Bad Weather, Tough Resistance: Army, Part 84

Canadian and Greek soldiers enter Rimini, Italy, Sept. 21, 1944. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA173426]

Canadian and Greek soldiers enter Rimini, Italy, Sept. 21, 1944.
PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA173426

The battle for the town of Rimini and the San Fortunato Ridge, the last mountain barrier before the plains of northern Italy, ended on Sept. 21, 1944. With Canadian infantry established across the Marecchia River and the Greek Mountain Brigade clearing the last rearguards in the ruined streets of Rimini, Operation Olive, the most difficult and costly operation carried out by 8th Army in Italy, was finally over.

The Greeks asked for a Canadian flag to fly alongside theirs in the Rimini town square and a red ensign, borrowed from auxiliary services, was supplied. Messages of congratulation, friendship and mutual respect were exchanged and 1st Canadian Division moved into reserve for some much needed rest and relaxation.

A break in the action at Rimini, September 1944. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA193850]

A break in the action at Rimini, September 1944.
PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA193850

The price of 8th Army’s achievement in Operation Olive was extraordinarily high. Despite the priority given to Bernard Montgomery’s 21st Army Group, British and Canadian formations in Italy had been at full strength in August. Throughout September, 8th Army’s casualties averaged 300 a day, 80 per cent of them in the infantry. British divisions were faced with a worldwide shortage of replacements and this presented commanders with a difficult choice.

Montgomery opted to cannibalize two divisions—the 50th and 59th—using manpower from each to reinforce his remaining divisions. General Harold Alexander removed two infantry brigades and 1st Armoured Div. from his order of battle, but was still short of replacements. All British infantry battalions in Italy were therefore reduced from four to three rifle companies.

The Canadian reinforcement situation was less severe. In late September, Defence Minister J.L. Ralston arrived in Italy to investigate reports of ill-trained replacements. He learned that whatever their level of training, there were not enough replacements to sustain operations into 1945. Ralston returned to Canada convinced of the need to send conscripts overseas. He was forced to resign over the issue, but his successor, General Andrew McNaughton, soon discovered Ralston was right and 16,000 conscripts were sent to Europe to provide the necessary combat replacements for the last months of the war. And they would be needed.

On the day Rimini was occupied by the Allies, Alexander offered an analysis of the situation in the Mediterranean to Gen. Sir Alan Brooke, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff. The battle of Italy, he noted, was being fought by the Allies “with about 20 divisions, almost all which have had long periods of heavy fighting this year and some for several years, against 20 German divisions.…”

Alexander recognized his troops were “inflicting very heavy losses on the enemy…but our losses are also heavy and we are in a country in which it is generally agreed that a superiority of three-to-one is required for successful offensive operations. It will be a small wonder therefore if we fail to score a really decisive success when the opposing forces are so evenly matched.”

The Gothic Line battles had certainly worn down the enemy, especially 10th Army on the Adriatic front. On Sept. 25, a report noted that only 10 of the 92 German combat battalions had a fighting strength of 400 men. There were 16 battalions with between 300 and 400 combat soldiers, 26 with 200 to 300 and 40 with less than 200. The fighting strength of 10th Army was estimated at 21,500 men, less than half the number that had been available at the end of August. These figures do not include artillery units that provided the principle obstacle to the Allied advance, but without infantry to hold ground, the Germans could not continue to defend northern Italy. Replacements had to be found even as Hitler began preparations for the counter-offensive in the Ardennes.

Alexander knew just how difficult it would be to achieve success on the battlefield in the fall of 1944, but he did not communicate his doubts to his army commanders. By the time he wrote the letter to Brooke, he knew the results of the Second Quebec Conference, where British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had won another round in the Anglo-American debate over Italy. Churchill had insisted that despite victory in the Battle of Normandy and the subsequent liberation of France and Belgium, “It would never do for our armies [in Italy] to remain idle…. Our objective should be Vienna.” To enter the Balkans and reach Austria, Churchill proposed to give Germany “a stab in the Adriatic armpit” by an amphibious assault south of Trieste on the east side of the Gulf of Venice. But this could only happen if the cities of Bologna and especially Ravenna were in Allied hands. Alexander followed orders. Both 5th and 8th armies were to continue to fight beyond the Gothic Line.

