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Piercing The Heart Of The Mountains: Army, Part 85

Canadians on the move near the Arno River, 1944. [PHOTO: LEGION MAGAZINE ARCHIVES]

Canadians on the move near the Arno River, 1944.

While 1st Canadian Corps fought through the Gothic Line defences on the eastern side of Italy, 1st Cdn. Armoured Brigade, part of 13th British Corps, was committed to battle in the heart of the Apennine Mountains.

The brigade, composed of the Ontario Regt. (11th Cdn. Armd Regt.), the Three Rivers Regt. (12 CAR) and the Calgary Regt. (14 CAR), had been supporting the infantry battalions of 13th British Corps since the Liri Valley operations in May 1944, and had established excellent relations with their British and Indian Army counterparts. Lieutenant-General Sidney Kirkman, the corps commander, regarded Brigadier Bill Murphy and his regimental officers as the experts on infantry-tank co-operation and so he was content to leave the tactical use of armour in their hands.

Kirkman had been one of the strongest proponents of the proposal to switch the main Allied offensive to the Adriatic front, but ironically his corps would remain in the central mountains as part of 5th U.S. Army. The transfer of an American and French Corps for the invasion of southern France left General Mark Clark with too few troops to mount a serious offensive without help. With two infantry and two armoured divisions—plus the Canadian brigade—13th Corps made it possible for Clark to plan for a broad Allied advance once German reserves were committed to the 8th Army front.

Today, travellers can follow the A1 Autostrada north from Florence to Bologna, using 14 major tunnels through the Apennines. But in 1944, Route 65, a few kilometres to the east, was the main highway over the mountains. In 1944, the Germans had built one of the most formidable set of fortifications in the entire Gothic Line to block this route. There were four other two-lane paved roads across the mountains, each guarded by pillboxes, bunkers and anti-tank guns. It did not take long for the Canadian armoured regiments to learn how difficult it was to use these roads.

Clark’s original plan called for U.S. 2 Corps to strike the first blow shortly after the start of 8th Army’s offensive. With Ultra providing “real time” information on German movements, Clark learned of German Field Marshal Albert Kesselring’s Aug. 29 decision to begin a staged withdrawal to the Gothic or Green Line once pressure was exerted. Ultra decrypts also reported that the boundary between the German 14th and 10th armies was to be just six miles east of Highway 65, on a road parallel to Imola, a town on the Rimini highway southeast of Bologna.

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Attacking at an army, corps and divisional boundary was every commanders dream and Clark devised a plan to exploit what he hoped would be a fatal weakness in the German defence. If the main thrust was to be northeast to Imola, far more would be demanded of 13th Corps advancing on the immediate right flank of the American advance.

The German withdrawal from the hills north of Florence began in early September and 1st British Infantry Division, with the Ontario Regt. under command, began to probe north with a Canadian squadron attached to each lead battalion. The Calgary Regt., assigned to 8th Indian Div., was given a similar task, but in both cases carefully planned demolitions had blown every road and track. Tanks could only provide indirect fire support until engineers had bridged the gaps and cleared rock slides.

On Sept. 9, when General Oliver Leese reported that 8th Army would have to pause to organize a new set-piece attack on Coriano Ridge, Gen. Harold Alexander “decided to unleash 5th Army who will now go ahead with an offensive in the centre.” According to Alexander, the enemy was “as weak as we can ever expect them to be” and with a spell of fine weather predicted it was time for a full-scale attack across the mountains.

Clark allowed his forces three days to close to the Gothic Line with the full offensive scheduled for Sept. 13. Kirkman planned to attack using elements of three divisions, with 1st Inf. and 6th Armd. advancing along roads on either side of 8th Indian, a mountain-trained division, ordered to attack “along the watershed.”

Alexander’s chief of staff, Lt.-Gen. Sir John Harding, visited Kirkman’s headquarters shortly after the advance began and reported that he was “quite depressed by 13 Corps HQ’s outlook on life. There is no doubt that in the sixth year of the war everyone is tired…they are very despondent and feel they can’t push on much further.”

