AFTER WITHDRAWAL from the mountain fighting above the Arno valley, Fourth Indian Division paused briefly in the play-ground countryside around Lake Trasimeno. Events were on the march, and four days after concentration in the rest area, the Division began to move towards a new battlefield.
Their line of march crossed the High Apennines by way of Gubbio, fifteen miles east of Umbertide, where the Division had mustered early in July for the advance between the Arno and Tiber valleys. Gubbio was thirty-five miles south of the left flank of Eighth Army as marshalled for assault upon the Gothic Line. It was hoped to deny the enemy knowledge that a formation of divisional strength was moving up on what was more or less an open front, so Fourth Division's advance was organized behind an elaborate veil of secrecy. Units provided by Corpo Italiano Liberazione screened the advance, and the Indian units masqueraded in various ingenious guises. Experience, however, had disillusioned British commanders with the adequacy of any security measures in a countryside lately occupied by the enemy, and it was determined to supplement secrecy by speed of movement. Fourth Division was ordered to push through to its battle positions and to go over to the attack immediately, without waiting for zero hour on the remainder of Eighth Army's front. It was hoped that an extempore assault on an exposed flank might accomplish initial penetration which would distract the enemy from the main blow mounted against him elsewhere.
(As a matter of record, the enemy knew everything needful about the forces arrayed against him. German generals daily advised their commanders concerning the progress of Eighth Army's preparations, and combatant officers in turn gave their men approximate dates exhorting them to meet the shock manfully. A battalion commander of a Jaeger Division was able to supply his subalterns with intimate details of Allied formations as regularly as they arrived on the front).
At Fossato, eight miles north of Gubbio, Fourth Indian Division deployed. 7th Brigade moved off astride Route 3, while 5th Brigade worked across country. The highway offered no great advantage since many stretches had been demolished. beyond repair. On the first day 1/9 Gurkhas, riding in jeeps and 3/10 Baluchis slogging on foot, each advanced sixteen miles as the crow flies, and probably twice that distance by actual measurement. No opposition was encountered on 5th Brigade's front, but 2/11 Sikhs, leading 7th Brigade with an escort from 6th Royal Tank Regiment, were obliged to fight for a river crossing only ten miles beyond their start line. Next day both brigades crossed the Matauro river and closed up on Urbino, an important road junction perched on a peak thirteen hundred feet high. Twenty thousand inhabitants turned out to jam the narrow streets, to cheer and embrace the dusty sweating jawans as they moved through. Contact was established with Durhams and Leicesters of Forty-Sixth British Division on the right. Ahead lay the easy ground of the Foglia valley, and beyond the river, the high ridges which concealed the outworks of the Gothic Line.
The Foglia valley had been sown with mines, extensively wired and honeycombed with entrenchments. Yet in the high mountains on the left the defences were rather better than incomplete. British and Canadian patrols brought back reports of dominating positions unoccupied, outposts empty, dumps of uncoiled wire, unlaid mines---a general air of unreadiness. It appeared that the Indians had arrived before the enemy expected them, and that a speedy thrust might affect the situation. On August 29th 3/10 Baluchis reconnoitred the crossings of the Foglia, and found them uncovered. That night the Baluchis and 4/11th Sikhs, an original Fourth Division battalion which had returned to the fold when the Essex were left behind in the Arno valley, crossed the river, climbed the ridge and seized Monte della Croce, a hamlet overlooking the valley. To the astonishment of everyone, Indian troops had penetrated the defence zone without firing a shot. The silence was uncanny; Major Sardar Ali commanding a company of Baluchis reported on arrival that there was not even the smell of enemies. It was afterwards learned that responsibility for this flank position was shared by three German formations and that this circumstance created a muddle.
The grand assault was now only twenty-four hours away. When light broke on August 30th, Fourth Divisional commanders surveyed their positions with a view to exploiting their good fortune to the full. The Foglia curved into the south, on an arc of five miles. Snugly following the northern bank, a ridge one thousand feet high stood above the river. Monte della Croce lay in the lap of the curve, while a mile to the north Monte Calvo commanded the bend in the river both to the east and to the west. From this village a ribbon of road wound precariously along the crest of the spur for three miles to Tavoleto, situated on a higher east-west ridge. Beyond Tavoleto this main ridge climbed steadily for four miles into the west to its summit at Monte San Giovanni, a razor-backed feature standing above the valley of the Conca.