At 8th Army, Lieutenant-General Oliver Leese, who was soon to be kicked upstairs through an appointment to command an Army Group in Burma, was buoyantly optimistic. It was time, he told his corps commanders, to reap the rewards of the Gothic Line victory and “hit the enemy hard both day and night and force them back over the Po (River).”

Three relatively fresh divisions, 2nd New Zealand, 1st British Armoured and 5th Canadian Armd. were to attack to Ravenna and Bologna, taking advantage of a German withdrawal and the “good tank country” that was said to lie beyond the Apennine Mountains.

Looking back on these orders, it is difficult to understand why Leese and his staff were so confident the Germans, who had never before surrendered ground without a fight, would suddenly retreat. It is even more difficult to grasp the reasons for 8th Army’s belief that armoured regiments could move rapidly through the Romagna plain, especially when this coastal plain north of Rimini was intensely cultivated with olive groves and vineyards surrounding solid farmhouses, villages and a few towns.

The whole area was intersected by 13 rivers and creeks as well as countless ditches and canals. These watercourses, while sometimes dry in summer, turn into torrents when autumn rains begin. The threat of floods had forced the inhabitants to contain the most dangerous streams with dikes that rose above the landscape. Meteorological data, available to both armies, predicted recurring days of heavy rain from mid-September.

An intelligence summary, issued on Sept. 18 when the weather was still “fine and warm,” noted that the enemy holding San Fortunato and the Rimini Line “cannot at present allow us out of this passage onto the plains because we might easily turn a withdrawal into a rout.” Lieutenant-Colonel W.C. Dick, the divisional intelligence officer, suggested that, “In a very few weeks the weather will double his strength…the rain will bog down our tanks and vehicles; guns will be difficult to haul, the rivers will become obstacles….”

This house was among several buildings damaged or destroyed by artillery fire in September 1944. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA173429]

This house was among several buildings damaged or destroyed by artillery fire in September 1944.
PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA173429

Perhaps 8th Army’s optimism was influenced by the good weather that persisted well into September. This was a trend that led German staff officers to complain that the rains were late. On Sept. 21, a cold front moved through, bringing rain and orders to change back into battledress. This was followed by five days of good weather that encouraged senior Allied commanders to make ambitious plans.

The three divisions began their advance on Sept. 22, hoping the enemy, who had been forced to transfer formations from 76 Corps to deal with pressure from 5th U.S. Army, would be incapable of prolonged resistance. Instead, trouble began almost immediately. The New Zealand Div. found no signs of a general withdrawal. Anti-tank guns and artillery zeroed in on the coastal highway and slowed the advance, inflicting a steady toll of casualties on men and vehicles. 1st British Armd. Div. found the going so difficult that it quickly gave way to an infantry division.

Major-General Bert Hoffmeister’s 5th Cdn. Armd. Div. was positioned between the British and New Zealand divisions, tasked to clear the triangle between the two main highways. Hoffmeister decided to lead with 12th  Cdn. Inf. Bde., the formation added to his division in July 1944 after 8th Army decided to add an infantry brigade to each armoured division. The Canadians “converted” the Princess Louise Dragoon Guards, 1st Division’s reconnaissance regiment, the Westminster Regt., 5th Division’s motorized battalion and the 1st Cdn. Light Anti-Aircraft Regt. (re-named Lanark and Renfrew Scottish Regt.) to infantry and began re-training the officers and men. The new brigade, commanded by Brigadier J.S.H. Lind, the former commanding officer of the Perth Regt., fought its first action in early September, but was not involved in 5th Division’s later battle for Coriano Ridge.

Hoffmeister’s plan called for 12th Bde. to “get ahead fast, bypassing and picketing centres of resistance, leaving 11th  Cdn. Inf. Bde. to mop them up as they catch up to us.” After 12th Bde. crossed the Rubicon-Fiumicino River, 11th Bde., with strong armoured elements leading, would continue the advance. The 2nd Armd. Regt., Lord Strathcona’s Horse, as well as self-propelled artillery, anti-tank guns and 14th Field Company, Royal Cdn. Engineers, were to assist 12th Bde. and all available artillery was on call.

