THE CAMPAIGN IN THE MOUNTAINS was over. The enemy still clung to Monte Grande and a few similar strongholds, but his forces had been backed against the escarpment above the plains and could be ejected at any time. From assaults on rounded ridges, from the storming of precipitous summits, from infiltration along valleys and ravines, from the forcing of brawling streams, the Indian Divisions now turned to another sort of warfare.
The Emilian plain beyond the Apennines was by no means a strategical and tactical paradise. This low land in centuries past had formed a great marsh. When the snows melted on the Apennines each spring immense torrents poured down through clefts in the foothills, seeking the Adriatic. This spate spread across the plain, engulfing large areas. As the countryside became populated it was found possible to contain these seasonal floods by raising the river banks with ramparts of earth. The turbid water moved sluggishly to the sea, tending to silt rather than to erode. No deep channels were cut, and the levels of the river rose rather than fell. To confine the spring freshets the banks were built higher and higher, until to-day the line of each river is marked by great dykes standing above the plain.
These floodbanks are military works of first importance. They transform each river into five successive obstacles-the fortifications of two outer banks, of two inner banks, and the river itself. The soft ramparts lend themselves to burrowing, so that these high mounds may be converted into elaborate fortifications. When the threat to the Gothic Line became imminent, the German military labour organization swung into action. The floodbanks were scooped out, and underground accommodation provided for substantial garrisons. Longitudinal tunnels were built and revetted with stout timbers. Leading off these galleries, vertical and horizontal shafts opened on to the sides of the flood banks like portholes in a ship. From these portholes protruded the ugly muzzles of scores of guns. The plain was usually so flat that a weapon pit only a few feet above its level would command the approach for hundreds of yards. The lazy meanders of the river made the successive posts mutually supporting, and allowed them to sweep a wide front with converging and enfilade fire.
A river line was a fixed zone of defence. Being without outworks attacking forces were kept at a distance by means of belts of wire and aprons of mines. The near floodbank was breached in places, with a view to flooding the approaches when necessary. All bridges were destroyed; the garrisons of the near bank crossed on foot bridges which when not in use were swung back against the far bank. The northern floodbank for some inexplicable reason was usually slightly higher than the south bank. These few extra inches improved the observation of the defenders.
Other factors complicated the problem of attack. The narrow dykes offered a meagre target for artillery, and even less target for bombs. Without bridging they were impassable for tanks or vehicles, and bridges could only be built on the site of former bridges, since the slopes of the banks were too steep for tracks or wheels to surmount without approach ramps. Thus to reach these floodbanks with mechanized arms presented a problem of extreme difficulty; to storm them, a grim task indeed.
Every device breeds its anti-device. Not only the Germans but the United Nations had given a lot of thought to floodbanked rivers. The problem of attack was threefold---to approach, to effect a lodgment, and to cross. It was obvious that the approach must be made in small numbers, as anything resembling a massed assault would incur sufficient casualties to weaken the assailants, and so endanger the second stage of the operation. On the other hand, there was no assurance that isolated posts and small detachments when established on the near floodbank would be able to bring the river line under sufficient control to effect a crossing. Basic tactics therefore had to be determined by the empirical method of trial and error. It speaks volumes for the resource of Eighth Army planners that after a few weeks of experiment the problem of approach had been solved. Artillery was deployed in such fashion as to cast shells within a few yards of the men whom the guns supported; it became possible to bombard the inner slopes of a floodbank without undue risk to troops dug in ten yards away on its outer bank. Supplementing the artillery, the weapon of fire was enlisted. Crocodiles and Wasps, fire-throwing vehicles great and small, and Lifebuoys (manual flame-throwers) were mobilized to burn out the warrens of the defenders. While billows of blazing oil smothered the banks, jets of flame would be injected into the portholes, rendering the tunnels uninhabitable and driving the garrison into the open.
For crossing these narrow high-banked rivers the sappers devised an ingenious variation on the "Ark" bridge. Instead of a full span the bridge was little longer than the tank. With the tank resting in the river bed the span could be lifted hydraulically and placed in position. Should the river be deep, the superstructure was so designed that if the bottom "Ark" carrier was submerged, a second tank complete with bridge could drive on to the top of the sunken vehicles and so construct a crossing two tanks deep. Other ingenious equipment included new and strong types of aerial cableways, on which not only men but guns and vehicles could be slung rapidly across the narrow troughs of the rivers.
A battle group organized for assault on flood-banked rivers incorporated a wide range of specialist formations. Armour was important, because the high dykes gave considerable cover to tanks closing up in close support of the infantry. Anti-tank guns, particularly of the self-propelled variety, were of value for sniping into port-holes and for reducing enemy posts on the near bank. Machine-gun companies firing from flank could hold the floodbank under a lash of steel until the infantry had closed to within a few yards. Flame-throwers would lead the way, with Kangaroo armoured troop carriers in close support. Special assault companies of sappers would move forward with the infantry, and would begin work on crossings while the battle raged about them.
Yet in spite of all technical assistance and mechanical device, the issue remained between man and man. Had the enemy been able to oppose the Allied advance with troops of commensurate courage and endurance, the strength of his fortifications might have decided the day. Fortunately the German divisions which manned the flood-banked rivers had been mauled and battered for month after month, thrust headlong from position after position. The cream of the German armies had been destroyed. No troops could endure such punishment without realization of the futility of fighting on. A rising proportion of German troops were no longer battle-worthy. Disillusion had reacted on the relationships of officers and men until a slow but incurable depression clouded all but the most fanatical minds. Its recurrent motif was that no battle lost or no battle won could affect the final result. The Germans continued to fight, but they fought as doomed men.
Their adversaries of the United Nations moved from strength to strength. The front had been broken in Normandy, and seven armies were thrusting into the vitals of Germany. The Russian avalanche rolled remorselessly towards the Reich. In Europe the end drew near; in the Pacific the ring closed around Japan. In Italy, despite all hardships and dangers a dominant thought rang like a bell in soldiers' minds. "We too shall be in at the kill."
