The Italian Campaign:
Through the Gothic Line to the Lombard Plain,
July 1944-February 1945
Back to the Adriatic: The Attack on the Gothic Line
During the summer of 1944 the course of operations in Italy again felt the impact of the Allied grand strategy. On 5 July General Alexander was advised that overriding priority would be transferred from the battle in Italy to Operation ANVIL, the landing in Southern France, which was now to take place on 15 August.1
The new project required the withdrawal from the Fifth Army of three United States and four French divisions. The loss of this strength--particularly of the trained mountain troops of the French Expeditionary Corps--and intelligence of increased enemy concentration north of Florence forced a reconsideration of the plan to assault through the central part of the great Apennine barrier. General Alexander now decided to employ his favourite strategy of "a twohanded punch". On 4 August he directed the Eighth Army to attack on a narrow front on the Adriatic coast in a surprise thrust which would swing north-west once the mountains had been passed; the Fifth Army, with the 13th British Corps filling the gap left by the French, would mount a subsidiary attack northeastwards from Florence to close with the Eighth Army's "right hook" in the Bologna area, and the German Tenth Army would be trapped.
The plan devised by General Leese for Operation OLIVE--the code name given to the Eighth Army's forthcoming assault--provided for a simultaneous attack by three corps on a thirty-mile front. The date set was 25 August, and under a cloak of closest secrecy regrouping began immediately. The trans-peninsular migration of the previous spring was now reversed, as the weight of the Eighth Army was swiftly and silently transferred once more to the Adriatic. During the general German withdrawal the Poles on the Army's right flank had driven north of Ancona, and the front now followed roughly the southern bank of the Metauro River,--the "Metaurus" famous as the scene of that battle of ancient times in which the Romans defeated and killed Hannibal's brother Hasdrubal. Behind a screen of Polish troops holding the forward line
eleven Allied divisions and four armoured brigades slipped unobtrusively into position on this classic battleground. The eve of the attack found the Canadian Corps seven miles from the sea, concentrated on a narrow threemile front between the Polish Corps along the lower Metauro and the 5th British Corps, whose line extended for twenty miles to the west. As the Eighth Army was completing its preparations, news had come of the successful launching of Operation DRAGOON (formerly ANVIL) on the appointed date (below, pages 209, 298).
It was part of the Allied deception that the Fifth Army should carry out ostentatious preparations to simulate an imminent offensive by both armies in the Florence area--in fact, the original plan of attack. Through force of circumstances Canadian troops had already contributed to the creation of such an impression. At the end of July the 1st Canadian Corps, after nearly two months' recuperation and training in the Volturno Valley, secretly moved northward to the Foligno area preparatory to re-entering the offensive; on 5 August the 1st Canadian Infantry Division joined the 13th British Corps in the line at Florence. On the sudden change in operational intentions, the men of the 1st Division threw off their camouflage, put up their divisional signs and once more pinned on their distinguishing patches. It was a useful revelation, for experience had taught the enemy to interpret the presence of the "red patch division" as the prelude to the launching of an Eighth Army offensive. After three days in the southern outskirts of Florence, the identifying insignia came down again as the Division was spirited away in anonymity back to Perugia.
Not the least remarkable feature of the 1st Canadian Corps' transfer from the centre of Italy to the Adriatic was the construction by Corps Engineers, by the improvement of trails and local roads, of an alternative track to relieve from tank traffic the only available State highway through the mountains. The herculean task was completed in seven days, and along the 120 tortuous miles over the spine of Italy 280 carriers and 650 tanks of the Canadian Corps, as well as many tracked vehicles of other formations, crawled safely through the darkness to their destinations.
The Italian campaign was more an infantryman's than a tankman's war; and we may note here that, because its single infantry brigade had been seriously overworked in the difficult Italian terrain against the close type of defence employed by the enemy, the 5th Canadian Armoured Division, like other armoured divisions in the Eighth Army, had recently been authorized to increase its infantry component to two brigades. During July the 12th Canadian Infantry Brigade was organized by using the Westminster Regiment (Motor) and converting into infantry battalions the 4th Canadian Reconnaissance Regiment (4th Princess Louise Dragoon Guards) and the 1st Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, R.C.A. (later designated the Lanark and Renfrew Scottish
Regiment). The new brigade was commanded first by Brigadier Spry and subsequently by Brigadier J. S. S. Lind.
Although Allied planners often referred to Kesseiring's northern defences as "the Pisa-Rimini line", the Gothic Line in the Adriatic sector actually had its anchor some twenty miles down the coast from Rimini, at Pesaro. From the mouth of the Foglia a multitude of defensive works spread over the low bills north of the river as they climbed westwards to merge, a dozen miles inland, into the mountain spurs that jut out from the main backbone of the Apennines. Prepared defences were thickest on the north bank of the Foglia; they bore the familiar trade-mark of the Todt organization--Panther turrets in concrete emplacements, reinforced dugouts and slit trenches, and on the north edge of the river flats an anti-tank ditch and a belt of wire. The whole flat was thickly sown with mines. The key to the defences of the coastal sector was the Tomba di Pesaro--an irregular elevation rising above the rolling hills some eight miles west of Pesaro, and culminating in the 950-foot peak of Monte Luro. This was the focal point of the Eighth Army attack.
The Canadian Corps' part in Operation OLIVE was planned by General Burns to take place in four phases: an assault across the Metauro, an advance thence to the Foglia, the penetration of the Gothic Line and the final exploitation to Rimini. At 10:35 p.m. on 25 August four battalions of the 1st Canadian Infantry Division silently began to ford the shallow Metauro, and occupied their first objectives as the thunder of artillery behind them heralded the opening of the battle across the Army front. This blow fell largely on the air; for the enemy had evacuated his front positions. It was the first of a score of river crossings for the Canadians in their fight up the northern Adriatic coast, and the ease of it gave little warning of the grim actions ahead. Our troops assumed that the enemy's retirement was due to his having got wind of our attack. Actually, however, he was merely carrying out a planned withdrawal into his Gothic works, and had no inkling whatever of what we had concentrated against him. Late in the afternoon of the 26th the Tenth Army's Chief of Staff reported to Kesselring by telephone, "It seems that it is going to be quite an affair on the Adriatic coast. The English have appeared on the front of the 71st Division and at this very moment I have received the report that the Canadians have appeared at the joint between the 1st Parachute and the 71st Infantry Divisions."
