a heavy enemy shoot crashed down, followed by a counter-attack approximately a half-battalion in strength. The weight of the drive overran the Indian outposts, and for forty-five minutes confused fighting followed. The Germans were first held and then ejected. When morning broke, quiet reigned with no enemies in the neighbourhood. Whereupon the Frontiersmen advanced and occupied Poggio Cerrone, an intermediate ridge snuggling against the haunches of Monte Giovi, which towered to a height of 3,000 feet to the north-east.
On the left, 19th Brigade also had been busy. When morning broke on September 1st Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders had worked up to the village of San Brigida, a little more than a mile west of Poggio Cerrone. As the Argylls moved towards the thickly wooded slopes, the quiet of the pastoral scene was shattered by the fierce staccato of machine-guns. The Scotsmen were pinned down. 6/13 Frontier Force Rifles came forward on the left in an endeavour to turn the position. Monte Calvana, commanding Arrow Route and protected by twin escarpments with precipitous approaches, barred the way. Thick groves of oak and walnut afforded excellent cover to the defenders. Before the Piffers could close, artillery fire caught them at a crossroads. The battalion mule train encountered a heavy concentration shoot which caused substantial casualties and consequent disorganization.
At first light on September 2nd, two companies of Argylls began to work their way through the thick undergrowth on the right flank of the position where they had been pinned down. A blaze of machine-gun fire greeted them; as they bored in, they were met by a billowing curtain of flame from a flamenwerfer. No further advance was possible. Similarly, on the opposite flank, 6/13 Frontier Force Rifles found obstinate and unyielding enemies blocking the way to Monte Calvana. The day's fighting yielded no gains. That night 3/8 Punjabis advanced to their start line through heavy shell fire. (One of the casualties was Major Wright, who will be remembered for his adventures in crossing the Gari.) A thunderstorm broke, and rain poured in torrents. Wireless communications broke down; in the undergrowth sections and platoons lost touch. Individual groups which adhered to the line of advance found themselves at dawn in contact with the enemy's main positions, but without the strength to attack. Reorganization became necessary. At 0800 hours the gunners laid a smoke screen behind which the Punjabis withdrew.
This tenacious resistance changed Thirteenth Corps role from auxiliary to partner in the main attack. Instead of conforming to the American advance on the left, orders were now issued for an individual attack on the Gothic Line. The immediate objective for Eighth Indian Division was the most prominent mountain in sight-Monte Giovi---which stood half-way between Star and Arrow Routes, dominating both valleys. Three thousand feet in height, the steeply rising upper slopes of the mountain were bare, with open grassland upon which sheep grazed. A winding path offered the only track to the crest. The planners turned to their maps and began to arrange dispositions to deal with this formidable obstacle, but before the attack could be launched the enemy obligingly settled the matter. The fierce resistance in front of Monte Giovi had been a temporary manoeuvre designed to protect the lateral road during a period in which German forces were being regrouped to meet Eighth Army's offensive on the Adriatic front. When the trans-Apennine transfers of troops had been completed, Wehrmacht High Command decided to abandon all terrain ahead of the main battle positions of the Gothic Line. On September 8th, civilian refugees reported that the enemy had left Monte Giovi, after driving back all available cattle and sheep. Patrols pushed forward from both Indian brigades, and confirmed the news. The front was open.
21st Brigade now closed up on the right of 17th Brigade, and the Divisional front moved forward, covering the oblong between Arrow and Star Routes. By September 11th patrols from 1/5 Mahrattas had crossed the Sieve on its western reaches. Without pause the Indians continued to work up against the ever-rising ground broken by innumerable small valleys feeding down to the Sieve. Three miles north of. the river, strongly wired and entrenched positions were found abandoned. Immediately behind stood a series of imposing heights which barred the way-high defiant crests which proclaimed that here was the real thing at last---the Gothic Line itself.
The mountains basked in the summer sunshine, and save for the endless streams of mules and jeeps which stumbled and bumped along the mountain tracks, the scene denied the imminence of battle. As the troops went by, Italian husbandmen paused as they trained their vines, and their women leaned on their hoes to scan the columns. On the unscarred slopes, cattle and sheep grazed peacefully. (The imperturbability of cows while fighting raged about them was a subject of endless controversy among the troops. Some said cows had no hearing; some said they had no nerves; all agreed that they had no sense.) The groves and the cloak of undergrowth showed no scar, yet carefully collated intelligence had reported these summits to be raddled with trench systems, revetted and camouflaged, studded with elaborate bunkers and strongpoints. Trees had been felled unobtrusively to give better fields of fire. Concrete machine-gun posts were roofed and casemented. Soil from the trenches had been carried away lest the fresh earth betray the positions to aircraft. Headquarters were deep underground, with buried cables radiating to forward sectors. Belts of concertina wire, ten yards and more in width, skirted the accessible approaches. Mines were sown everywhere.
On Eighth Indian Division's front, three principal bastions barred the way. Le Scalette on the left, Alpe di Vitigliano in the centre and Femina Morta on the right, stood high above the countryside, approached only by bare, rocky spurs, with narrow crests and precipitous slopes. Following the grain of the ground from south-west to northeast, these spurs joined up with the parent features well below their crowns, so that any attack along the ridges would be completely commanded from the summits. The crests were trackless, with rocky winding footpaths as the only means of communication and supply.