AFTER RELIEF ON THE RONCO, Tenth Indian Division rested for a bare fortnight. During this period Fifth Corps had swung into the west. On November 9th, after a fierce battle, Fourth and Forty-Sixth British Divisions stormed Forli. A fresh attack was immediately planned with Faenza, the next important town on the main transverse highway, as the principal objective. Tenth Indian Division was ordered to establish a bridgehead over the Montone through which the assault divisions might deploy on their start lines.
On November 19th 10th Indian Brigade relieved a brigade of Fourth British Division on a front of four miles near the Montone river. The ground was monotonously flat, intersected by a network of drainage rhines, and heavily cultivated. Vineyards, orchards and farmhouses dotted the countryside. All bridges had been blown, the roads cratered and the paths mined. The river proper, a sludgy stream thirty feet in width, was no great obstacle, but inside the flood walls a soft mud bottom flanked the watercourse, extending the gap to two hundred feet. The enemy had breached the banks, and the countryside was flooded for one thousand yards east of the river. The only approaches were along built-up roads covered by machine-guns and artillery.
On November 22nd, 43rd Gurkha Brigade took over a sector on the left of 10th Brigade. Two nights later 20th Brigade came up on the left of 10th Brigade, and Tenth Division was aligned for its attack. 10th Brigade brought forward assault boats and with the Durhams leading prepared to force a crossing. The enemy was alert and laid down a fierce shoot on the line of the river. The advance was held up for several hours until 3/5 Mahrattas, accompanied by tanks of 6th Royal Tank Regiment, could advance laterally from the left flank and engage the enemy. With the aid of this distraction the Durhams rapidly built up a bridgehead force of two companies. By noon both 10th and 20th Brigades were represented in an expanding perimeter to the west of the Montone.
For the next phase First Canadian Corps entered the line on the right of the Indians, and the New Zealand Division relieved Fourth British Division on the opposite flank. The Indian brigades by nibbling tactics began to edge towards Albereto, a village a mile east of the Lamone, the next water obstacle to the west. This village proved to be the core of the enemy defences, and bitter fighting ensued when: twin attacks closed in from opposite sides. A confused close-quarters free-for-all raged until the enemy slowly and sullenly withdrew. Forty German dead were picked up among the ruins of the village.
At 0545 hours on November 20th, both Indian brigades attacked outwards from Migliara, the individual thrusts diverging like the spokes of a wheel from the hub. On the right 2/4 Gurkhas and North Irish Horse worked into the north-east. Their next-door neighbours, the Durhams, smashed through to their objective after sharp fighting at San Giorgio. Further west, 1/2 Punjabis broke into new territory and seized three hamlets. In the centre 3/5 Mahrattas with two companies of Nabha Akals, crashed through obstinate resistance. On the extreme left 2/3 Gurkhas captured Pianetto and La Gessa, taking 56 prisoners. By midday all Indian battalions were well established in the main German positions. An enemy wireless intercept declared "Defence plan completely broken". With such encouragement the attack was pushed home, and with the New Zealanders making equal headway on the left all territory east of the Lamone was mopped up.
This local scrimmaging cleared the battlefield for the stroke to follow. Four corps struck at the wavering salient which incessant assaults had gouged in the German defences. The Canadians attacked to the north-east towards Ravenna. Second Polish Corps mounted an all-out drive on the last high ground held by the enemy in the Apennine foothills, along the dwindling ridges between the Lamone and the Senio valleys. Thirteenth Corps moved at right angles to the Poles, with the objective of pinching out enemy formations east of the Senio. Fifth Corps drove on Faenza. Leading the attack, Forty-sixth British Division on December 3rd battled its way after wild fighting across the Lamone five miles south-west of Forli.
At the outset of this great assault Tenth Indian Division's role was restricted to "noises off"---deception shoots and bridge-building clamour behind smoke screens. Beyond the Lamone Forty-Sixth Division became involved in some of the stiffest fighting of the war. For a week this hard-hitting British formation exchanged hammer blows with a veteran and ever-dangerous opponent---Nineteenth Panzer Grenadier Division. It then became necessary for someone else to take over the slogging match. On December 11th Tenth Indian Division moved up and relieved Forty-Sixth Division. The bridgehead over the Lamone was slightly less than two miles in depth, and the danger point lay around Pideura, in the centre of the position. Here 25th Brigade came into the line. 3/1 Punjabis and King's Own immediately became involved in bickerings which flared up from time to time into heavy fighting. No less than five enemy counter-attacks were thrown back in the first twenty-four hours of the tour. These quick venomous jabs were designed to dislocate the timing of the main assault of Fifth Corps, which was near at hand. Such tactics failed: when zero hour struck at 2300 hours on December 23rd, five Indian battalions advanced against the enemy to give the New Zealanders a firm flank for their drive to the Senio.
At point of junction with the Kiwis, the Durhams of 10th Brigade smashed at Pergola. The North Countrymen encountered one misfortune after another. Defensive fire caught them on their start line. The leading troops walked on to an uncharted schu-minefield when approaching their preliminary objective. A frontal assault failed to shake the enemy, and when the Durhams swung to flank, they found themselves in the midst of another minefield. These tough globetrotters were loath to admit failure, and fought on throughout the day; but Pergola was beyond their grasp.
On the left of the Durhams, 3/1 Punjabis managed to establish a company on a low sharp-crested ridge. Once again haystacks played the villain's part. Fired by enemy tracer they silhouetted the gallant Indians as they charged. Even then the Punjabis might have held on had it not been for a serious deterioration on their left, where, 4/11 Sikhs, after gallantly gaining their ground, were thrown back by a weighty infantry attack supported by self-propelled guns.
Beyond the Sikhs the King's Own fought along a hilltop to the north of Pideura. Farm houses which sheltered nests of machine-gunners took a heavy toll. A self-propelled gun knocked out the escorting Sherman tanks, and was in turn destroyed. All through the day the King's Own surged again and again to the assault; as evening fell they broke into Camillo, taking twenty-four prisoners. "C" Company, after having been in the thick of continuous fighting for upwards of twenty-four hours, had only one officer and twenty-six men standing.