In spite of this complete surprise, trouble began at once: not for the first or last time, the German fighting soldier redeemed, in part at least, the shortcomings of German Intelligence. It took the 1st and 2nd Brigades four days to clear the dozen miles of broken hills, between Metauro and Foglia of the stubborn enemy, and not until 30 August were
The Coriano-Fortunato Area
were their relieving formations, the 3rd and 11th Brigades, able to come to grips with the Gothic Line proper. That afternoon they crossed the Foglia, losing many men among the minefields of the river flats, and attacked uphill against the German positions along the lateral road linking Pesaro with Urbino. These had been heavily bombed by our air forces during the past few days. In spite of this the enemy resisted fiercely, and it was witli difficulty that we drove him from the villages of Borgo San Maria and Montecchio on the road. The Corps Commander now ordered rapid exploitation northwards, with the 1st Infantry Division and the 5th Armoured Division directed respectively along axes right and left of the Tomba di Pesaro.
The twin drives succeeded, but only after bitter fighting. On the left the 11th Brigade were heavily counter-attacked and held up in the high ground north of Montecchio. During 31 August the 9th Armoured Regiment (British Columbia Dragoons) had a dozen tanks knocked out and two dozen more temporarily disabled. In the early hours of 1 September, the Princess Louise Dragoon Guards came forward from the 12th Brigade and fought their first infantry action against Point 253, a commanding abutment of the Tomba mass. They suffered 129 casualties but, in the words of their Commanding Officer, Lt: Col. W. W. G. Darling, "the main thing was that we had taken our ground". In the fields below the ridge supporting tanks wrought havoc with their machine-guns; German dead in great numbers were buried here in common graves. On the right, during the same afternoon, the 2nd Brigade cleared the eastern spurs of the Tomba feature and the Loyal Edmonton Regiment stormed the peak of Monte Luro. That evening the Irish Regiment occupied the town of Tomba di Pesaro. General Burns could now report, "The Gothic Line is completely broken in the Adriatic sector and the 1st Canadian Corps is advancing to the River Cones."
The Coriano Ridge and the Fortuntao Feature
The battle for the Apennines had not opened auspiciously for the Germans. The Eighth Army's unexpected blow had robbed them of twenty thinly-held miles of their Gothic Line and they had yielded 3700 prisoners, besides suffering proportionate losses in killed and wounded. "Fighting desperately to avert a break-through to Rimini", they steadily built up their forces on this flank by moving divisions from other parts of the line. Kesselring's best hope now was to stabilize on the "Coriano Ridge", an important hill spur commanding the country down to the coast. To the defence of this feature he assigned some of his best troops; while opposite the Canadian sector east of it was (almost inevitably) the familiar 1st Parachute Division, now weakened by successive battles to less than half its original strength but as tough as ever.
On 3 September the 1st Canadian Infantry Brigade (now commanded by Brigadier J. A. Calder) established bridgeheads over the Conca. The Polish Corps had been "pinched out" on the right, and the Canadian boundary here was the sea. In two days the brigade had cleared to the Melo River and the 1st Canadian Armoured Car Regiment (The Royal Canadian Dragoons)--now the reconnaissance regiment for the 1st Division--had occupied Riccione. Further left, on the 5th Division front, the 12th Brigade took and held the high ground around Misano. Inland the 5th British Corps, fighting through the most difficult terrain of the Army's front, had kept pace across the Conca but was now meeting bitter resistance from the Coriano obstacle. The enemy's retention of this stronghold seriously compromised the western flank of the Canadian advance, and the inter-corps boundary was therefore shifted westwards to allow the 5th Canadian Armoured Division to operate against the ridge.
But now the long period of hot Italian summer weather broke and steady rain came to the assistance of the defenders. The Canadian advance had been made over secondary roads and bulldozed trails, which the passage of wheel and tank-track had pulverized into troughs of powdery dust; overnight these became impassable quagmires. The streams which crossed the axis of advance, formerly mere trickles across wide beds of firm gravel, turned into fierce racing torrents, the bridging of which made heavy demands upon the Engineers. Off the roads the intensively-cultivated vineyards were quickly water-logged, and tank-going became virtually impossible. The wider tracks of the enemy Panthers and Tigers gave them a relative advantage of mobility over the Allied Churchills and Shermans. The offensive slowed to a standstill, and the enemy gained a week to put his defences in order. Along his excellent lateral communications he brought two more divisions to his Adriatic positions. But in so doing he still further weakened his central front and fixed the moment for General Alexander to unleash the second punch of his two-handed attack. On the night of 12 September the Eighth Army reopened the offensive with renewed vigour, and early next morning, to the north of Florence, the Fifth Army began the assault of the main Gothic Line positions in its sector.
The 5th Canadian Armoured Division's attack on the northeastern end of the Coriano Ridge was made by the 11th Infantry Brigade and the Westminster Regiment, in conjunction with an assault by two British divisions on the southern end. Both were successful, and they cost the enemy over 1000 prisoners and many men killed and wounded. On the right of the Canadian Corps sector the 1st Division, newly reinforced by a Greek Mountain Brigade, fought their way across the Marano and moved towards Rimini. On the left the 4th British Infantry Division carried the
Corps battle forward. But in our path lay one final hill position of which the enemy was quick to take advantage. This was a finger of high ground pointing north-eastwards at Rimini and topped by a formidable height which bore on its crest the village of San Fortunato. On the left the Eighth Army's line of advance was obstructed by the rugged territory of the tiny republic of San Marino, "the sole survivor of the innumerable sovereign cities which nursed the free and vigorous life of Mediaeval Italy". Beyond stretched the fabulous plains over which the Canadians, so long hill-bound, hoped to race their tanks towards Bologna and the Po.