General Russell planned to lead off with 21st Brigade in an assault upon Monte Citerna and Monte Stiletto, two feeder ridges intruding into the Alpe di Vitigliano buttress. 1/5 Mahrattas were briefed to seize the approach ground, with 3/15 Punjabis passing through to secure Monte Citerna. Thereafter the Mahrattas would push on to the north-west against Monte Verruca.
At dusk on September 12th the Punjabis began their arduous advance. Just before dawn they made contact with the enemy at Point 632, south-west of Monte Citerna. Day broke upon a thunderous bombardment which ran for miles along the Apennines, as Thirteenth and Second U.S. Corps moved to the assault. Punjabi Mussalmans under Major Nairne scaled an almost vertical cliff and cut through a belt of wire. Machine-gun fire pinned them down on two occasions, but thrusting with splendid dash they swept over Monte Citerna and destroyed the garrison. Without pause the battalion drove for the central buttress of Alpe di Vitigliano, and shortly after noon, after climbing always along the reverse slope of the spur, Lieut.-Colonel Macnamara's men, in a great-hearted effort, routed the garrison on Point 1015, about half-way between Citerna and the main objective. The Punjabis had climbed one thousand feet since dawn and had stormed two positions. They were now halted by concentrated fire from Monte Stiletto on their right rear and Le Scalette on their left front. It was impossible to run the gauntlet of two flanking fires by daylight so the doughty Indians dug in and waited for night. An officer wrote truly: "The Punjabis have opened with a magnificent innings."
During the same hours 1/5 Mahrattas had swung to the left, for the assault on Monte Verruca. The attack was led by "C" Company under command of Major N. J. M. Pettingell, M.C., and was watched by General Russell from a vantage point on a spur 1,000 yards below. Major Pettingell, who has been met previously in this narrative, had reconnoitred his line of attack intimately, and had arranged an ingenious artillery programme in support of his assault. It was impossible to deploy more than two sections of infantry at a time, and therefore it was necessary to draft a detailed time-table for each individual objective. The leading platoon crossed the start line at 1620 hours, and headed for a pin-pointed nest of machine-guns. The Canadian tanks gave close fire support on a system of pre-arranged signals, and plastered the first objective until the Indians were within fifteen yards of the strong-point. As the last shell fell the Mahrattas leapt in, killing four and capturing fifteen defenders. On the tick the next platoon passed through, to be held up short of their objective by machine-guns dug in in defilade, where the tank cannons could not reach them. Naik Nathu Dhanuwade dived into the scrub, clambered like a chamois, and reappeared above the German redoubt, upon which he showered grenades until resistance ceased. The third platoon followed through as though upon exercise. Divisional artillery wreathed smoke over Monte Verruca to blind the defenders, and a sniping gun which had been manhandled up the mountain smashed the German emplacements with direct hits. Once again with the blast of the shells the Mahrattas sprang to the close, finishing off an operation carried out in text-book fashion. The Divisional Commander was thrilled. "I wish His Majesty had been here to see it," he said. As soon as night fell a strong fighting patrol climbed to the crest of Monte Verucca. Only a handful of enemies remained and they scuttled away as "A" Company reached the summit. A German captured three days later carried an unmailed letter which read:
"September 13th was my birthday, and I shall never forget this one. Tommy attacked and I had a hairsbreadth escape. from capture. I have never run so fast as I did then, and up a mountainside. I had received two parcels from home, but everything was left behind. . . ."
From Monte Verruca the Mahrattas bore into the north-east for the climb to Le Scalette. A bitter struggle was anticipated, but fortune smiled. For some reason that is yet unknown, this extremely strong position which might have defied a brigade fell with only scattered resistance. By noon on September 14th the first of the Gothic Line strongholds was the prize of the hard-fighting Mahrattas. Even better news was to come. After bitter resistance on the lower slopes of Alpe di Vitigliano 3/15 Punjabis had spent the day in reorganization. The assault was renewed at 2230 hours that evening. Enemy artillery and mortar fire searched their line of advance, and when they closed up on their objective at midnight it was in anticipation of a grim struggle. The narrow approach compelled attack on a single company frontage. As the leading platoons clambered towards the black skyline they were greeted by heavy small arms fire. Dauntlessly they flung themselves at the crest. A few enemies remained to die in the weapon pits, but more scuttled to safety in the dark. The emplacements were mopped up, and a second bastion of the Gothic Line had fallen.
Of the three main objectives on the Indian front, only Femina Morta remained in enemy hands. On September 16th, 1/12 Frontier Force Regiment passed through the 3/15 Punjabis' positions on Vitigliano. A Gurkha officer had carried out a daring and skilful reconnaissance, and had found a path up the side of a precipice. This narrow footway was too precarious to negotiate by night, so the attack went in at first light. Two companies scaled the cliff and took the Germans completely by surprise. The garrison was destroyed and fifteen prisoners taken. The enemy for the first time in the Gothic Line battle struck back---fiercely and swiftly---but the ridge was so narrow that only twenty to thirty men could join in the assault. The Frontiersmen broke every rush. On September 17th they pushed on and mopped up Point 1084, an adjacent razor-backed ridge which had been selected as start line for the assault on Femina Morta.