Kirkman tried his best to prevent this pessimism from reaching combat leaders. In a letter sent to brigade and battalion commanders, he described the forces facing 13th Corps as “an indifferent enemy division of just seven battalions holding a front of 2,700 yards.” He recognized “the strength of the enemy’s prepared defences and formidable nature of the ground,” but insisted that quick action against a numerically weak opponent would succeed.

Kirkman noted in his letter that he had previously “personally addressed officers down to the rank of lieutenant-colonel before a big battle,” but this time, because of the need for reconnaissance and detailed plans, it was no time to take commanders away from their units. This was certainly the case with the Calgary Regt., tasked to assist the Indian infantry in following up the German withdrawal. The regiment’s war diary offers an account of the period. “9 Sept. Throughout the day the Royal Engineers worked to establish supply lines for further advance. 10 Sept. The C.O. crossed the river (Sieve) to recce tank routes. Territory 5000 yards north of the Sieve was utterly impassable to tanks, slopes were precipitous and roads deteriorated into wagon tracks and finally goat paths. 11 Sept. While fleets of medium bombers passed overhead to soften up the Gothic Line positions the day was spent in recce and preparations which were embodied in the CO’s orders group held at 2100 hours. B squadron reported combating nothing more serious than a traffic jam…. After battling for two months with the word Gothic on our minds we arrived on a bright Sept. morning to rub our very noses against this celebrated defence without a shot being fired.”

The unopposed advance came to an end that evening when a “hurried call from the Mahrattas (Indian Army soldiers)” sent B Sqdn. forward to suppress machine-gun fire from Mount Veruca. The next day, by “laboriously dragging tanks to the absolute limit of their capabilities,” the squadron was able to support a Mahratta attack by firing immediately ahead of the infantry. The Calgary war diary records that “Indian troops once again showed their touching and even astonishing faith in Canadian tanks, by advancing without hesitation one or two hundred yards behind our fire…. The objective was taken with few casualties…. Careful planning, impeccable timing, good shooting and mutual confidence overcame a towering mountain defense position….”

Eighth Indian Div. had found a way through the “most mountainous, least roaded and apparently least defended sectors of the Gothic Line.” The tanks followed the engineers whenever they could, but the terrain limited their contribution and so the regiment—less one squadron—went into reserve on Sept. 17.

The relative success of 8th Indian Div. could not be matched by the British divisions on either flank. Enemy positions were situated above the narrow roads, and the roads themselves were blocked by demolitions that slowed the advance to a crawl. Fortunately, on Sept.18 the U.S. 91st Div. won a four-day battle for Monticelli Ridge. This proved to be the key to unlocking the main Gothic Line defences known to the German Command as Green Line I. Monticelli and the equally well defended Monte Altuzzo commanded the southern approaches to the Giogo Pass. Here German engineers had constructed what the American official history describes as “defences that were almost invisible to the approaching troops…reinforced concrete blasted into the rock” with barbed wire at 100-yard intervals and lots of mines in the two ravines that offered the obvious approach route to the mountain crest.

The struggle for Monticelli became an American epic. After most of the ridge was captured the Germans committed their corps reserve to repeated counterattacks. At one point the left flank of the American advance was held by a single soldier, Private Oscar G. Johnson who gathered up “all available weapons and ammunition from the dead and wounded.” He beat back counterattacks and held the position through the night until help arrived. Johnson was awarded the Medal of Honour.

Following this success was an equally desperate fight for Monte Battaglia, situated on the north side of the pass. Unlocking the Green Line I defences forced the Germans to withdraw to the northern slopes of the Apennines, but this did not mean there was any prospect of a rapid Allied advance.

When the Canadian armoured regiments moved forward in late September, they discovered that beyond the height of land the mountains continued northward as gradually descending spurs, providing the enemy with a series of natural, reverse-slope positions, each one requiring the sacrifice of brave men before the next ridge could be attacked.

Allied commanders at army and corps level remained publicly optimistic because the infamous Gothic Line had been breeched. Surely that meant they would soon pursue a shattered enemy north into Bologna and beyond.  But the view at the sharp end was very different. The “seven weak battalions” confronting 13th Corps had been reinforced and a new full-strength German infantry division, the 44th, had arrived to block the advance.