The week that followed brought to the 1st Canadian Division its fiercest fighting of Operation OLIVE. Midway between the Marano and the Fortunato "feature" the village of San Martino--itself on the northern slope of a low knoll, but overlooked defensively by San Fortunato's higher ridge-held out for three days against fierce frontal attacks by the 2nd Brigade. Our battalions suffered severely, for enemy troops in San Martino could remain unscathed in their deep dugouts while the guns of San Fortunato rained an inferno of shells on the village and the attackers. Not until 18 September, when the 3rd Brigade had outflanked the place to storm the south end of the Fortunato position, did the paratroopers here withdraw from another skilful defensive action. San Fortunato itself, battered by artillery fire and smitten by an air bombardment of an intensity comparable to that which fell on Caen, was finally cleared in a full-scale divisional assault by the 2nd and 3rd Brigades during the night of 19-20 September. From the shambles of the shattered strongpoints and dugouts amid the rubble the consolidating battalions took out 500 prisoners, dazed but in many cases still defiant.
With the last bastion of the Apennines behind them, the 1st Division pushed forward and established bridgeheads across the Mareechia River. On the right the Greeks entered Rimini on 21 September and raised their flag over that ancient Roman city. The 2nd New Zealand Division now relieved the 1st Canadian Infantry Division, which retired into Corps Reserve for a short three weeks rest; and the 5th Canadian Armoured Division came back to relieve the 4th British Infantry Division. The Eighth Army was now in the North Italian Plain. General Burns reported Canadian battle casualties as approximately 2500 for the 1st and 1500 for the 5th Division.2 Through the Corps prisoner-of-war cages there passed, between 25 August and 25 September, 48 German officers and 3035 other ranks. "You have won a great victory", the Army Commander signalled to Burns on 21 September. "By the bitterest fighting since El Alamein and Cassin you have beaten eleven German
Divisions and broken through into the Po Valley. The greater part of the German armies in Italy were massed against us and they have been terribly mauled. I congratulate and thank you all."
Mud to the Help of the Enemy
To many Canadian infantrymen it must now have seemed that their work in Italy was almost done. The tired man with the red patch on his arm, standing on San Fortunato ridge on 21 September and waving the armour and vehicles of the New Zealand Division onward as they pressed to the north, might well believe that thé Shermans and Churchills would now sweep across the plains carrying all before them. Back home, civilians studying small-scale maps of the theatre of operations certainly nourished the same hope. But more detailed maps showed, not merely a succession of rivers flowing from the mountains across the flats in our front, but innumerable canals and drainage ditches of which every one would become a tankobstacle in a time of rain. And now the rains had come. On the very eve of the San Fortunato victory they set in, and mud replaced high ground as the enemy's main ally on the eastern flank. During the weeks that followed, tanks and wheeled armour bogged down in the reclaimed swamp lands of the Romagna, and the infantry were called on again and again to force the passage of brimming watercourses, whose subsequent bridging for vehicular traffic was to tax to the utmost the ingenuity and equipment of the Canadian sappers.
September waned, and with it the Canadian Corps' hopes of quickly debouching into the valley of the Po. A special engineer force, set up by the Eighth Army to bridge the great river, "stood down" on 3 October. The 5th Canadian Armoured Division, using each of its two infantry brigades in turn, advanced on the left of the New Zealand Division, crossed the Uso in the face of heavy shelling and mortaring, and by the end of September had reached the Fiumicino, which disputes with the Uso the honour of being Caesar's Rubicon. A bridgehead established by the Irish Regiment of Canada was wiped away by a counter-attack, and during ten days of heavy rain -that made tank operations impossible our troops were held to the south bank of the swollen river. On 11 October the let Canadian Infantry Division returned to the line as the armoured division retired into Corps Reserve.
At the beginning of October General Sir Oliver Leese gave up the command of the Eighth Army on departing for the Far East. He was succeeded by Lieutenant-General Sir R. L. McCreery, formerly commanding the 10th British Corps. As the Eighth Army's axis bent westwards in the "right hook" designed by General Alexander, the new Army Commander extended the Canadian Corps front to the left to include the Rimini-Bologna highway. The New Zealand Division side
stepped away from the seaward flank and their former front was taken over by "Cumberlandforce"--a composite battle group led by Brigadier I. H. Cumberland, Commander of the 5th Canadian Armoured Brigade, and consisting of the Greek Mountain Brigade, the Royal Canadian Dragoons and some New Zealand reconnaissance and artillery units operating as infantry.
Enemy withdrawals on 10 October made possible a resumption of the advance across the water-laced ground. Four days later the 1st Canadian Infantry Brigade re-established contact on the north bank of the Scolo Rigossa, and on the 18th the 2nd and 3rd Brigades crossed the Pisciatello on an ever-widening divisional front. By the 20th troops of the 3rd Brigade had cleared the northern half of Cesena, while British infantry of the 5th Corps worked into the southern suburbs. Along the coastal flank "Cumberlandforce" had taken Cesenatico and were making extensive gains in the flat country south of Cervia.
The Savio Crossing
The Savio River, along whose winding bank Canadian infantry were now temporarily halted, presented the most formidable obstacle yet encountered. Rising high in the Apennines, its waters are affected by weather conditions over a wide area, and are liable to sudden violent spates. All bridges in Cesena had been blown and their piers partly demolished by the retreating Germans. Elsewhere along the river the soft banks and approaches made construction so difficult that no civilian bridges had ever been built. The enemy had mined the steep slopes to the water, and on the west bank he was awaiting us in strength with armoured support.