Simultaneously 3/15 Punjabis had sallied from Alpe di Vitigliano to do some useful tidying up. Pushing into the north, two ridges on the western approaches of Femina Morta were cleared of the enemy. This operation gave 1/5 Gurkhas, who came forward to pass through 1/12 Frontier Force Regiment for the main attack, a secure western flank. At noon on September 18th the gunners plastered Femina Morte with a concentration shoot which pinned down the defenders. Under cover of a smoke screen the Gurkhas scrambled ahead over rough rising ground. For nearly three hours they forged slowly upwards against heavy harassing fire. As they drew towards the summit, opposition weakened, and at 1500 hours the bastion was won. Twenty-five German bodies were found, and forty-seven prisoners winkled out of dug-outs and emplacements. The garrison had been substantial, but the flank threat, together with the artillery programme and the unrelenting approach of the hillmen, led to half-hearted defence and early flight.
In seven days Eighth Indian Division had broken through the Gothic Line. It is no detraction from the superb leadership and outstanding fighting ability of the Indian soldiers to record that the case with which this defensive zone was pierced. came as a surprise to everybody. It is difficult to understand why positions of such strength, fortified with such care, should have been entrusted to such meagre garrisons. The German troops did not fight particularly well, but they were much too thin on the ground to make an effective stand against well-mounted attacks. Captured officers attributed the disaster to loss of contact between Tenth and Fourteenth German Armies, which were heavily engaged on both sides of the Indians. Other German prisoners stated that battle reserves were on their way forward and had not arrived. It seems possible that the real answer lay in the paucity of lateral communications and that with the Air completely under Allied control the enemy found it impossible to move reinforcements into the threatened area.
The brief, bright record of the assault troops is by no means the full story of Eighth Indian Divisions' assault on the Gothic Line. Behind the indomitable infantry that clambered and won the peaks, the entire Division worked in high gear. The smoothness of the ancillary services was the yardstick of the speed of the attack. Next to the battle line, both literally and in priority, came the mule trains, the patient animals and the indefatigable drivers who followed wherever the fighting men went. They fetched food, water, ammunition and blankets, and took back litters of wounded. Day by day Indian sappers drove jeep-head deeper into the hills. Winding up the mountain slopes for mile after mile, the narrow tracks looked like threads of cotton against the brown mountainsides. The Divisional provosts in an unbroken tour of duty policed these routes in order that the traffic might flow steadily and without jam. Signallers laid hundreds of miles of cable; no sooner had the infantry dug in than the telephones began to buzz. At vehicle-head the stretcher-hearers lifted the wounded from the litter mules and laid them carefully on specially fitted jeeps which edged cautiously down the mountain side. The "Q" Services worked twenty-four hours in each day, replenishing sub-dumps from main dumps apportioning and delivering supplies by jeep, mule, and man pack. In a general order General Russell summarized these exceptional performances.
"To-day, the 24th of September, the Division completes a year in Italy. Much has happened during this period. The Division has reason to feel proud of its achievements. Our major battles have been concerned with river crossings. We can cut notches for the Biferno, Trigno, Sangro, Moro, Rapido and Arno rivers. There are more ahead. Between these obstacles, led by our reconnaissance unit, our success has been largely due to rapid reduction of transport, maintaining pressure by skilful patrolling and by hitting really hard when an attack was necessary. Junior leaders have played a great part in preparing for the kill. Our artillery, machine guns and mortars have always made it possible for our infantry and armour to administer the coup de grâce.
"Sappers, Signallers and Services have played an important part in maintaining the momentum of the advance. The untiring efforts of Sappers and Miners, bridge-building, mine-laying, improvising, have ensured our place well up in the hunt. Without the very high standard of communications, maintained with such cheerful energy, little could have been done. Those who worked behind the scenes in the Services tending our sick and wounded, fitting and replenishing, maintaining and recovering our hard-worked transport, have had a great share in this successful year.
"Many have performed tasks for which they are not primarily intended. Ack-ack Gunners have made excellent traffic control police, and as a smoke-producing unit they have saved many casualties at considerable risk to themselves. Anti-tank gunners have performed valuable pioneer work. The spirit of 'Is there anything we can do to help?' makes it easy for a commander.
"This retrospect is pleasant, the prospect is inspiring. Keep right on to the end of the road."
In the opinion of many who fought in this battle, the decisive contribution was that of the Air. Never have the Allied air forces intervened in greater strength and with greater effectiveness. All day long the sky above the mountain peaks was filled with the thunder of aircraft, sallying and returning, with never an enemy machine to challenge them. Along the narrow valleys, as on the bare crests, the fighter bombers, the mediums and the heavies, struck devastating blows. The enemy lived like a beast in this hole, in terror of what awaited him. By day he dared not move. After dark when his horse-drawn transport dashed along the roads, with urgent supplies, the night bombers swooped with destruction in their maws. As prisoners marched back they often glanced overhead, where the sky traffic roared ceaselessly. Bitter words came to their lips and they cursed Hermann Goering as the author of their downfall.
Everywhere Fifth Army's assault had gone well. The American attack in front of Florence, under a massive air umbrella, had broken through the Giogi Pass and was thrusting for Firenzuola, twelve miles northwest of Marradi. First British Division on the Indians' left had made good gains against heavy opposition. On the extreme right flank of the attack Sixth British Armoured Division had stormed Monte Peschiena, a key position in the Gothic Line, and the tank men were working up Star Route as rapidly as demolitions and road blows would permit.
