Operation Chuckle: No Laughing Matter: Army, Part 87

April 10, 2010 by Terry Copp
A Canadian vehicle crosses Italy’s Montone River, late 1944. [PHOTO: LEGION MAGAZINE ARCHIVES]

A Canadian vehicle crosses Italy’s Montone River, late 1944.
PHOTO: LEGION MAGAZINE ARCHIVES

The battle for Italy’s Savio River, Oct. 20-23, 1944, marked the turning point in the difficult relationship between Lieutenant-General E.L.M. Burns and his senior officers. Despite the success the Canadian Corps enjoyed under Burns’ leadership, his two divisional commanders had begun to echo British complaints about his style of command.

Burns, who was ironically nicknamed Smiley, lacked the kind of easy-going leadership skills that were so highly valued in the 8th Army. His relations with the brash, profane divisional commander Chris Vokes had always been difficult, but in the misery of the October battles another divisional commander, Bert Hoffmeister, “lost all confidence” in his corps commander, complaining that Burns “interfered with forward commanders.” Hoffmeister stated that “in spite of his best intentions” he was “inclined to be insubordinate” and he asked that either he or Burns be relieved of command.

Staff officers at Corps Headquarters reported that the tension between Burns and his subordinates made the atmosphere at conferences “unpleasant and embarrassing.” The divisional commanders “ignore Burns’ directions” and the corps commander “lacked the personality or ability to obtain co-operation.” Lieutenant-General Dick McCreery, the new commander of the 8th Army, and General Harold Alexander were momentarily tempted to try their preferred solution, breaking up the corps and placing the Canadian divisions under British command. However, the Canadians would never have accepted this move and so McCreery reluctantly agreed that “Vokes would be acceptable” as a replacement.

In his memoirs titled General Mud, Burns, who was unaware of the role Hoffmeister and Vokes had played in his removal, recalled that he “did not believe it would be sound policy to continue an all-out offensive, and to incur further heavy casualties under the conditions in Italy’s Romagna region, where prospects for decisive victory during the winter months of rain, snow and mud appeared negligible.” Burns made no secret of his view and he thought this difference of opinion was behind McCreery’s decision to fire him.

The final decision to remove a Canadian corps commander could only be made by General Harry Crerar who had defended Burns when the British had sought to replace him after the Liri Valley battles. Now, with Canadian senior officers demanding a change, Crerar had little choice. He was, however, determined to appoint a new corps commander from outside the 8th Army who would understand that Canadian and British interest were not always identical.

Crerar’s choice, Charles Foulkes, had been less than impressive as a divisional commander, but he did possess good organizational skills and could be counted on to defend Canadian interests.

But sending Foulkes to Italy did present problems because in the small Canadian professional army everyone knew that Vokes could never work under Foulkes. The two men could not stand each other. Vokes was, therefore, brought to Holland to take over 4th Armoured Division, replacing Harry Foster who was sent to Italy to command 1st Infantry Div. In the meantime, acting generals were appointed. Fortunately, the Canadians spent most of November in reserve, so there was time for officers to get used to new command styles while the combat troops, deeply weary after two months of action, got some rest.

A tower remains standing following the heavy shelling of Ravenna, December 1944. [PHOTO: DND/LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA167305]

A tower remains standing following the heavy shelling of Ravenna, December 1944.
PHOTO: DND/LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA167305

Finding accommodations for 80,000 men in the shattered towns of eastern Italy was no easy task. The 11th Bde. ended up in the beautiful and undamaged city of Urbino while the rest of 5th Div. was scattered along the coast. The battalions of 1st Div. needed replacements as well as time to recover from the agonies of the Savio battle (Cold October Rain, January/February), but they were also told to reorganize for the next offensive.

A new anti-tank company was authorized to provide better protection when the supporting armour was held up by water barriers. More Projector, Infantry, Anti-Tank guns were added and the battalion six-pounders were replaced by the Little John, a high-velocity version of the old two-pounder anti-tank gun. The first Wasp and Crocodile flame-throwers had arrived in Italy and the lessons learned from using these highly effective weapons in Northwest Europe were passed on in demonstrations and training films.