Nevertheless, we set about crossing. On the afternoon of 20 October, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry attacked north of Cesena. One company succeeded in fording the river, gained a precarious footing on the far bank and held it in the face of heavy counter-attacks. On the night of 21-22 October the Edmontons and Seaforth crossed, and expanded the holding beyond the river to a depth of 500 yards. But behind them the Savio, swollen by rain, changed "from a placid stream to a raging torrent", its width increasing from 45 feet to 300 within twenty-four hours. It could not be bridged; the 2nd Brigade recorded afterwards, as something without precedent, "for once the word impossible was used by the engineers". But if the sappers could not bridge, they could ferry; and by tremendous exertions they rafted several 2-pounder anti-tank guns across to help the infantry in the desperate struggle that was going on beyond the stream. Only on the night of the 23rd was a folding-boat bridge finally completed. Before it was swept away more guns crossed over to end the threat of further
counter-attack by enemy armour.
During the Seaforth defence of their hard-won bridgehead, there occurred a very notable act of individual heroism. As the right forward company was consolidating its objective, it was suddenly counterattacked by a group of three Panther tanks, supported by two selfpropelled guns and a platoon of infantry. With extraordinary coolness, Pte. Ernest Alvia Smith, a member of the Seaforth tank hunting platoon, let one of the Panthers approach to a range of 30 feet before he fired his PIAT and put it out of action. "Ten German infantry immediately jumped off the back of the tank and charged him with Schmeissers3 and grenades. Without hesitating Pte. Smith moved out on to the road and at point blank range with his tommy gun killed four Germans and drove the remainder back." Another tank opened fire and more infantry closed in on Smith's position, but he fought them off, protecting a wounded comrade, until they withdrew in disorder, hesitating to risk further armour against this indomitable and apparently indestructible infantryman. Pte. Smith's gallantry brought him the Victoria Cross--the second V.C. won by a soldier of the 1st Division in the Italian campaign.
In the meantime, midway across the peninsula, the Fifth Army was nearing the climax of two months of bitter fighting across the Apennine backbone in abominable weather, through the most difficult terrain and against resolute enemy resistance. On 22 October General Clark's foremost troops were less than ten miles from the heart of Bologna. In a desperate-and successful-attempt to halt the advance, General von Vietinghoff, now Supreme German Commander (Field-Marshal Kesselring had been seriously wounded in an air attack) snatched from his Adriatic flank the 90th Panzer Grenadier and the 1st Parachute Divisions. This necessitated a sudden enemy withdrawal from the Savio, which gained the 1st Canadian Division another half-dozen miles of waterlogged ground and placed the left of our front on the line of the Ronco River. On the right, flooding of low areas in their path held the "Cumberlandforce" advance to a narrow penetration across the Bevano along Highway No. 16.
The weight of the Eighth Army's attack was now being delivered on the left, where the 2nd Polish Corps had re-entered the line and with the 5th Corps was thrusting northwards on Forli. General McCreery took advantage of the temporarily reduced importance of his right flank to withdraw the Canadian Corps into Army Reserve. The flooded plains from the foothills to the sea were taken over by "Porterforce"--a group of dismounted British and Canadian armoured and artillery regiments--and by 1 November the tired Canadian divisions were experiencing the comparative luxury of dry billets. Where the tide of
battle had flowed weather-proof buildings were hard to find; as a result, accommodation for the Canadians was scattered over a forty-mile area--from Urbino to Cervia.
Throughout November, while "Porterforce" continued to edge forward across the sodden flats towards Ravenna, the Canadian formations in reserve recuperated from the effects of ten weeks continuous fighting, and turned to intensive training for the battles which still lay ahead. As might be expected, emphasis was placed on developing improved river-crossing techniques. New types of equipment which had proved their effectiveness in the North-West European theatre claimed special attention; among a weirdly-named menagerie of accessories to the assault our infantry welcomed the advent of the amphibious "Weasel", and the "Wasp" and "Crocodile" flamethrowers.4 Changes in command took place before the Corps returned to the line. On 5 November Lieutenant-General Burns relinquished the command of the 1st Canadian Corps, and was succeeded by Lieutenant-General Charles Foulkes, who had formerly commanded the 2nd Division in North-West Europe and had acted as commander of the 2nd Corps during the Scheldt operations. Major-General Vokes left for Holland to exchange appointments with Major-General H. W. Foster, Commander of the 4th Canadian Armoured Division.
Tanks In the Mountains
Before dealing with the resumption of the Canadian Corps' offensive we must turn to the central part of the Italian front and the activities of Brigadier W. C. Murphy's 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade during the autumn and early winter. As we have seen, throughout August the brigade was operating with General Clark's Fifth Army along the line of the Arno. Its three armoured regiments were then assigned to support formations of the 13th Corps in the forthcoming assault through the mountains. During the second week of September, as the enemy slowly and methodically fell back to his prepared defences in the Gothic Line, the Corps closed up to'Borgo San Lorenzo and the line of the Sieve River.
On 13 September, as we have seen, General Clark opened the Fifth Army counterpart of Operation OLIVE. The objective was the BolognaFaenza-Forli road (Highway No. 9), with the main blow being delivered by the 2nd United States Corps on the left, while the 13th British Corps advanced in support on the right. After heavy fighting the 2nd United States Corps had broken through the Gothic Line and had pushed down
the Santerno Valley to threaten Highway No. 9. Costly efforts to reach Imola, however, had failed, and at the beginning of October the Corps axis of attack was shifted westward to the main Florence-Bologna road. In the path of the British Corps on the Fifth Army's right wing stood the great wall of the "San Benedetto Alps", whose crests rise 5000 feet above the valley of the Sieve. On the forward or south-western slopes of this barrier, was the elaborate net-work of pillboxes, anti-tank walls and ditches, minefields, wire defences and fire trenches that made this the strongest section of the Gothic Line.