The war diary of the Ontario Regt. tells the story of the late September battles in a series of brief entries that speak to the frustration experienced by the forward troops. Tasks were limited to providing protection for engineers along a route that was code-named Arrow while the other squadrons sent their men on leave to Florence or Rome. Finally, on Sept. 23, Lt.-Col. Robert Purves directed C Sqdn. to engage all enemy targets at Camurrano where the Canadians knocked out self-propelled guns and several key machine-gun posts that had been holding up the British infantry.

The next week was marked by more demolitions and a near-continuous period of cold, heavy rain that was to mark the autumn months in the mountains. The Calgary war diarist described the weather as “persistent, imperturbable, road-destroying rain all night and the following morning… reducing operations to nil.” Supply routes were “jeepable with chains only” and “some mule tracks impassable to mules.”

The Indian infantry had penetrated deep into the Gothic Line defences by the end of September, but “the fighting was in territory that precluded any hope of tank warfare” and any hope of rapid progress. The much-heralded advance to Bologna had become a series of battalion-level battles for a mountain pass or a weak spot in the enemy’s defences. As the Calgary war diary noted, “long-term, persistent mountain warfare…involved much shifting of plans, changing of pressure points from one feature to another as a wrestler tries one hold and then another to overcome his opponent.”

The frustration felt by everyone in 5th Army might not have become a serious morale problem if it had been possible to overhear the discussions between Kesselring and Hitler. On Sept. 27, Kesselring formally requested permission to withdraw to the Po River and then the Alps. His Army Group South had persisted in following standard German battle doctrine, counterattacking each time the Allies made gains. Infantry battalions suffered heavy casualties in these immediate counterattacks even if they succeeded. Replacements had not kept up with losses and Kesselring feared his front might collapse.

Hitler insisted that the defences in front of Bologna and Ravenna be held “indefinitely.” The loss of the war industries of Northern Italy would endanger his plans to contain the Allies until his remaining “secret weapons,” the V2 rocket and jet aircraft, could be deployed. As well, the loss of Italy would damage morale on the home front. Hitler promised more men and more weapons would be allocated to the Italian theatre “so as to ensure that the Allies incurred high casualties for every inch of ground gained.”

So the struggle continued. Alexander decided to commit his only reserve division, the 78th, returning from four months in Egypt and Palestine, to 13th Corps. The Three Rivers Regt., which had spent September in reserve, provided armoured support, and on Oct. 14 it joined the British infantry in an assault on Monte Pieve, a well-defended position in the foothills south of Bologna. After an initial infantry assault collapsed in the face of a concealed minefield, “friendly fire” from divisional artillery and firm resistance from carefully camouflaged enemy positions, the Three Rivers tanks joined a battle that lasted four days ending in a German withdrawal to the next position a thousand metres to the north.

The Three Rivers war diary tells a familiar story. Individual troops of four tanks supported infantry battalions in battle for well-defended positions that seemed exactly like the one fought over a few days before. “The weather was as foul as it could possibly be—cold rain every day. The unpaved mountain roads were being washed away and had to be constantly repaired.”

Supplies arrived by mule train, bogged tanks had to be abandoned and the enemy—on the high ground beyond—shelled every likely tank harbour. And then the snow came.

The steady drain of Allied casualties and the refusal of American Chief of Staff, General George Marshall, to send additional troops to Italy ought to have called a halt to operations in the mountains, but Clark persisted. In retrospect, historians can argue that both 5th and 8th armies were fulfilling the strategic intent of diverting German formations from the vital battles in Northwest Europe, but there is no evidence that Clark thought in these terms. For the armoured regiments of 1st Cdn. Armd. Bde., Clark’s decision meant further weeks of heroic attempts to assist the infantry by shooting them on to an objective and providing fire support to repel German counterattacks. The Calgary Regt. war diary entry for Dec. 31, 1944, sums up the brigade’s achievements. “We tried to follow the twin golden rules of never taking unnecessary chances, but if necessary risking everything rather than letting the infantry down.”

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