All of these efforts to increase combat effectiveness were necessary because the battle for the Savio River crossing, which had prompted demands for removing Burns, had deeply affected the morale of 8th Army’s infantry battalions. Self-inflicted wounds, absence without leave and desertion became major problems and the Canadians were not immune. The Historical Officer attached to 1st Cdn. Div. noted that the October attacks had been marred by inadequate prep time, useless or impossible tasks and shortages of manpower at the sharp end. He quoted the words of a Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry company commander who reported that poor morale was due to the belief that the war would be over soon, the recollection of last winter’s misery, the belief that the Gothic Line battles were supposed to be the last show for Canadian infantrymen in Italy and general war weariness, “especially in Italy.” The officer added that these morale problems were not unique to the PPCLI; “at the present time all brigades are busily occupied with Courts Martial, chiefly desertion and Absence Without Leave charges.”

Given the problems of weather, terrain, manpower shortages and morale issues, the decision to continue an all-out offensive in Italy needed to be examined. The orders issued to Alexander in early November 1944 required 5th and 8th Armies to “maintain maximum pressure… in early December” when Eisenhower was hoping to launch a major offensive in Northwest Europe—an offensive that was delayed, then postponed indefinitely when the Germans attacked through the Ardennes in the Battle of the Bulge.

While the phrase “maximum pressure” was subject to interpretation, the intent was clear; tie down German troops in a holding action to prevent them from transferring divisions out of Italy. Alexander, backed by Churchill, would not accept this limited role and so he continued to plan for “a two-handed punch—the right hand punch by 8th Army across the Adriatic and the left hand strike by 5th Army on the Italian mainland…both Armies converging on the Trieste.…” Once Trieste was secure, Alexander proposed an advance to Vienna through the Brenner Pass.

This ambitious and deeply flawed plan was scheduled for early 1945, requiring an all-out offensive to secure the cities of Bologna and Ravenna in the last weeks of 1944. The Joint Chiefs did not accept Alexander’s plan for Trieste and Vienna but they did not authorize a renewed offensive in Italy “to contain German Field Marshal Albert Kesselring’s armies.” However, Bologna and Ravenna were accepted as objectives.

While the bulk of the Canadian Corps was enjoying a month out of the line, the Royal Canadian Dragoons, 2nd Field Regiment, Royal Cdn. Artillery, 5th Medium Regt., RCA, and the 12th Field Company, Royal Canadian Engineers, joined British gunners and the 27th Lancers tank regiment in a battle group known as Porterforce. Its task, to protect the right flank of 5th British Corps and capture and occupy Ravenna, seemed too ambitious for 2,000 men, no matter how much firepower it had. As the RCD history relates, “the enemy had opened the dikes of the Savio and flooded the area so that the road (Route 16) was under water in places and in others ran like a causeway across the drowned countryside. Troops and vehicles moved on that highway like the targets in a penny shooting gallery.… In its worst dreams, the Regiment had never seen itself advancing in such a position.”

A slow, artillery-supported advance was nevertheless possible and on Nov. 1, the RCDs were delighted to learn that Popski’s Private Army was to take over the coastal flank. The arrival of several hundred Italian partisans—part of the Garibaldi Brigade—further strengthened Porterforce. After 5th British Corps captured Forli on Nov. 9, the enemy’s greatly weakened 114 Jaeger Div. was forced to withdraw towards Ravenna to avoid encirclement. The Westminster Regt., which had joined Porterforce, was involved in some brisk firefights but the main impediment was mines and demolitions. Porterforce patrols reached the outskirts of Ravenna just as 1st Cdn. Corps prepared to launch its part in the 8th Army’s offensive, an operation given the wildly inappropriate name of Chuckle.

Both Canadian divisions were to take over the advance on Dec. 2, assuming responsibility for a 16-kilometre-wide front on 8th Army’s Adriatic flank. The Canadians now faced a flat, saturated landscape crossed by ditches, canals and three rivers, the Lamone, Senio and Santerno—all with diked banks. The enemy had improved these man-made obstacles by scooping out tunnels “revetted with stout timbers with openings the size of ship portholes. From these holes protruded the ugly muzzles of the enemy’s guns.”

Major-General Chris Vokes (left) meets with Field Marshal Sir Harold Alexander. [PHOTO: LEGION MAGAZINE ARCHIVES]

Major-General Chris Vokes (left) meets with Field Marshal Sir Harold Alexander.
PHOTO: LEGION MAGAZINE ARCHIVES

These mutually supporting positions along the meanders of the rivers allowed the defenders “to sweep a wide front with converging and enfilade fire.”