On the extreme left 3/18 Garhwalis to some extent redeemed the grim picture on the remainder of the Divisional front. One company swung away on a march of three miles along a muddy track which brought it on to the rear of the enemy positions at Casa Zula and Monte Coralli. Concurrent assaults were launched from opposite sides. In bitter hand-to-hand fighting the enemy garrison was destroyed. The victors sweated over their spades, and when the counter-attack came they were well dug in. A wild hurly-burly followed. A white house surmounting a cypress-clad hillside changed hands several times. Spandau teams were detected in weapon pits sited under haystacks. This shortsightedness led to a series of incinerations as tracer fire ignited the hay. There were grim games of hide and seek; on one occasion an irate. Garhwali rifleman, mounting a stack with his bayonet to winkle out a sniper, was surprised by his quarry, who emerged from beneath the hay, pulled the ladder away, and raced to fresh cover before he could be brought down. When the enemy finally abandoned attempts to oust the Garhwalis, sixty German dead and twelve prisoners remained in Indian hands.
In this assault Tenth Indian Division had failed for the first time to. make its principal objectives. The grueling fighting, however, was not without reward, for the Indian assault had pinned down the enemy's reserves, and had given the New Zealanders a clear run to the Senio. With the Kiwis well ahead, on the night of December 14/15th, 4/10 Baluchis passed through the New Zealand front and turned south on the flank and rear of the Pergola positions. The enemy had foreseen this move and had pulled out. The line was open and that evening Indian patrols without resistance reached the tortuous meanders of the Senio between Renazzi and Tobano. The enemy was still reeling from the buffets dealt him, and without undue opposition Baluchis and Garhwalis crossed the river and established posts on the west bank. 2/4 Gurkhas moved up to stiffen the tiny bridgehead, and were told the astonishing but true story of the German tank which had attempted to approach the Baluchi positions with a Red Cross flag flying from its turret.
The Gurkhas immediately began to elbow their way forward, with the line of the railway running into Castel Bolognesi as their objective. The enemy recovered his breath, and the leading company of the hillmen became involved in a fracas sufficiently serious to require reinforcement. The bridgehead lay in one of the many loops of the river, and as resistance stiffened the Gurkhas found themselves with enemies on three sides. After increasing displays of truculence had indicated the arrival of enemy reserves, the Indian force was gradually withdrawn to the east bank of the river.
On December 15th, 43rd Gurkha Lorried Brigade passed under command of Second New Zealand Division, and under the description of Faenza Task Force, began to clear the Germans from that important centre. For the first time the Gurkhas were schooled in the peculiar technique of street fighting. The area was mine-infested and the Luftwaffe active. 2/10 Gurkhas entered the town from the east and encountered comparatively little opposition until the railway along Route 9 was reached. Thereafter resistance, stiffened. 2/8 Gurkhas came forward to reinforce the attack. A German counter-attack with panzers in the van forced the hillmen back to the canal which parallels the Lamone. Here the adversaries glared at each other for twenty-four hours, while the sappers devised a crossing which would bear tanks. At 2100 hours Faenza Task Force moved to the assault with the Gurkha Brigade on the left of the Kiwis. Once again in the face of a set-piece attack the enemy had compounded with necessity and had cleared out. Little resistance was encountered except from road blocks and minefields. Faenza was liberated. The Germans fell back to prepared positions on the line of the Senio.
On Tenth Division's front wintry gales had slowed down operations to a standstill. Christmas and the New Year passed quietly, but early in January patrol clashes increased and raids became a nightly feature.
The loops of the Senio which thrust adjacent salients into the front exercised an inevitable fascination for patrols on the prowl. On January 12th the ill-fated members of Parliament who disappeared a few days later in a lost plane, visited the Division. The Germans chose this day to pester the Indians. A Garhwali sentry heard the sound of chopping and shrewdly deduced that trees were being felled for footbridges. The raiding party met a warm reception. Next morning the Garhwalis were interested spectators as the Germans buried their dead in full view on the opposite bank under the protection of a Red Cross flag.
On the following night an enemy detachment crossed the Senio and established itself in Chiarona. The Garhwalis accepted the challenge with alacrity and for variety's sake staged the ejection by daylight. Behind a smoke screen two platoons charged with tanks in the van. The Shermans pumped a hundred shells into the enemy's hideouts as the Garhwalis raced in from front and rear. The rear platoon literally caught the panzer grenadiers with their backs turned; twenty-five were killed and ten taken prisoner. That night a follow-up fighting patrol endeavoured to learn the fate of the Chiarona garrison. The Garhwalis were alert and few escaped.
Early in February 4/11 Sikhs had a bit of luck. Their raiders were closing on an enemy position when a false alarm distracted the German sentries. The schmessers and spandaus commenced to hose bullets to empty flank, while the Sikhs crept nearer. Undetected the Indians sprang upon the engrossed garrison, and destroyed it. In a series of similar bickerings, which imposed a strain upon weakening adversaries, Tenth Division's tour on the river lines wore away. On February 9th Third Carpathian Division relieved the Indians along the Senio. Then followed a last look at the high mountains. The enemy still clung tenaciously to his strongholds in the upper Sillaro valley, including Monte Grande, which remained a key position covering the eastern approaches to Bologna. First German Parachute Division, in its customary uncompromising mood, continued to garrison this area, and Seventy-Eighth British Division after an extensive spell of duty was feeling the strain. On February 8th, 20th Brigade embussed at Faenza. By sky line Monte Grande was only sixteen miles away, but the road journey covered ninety miles and took two days! 10th Brigade arrived on February 12th to complete the occupation of the new Divisional sector.
The country was deerstalker's landscape, with high lookouts and deep scours. Everyone had an embarrassingly good view of everybody else. To cover supply movements in the Sillaro valley an American detachment maintained a continuous smoke screen near the San Clemente ford. The Divisional anti-aircraft gunners took over management of the canisters throughout the tour of duty. On the right of the Indians, Sixth British Armoured Division linked up with the Polish Corps; on the left Eighty-Fifth U.S. Division carried the line to the west. From the beginning the paratroopers were bent on making nuisances of themselves. A smash and grab party, seeking to identify the newcomers, gave the forward company of Durhams a busy half hour, but the North countrymen mixed it so earnestly that the intruders finally fled, leaving a number of dead behind. Two nights later a keen-eyed Baluchi nobbled a paratroop observation officer, who was lying up close to the forward positions. Next morning four paratroopers dressed as stretcher bearers approached 2/4 Gurkhas. Despite protests they were arrested and packed off to the rear. The German commander thereupon despatched a note offering to exchange four Sikh stretcher bearers for his lost men. When the offer drew no response, the Sikhs were returned, revealing the ruse.