The Corps advanced on three axes. On the left the 1st British Infantry Division, supported by, the Ontario Regiment, thrust along the narrow mountain road which ran from Borgo San Lorenzo through Marradi to Faenza; on the right the 6th Armoured Division followed Highway No. 67 towards Forli; the 8th Indian Division, with the Calgary Regiment under command, attacked over the trackless watershed between, to outflank the defence of the passes on either road. The remaining armoured regiment of the Canadian brigade--the Three Rivers Regiment--remained temporarily in 13th Corps reserve. It was not the terrain for armoured manoeuvre. Unable to keep pace with the forward infantry, the Canadian tanks assisted the attack by delivering neutralizing fire against enemy positions on the dominating heights. The first stages of the assault went well. Paced by the dauntless hill troops of thé Indian brigades, in five days of fierce fighting the divisions overran the Gothic Line defences and reached firm positions on the mountain divide.
But the pattern of the region ahead was just as uncompromising as that over which the Corps had just fought its way. From the height of land the ground fell grudgingly away in a confused series of gradually descending spurs separated from each other by the deep valleys of swift rivers draining into the Lombard Plain. The narrow mountain roads following these natural routes were the only possible lines of advance against a foe skilled to seize every topographical advantage.
In the Fifth Army strategy the 13th Corps now adopted a policy of "leaning on the enemy", and the Canadian tank squadrons saw little action. A shifting of the divisional axes at the end of September found the Ontario Regiment crawling down the restricted gorge of the upper Senio, while on the right the Calgary tanks followed the narrow ravine of the Lamone. Further west, the Three Rivers Regiment came into the line under the 78th British Infantry Division on 3 October, and supported an attempted thrust between the Santerno and the Sillaro Rivers directed on Imola. An entry in the unit war diary furnishes the best explanation for the stalemate in which the division and the armoured regiment soon found themselves.
To appreciate the slowness of the advance, and the terrific difficulties
which the troops--infantry in particular--are encountering, these mountains and Italian rains must be seen. The peaks are very irregular, many of them sheer and rocky; all of them steep and mainly trackless. They rise to as high as 700 metres. Their rocky composition offers poor comfort to an assaulting infantry, who must fight positions dug into the rock and try to dig in when the enemy counter-attacks with shells and mortars.
The gorges and gullies are precipitous and run into narrow, canyon-like valleys. The one, and sometimes two, third class roads follow the valley down, cross and re-cross the river and so present excellent opportunities for demolitions. The enemy has carried out these demolitions with a devilish proficiency, and made the advance one for Engineers alone.
The heavy rains of October changed the unmetalled tracks into slippery channels of mud, sent landslides crashing down from the loosened hillsides, and filled every stream bed with a swirling torrent which ruthlessly washed out laboriously-constructed bridges. The continual precipitation dispelled all hope of the overburdened roads drying out before the ice and snow of winter claimed them. On 27 October, with the 2nd United States Corps halted nine miles short of Bologna, the Fifth Army Commander decided to suspend the offensive. Through the wet, cold weeks that followed, the Canadian armour was almost completely immobilized and detachments could only contribute indirect fire support to the small-scale infantry attacks that continued to probe into the enemy defences.
The Advance Across the Rivers
Winter brought to the Allied Armies in Italy no protracted respite from active operations. The Supreme Allied Commander in the West, General Eisenhower, had decided that it would be necessary to fight a winter campaign on his front, and the Italian theatre was called on to make its contribution. The offensive was therefore pressed forward despite all difficulties of climate and terrain and a growing deficiency of manpower and material. At a conference between General Alexander and his Army Commanders on 26 November, it was revealed that the Eighth Army had only enough artillery ammunition for a sustained-three-weeks effort. Plans were laid for a final drive to reach the line of the Santerno; should weather conditions permit, the Fifth Army would launch one more offensive against Bologna in the hope of securing winter accommodation in that city.
On the night of 1-2 December the 1st Canadian Corps returned to the line, which now, thanks to the advance made by the varied elements of "Porterforce" during November, ran along the southern bank of the River Montone and the Fiumi Uniti. The same rivers whose upper valleys had provided the 13th Corps with avenues of approach towards the plains ran in their lower reaches directly across the Canadian Corps'
path. The dykes that confined their waters when in spate had been converted by German labour into strong fortifications. Within these high steep flood-banks, which rose thirty to fifty feet above the level plain, galleries had been burrowed, accommodating nests of machine-guns whose fire could sweep the long ranges of open fields stretching back to the next preceding river barrier. The usual fringe of wire and mines along the outer face of the forward rampart added to the strength of each position. Needless to say, all vehicle bridges had been demolished by the time we reached them. The garrisons crossed from bank to bank on temporary footbridges which could be readily destroyed when withdrawal demanded. Such was the unpleasant pattern of the obstacles over which the Corps had now to force its way.
In the plan for Operation CHUCKLE General Foulkes assigned the assault role to the 1st Division, temporarily commanded by Brigadier J. D. B. Smith (General Foster did not arrive from North-West Europe until 7 December). The Division was directed initially to attack north-west and to force a passage of the River Lamone east of Lugo; the 5th Armoured Division was to thrust right and cut off Ravenna. At nine o'clock on the morning of 2 December the assault went in, aided by heavy artillery support. Fast Desert Air Force Typhoons--employed for the first time in support of Canadian troops in Italy--raked the enemy's line with rocket fire and sowed it with bombs. The 3rd Brigade, leading the infantry attack over the Montone against moderate opposition, crossed the canal Scolo via Cupa by midnight, and finding Russi abandoned, reached the Lamone on the morning of the 4th. Here the 1st Brigade took over the advance and early on the 5th the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment and the Royal Canadian Regiment succeeded in forming a bridgehead, five companies strong, on the western bank. But savage enemy counter-attacks from either flank inflicted severe casualties--the R.C.R. lost 108 men--and threw us back across the river.