Eighth Indian Division now inherited the thankless task of bifurcating into two flank guards, and of continuing its march over the trackless mountains between the two main roads. These moves represented little in blood and danger, but in terms of transport the new duties imposed a critical strain upon the Division. Two brigade groups each requiring two thousand vehicles and five hundred mules were obliged to operate on diverse axes, using roads and tracks crammed with the vehicles of the flanking divisions.
During the Femina Morte fighting, 19th Brigade had moved up on the right of 17th Brigade to cover the flank of Sixth British Armoured Division. Led by 1st Jaipur Infantry, a recently arrived states forces unit, the Brigade turned into the east and occupied a commanding height above the village of San Benedette in Alpe, from whence a lateral road, now fallen into disuse, had led across to Marradi. It was necessary quickly to restore this track to working order. To cover the road sappers 6/13 Frontier Force Rifles pushed off on a long march through the heart of the mountains and seized commanding ridges near Monte di Gamogna, to the north-east of Marradi.
In similar fashion 17th Brigade began to work from peak to peak above Star Route, the main axis of advance of First British Division. On September 2nd, 1/5 Gurkhas left the Lamone valley and followed a rough track up the hillside on to the high ground to the east. After a sharp clash with a rearguard at Monte Scarabattole, Royal Fusiliers passed through and thrust against Monte Castelnuevo, where two German battalions were found to be in garrison. 1/12 Frontier Force Regiment came forward to reinforce the Fusiliers. Castelnuovo was a strong position, but the enemy preferred not to fight on even terms, and withdrew. With this height secure, Marradi was not longer menaced, and the reconstruction of the much needed lateral road proceeded apace.
A gradual shifting into the west began. After the storming of Monte Battaglia on September 27th, the American advance veered from north-east into the north, in a drive for Bologna. To conform, First British Division took over more ground to the west, and Eighth Indian Division followed suit. By October 1st, 17th Brigade was deployed to the west of Sword Route north of Marradi, with responsibility as far as Arrow Route in the valley of the Senio. On the right flank, 19th Brigade was similarly spread out over a sea of mountains as far as Star Route. This increase in frontage coincided with the arrival of the fresh and vigorous Three Hundred and Fifth German Infantry Division, which included many men who wore the eidelweiss badge awarded only to accomplished mountaineers. But no matter what front or what opponents General Russell's instructions were to continue offensive operations with the utmost vigour. Over the mountain crests on stilly nights came the sullen grumble of guns as Eighth Army smashed its way across flaming ridges on the enemy's left flank rear. Sooner or later, the Germans would be compelled to relinquish their grip on the mountains. The task of the Indians was to speed that hour.
During the first days of October a fresh advance began. On the right flank, 3/8 Punjabis immediately detected new mettle in the enemy. Attempts to occupy a nearby feature, Monte L'Alto, led to brisk scrimmaging, in which Jemadar Anant Ram and his men dashed across the open against spandau fire and destroyed a number of outposts. Two days later Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders fought their way up Monte Cavallara, and hurled the enemy from its summit. The way was open for a bid for Monte Casalino, a steep tree-clad hill a mile to the north-east. This height barred the way to Monte Gaggiolo, three miles further north, which rose above the gut of high ground where Sword and Star Routes converged to within five miles of each other.
On October 7th, 3/8 Punjabis established two companies on the lower slopes of Monte Cassalino. Two nights of intensive probing preceded the assault. Soon after first light on October 10th "B" Company smashed at the German positions. Heavy fighting followed and the resistance proved to be beyond a company's strength to break. When the Punjabis fell back the enemy followed down the slopes, launching a heavy attack in the middle of the forenoon. After a grim struggle the Germans in turn abandoned the battle and returned to their strongholds on the crest of Monte Casalino.
To the west of Sword Route, 21st Brigade, on the evening of October 13th, found a similar obstacle in its path. Monte Pianoereno rose to two thousand three hundred feet, almost exactly between Sword and Arrow Routes, and dominating both highways. The only approach lay along a narrow ridge which tapered into the north, barren and windswept, with rocky knolls and huge boulders punctuating its crest. At 2030 hours on October 17th, a heavy shoot was laid down on the approach spur. 3/15 Punjabis advanced and after two hours' hard fighting had swept the enemy from Point 711. Two companies then turned against Croce Daniele; after two repulses, in which serious casualties were sustained, a third furious charge won home. Another company pushed through Point 711 towards Point 768, but were beaten back three times with heavy losses. The Mahrattas closed up in close support to continue the assault, but once again the Germans had had enough and disappeared when darkness fell.
Beyond Monte Pianoereno enemy groups continued to hold clusters of farmhouses covering Monte Romano. Before dawn on October 20th two companies of Royal West Kents went forward to deal with these detachments. The first company to attack was pinned down, and had to be extricated under cover of a smoke screen; but Major Gunsey by a clever manoeuvre worked his men into the rear of the German positions, destroyed the garrison, and took thirty prisoners. Another smoke screen was laid, this time over Monte Romano. Behind it the 3/15 Punjabis raced up the slopes. Again. the gallant Indians encountered furious fire which halted them, and again under cover of night, the Germans slipped away.