The Indians then got down to work. A patrol from 1/2 Punjabis crawled into the Germans' positions and mopped up three posts. When intercepted on the way home, their prisoners, anticipating rescue, threw themselves on the ground and refused to move. Having summarily dealt with the recalcitrants (first removing their jackets as identifications), the Punjabis charged with the steel and broke through, killing five at close quarters for the loss of one man killed and one wounded.
The same mettlesome and aggressive battalion despatched a roving patrol in the next night. A havildar and his section silently closed on a slit trench which covered a large house. Two Germans put up their hands; at the same time one kicked a signal wire. Flares and a red Verey light shot up; a machine-gun opened, and thirty Germans poured from the house. First putting paid to the prisoners, the havildar and his squad leapt into the slit trench, and raked their assailants with tommy guns. A dozen paratroopers fell. Three Indians were wounded, but all returned to safety.
A Mahratta patrol penetrated the enemy positions and lay in ambush in a copse beside a path which connected two German posts. An emergency flare signal had been arranged to call for covering mortar fire if required. When attacked the Germans by a remarkable coincidence fired the same signal. Down came the mortar shoot on the copse. With every licence to withdraw the Mahrattas stuck it for two hours. The shoot ended and patience paid a dividend. Fifteen Germans came trudging along the path. Eleven paratroopers were killed against three Indians wounded.
Finding the Indians more than their match in this grim hunting, the paratroopers tended to avoid front line clashes; instead, they specialized in deep penetration patrols. Detachments of two or three men would filter through, and would work back among the rear echelons. They dressed like civilians, retaining only sufficient vestiges of uniform to escape execution if captured. Each carried a few schu-mines, which they buried in well-trodden spots. They also carried miniature wireless sets; when concentrations of vehicles or personnel were encountered, fire would be directed upon them. If accosted they boldly tried to pass themselves off as Italians. Fortunately the sepoys' Italian was in many instances better than that of the Germans, And rigid security measures trapped so many of these audacious detachments that in self-defence they were obliged to increase the size of the patrols---thereby facilitating their detection.
On March 11th, 25th Brigade took over Monte Grande from U.S. Eighty-Fifth Division. For this task the Brigade was strengthened by an extra infantry battalion (2nd Highland Light Infantry), a squadron of Lovat Scouts, and "F" Reconnaissance Squadron, a volunteer Italian parachute. formation of proven worth. The spring thaw had set in, and as the snow disappeared the bitterness of the fighting on this sinister summit was revealed. Many bodies of British, American and German soldiers were uncovered. One hundred and fifty dead mules were collected for burning or burial.
Throughout March all brigades continued to harass the enemy. Mahrattas, Nabha Akals and Punjabis found particularly good hunting; a strong patrol from the latter battalion, on one occasion spent forty-eight hours in the rear of the German positions and emerged without casualty. 13 Anti-Tank Regiment, with no tanks to shoot at, themselves turned tank men, re-conditioned some derelict Shermans, and scouted enthusiastically.
As April began, and the great assault on the river lines grew imminent, the paratroopers apparently received orders to pin down the troops opposite them. When 2nd Loyals arrived to join 20th Brigade, the new hands were raided as soon as they entered the line. A forward platoon was overrun, but the remainder stood firm and blew back the attack. 4/11 Sikhs endured two attacks in one morning. As the Germans closed the grim bearded men leapt to meet them, and slew many on the lips of the slit trenches.
The master plan for the spring offensive called for Tenth Indian Division to participate in Eighth Army's drive by an advance down the Sillaro valley. General Reid was now six battalions over establishment; this permitted the wearers of the red and blue diagonals to be in two places at once. Lovat Scouts, Loyals, Highland Light Infantry, 4/11 Sikhs, Nabha Akals and Jodhpurs took charge of Monte Grande, while the remainder of the Division moved back across the mountains on the long up end down trek to the Adriatic. On April 9th the air was filled with thunder as Eighth Army smashed at the river lines in the climactic offensive of the war. A week later Tenth Indian Division was concentrated on the battlefield, waiting for the word to take up the running.
THIS NARRATIVE left the men of Eighth Indian Division, after their by-play in the Serchio valley, relaxed and enjoying themselves in the lovely countryside surrounding the old and charming city of Pisa. The Jawans took their ease in good billets amidst a hospitable civilian population. Sprung from farming stock themselves, the sepoys revelled in the rich fields and pastures; they wrote home long descriptions of Italian tillage and husbandry. Six weeks passed quickly. On February 11th, the call came, and the Indians commenced to move back to Eighth Army. Some units travelled across Italy by cattle truck; rail transport was sufficiently novel to ameliorate the discomfort. Forty miles south of Ancona the Division mustered and turned towards the battle line. On February 25th leading units relieved elements of First Canadian Division north of Bagnocavallo astride Route 16, the main Adriatic highway.
On the left of Eighth Division 43rd Gurkha Lorried Brigade, who were last seen with the New Zealanders in Faenza, occupied an adjoining sector under command of Fifty-Sixth London Division. The Gurkhas had been in the line for a fortnight when Eighth Division arrived. They held five thousand yards, confronting intricate and elaborate defences. The Senio floodbanks, twenty feet high and six feet wide at the top, commanded the eastern approaches and made daylight reconnaissance impossible. Behind innocuous camouflage scores of tunnels in the near face of the floodbank housed observation posts, machine-gunners and snipers. Belts of wire and a heavy seeding of mines skirted the slopes. Farmhouses each in its small oblong field with pollarded boundaries stood along the river bank. Some of these buildings had been converted into outposts, the others abundantly booby-trapped.