In the meantime the 5th Division was making important advances. Led by the 4th Princess. Louise Dragoon Guards Battalion, the 12th Brigade broke out of the Montone bridgehead on the right of the 3rd Brigade and, overcoming strong initial resistance, cleared Godo on the night of 3-4 December. The successful thrust continued north-eastward to Highway No. 16, outflanking Ravenna. Early on the 4th the versatile troops of "Porterforce" crossed the Fiumi Uniti in assault boats and entered the sometime capital of the Western Roman Empire. Most of the German garrison had made good their escape, but from the surrounding district some 800 partisans hurriedly gathered to assist in mopping up those that remained. To the selfstyled "forgotten men" of the Allied Armies in Italy the capture of Ravenna brought heart-warming
recognition from all quarters. General Crerar sent personal congratulations to General Foulkes:
Desire you convey all ranks 1 Cdn Corps the interest, support and congratulations of all ranks First Cdn Army on results of 1 Cdn Corps recent operations vicinity Ravenna. Keep it up. Drive on and finish him off.
Continuing the 5th Division's exploitation north-west, Brigadier I. S. Johnston's 11th Brigade reached the Lamone at Mezzano and cleared the eastern bank of the river, linking up on the left with troops of the 1st Division. Fog and rain once more delayed progress, but on the night of 10-11 December formations of both divisions made assault-boat crossings of the river. Beyond the Lamone the water obstacles athwart the line of advance were more thickly concentrated than any previously encountered. The strongly-dyked Canale Navi glio, which linked Faenza with the sea, was flanked by small drainage canals (the Fosso Vecchio and the Fosso Munio); further to the northwest was the Senio with its formidable floodbanks; all these paralleled one another within three miles. Passage of the first three was only achieved at great cost to the Canadian divisions; the fourth marked the limit of their advance in Italy.
From the 5th Division's Lamone bridgehead in the vicinity of Villanova the 12th Brigade launched a two-battalion assault against the Canale Naviglio on the night of 12-13 December. It was a bloody operation. Both units, achieving surprise, reached the main canal shortly before midnight. Three companies of the Princess Louise, in the face of increasing mortar and machine-gun fire, fought their way over the high dykes to the western bank; but enemy reaction was too fierce, and the whole battalion was forced to fall back before daylight to the Fosso Vecchio. It had suffered 88 casualties. On the left the Lanark and Renfrew Scottish Regiment secured exposed positions on the near bank. Here, during the daylight hours of the 13th, they were vigorously counter-attacked but held doggedly on in spite of heavy losses.
Further inland the 1st Division's attack across the Lamone met with more success. The 3rd Brigade, with the 48th Highlanders under command, went across on the night of 10-11 December; next day the 1st Brigade passed through and crossed the Vecchio that night. Twenty-four hours later the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment and the Carleton and York had forced bitterly opposed crossings of the Naviglio 3000 yards north of Bagnacavallo; before daylight on the 13th they had linked their bridgeheads and expanded them to a depth of 1000 yards. Both units were ordered to hold firm, and hold firm they did, though the enemy launched against them that day no fewer than thirteen counterattacks. When darkness fell the Edmontons and the Seaforth of the 2nd Brigade followed through and consolidated the 1st Division's bridgehead. Through this foothold within the enemy's defences the
Westminster Regiment was passed on the morning of the 14th, to strike northwards along the far bank and relieve the pressure in front of the other battalions of the 12th Brigade. It was a sound tactic, and that night the Lanark and Renfrew attacked successfully over the Naviglio. By late afternoon on the 15th the 12th Brigade was firmly established on the west bank, having linked up with the 1st Canadian Division on the left, and a limited amount of exploitation became possible. During this fighting our troops had received most helpful close strafing support from the air. "It was so close", the Lanark and Renfrew recorded, "that empty cartridges from the planes fell in our positions".
Clearing the Senio Line
Two obstacles now lay between the Canadians and the Senio--the town of Bagnacavallo, which was still in enemy hands, and on the right the water barrier of the Fosso Munio, which ran across the 5th Canadian Armoured Division's front 600 yards beyond the Canale Naviglio. But for some of the German infantry defending the Munio an unpleasant surprise was in store--the dubious honour of being the first enemy troops in Italy to experience Canadian flamethrowers in action. On the afternoon of 16 December a company of the Westminsters, using "Wasps" that spurted long jets of shriveling flame on the machine-gun positions on the far bank, broke readily across the canal and gained a base from which to launch subsequent operations.
There remained for the Canadian forces one more formal operation in 1944--the final advance to the Senio River. After an unsuccessful essay on 18 December, it began on the evening of the 19th with a silent breakout from the Naviglio bridgehead-the 11th Brigade on the right and the 2nd on the left. Enemy resistance along the Fosso Munio checked initial progress. His defence was organized in depth; in the open fields our infantry came under withering fire from scattered farmhouses--an unpleasant foretaste of what the Senio's fortified flood-banks held in store. But the good services of the Engineers in speedily throwing bridges across the Munio provided the forward troops with much-needed tank support. By the morning of the 21st the enemy had been driven back to the river and Bagnacavallo had been occupied without resistance. Right through Christmas Eve mopping-up operations continued on the Canadian side of the Senio, and many a troublesome strongpoint was flamed into ready submission with "Wasp" or "Crocodile". Soon our troops held a nine-mile front along the river, from a mile south of Alfonsine to just south of Cotignola on the Corps' left boundary.
On Christmas Day, in striking contrast to the bloody Ortona fighting of the previous year, the line was very quiet. Let a Corps diarist
The 1st Cdn Corps sector was the only part of the Italian front where there was not a white Christmas. A wary truce was observed on both banks of the Senio, except on the 2 Cdn Inf Bde front. The Germans serenaded Seaforth of C. with carols on Christmas Eve and one Jerry put his head over the river dyke long enough to wish the Canadians a guttural "Merry Christmas". Our troops replied with their version of "Frübliche Weihnacht". Encouraged, the Germans tried a little prop-ganda, calling on our troops to surrender. Our counter-propaganda was an artillery "stonk" on the German positions ...
At the 1st Division's headquarters an officer wrote rather wistfully of the Christmas lull: "Tomorrow we return to the cold reality of war and all its ugliness, but we won't forget Christmas 1944 because for twenty-four hours men became human again and war seemed very far away, almost forgotten".