The PLDGs (known as the Plugs) began the advance, but the lead companies were quickly forced to ground as “machine-gun, arty (artillery) and mortar fire, including heavy calibre shells” stopped all movement. The reserve companies worked their way forward to the ruins of San Giustiva, a hamlet on Highway No. 9 that was barely beyond the start line, however, they could go no further. The battalion, which had suffered 76 casualties in a few hours, was scattered and disorganized.

Lind decided to send his most experienced unit, the Westminsters, with a squadron of Strathcona tanks on a wide right hook. Lt.-Col. G.C. Corbould, the “uncomfortably courageous” CO of the regiment, who had orchestrated the battalion’s triumph of the Melfa River in May (Bridgehead On The Melfa, May/June 2008), decided to advance one company at a time in a series of short bounds. With the assistance of soldiers from a New Zealand Maori battalion, who cheerfully allowed the Canadians to cross the divisional boundary, the Westminsters reached a point within sight of their objective, the village of San Vito.

San Vito, on the south bank of the Uso River, proved to be strongly held by German infantry and 88-mm guns. The latter systematically blasted houses and savaged the Strathcona squadron that had joined the infantry. A new set-piece attack, with full artillery support was needed and Lind ordered the Lanark and Renfrew Regt. to follow the route used by the Westminsters, making a slight side shift to the right. This second right hook faltered in the face of heavy fire and the intervention of enemy self-propelled guns “which made full use of the thick vegetation to conceal themselves.” This prevented a second Strathcona squadron from joining the infantry. The operation, touted as a pursuit battle, “bypassing and picketing centres of resistance,” had stalled. All three divisions encountered the same stubborn resistance and no unit had found any gaps in the German defences.

On the Canadian front, Hoffmeister added the armour of the Governor Generals Horse Guards to the mix, ordering the unit to assist the Lanark and Renfrew Regt. in an assault crossing of the Uso. Five battalions had now been committed to the battle, and on the night of Sept. 26, the Germans withdrew to the next river line. Before handing over the advance to 11th Bde., 12th  Bde. could report that it had secured San Vito in addition to a shallow bridgehead across the Uso.

12th  Bde. had covered a distance of two kilometres and suffered 300 casualties in a “slow and very fatiguing action…against an unprecedented amount of artillery and self-propelled guns.” The “close nature of the ground,” the brigade reported, “made every foot gained a difficult and well-earned one.”

Lieutenant-Colonel  J.M. McAvity, the veteran commander of the Strathconas, spoke for every combat soldier when he wrote, “Contrary to popular expectations, the Po Valley has so far proved unsuitable for armour.” The close country, irrigation ditches that serve as tank obstacles, extensive minefields and limited visibility make fire and movement operations “very difficult.” And this was before the “rainstorms made movement of armoured units almost impossible.”

The autumn rains began in earnest on the night of the planned takeover by 11th Bde. Brig. Ian Johnston ignored the weather and ordered his battalions to push north to the River Salto. The 8th New Brunswick Hussars allocated a squadron to each battalion and the next phase of the advance began. Since the enemy was retiring to positions along the diked banks of the Fiumicino River the Cape Breton Highlanders and the Irish Regt. reached the Salto by mid-afternoon.

For a brief moment, it appeared as if the enemy was in full retreat and Hoffmeister met with Johnston to arrange for a quick crossing of the Fiumicino, a river often identified with Julius Ceasar’s Rubicon. The Irish Regt., which had reached the outskirts of San Mauro, bypassed the village and Captain Pat O’Brien’s A Co. crossed the river. During the night, wireless communication broke down and when B Company’s commander, Major Bill Armstrong, took a platoon and additional signal equipment across the river to strengthen the bridgehead, “they found that A Co. had evidently been surrounded, some killed and the remainder captured.” Fortunately, the Cape Breton Highlanders waited for their armoured squadron, which had been held up by minefields. The forward companies dug in south of the river.

Heavy rains and the tragic loss of the Irish company ended attempts to cross the Fiumicino which was in full flood. According to German sources, their own withdrawal had produced indescribable scenes…“men drowned and guns literally washed away.” Both sides settled down to wait out the weather.

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