The Gurkhas had been able to work forward to within a few hundred yards of the river, but thereafter every foot of distance harboured deadly menaces. Preparations for establishment on the near flood bank began immediately. 23rd Field Regiment deployed widely to flank and justified the Brigade's pride in its marksmanship by dropping shells unerringly on the inner banks, leaving the outer slope unscathed. Seventeen pounders were brought up to deal with enemy nests in the farmhouses, and to snipe the tunnel entrances. Delay action shell was issued to assure penetration bursts. Skinners' Horse moved its 75 millimetre tanks into close support.
At 2100 hours on February 23rd, Fifty-Sixth Division attacked on a two brigade front. All three Gurkha battalions swept forward, raced along paths cut in the minefields, wriggled through the wire, and reached the comparative safety of the outer slope of the floodbank. Furiously the hillmen dug, roofing their scanty niches in order that bombs rolled over the top of the bank might trundle by. Manual flame-throwers were rushed up and emplaced, individual cubbyholes linked into weapon pits. At dawn the sweating Gurkhas laid aside spades, picked up weapons, and waited. The first assault was thrown against 2/8 battalion at 1000 hours. Alert aircraft and artillery intervened to break up the attack. Thereafter except for showers of stick grenades, teller mines with time fuses cart-wheeling past and machineguns from enfilade positions spraying bullets about, the day passed quietly. The Gurkhas went back to their spades and began to improve their positions. Saps were driven up to the lip of the bank. Countertunnelling commenced. Like two warring swarms the adversaries toiled in the same hive.
Night saw the footbridges stealthily swing over the river, and enemy raiders tiptoe across into the tunnel entrances of the inner bank. Here the assault groups organized, fingers on lips, for less than five yards of earth separated them from the men whom they had come to destroy. The Gurkhas waited also, tense in the darkness, tommy gun in lap, kukri loose in its sheath. When the rush came the quick-eyed and cat-footed hillmen seldom were second best. Often they leapt to meet their foes and beat them to the stroke. The death scream of a German cloven to the chine caused the man behind him to falter, and in that split second's delay the kukri took another life.
After three harassing days and nights, the Germans again struck in force. An intense mortar and artillery shoot crashed on the company of 2/8 Gurkhas holding the Bastion, a strong-point near a flood gap which the enemy had blown in the near bank of the river. Under the bombardment adjacent earthworks collapsed, burying part of the garrison. At 2100 hours enemy infantry swarmed across the river to mop up. With the Bastion secured, German detachments raced to flank to widen the breach. Within two hundred yards they were pinned down; on the left Subedar Jitbahadur Gurung and his platoon broke up attack after attack. Morning found the intruders penned in around the torn mound. The Gurkhas charged, snatched back the position, but were unable to hold it. Stroke and counterstroke followed rapidly, with the enemy clinging precariously to this tormented hummock. At the end of February, when the Gurkha Brigade was relieved, it handed over three miles of secure floodbank. but around the Bastion a hard-pressed handful of enemies still lurked in their burrows. The tour had cost the 43rd Brigade three hundred men.
Eighth Division's task of establishment on the Senio was in some degree less onerous than that of the Gurkhas. In a few sectors the outer slope had already been won by the Canadians. In other places vines and undergrowth permitted unseen approach. In still other places the Indian positions were on the plain a few hundred yards behind the river. Everywhere the infantry was under extreme and unremitting tension. The Germans employed great numbers of multiple mortars and a fearful new missile, 25 short range rocket with a two hundred pound warhead. Its inaccuracy was little consolation, for its blast was devastating. Night was hideous with the clatter of machine guns, the crash of mortars and the boom of grenades. On a battalion front of a few hundred yards, during the more or less static phase of the Senio tour, the average daily expenditure of ammunition amounted to eighty thousand small arms rounds, two hundred PIAT bombs, two hundred grenades, and eighty three-inch mortars.
In addition to more lethal ammunition, both sides bombarded with leaflets and pamphlets. The Allied literature did not argue; it usually took the form of a safe conduct, printed in three languages and signed by Field-Marshal Alexander. The Germans, on the other hand, waxed verbose and even lachrymose over the fearful risks attendant upon attack upon the river lines. One side of a leaflet would be printed in many colours, showing a land of corn and wine, with buxom maidens ready, willing and able in the fruitful Edens behind the German lines. The obverse, in stark black and white, portrayed thousands of British soldiers drowning under fearful bombardment, while a death's head grinned aloft. This propaganda served two unsuspected purposes. It commanded a souvenir's and collector's value; new issues were eagerly snapped up. In addition the frequency with which Urdu leaflets were fired into British lines and English pamphlets into Indian-held sectors, indicated that German intelligence was not particularly up to date.
During the first weeks of the tour, immense ammunition expenditure summarized the activity on Eighth Division's front. Both adversaries were biding their time; the Germans against the massive shock to come, and the Indians because at this juncture it was not considered desirable to show undue interest in this particular sector. On March 13th, however, the Jaipurs with the support of a Wasp flamethrower destroyed an enemy outpost in a house to the east of the river. Twenty-seven Germans were killed for the loss of one Jaipur killed and ten wounded. A week later the Jewish Brigade, now under Divisional command, surprised ten Germans asleep in another house, and accounted for them all. An enemy force of company strength struck back at Frontier Force Rifles, but without success. The front remained quiet thereafter until April 6th, when a heavy and widespread shoot by German artillery raked the line of the Senio. An attack appeared to be imminent but nothing developed. It was afterwards learned that this artillery programme was general along Eighth Army's front, and that it had been planned as a deception shoot, to cover withdrawal to the line of the Santerno. At the last minute a direct order from Hitler's headquarters cancelled the operation. The instruction arrived too late for orders to reach the German gunners, who blazed away some hundreds of tons of ammunition to no useful purpose.
Spring was at hand. Once Hitler struck at the end of each winter; now a vast constricting circle had closed about Germany, and spring was handmaiden to the Allies. At the beginning of April the foliage had begun to break bud, and the flood water from the mountains was still some weeks away. The ground dried and the sky cleared. The hour of decision loomed.