This time the enemy withdrawal was fairly general along Eighth Army's front. The Americans had smashed through to Monte Grande, a key position of which more will be heard, only seven miles south-east of Bologna. On the Adriatic front, Forty-Sixth British Division had entered Cesena. The enemy could feel the breath of one Army on his right cheek, of another behind his left ear. Yet the obstinate foe dare not weaken his mountain positions since they constituted the hinge on which his front swung both to east and to west. The withdrawal in front of Eighth Indian Division was more of a realignment than a retirement, and patrols found the enemy to be in strength on a series of buttresses between Star Route and Arrow Route, which commanded strong lay-back and covering positions. There was now elbow room for deployment and for the first time in the Gothic Line fighting, all three brigades of Eighth Indian Division could be brought into the battle line. On the right the Jaipurs closed up on Monte Campaccio, the southernmost bastion of the new positions. Next door 1/5 Gurkhas after three attempts ejected the enemy from Monte Casalino, where the Punjabis had been held up for two weeks. 1/12 Frontier Force Regiment moved on Monte Gaggiolo, covering the key buttress of Budrialto. Royal Fusiliers carried the line down to Maragnano, on Sword Route. 19th Brigade worked up the Lamone valley along the main axis of Sword Route. Further west 21st Brigade was deployed with 3/15 Punjabis facing Monte Giro, and the Mahrattas opposite Monte Colombo. To the joy of the Indians their old friends of 14th Canadian Armoured Regiment came barging up the roads into close support, on the first tankable terrain encountered since the mountain battle began.
The advance had no more than been resumed when such appalling weather supervened that the commander of Fifth Army ordered the offensive to be suspended. Regrouping of American forces led to another Divisional shift. 21st Brigade side-slipped across country to take over a sector astride Arrow Route. In turn the other brigades widened their fronts until Indian responsibilities extended over ten miles of mountainside. The peaks and high ridges were now behind; on the eastern slopes of the Apennines, the uplands swelled in softer contours, with vegetation and patches of shrubs replacing bare rocks and heavy timber.
No sooner had General Russell deployed his men to the west than they were needed in the east. Second Polish Corps had moved up through the gorges of the Apennines into the gap between the Adriatic and the Central Italian sectors, much in the same manner as Fourth Indian Division had come forward to open the Gothic Line battle. The left flank of the newcomers rested on the broken and precipitous ground to the right of Star Route, where Sixth British Armoured Division had been relieved. In the No Man's Land between the Indians and the Poles, a high ridge stood to the west of Star Route, between two roads converging at Modigliano, a pleasant mountain resort some miles ahead of the battle line. 17th Brigade therefore was obliged to sideslip to the east, much as 21st Brigade had extended to the west, for the purpose of dealing with this high ground on the flank of the Polish advance. Three crests, Mosignano in the south, Pompegno in the middle, and Monte Bartolo in the north, marked the summits of this ridge system.
On the night of November 5/6th, 1/5 Gurkhas raided Montsignano to test the defences. A sharp clash followed,. but next morning the Germans were gone. By the evening of November 10th the Gurkhas had closed up on Pompegno, and once again the enemy, perhaps because of Polish pressure from the east, did not stay to fight. 17th Brigade was now only two miles short of the last obstacle, the small grassy knoll of Monte Bartolo. General Russell regarded this feature as no more than another crest which the enemy in due course would evacuate. The Polish commander, however, rated it more highly, declaring that his attack could not be launched until this ground was secured. General Russell immediately assured his colleague that there would be no delay, and deployed 17th Brigade against Monte Bartolo.
On the afternoon of November 11th a Gurkha fighting patrol, investigating the lie of the land, detected a group of Germans well dug in on the slopes of this position. Ahead of the patrol moved two scouts, one of whom was Rifleman Thaman Gurung. By skilful fieldcraft these scouts worked their way unseen into the midst of the Germans. Thaman Gurung spotted a nest of German machine-gunners in the act of swinging their weapons on to the main body of the fighting patrol. He sprang to his feet and charged. Taken by surprise the Germans surrendered. The intrepid Gurkha then crawled upwards to the lip of the ridge, and from there engaged other well dug-in posts on the reverse slopes. From flank positions German machine-gunners brought fire to bear on the fighting patrol. Standing in full view, this lone figure on a bullet-swept hilltop held back the enemy single-handed until his comrades had extricated themselves. He then fell mortally wounded, and in death joined the immortal band of heroes who have earned the Victoria Cross.
Other fighting patrols probed Monte Bartolo to encounter a similar reception, but each brought back something to be fitted into the general picture of the enemy's dispositions. On November 13th, artillery searched the knoll with harassing fire throughout the day, while a troop of Canadian tanks worked forward on the left flank. As it grew dark, the eerie glow of artificial moonlight cut through the gloom, and two companies of Gurkhas advanced to the assault. Enemy machine-guns clattered into action, and a group of spandaus near a white farmhouse on the summit seemed invulnerable. For six hours the Gurkhas edged forward cannily, avoiding casualties but never giving ground. By midnight the investment of the knoll neared completion and the garrison was in straits. Before dawn the Germans melted away into coverts in the broken ground below the ridge. Twenty-four hours later, 6th Lancers entered Modigliano.