That night fifteen miles between the Indians and the Adriatic burst into flame. A thunderous bombardment heralded the assault. By dawn Forty-Sixth British Division on the right had broken into strongly fortified and desperately defended positions to a depth of two thousand yards. At 1115 hours Fourth Divisional artillery concentrated on Monte Calvo while fighter bombers swooped with cannon fire against enemy strongpoints. 5th Brigade passed to the attack with all three battalions committed. 3/10 Baluchis followed by tanks pushed down the crest of the spur in a frontal assault on Monte Calvo, 4/11 Sikhs and 1/9 Gurkhas worked forward along the eastern slopes. From folds in the ground and hideouts enemy riflemen and machine-gunners opened fire. A number of British tanks brewed up on mines. On the flanks the advance made rapid headway, and the Gurkhas speedily swung into the north, with a view to intercepting any defenders who tried to scuttle at the last moment. In face of this threat the Germans withdrew to Tavoleto. Sikhs and Baluchis mopped up Monte Calvo, taking forty prisoners.
Leaving the Baluchis in garrison, Sikhs and Gurkhas pressed on to exploit the gains. 2/7 Gurkhas of 11th Brigade closed up to thicken the fighting line, and the three battalions battled forward for a mile towards Tavoleto. On the right the onslaught continued in full fury; a battalion of Hampshires from Forty-Sixth Division swarmed over Monte Gridolfo, almost beside the Indians, killing sixty and taking a hundred prisoners. The enemy stood at bay along the entire front, and began to strike back. As darkness fell on September 1st, harassing fire searched Monte Calvo spur and the approaches to Tavoleto. At midnight a sharp counter-attack surged against 1/9 Gurkhas, apparently to gain time or in hope of dislocating the offensive. Some ground was lost, but at dawn the advance was renewed as planned. Enemy reinforcements had arrived; mobile guns, mortars and small arms interposed a hail of steel in the path of the attack. After some progress the assaulting troops were pinned down a thousand yards short of Tavoleto.
Meanwhile 7th Brigade had deployed on the left of the Monte Calvo position. The brigade objective was the commanding height of Monte San Giovanni above the Conca valley. The way was barred by the village of Auditore, on the northern slopes of the Foglia, and by Poggio San Giovanni, a hamlet a mile and a half east of Tavoleto. The miscellany of tasks incumbent upon 7th Brigade as the flanking formation of Eighth Army, limited the rifle strength available for the assault. On the morning of September 2nd, a platoon of 1/2 Gurkhas crossed the Foglia and closed up on Auditore. Wiring, pill-boxes and dugout entrances were identified, but silence reigned and the village appeared to be deserted. The Gurkha jemadar smelled a trap. Stationing his platoon in front of the village, he wormed his way with a section in the rear. A German incautiously stepped from a house into the arms of the patrol. Before he died he gave the alarm, and the village erupted like a hornet's nest. The jemadar's caution had sprung the trap ahead of the quarry. Without delay this intelligent officer scurried back to his platoon, disposed his men in dead ground, and remained throughout the day directing and correcting the artillery shoot which played on the village. That night 1/2 Gurkhas stormed Auditore with little loss, owing much to the foresight and military acumen of a junior officer.
Throughout September 3rd the sappers toiled in the Foglia valley, raising mines, building approaches and smoothing crossings. Mule trains were soon across, followed later in the day by wheeled convoys. That night 1/2 Gurkhas with 2/11 Sikhs on their right, struck for the high knife-edged crest of San Giovanni. Bitter fighting followed, against a determined enemy in well-constructed defences. The battle continued throughout the next day, with the Indians infiltrating for small gains.
On the night of September 3rd, an unusual sequence of events led to the storming of Tavoleto by troops uncommitted to the assault. 4/11th Sikhs and 2nd Camerons had assembled on their start line for attack on the village. To distract the enemy the artillery laid down a deception shoot on an alternative approach. The Germans, believing this barrage to herald an infantry advance, dashed downhill against 2/7 Gurkhas. in the hope of upsetting the attack. This move had been foreseen, and waiting gunners instantly replied with defensive fire which threw the assault parties into confusion. As the baffled raiders retreated uphill, a spur of the moment decision impelled Lieut. Smith of "C" Company of the Gurkhas to lead his men silently after them. Sikhs and Camerons were waiting for the signal, when the night was shattered by a bedlam of shots, shouts and screams from the village ahead. "What is happening in Tavoleto," reported a Camerons Officer, "is nobody's business." At dawn only dead Germans and gibbering prisoners remained in Tavoleto and less than thirty men of "C" Company were standing.