The spring offensive of Eighth Army was part of the global plan to destroy the enemies of the United Nations. Four corps deployed for the assault. Under Fifth Corps Eighth Indian Division, Fifty-Sixth London Division, Seventy-Eighth British Division, Second New Zealand Division, 2nd Commando Brigade, 24th Guards Brigade, and the Italian Cremona Group prepared for battle. The plan called for Eighth Indian Division and the New Zealanders to smash the enemy's defences on the Senio and Santerno, establishing a bridgehead through which Seventy-Eighth Division would thrust for the Po valley. The Londoners and commandos were briefed for a flanking enterprise along the seacoast. The Guards Brigade and the Italians would enter the operation in its secondary phase.
When General Russell surveyed his front, a momentous decision confronted him. Experience had shown advance to the near flood bank to be an individual operation fraught with difficulties and often expensive in casualties. Should Eighth Division carry out this advance before the main battle began, or should both banks be stormed in a single operation? The Divisional objective was not only the crossing of the Senio, but the establishment of a: bridgehead beyond the Santerno. Such task required the Indian infantry to force one major obstacle, to fight across six miles of easily defended country, and thereafter to burst through a second water barrier. On the other hand, to launch a preliminary attack against the near flood bank might attract unwelcome attention to the Divisional front, might result in augmented resistance, and might interfere with the timing of the main assault.
The problem presented delicate balances of advantage on both sides, but General Russell's faith in his men carried the day. He decided to regard the two banks of the Senio as a single obstacle. Training and detailed planning proceeded on this basis. At the end of February the Division held a front of eight miles. Bit by bit this unwieldy sector was reduced, until at the beginning of April, Indian troops were deployed over four and a half miles. Two brigades would head the assault, each supported by a heavy force of tanks, flame-throwers and mobile guns. Divisional engineers were instructed to provide five bridges over the Senio within eight hours of the capture of the far flood bank. The two leading brigades would continue up to the Santerno, and if possible would establish crossings. The reserve brigade would then pass through to secure and enlarge the bridgehead.
19th and 21st Brigades were selected to lead the attack. Plans in great detail for the crossing of the Senio were perfected and practised. Once over the river the assault battalions were given considerable latitude within the ambit of the general directive. It could scarcely be otherwise, as both flanks were open. No formation was attacking on the right, and on the left a gap of 4,000 yards, which included Lugo, a town of 25,000 inhabitants, separated 21st Brigade from the New Zealanders. On April 7th, General Russell stressed the basic necessity in an order to his commanders. He wrote:
"The Division must fight with one policy in mind. Keep 17th Infantry Brigade fresh for the Santerno. Only if there is danger that the Division will not be able to carry out its task will 17th Brigade be committed previously. All must plan to give the maximum support to 17th Brigade and to render the difficult tasks allotted to that brigade easier. Remember always that the Division's task is to secure a bridgehead over the Santerno river and that all our efforts must be directed to this end."
The first week of April slipped away in last minute adjustments and re-checks of the innumerable details attendant upon a major operation. The front was quiet---ominously so. A rigid wall of security measures immured the forward areas. Communications were restricted; correspondence, wireless and telephone calls were conducted in cipher or jargon. Movement of transport was reduced to a minimum, tents and bivouacs camouflaged, dumps carefully hidden among the vineyards. Brigade and unit signs disappeared. Eighth Army had gone to ground.
Neither secrecy nor deception measures could conceal from the enemy the imminence of the stroke. Above everything else, the high march of events made it the hour for the final reckoning. Against Fifth Corps, Seventy-sixth Panzer Corps could only array three divisions, with two panzer grenadier divisions the sole reserve force on Eighth Army's front. Beyond the Senio and Santerno other river lines existed, but they were not fortified. To avoid catastrophe the Allied attack must be contained on the present battlefield. Bravely but without hope the Germans made their dispositions, and waited.
April 9th dawned bright and clear. Few if any remembered it to be the anniversary of the tremendous Arras-Vimy Ridge assault in 1917. Under the warm sun and cloudless sky, the infantry rested among the vine trellises and along the pollarded ditches. At 1345 hours a dull drone grew in the sky. The troops sprang to their feet, scanning the south. Group after group of heavy bombers swam into view, sparkling silver in the sunlight. The earth shook as interminable clusters of bombs crashed home. For ninety minutes array succeeded array to smash at the enemy defences. At 1520 hours a tremendous artillery concentration took over and pounded the battlefield. At intervals the shoot would lift, and fighter bombers would swoop to pinpoint positions at which the enemy had manned his defences. The guns would re-open, battering the strong points and centres of resistance. Machine-guns played steadily with high angle fire on all cross roads, bridges, supply dumps and close support lines, in order to impede movement and to isolate the enemy troops in the forward positions.
For four hours this shattering bombardment continued. A vast cloud of dun-coloured dust rose and hung in middle air. At 1900 hours it caught and reflected the level rays of the setting sun. Twenty minutes later, long lines of tanks and flamethrowers surged out of the pastures .and vineyards, with the first waves of infantry following in extended order. At that instant the guns ceased and the fighter bombers rocketed down on low level dummy attacks, to engross the enemy for the brief minute in which the fighting vehicles closed up. As they reached the flood bank the leading Crocodiles spurted sheets of flame. A wall of fire curtained the river, and black clouds of oily smoke piled above it. The guns of the tanks and enfilade machine-guns lashed the outer slope, and the leading companies of infantry charged home.
On 19th Brigade's front, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and 6/13 Frontier Force Rifles led the way. The Scotsmen encountered only minor resistance as they swarmed over the near bank and plunged into the river. Holding their rifles and machine-guns above their heads, they reached the far bank, mopped up and fell in behind the barrage as it began to march across the plain.
On their left 6/13 Frontier Force Rifles likewise carried the near slope in the first surge. But as they topped the bank, the trough of the river was lashed by a score of machine-guns, firing from portholes in both inner banks, and from enfilade positions on the left. The Frontiersmen dashed into the stream, where many fell dead and wounded. Then once more the hour bred the man. Sepoy Ali Haidar and two others were all of one platoon to reach the far bank. From thirty yards away a machine-gun nest spat death. Bidding his comrades give him covering fire, Ali Haidar lopped a grenade and followed in under it. Although wounded by a stick bomb he closed and destroyed the post. Without pause he charged the next weapon pit, from whence four machine-guns played on his comrades. He was struck twice and fell, but he crawled forward, pulled the pin of a Mills' bomb with his teeth, and hurled it into the spandau nest. Weak with loss of blood he pulled himself to his feet, staggered forward and threw himself upon the gunners. The two surviving Germans surrendered. It was the turning point. With the nearest weapons stilled the Frontiersmen made their way across the river and took up the chase. Ali Haidar, sorely wounded, was carried back as his comrades swept forward. He eventually recovered to honour his regiment with its first Victoria Cross.