While 17th Brigade tidied the right flank, the weather worsened. Driving rains, turning to snow storms on the summits, pelted the mountain sides. Thick mists followed, reducing visibility to nil, and limiting the usefulness of patrols. The ground hardened in the grip of sharp frosts. Life in the open resolved into a series of miserable failures to keep either dry or warm. Roads collapsed, jeep and mule tracks became impassable; sappers worked night and day. Supply lorries were never off the roads except when they were in the ditches. The enemy was in better case, for the foul weather grounded the Allied Air Force, and so gave respite from incessant attack; moreover, on the crumbling mountain roads horse transport functioned better than wheels. In the face of such inclemency it was well-nigh impossible to seize new ground, and completely impossible to provision and munition further advances. The attack gradually slowed to a standstill.
During this lull, organization for the battle to come continued apace. Once again Eighth Indian Division was asked to widen its front in order to allow heavier concentrations elsewhere. Repeated sideslips had carried the Divisional flank west of Sword Route. A further extension now took 21st Brigade across Arrow Route. By November 19th, 3/15 Punjabis were guarding the western flank of the Division at Monte Battaglia---the scene of fierce fighting by U.S. Second Corps at a time when Eighth Indian Division held a lesser frontage than that now held by 21st Brigade.
On November 26th, the enemy forces began to give ground on the right flank. 17th Brigade conformed to a turning movement by Second Polish Corps, and the axis of advance veered into the north-west. Far across at Arrow Route the same movement was in progress; behind a screen of rearguards the enemy dropped back on Veno Del Gesso escarpment---a peculiar earth fault which rears a high chalk ridge so precipitous on its southern face that only a trained mountaineer can negotiate it. The Senio and Santerno rivers cut narrow gorges through this barrier. Should the enemy elect to stand this sheer wall provided an unequalled rampart for defence. 21st Brigade with Punjabis and Mahrattas leading began to clear the ground up to this formidable obstacle.
The advance had scarcely begun when fresh complications arose. 19th Brigade was last reported as moving up Sword Route in the Lamone Valley. Progress had been slow, less because of enemy resistance than because of the weather and the difficulties of deployment. The western swing of the Polish corps now promised to reach the Lamone further to the north, making 19th Brigade's operation unnecessary. At this juncture new and urgent employment emerged for Brigadier Dobree and his men. On December 1st, General Russell was ordered to despatch a brigade with all speed to reinforce First British Division on Monte Grande, ten miles to the north-west of the Divisional flank at Monte Battaglia. Here a mountain buttress towers to a height of two thousand feet above the valley of the Sillaro River. Route 9, the main lateral highway of Northern Italy, passes less than five miles to the north; on a clear day the towers and domes of Bologna can be clearly seen.
Monte Grande had been the scene of bitter fighting during the American drive, and the enemy had never acquiesced in its loss. A sure sign of its importance was the appearance in this sector of First German Parachute Division---the men of Cassino. These fanatical and highly trained troops were never entrusted with holding roles. Wherever they stood, they struck. As soon as the paratroopers appeared, First British Division was the recipient of unwelcome attention. Savage raiding thrusts tested sensitive sectors, and revealed the enemy to be conversant with the weaknesses of the position. As the resumption of Fifth Army's offensive depended on possession of this key sector, it was wisely decided to strengthen the garrison.
For 19th Brigade to travel fifteen miles as the crow flies necessitated a two days' journey. The weather was windy, wet and cold. Skidding and sliding, the troop carriers negotiated the wintry mountain roads: over the crest of the snow-girt peaks, down the multiple switchbacks along the western slopes, thence to turn back uphill at Borgho San Lorenzo, to grind slowly forward over the summits again, and along a second class track into the valley of the Sillaro. On steep inclines it was sometimes necessary to winch uphill, while the troops warmed their chilled and cramped limbs by pushing behind. Only a mule track led from the Sillaro, to the battle positions on Monte Grande; in its mudholes even the seldom-beaten jeeps bogged down. Trudging doggedly, the Indians clambered upwards and by December 6th, 19th Brigade had relieved 2nd British Infantry Brigade. All three battalions were covering the main Monte Grande positions. On the right, the Argylls held Frasinetto Ridge; in the centre Frontier Force Rifles occupied Monte Cerere; on the left 3/8 Punjabis were astride Monte Grande itself. In each position the crest was narrow, and defence in depth impossible. Anywhere a sudden rush might win home, and sudden rushes were the speciality of the paratroopers.
An Argylls officer in a private letter gave a description of this ominous sector.
"I know how my grandfather felt at Majuba Hill. We had the high ground and it was of little use to us. Our positions were under constant observation. We had to sit tight all the time, just like old Bill in Flanders. A bitter wind whistled up the valley and curled over the crests, adding one more misery to sitting in a slit trench all day and all night, with a drizzle gradually soaking clothing and blankets, and freezing the bones. A heavy mist would come down; if the paraboys could not see us, neither could we see them. It was rather eerie this being hunted through the fog, and we grew very quick on the trigger."
The only positions for artillery and dumps lay in the Sillaro valley, under intimate enemy observation. The fog which the Argylls officer mentions was a blend of natural elements and smoke from the canisters, released to screen traffic movements and gun positions on the lower ground. Short of the impossible, supply difficulties achieved on all-time nadir. The journey from jeephead to Frontier Force Rifles, a distance of under two miles, occupied five hours. Even the surefooted mules sometimes failed to negotiate the slimy mud of the hillsides, crashing to death on the rocks below, with wounded men in their litters.