The year ended with Bologna still in the enemy's hands. On 12 December Field-Marshal Alexander5 had become Supreme Allied Commander, Mediterranean Theatre; General Mark Clark succeeded him as commander of the Allied Armies in Italy, now termed once more the 15th Army Group. Winter forced Clark to an inevitable decision: to stabilize the Eighth Army Adriatic front along the line of the Senio. The Canadian Corps was ordered to clear two areas still held by the Germans--a small pocket in front of Cotignola, and, on the other flank, the flats and marshlands adjoining the Valli di Comacchio, the great lagoon famous in Italian history as the scene of the adventurous wanderings of Garibaldi when hunted by the Austrians in 1849.
The Comacchio operation was carried out by the 5th Canadian Armoured Division with speed and precision. It hit the 114th Jaeger Division like a whirlwind and caused Kesselring, newly returned from convalescence, to appreciate that the Eighth Army was about to roll up his left flank and capture Bologna from the east. Striking northeastward on 2 January the 11th Brigade rapidly cleared the village of Conventello, east of Highway No. 16, providing a base for the 5th Armoured Brigade to leap-frog through to the Canale Bonifica--one more transverse water barrier which paralleled the River Reno below its junction with the Senio. On the night of 3-4 January a counter-attack by units of the 16th S.S. Panzer Grenadier Division, which had been thrown in to restore the situation, was resolutely beaten off with heavy losses to the enemy. In the morning the Cape Breton Highlanders pushed troops over the Bonifica and set up a bridgehead large enough to protect the Engineers as they constructed a tank crossing. At the same time, two miles to the east, the 9th Armoured Regiment (British Columbia Dragoons) joined forces with
the Perth Regiment to effect a passage of the canal, and enemy resistance quickly crumbled as the tanks drove east and west from each bridgehead to--clear Sant'Alberto and the southern bank of the Reno. In the three-day operation General Hoffmeister's division lost only thirty killed and took three prisoners for every Canadian casualty. They captured 685 Germans, and on one day--4 January--counted 300 enemy dead.
On the opposite flank, Brigadier M. P. Bogert's 2nd Brigade had little difficulty in clearing the Cotignola pocket. Jumping off from the Canale Naviglio on 3 January the three western battalions quickly sealed off and cleared the town of Granarolo and patrolled forward without meeting serious resistance; across the Corps boundary troops of the 56th (London) Division cleared Borghetto in a parallel advance. By dawn of the 5th survivors of the enemy had sought shelter in the Senio flood-banks.
Holding the Winter Line
From now on the second Winter Line was held by the 15th Army Group with a minimum, of troops, as both sides, bowing to necessity imposed by weather, resorted to a condition of watchful defence. The Canadians held what proved to be their final positions in Italy, running along the Senio and Reno and skirting the south margin of the Valli di Comacchio. Fixed positions, strengthened by dug-in Churchills of the 21st Tank Brigade and an elaborate system of wiring, mines, booby-traps and outposts, were established to discourage enemy infiltration and raids, which grew increasingly daring as the static role of our troops became apparent. An Italian formation, the Gruppo Cremona, aided by some hundreds of bold and active partisans, took over the right end of the Corps' 29-mile front, between Highway No. 16 and the Adriatic, relieving the 5th Armoured Division, which went into Corps Reserve at Cervia. The 1st Division continued to hold the line on the left, assisted by the British 9th and 2nd Armoured Brigades, which came successively under command as infantry, thereby enabling a welcome cycle of reliefs to be maintained among the Canadian units.
In the mountains to the west the regiments of the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade laboriously disengaged themselves from the grip of ice and snow and began to move to the Adriatic sector in readiness for a spring offensive. It was not a good time for travel, but conditions would be still worse when the winter snows were melting. The Calgary Regiment was the first to undertake the hazardous expedition, for the 8th Indian Division which it was supporting had been pinched out by the advance of the Polish Corps across the 13th Corps front. On 30 December its tanks left Marradi on what its diary called "one of the most prolonged, difficult and dangerous moves this Regiment has ever experienced". In
the first eighteen miles along the glazed, deeply rutted road which wound over the mountain divide, track speedometers registered up to 70 miles; "tracks revolved without the tanks moving more than inches". Members of each crew trudged behind the rear exhaust of their tank for warmth.
Those walking would suddenly stop and hold their breath while tons of steel--with a man inside--slid ponderously, helplessly towards a 300-foot drop. It always gathered speed as it went, like loose wreckage on a ship's deck, but something always held at the last second. A frail bank of frozen mud, a little gravel to grip the tracks, an accidental rock. Then everyone would give a low whistle of relief and walk on.
Miraculously the caravan of frozen steel reached its destination without mishap. "I consider the feat of your regiment one of the finest it has performed," wrote Brigadier Murphy to the Calgaries' Commanding Officer, "and I bear in mind in saying so the most outstanding work which it has performed in the face of the enemy from Sicily to the Northern Apennines."
The Calgaries spent the greater part of January near Florence, moving at the end of the month to the Forli area. Here the regiment came under the 5th Corps, and was assigned to support the 56th (London) Division in its Senio positions south of Cotignola, just across the inter-corps boundary from the 1st Canadian Division. It was late January before the two remaining armoured regiments bade farewell to their mountain positions. For weeks troops in the forward gun-lines had literally lived in their immobilized tanks under enemy fire, dependent for maintenance upon the efforts of mule trains and ski and snowshoe teams to conquer the snow-blocked lines of communication. When squadrons of the Three Rivers Regiment began to move back from the 78th Division's forward area they were forced to hand over to relieving crews six tanks frigidly fettered to their sites. From the Monte Grande sector--overlooking Bologna a dozen miles to the north-west--the Ontarios jerked and slid their tanks over the treacherous roads to the brigade concentration area, the grim ordeal of their passage matching that of the Calgaries a month before. Preparations were now made for the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade, less the Calgary Regiment, to move to the Adriatic coast, where they would train for what they hoped would be an overwhelming armoured break-out by the Eighth Army. But these orders were cancelled on 4 February. There were different plans now for the Canadian formations.