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Thirty minutes after the advance began, the leading battalions of 19th Brigade were aligned and mopping up behind the barrage as regularly as though on exercises. By midnight they were two thousand yards beyond the Senio. Unfortunately they were in the blue, for their comrades of 21st Brigade had encountered misfortunes and were still fighting furiously in the forward enemy positions. This brigade attacked with 3/5 Mahrattas on the right, and 3/15 Punjabis on the opposite flank. The Crocodiles on the Mahratta front functioned, and the infantry worked up behind the cover of a bank of blazing oil. As with Frontier Force Rifles, the crest and inner slopes of the flood banks were flailed continuously by machine-gun fire; as the leading companies topped the bank, a hail of steel swept them to earth. The reserve companies closed up, dragging assault boats which proved too heavy to be hauled up the outer slope. With their commanders in the lead, the Mahrattas made a dash for it, leapt over the lip, plunged down the inner bank and into the stream. Small arms fire rose to a venomous crescendo as machine-guns opened from all sides; schmessers and spandaus blazed at the struggling sepoys from portholes, often within a few yards of the men endeavouring to make good their footing on the far bank. The leading companies were decimated, and the rain of bullets compelled the survivors to return to cover on the near bank of the river.
Sepoy Namdeo Jadhao found himself on the far bank with two wounded comrades. In the face of pelting fire, he half-dragged, half-carried the men back across the stream, struggled up, the inner slope and deposited them in safety. These rescues necessitated three trips in full view of the enemy. Having saved his friends, Namdeo Jadhao resumed the battle single-handed. He dashed at the nearest machine-gun, and wiped out its crew. A bullet tore his hand, so he dropped his tommy gun and closed with bombs. Two more enemy posts were silenced in quick succession. Standing on the lip of the bank he shouted his war cry and waved his comrades forward. Three company commanders had fallen, but the Mahrattas, responding to such dauntless leadership, swarmed back across the river and ferreted the maze of boltholes, terrier fashion. With both banks clean they pushed on into the night, to deal with the obstinate garrisons of a number of houses in the flat fields adjoining the river.
Like Ali Haidar, Namdeo Jadheo received the Victoria Cross. These almost identical instances of superb gallantry, within a few yards and a few minutes of each other, made all the difference to the centre of Eighth Division's attack. The valour of two men had altered the fortunes of the day.
On the left flank of the Division 3/15 Punjabis shared in full the vicissitudes of the Mahrattas. Two of their four fire-throwers failed to flame. Led by "C" Company, the battalion charged. A hail of fire beat the sepoys into the earth, for the sector included a bend in the river, which allowed enfilade guns to wreak havoc. "C" Company followed up dragging assault boats which they managed to hoist to the crest of the flood bank; the craft drew such fire that the company commander ordered them to be abandoned. The Punjabis plunged into the river, swam or waded across, and found themselves amidst swarms of enemies, all very alive and full of fight. The preliminary bombardment had left this garrison unscathed; the Germans sprang from their pits and burrows and met the Indians at the water's edge. Men drowned in each other's grasp. Machine-gunners were yanked from their tunnels feet first and killed rabbit fashion. Naik Rangin Khan, oblivious to danger, charged post after post, destroying three before he fell mortally wounded. The Germans fought like beasts at bay, but they could not cope with such assailants. By midnight the warrens of the flood banks were empty save for sprawled dead, and the Punjabis were exploiting across the flat fields. At first light they were mopping up one thousand yards to the north-east of Lugo. Royal West Kents followed across, turned south and drew the flanking coverts. Up came the Jaipurs to garrison the flood banks, and to deal with any enemies who might have lain doggo in the hope of emerging to make trouble after the first waves of assault troops had passed.
Up came the sappers also, with their eyes on their watches, for hours were their enemies. In the midst of the flood bank fighting, the Mahratta Anti-Tank Regiment arrived to erect a steel cableway, on which jeeps and anti-tank guns were speedily slung across the river. On 19th Brigade's front, "Sterling" and "Selkirk" bridges were thrown over in less than the sparse eight hours allowed by the Divisional commander. At 0415 hours the first tanks crossed the Senio. 3/8 Punjabis had turned bridge sappers for the night, and under heavy mortar fire had constructed two Olafson bridges for foot traffic. 21st Brigade was equally expeditious; at 0540 hours a tank bridge was in position. Within the next ninety minutes three squadrons of 48th Royal Tank Regiment had lumbered across and had snorted off in the dim light in search of the enemy. 6th Lancers and North Irish Horse followed over, and when the battle began to sort out in daylight, a strong force of British armour was roving between the Senio and the Santerno, on call for the infantry.
Situation reports at dawn showed Eighth Division to be firmly embedded in the main enemy defensive positions and the battle developing according to plan. On the right Argylls continued to easy going. 6th Lancers and a troop of Mahratta anti-tank gunners after seizing Maiella, exploited to the north as guardians of the open flank. Frontier Force Rifles had run into trouble, and were pinned down on the line of Schuolo Tratturo. In the left brigade sector, the Mahrattas had mopped up to the Lugo canal, while Jaipurs entered the town. This small market place, whose chief claim to fame is a monstrous modernistic statue of Mussolini, put on a brave welcome; the mayor advanced to meet the Jaipurs with a white flag in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other. On the extreme left, 3/15 Punjabis had brought forward their vehicles and were probing to find an opening through which they might exploit as lorried infantry---evidence of the optimism that was in the air. Unfortunately the quick bridging and the rapid closing up of the transport echelons led to a sad tragedy. From ten thousand feet one flood-banked river looks much like another. A number of flights of bombers briefed to smash enemy transport withdrawing behind the Santerno mistook their target and dropped their loads on the long columns waiting to cross the Senio. Heavy casualties resulted.