The enemy was spoiling for trouble. The quiet of the day was broken regularly by the weird moans of the nebelwerfers, heralding short fierce mortar shoots on the advanced Indian positions. At night men slipped from their holes to patrol forward, to lay traps and ambushes, to stalk on sound and to kill the unwary. The Argylls were no sooner in position than they were assailed. On the night of December 6th a fighting patrol of paratroopers sprang out of the darkness, and after a savage melee managed to snatch three prisoners. On the same night after vicious mortaring forty Germans closed from all sides on a house which sheltered a combined post of Punjabis and Gordon Highlanders, at the junction of the British and Indian positions. Setting fire to the building with a bazooka, the paratroopers sought to flush the garrison into the open. The Punjabis blew back the rush after suffering twelve casualties; the Gordons lost an officer and eight men as prisoners.
These scrimmages were prelude to the main assault on Monte Grande. On the morning of December 12th, after a half hour's intensive mortar and artillery fire, the enemy laid a smoke screen over Argyll and Frontier Force positions at Frasinetto and Monte Cerere. Behind this cover a battalion of paratroopers, surged to the close. On the right of the assault, the Argylls were waiting and as one of the men put it,. "gave them everything". The attack disintegrated. On the inner flank of the Frasinetto position, the Argylls were caught on the wrong foot, half-way between their day and night stations. Leaping through the smoke and fog, the adversaries grappled in deadly hand to hand fighting. No quarter was asked or given. The impetus of their rush carried the Germans over the advanced posts and the Scotsmen were overrun, save for two bonny fighters---Lieutenant and Sergeant Reid---who dived into a ditch and in Wild West shooting matches accounted for a number of enemies before scrambling to safety in the fog.
In the centre of the position the paratroopers thrust with equal vehemence against Frontier Force Rifles. The right forward platoon was overrun, and the Germans burst into the main battle positions. A reserve company of Frontiersmen doubled into action, and their weight decided the melee; the paratroopers sullenly gave ground. Whereupon the storm troopers who had won ground from the Argylls decided to join the fray. It was their last and worst decision; as they raced from flank across a hundred yards of open ground, the Mahratta machine-gunners caught them at point blank range. Within seconds the hillside was strewn with dead and dying Germans. Few escaped.
Everywhere except on the inner flank of the Argyll position, 19th Brigade had broken the assault. At 1100 hours First British Division picked up a disparing enemy intercept, pleading for reinforcements. This good news stimulated the Argylls, who prepared to put paid to the remaining intruders. After a half-hour's bombardment with every available weapon, the Scotsmen charged. They swept over the lost ground, and by noon were re-established in their original positions. Under cover of a Red Cross flag German stretcher bearers moved amongst them, picking up many dead and wounded.
Thirteen prisoners were taken---surly ruffians all, and bitterly garrulous over their failure. Much interesting information was proffered. These statements were implemented when an extremely drunken paratrooper, sent forward on a one-man patrol to ascertain the fate of his comrades, was snared in front of the Indian positions. This old sweat declared the assault to have been planned by the battalion commander against the advice of his officers. "He was set on fighting," said the tosspot, "because of the tickling of his throat." The startled interrogation officer was about to enquire further into this interesting subject of thirsts, when he remembered the Wehrmacht idiom. The battalion commander had wished to feel the ribbon of an Iron Cross upon his neck.
By December 23rd the threat had passed. 19th Brigade was relieved and set out to rejoin Eighth Indian Division. This time it meant more than going down one mountain road and up another. A far call had come for Fifth Army's flying squad, and Eighth Division was on its way far across Italy. But before relating the diverting episode of Serchio, it is necessary to return to the Divisional front between Star and Arrow Routes, where 21st and 17th Brigades battled forward slowly and precariously against tenacious rearguards, abominable weather and all but unsurmountable terrain.
The wheel of the Polish attack into the west continued to constrict the front and to limit the responsibilities of 17th Brigade between Star and Sword Routes. As a result Royal Fusiliers were loaned on December 10th to Seventy-Eighth British Division. They migrated in their troop carriers to a ruined uplands village south of Monte Grande in the Sillaro Valley. On December 17th the remainder of 17th Brigade crossed to Arrow Route and relieved 21st Brigade, in order to slog towards the cliffs of Veno Del Gosso. The Poles had in plan an operation against the eastern extremity of that barrier. Eighth Indian Division were folded into this scheme, and its role defined as penetration of the Senio gorge in the chalk escarpment, thereafter wheeling left in line with the Polish attack, and seizing the watershed between the Senio and Santerno rivers. Patrols began to search the eastern cliffsides for scaleable chimneys, only to find the enemy exceedingly alert. On Christmas Eve heavy snow fell. A bitter wind swept across the crests, and the roads were blocked with drifts. The Polish attack, originally timed for December 29th, was set back, and the Indian brigades settled down to routine duties in a most uncomfortable locality.