The Canadians Leave Italy
The reunion of the Canadians in Italy with those in North-West Europe had for many months been a hope cherished by both groups. It had also been an object of national policy, defined in a directive sent to
The Adriatic Sector
25 August 1944-25 February 1945
General Crerar by his Government on 25 May 1944. So large a readjustment of forces was not easy to arrange, but now the course of Allied strategy opened the way. At the beginning of February the Combined Chiefs of Staff met at Malta and decided that it was desirable to divert up to five British and Canadian divisions from Italy to North-West Europe; and arrangements were put in hand at once to move the Headquarters of the 1st Canadian Corps, the Corps Troops, the 1st and 5th Divisions and the 1st Armoured Brigade to the First Canadian Army area.
On 9 February General McCreery bade a personal farewell to the senior officers of the Corps in Ravenna, and under the strictest conditions of secrecy the great migration began. First to move were the troops in Corps Reserve--those of the 5th Division. On 10 February Corps Headquarters handed over its responsibilities to the 1st Canadian Division, which passed under the 5th British Corps six days later. The 1st Division continued to hold the Senio line until nearly the end of February; relief by troops of the 8th Indian Division began on the 23rd and was completed on the evening of the 27th, the last Canadian formation in the line being Brigadier Bernat-chez's 3rd Brigade. The 1st Division had handed control of the sector over to the Indian Division on the 25th. The only unit of the 1st Armoured Brigade still forward--the Calgary Regiment--had been withdrawn on 20 February.
The movement (Operation GOLDFLAKE) was carried out by motor transport to Italian ports--most of the units moved through Leghorn--thence by sea to Marseilles, and thence again by road up the Rhone valley through France into the Low Countries. Tanks were moved by rail both in Italy and France. Organizing the move was an enormous task, calling for the most careful planning and co-ordination, for it involved passing across the lines of communication of both the armies in Italy and of two army groups during the journey through France. The speed and precision with which it was carried out was a striking testimony to the efficiency of the Movement Control staffs. Not the least important contribution was made by Canadian officers formerly charged with the operation of the port of Dieppe, who directed the movement at Marseilles. At noon on 15 March 1945 the 1st Canadian Corps, with the 49th (West Riding) Division under command pending the arrival of its own divisions, took over the Nijmegen area under First Canadian Army. On 31 March the 5th Division came into the line; and on 3 April (35 days after its last battalion left the Senio area) the 1st Division concentrated in the Reichswald Forest of Germany, ready to share in the final battles in this decisive theatre.
Twenty Months in Italy
From the day in 1943 when General Simonds' men first splashed
ashore in Sicily, a total of 91,579 officers and soldiers of the Canadian Army had served in the Italian theatre. Not a few remained there when the Canadian formations withdrew; recalling the Brigade's fine fighting record with justifiable pride, the war diary of the 1st Armoured Brigade observed, "All personnel of the Brigade remembered, as they left, that in gaining such a record and name many stalwart- and stout-hearted comrades had fallen--they remained in Italy, not forgotten, as the Brigade moved on". In all, the Army had suffered, during the twenty-month campaign, casualties amounting to 1626 officers and 23,638 other ranks; of these, 420 officers and 5379 other ranks slept in Italian soil.
The strategic utility of the long Italian campaign will be debated for years to come, and this is not the place to discuss the question. We may note, however, that the campaign deprived Germany of her chief ally, assured to us the firm control of the Mediterranean,--opening up its vital sea route to the Middle East, India, and beyond--and gave us bases which greatly increased the effectiveness of our strategic bombing of the German homeland. In the later stages, perhaps, its benefits were less clearly apparent; yet Italy was one of the bases for the liberation of France, and the fighting there was until the end a steady drain upon the enemy's resources and the means of tying down in a secondary theatre some of his best fighting formations. At the beginning of 1945 Allied Force Headquarters calculated that there were in Italy 27 German divisions, of which only one was reckoned to have "a bad fighting record".6
In retrospect, it may seem in some sort unfortunate that the Canadians left Italy with the task there still unfinished; and doubtless some soldiers who were proud to have marched in the ranks of the Eighth Army, and who had shared the glories, perils and miseries of the hard campaign from Sicily to the Senio, regretted that they did not share the final Italian triumph. When they moved to North-West Europe that triumph was only a few weeks away. After so many tribulations, it was singularly splendid and complete. Allied Force Headquarters summed it up in one terse, proud sentence "Operations initiated by Fifth and Eighth Armies 9 April resulted in complete disintegration of German forces and culminated in their unconditional surrender 2 May". To this final result the Canadians had made no small contribution; but it was not Canadians who reaped the iron harvest upon the Lombard Plain.
There were other and even deeper satisfactions, however, for the
men of the 1st Canadian Corps. The news of the intended transfer to North-West Europe and the reunion with the First Canadian Army was received with unanimous acclaim, not only because it meant release from a subsidiary field of action and a country which few of them found agreeable, but because it satisfied national aspirations and emotions which were no less real for being largely inarticulate. On the day of the announcement, the 1st Armoured Brigade's diarist wrote, "It was always hoped that it could happen but never thought that it would happen. Now, however, that the reunion after nearly two years with our own people was to become an actuality it seemed to leave one in a daze, still wondering if it could be true. . ." The separation had been long, but all the Canadians were together again before the end, and there can have been few men of any rank in the Army who did not feel the symbolic fitness of the re-establishment of its unity on the eve of the final struggle. And the men who had fought in Italy had behind them the consciousness of a long hard task well done. Many of them must have remembered with pleasure the words of Field-Marshal Alexander's farewell message to General FoulkesIt is with great sorrow and regret that I see you and your famous Canadian Corps leaving my command.
You have played a distinguished part in our victories in Italy, where you leave behind a host of friends and admirers who will follow your future with the liveliest interest.
Good luck and Godspeed to you all in your coming tasks in the west, and may victory crown your new efforts as it has done in the past.
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