The bridges had all been destroyed, presenting the engineers with a formidable challenge. One possible solution was the Brown Bridge developed by Captain B.S Brown of 4 Field Company, Royal Canadian Engineers. The bridge could be carried forward on two tanks and used to cross an 80-foot gap. A second invention, the Olafson Bridge, developed by Capt. E.A. Olafson, Royal Canadian Electrical, Mechanical Engineers, could be quickly constructed out of portable sections of half-inch pipe to provide an infantry footbridge. Olafson bridges were constructed for each infantry battalion before Operation Chuckle began.

Brigadier J.D. “Des” Smith, the Acting Commander of 1st Cdn. Div. reminded battalion commanders of the enemy’s pattern of holding each water barrier long enough to force a set-piece attack then quickly withdrawing to the next barrier. Smith stressed the need to get patrols up to the next obstacle “as soon as a bridgehead has been formed.” The enemy was thin on the ground and everyone “right down to the company level” must move forward and forget about flanks. “Avoid house fighting,” he argued. The best course was to use artillery, “bring down fire before we reach them.”

This was no doubt sound advice, but the real problems confronting the infantry were the dike defenses. Major-General C.E. Weir, who left the New Zealand Div. to command the 46th British Div. in November, had gone so far as to forbid his infantry to cross the Montone River “unless tanks and anti-tank guns could cross their immediate support.” No such restriction was proposed by Canadian commanders.

The 3rd Cdn. Inf. Bde. led off the attack from a bridgehead that 10th Indian Div. had secured across the Montone. Their task was to clear the town of Russi, then seize a crossing of the Lamone, three kilometres to the north. Today, Russi is a pleasant town of 10,000, popular with visitors to the archeological museum and the mosaics of the nearby Villa Romano. Veterans of the 1944 battle would not recognize the place that was hammered by air strikes and artillery in those dismal December days.

The West Nova Scotia Regt. and the Royal 22nd Regt. reached Russi after overcoming some tough enemy delaying positions. Brig. Paul Bernatchez ordered a night advance to the Lamone, but it quickly became apparent that the railway embankment which crossed the entire front north of Russi was a main line of resistance. After two hastily prepared attacks failed, Bernatchez added his reserve, the Carleton and York Regt., to a three-battalion night attack, supported by extensive artillery concentrations. The enemy withdrew to the river and 3rd Bde. quickly overcame the rearguards, reaching the Lamone to find the bridges blown and the far bank strongly defended.

The German withdrawal from the railway embankment had been hastened by the actions of an aggressive battle group leading 5th Armoured Division’s advance to Ravenna. The Princess Louise Dragoon Guards and the Lanark and Renfrew Scottish Regt. led while the Westminster Regt. captured a vital crossing of the Montone River, opening up a supply route. The operations log of 12th Bde. proudly recorded the results of this speedy and successful advance that carried the brigade “through the enemy’s delaying line (the railway) east of the River Lamone.”

Ravenna was now outflanked and on the night of Dec. 3-4, local partisans reported that Ravenna was undefended. The PLDGs, partisans and Lt.-Col. Porter’s regiment, the 27th Lancers, all reached the city centre at about the same time.

During the first three days of Operation Chuckle, the two Canadian divisions had suffered 211 casualties evenly divided between 3rd and 12th Bde. A similar number of men had been evacuated as non-battle casualties. In the cold calculus of the war, this was an “acceptable” wastage rate for the capture of Ravenna, one of the main objectives of the offensive.

Unfortunately, success at Ravenna was paralleled by a disastrous attempt to cross the Lamone when Smith decided to try to bounce the river using fresh troops from 1st Bde. Historian Bill McAndrew explains what happened. The brigade, he notes, “had meticulously prepared for another, later phase of the operation and battalions had no time to reconnoiter the ground or plan for their mission. Brig. A. Calder recalled that, over a few hours, he was given four different sets of orders.” The Hastings and Prince Edward Regt. and the Royal Canadian Regt. were able to get across the river but quite unable to hold the bridgehead under heavy counterattack. There would have to be a pause while a new set-piece attack was prepared.

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