During this wait, events took shape elsewhere. Ninety miles to the west, in the sectors adjacent to the Gulf of Genoa, there had been little serious fighting. Both the enemy and Fifth Army held wide stretches of the Tuscany uplands with sparse forces. Yet the area was of vital importance to American formations, which drew most of their material from Leghorn, a port less than forty miles behind the loosely held front. From Pisa the supply route turned inland, running eastwards to the picturesque walled city of Lucca in the Serchio valley, fifteen miles behind the battle zone. A comparatively limited advance by the enemy in this Sector might disrupt the main American communications.
In early December intelligence reports revealed an undue muster of enemy forces in the upper Serchio valley. From this concentration area, it was possible either to strike down the coastal roads towards Pisa, or across the equally easy terrain of the Serchio valley towards Lucca. The latter sector was guarded by comparatively weak forces of Ninety-Second American (Negro) Division. Early appreciations did not cause anxiety, but later information suggested that something was afoot. On the evening of December 22nd, an urgent instruction flashed to General Russell's headquarters in the Apennines. Eighth Indian Division, less one brigade, must move with all haste to Lucca.
Fifty-two miles of winding icebound roads, with two high passes deep in snow, separated Eighth Indian Division from the Arno valley. Another fifty miles must be traversed before concentration at Lucca. To gather up a Division scattered for miles on peaks and in canyons, and to start all units on an organized trek to another front, called for feverish staff work. By Christmas Eve marching orders were out and the Indians under way. As late as Christmas morning Fifth Army professed to view the move as precautionary; but Brigadier Dobree, arriving at headquarters of U.S. Fourth Corps that afternoon, was informed that an enemy attack down the Serchio valley would be launched within twenty-four hours. As General Russell had not yet arrived, he was entreated to take charge, and to organize a support line. As rapidly as Indian units arrived, they were deployed in defensive positions.
The Serchio valley is wide, easy and well cultivated. A railway and two highways follow the line of the river, a quiet stream which averages one hundred feet in width. The area is heavily populated, with clusters of farmhouses and small hamlets scattered along the roads and in the glades among the beech woods. The countryside exhibited no signs of devastation, and the gracious contours and pleasant expanses delighted the Indians, fresh from a nightmare existence in the gale-swept valleys of the winter Apennines.
One Hundred and Forty-Eighth German Division, reinforced by elements of three Italian Fascist Divisions, held the front between the Serchio valley and the seacoast. All were troops of second quality. The German division contained many Poles and other impressed groups of non-German birth, who had lost any enthusiasm which they might once have had for the Fuehrer. The morale of the Italian divisions was even lower, with an average desertion rate of forty daily.
Nevertheless, U.S. Fourth Corps had correctly assessed the situation. Early on Boxing Day three battalions of 286th German Infantry Regiment, after a short bombardment, launched an attack down the Serchio valley. It succeeded beyond all expectations. The front crumbled and two parallel enemy columns thrust into the south. Mobile artillery in close support pumped a few shells here and there and the infantry stolidly followed up and took possession. By noon it was evident that the line was open, and that Ninety-Second Division was not competent to offer organized resistance.
General Russell arrived to find 19th Brigade deployed as a blocking force. Making the best of his handfulls, Brigadier Dobree arrayed his men in the localities least easy to by-pass. Slightly south of Barga, 3/8 Punjabis found a strong position, dug in, and waited. On their left, 6/13 Frontier Force Rifles covered the winding road, and prepared to take the shock. South of the river, under cover of some wooded spurs, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders spread out and scanned the north for first sight of the advanced elements of the enemy.
They never came. Either the Germans were too surprised by their success to exploit it, or the operation had been no more than a bluff. By the morning of December 27th, General Russell, who at the request of the American corps had taken command of all troops in the Serchio valley, felt the situation to be under control, and proceeded to tidy up. The negro battalions were withdrawn through 19th Brigade, and the flood of Italian refugees diverted on to side roads and into the fields.
On December 28th, 21st Brigade arrived and came up on the right of 19th Brigade. Next day 6th Lancers threw an armoured car screen across the valley and began to probe forward. The first patrols into Bagno di Lucca found the Union jack flying, and a Scottish UNRRA officer, who had hidden under his bed for a few days, nonchalantly reorganizing his work. A certain amount of outpost bickering followed, but it was apparent that the Germans had bolted back to their start line. By New Year's Eve the operation had reached a sufficiently light-hearted stage to allow a company of Frontier Force Rifles to relieve the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, in order that the Scotsmen might celebrate with all due ritual their sacred occasion of Hogmanay.
After the rigours and deadly encounters of the mountains, this excursion into the west had proved to be something of a frolic. It was a different enemy and a different sort of war. When all ground had been regained, General Russell's mind turned to 17th Brigade, which had missed the fun. He suggested to the American corps commander that if granted his full division, he would be pleased to chase the Boche for any stated distance. But something even better was in store. Early in January a general relief began, and the Division dispersed at rest in the Pisa area.
So ended a remarkable tour of duty, which began with a static role for Eighth Indian Division between two assaulting armies; to be followed by commital to battle in the critical task of breaking into the Gothic Line; thereafter a steady extension of responsibilities, with aid first to the Poles at Monte Bartolo and afterwards to First British Division at Monte Grande; finally, a long jaunt into the west and a bit of light relief in the way of war.
(GURKHA PATROL IS FROM THE PAINTING BY CAPTAIN HARRY SHELDON)
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