The Schuolo Tratturo positions had been prepared as a switch line to the Senio defences. In view of the extent of Divisional commitments it was not deemed wise to force the pace by day., That evening, after a short but intense bombardment 3/8 Punjabis, the reserve battalion of 19th Brigade, advanced to the assault. After mopping up rearguards the Punjabis found themselves in the open. Throughout April 11th, Mahrattas and Jaipurs likewise made steady progress on 21st Brigade's front, against disorganized resistance. During the afternoon the Mahrattas reached the start line agreed upon for 17th Brigade's jump off against the Santerno. Here they paused until the Jaipurs had come up on their left and had consolidated the Brigade position.
The Senio Line had burst; the terrain up to the Santerno had been mopped up. 17th Brigade moved up for the denouement, the climactic moment of the battle. Would another smash punch the hole, or would the sagging line hold? At 1730 hours a heavy concentration shoot crashed down on the enemy positions along the line of the Santerno. With an interval of twelve hundred yards between them (because of an intervening minefield), 1/5 Gurkhas and 1 /12 Frontier Force Regiment advanced to the assault. It was an odd-looking battle array: an eye-witness said that it must have resembled an old-fashioned commando charge in the Boer war. A mass of vehicles rolled forward, led by flamethrowers. Armoured troop carriers followed, with groups of infantry interspersed on foot. Thereafter, pressing in upon the selvedges of the battle, came the miscellaneous transport of sappers, signallers and services, all intent upon speeding their functions and sharing to the full the risks and rigours of the decisive blow.
As the attack closed, the flamethrowers proved temperamental and accomplished little. The Kangaroos raced for the river; the infantry depouched within a few yards of the enemy and sprang into the fray.
(Some of Frontier Regiment's carriers ran on the minefield, and had to be. extricated.) As the two battalions surged over the crest of the flood banks, the Senio struggle was re-enacted; groups of machineguns from enfilade positions threshed the trough of the river, lashing the water with a hail of steel: one officer said it looked like a miraculous evening rise of fingerling. The sepoys gained the far bank to find it stiff with Germans, One company of the Frontier Force Regiment, two of Gurkhas, effected a lodgment; the enemy struck back with frenzy. Hour by hour the grim battle raged. Of the left flank platoon of Gurkhas only two men stood; on the right eleven men remained. Six counter-attacks were thrown in; each time sheer tenacity thwarted the enemy. At 0200 hours Royal Fusiliers came up and took over the battle, the Gurkhas pushing out at right angles to give flank protection. Simultaneously Frontier Force Rifles found resistance to be weakening, burst through in a soft spot, and fanned out across the fields.
A bridgehead had been established over the Santerno, but on the near bank 21st Brigade was still encountering fierce resistance. The crisis came when the Jaipurs, pushing up from Lugo, were thrown into the assault. In a fine rush "B" Company of the state troops reached the river. The enemy was slow in rallying on the flood banks; the Jaipurs seized their opportunity, and flooded across. They bore against a series of strong points in houses along the western bank. A heavy counter-attack forced them back, but after reorganization they surged forward again. This time the line broke; the defenders scattered and went to ground. The Jaipurs pushed on, leaving fifty dead Germans in the path of their advance.
This dashing advance completed the second breach in the Santerno defences. It now remained to make the bridgehead secure. At 0445 hours Royal Fusiliers pushed forward, working up a road running towards Mondaniga, marked on battle maps as "The Street". The Santerno was as yet unbridged, and the British battalion lacked support weapons. In a last desperate bid to block the hole German infantry with tanks in close attendance struck along "The Street". In the dim hour before dawn, the panzers roved freely. A forward Fusilier Company was overrun. Day was breaking as the enemy tanks prowled, seeking to close. On the other side of the Santerno, British armour chafed, unable to cross to the rescue of the precariously placed infantry, or to administer the coup de grâce to the shaken enemy. An engineer officer has supplied an exciting picture of the tense hours during which the sappers laboured all out at the all-important crossings. He wrote:
"At 0445 hours a bulldozer broke its track and partially blocked the near approach to our bridge site. Then the demolition charges in the flood banks failed to explode. A report reached us that a Tiger tank was waiting on the far side of the Santerno, two hundred yards away. Our near approach was widened around the disabled bulldozer, and the Sherman tank of the officer commanding the Armoured Engineer Squadron was positioned to take on the Tiger the instant the gap in the far bank was blown. No mistake was made this time: up went the bank. There was a lot of justifiable laughter when the only enemy in sight after the heavy charge exploded were two bomb-happy Germans who staggered out of a deep dugout not twenty yards from the crater. The dust of the explosion had scarcely settled when the first Churchills were over, and just in time to take on a troop of Tigers."
Had British a armour been delayed for another hour, Royal Fusiliers might have been destroyed, and the bridgehead lost. The momentum of the attack would have suffered and the Germans might have rallied for one more stand. But before the heavy guns of the Shermans, the enemy panzers faded away. Seventy-Eighth Division came flooding through. The British troops had not been told of the second Indian bridgehead, and Royal West Kents, who came forward to relieve the Jaipurs, unwittingly assembled on Seventy-Eighth Division's line of advance. Forward elements opened fire on the Kentish men, who took refuge in some farmhouses. There followed the rather unusual spectacle of one British regiment hanging out a white flag to another.
Along the river lines which they had stormed the men of Eighth Indian Division rested content. They had punched the hole again with a speed and power which left the enemy reeling; their spearhead had gouged a gaping wound. Many German formations had been destroyed, and upwards of one thousand prisoners taken, at a cost of little more than 700 Indian casualties. The Army Commander and the Corps Commander said kind words and General Russell thanked his men in his own fashion. "Two rivers crossed in forty-eight hours," he said, "is not a bad achievement, even for Eighth Indian Division."
The end was in sight. Seventy-Eighth Division struck for the Argenta Gap, the slender isthmus of retreat between the salt marshes and Lake Comacchio. As the enemy, reeling from the mortal thrust, strove to block this bottleneck, Fifty-Sixth London Division and 2nd British Commando Brigade took to the Comacchio lagoons in "Fantail" amphibious craft and established themselves in the rear of the Argenta defences. The view halloo of a kill on the grand scale rang across the world. Two German armies were dying fast.
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