(The log of the artillery for this night's work affords a characteristic illustration of the intricacy, speed and flexibility achieved by Divisional gunners in fire programmes. For this action Fourth Indian Division had borrowed two field regiments from Fifty-Sixth London Division. The fire plan called for a deception shoot off the infantry objective, a concentration shoot on Tavoleto, protective fire in case the deception shoot achieved its object, and a straight barrage programme for the Sikhs' and Camerons' attack. When the Gurkhas took unpremeditated action, it was necessary to cancel these schedules and to improvise new shoots. Yet throughout the night the guns answered every call, thanks to intrepid forward observation officers who kept the batteries informed from minute to minute of the course of the action.)
While the Gurkhas plied knife and bomb in Tavoleto, 7th Brigade had renewed the assault on San Giovanni. 2/11 Sikhs found Poggio San Giovanni to have been evacuated; according to the villagers the enemy carried away fifty wounded. In the first light a spotter plane wheeled down with information as to enemy dispositions on the crest of the main ridge. 1/2 Gurkhas then knew where to go, and began to clamber up the slopes. By 1545 hours that afternoon the agile hillmen had reached the summit, two thousand feet above the valley, and were working into the north along the narrow crest. Fifty enemy dead were scattered in their wake.
In four days' fighting Fourth Indian Division had penetrated the enemy's main defensive zone to a depth of several miles. On the right British divisions had been even more successful, and had advanced sufficiently for the battle line to pivot on the Indians' positions, and to face into the north-west. The Germans, however, had recovered from the confusion of the opening days of the assault, and were clinging tenaciously to their strongholds. By September 5th, 7th and 11th Brigades were facing the Pian di Castello ridge beyond the Ventano river, a negligible tributary of the Conca. At this juncture the weather broke, and pelting rains heralded the coming of autumn. The watercourses of innumerable small streams ceased to be beds of gravel; turbid torrents spread across the valley bottom, filling rhines and ditches and dredging the soggy pastures with sluices and canals. Under the flail of floodwater the river banks began to crumble. The fields turned into bogs, and the hillside tracks into mud slides. The malice of the weather, however, failed to dampen the spirits of the Indian troops. An observer records that he watched drenched German prisoners marching to the rear, exhausted and miserable. Their sepoy escort had thrown his head back to catch the rain in his face, and he sang blithely as he marched his captives along.
On the night of September 5/6th, 11th Brigade launched its attack on Pian di Castello, with 3/12 Frontier Force Regiment on the right and the Camerons on the opposite flank. The ridge was a faithful reproduction of the standard type of Adriatic obstacle. The enemy had an uninterrupted view of the slopes down which attacking troops must move to the river. Along the line of the river mortar fire crashed in a continuous curtain. Anti-tank and anti-personnel mines were strewn in cunning patterns on both banks. On the slopes above the river, scattered farmhouses and cemeteries had been transformed into strongpoints.
Under, the handicaps of rain and mud, the new advance became a slow and expensive slogging match. At dawn the enemy threw in a counter-attack which the Frontiersmen smashed. During the day, tanks of the 6th Royal Tank Regiment negotiated the floods and moved up in close support. Their intervention turned the tide of battle, and 11th Brigade consolidated its objectives. On the morning of September 6th, Royal Sussex of 7th Brigade moved against a hamlet on the southern end of Pian di Castello. Once again the battle hung in the balance until British armour had skidded and slithered through the valley bottom and had churned up the greasy slopes to support the infantry in the rush which won home. That night 5th Brigade took over the offensive. 1/9 Gurkhas passed through Frontier Force Regiment while 4/11 Sikhs moved to the attack through Cameron Highlanders. At the end of a stiff night's fighting, in which a self-propelled gun across the valley wrought havoc among the tanks supporting the Gurkhas, the Indians were firmly ensconced on the crest of the ridge to the north-west of Castel Nuovo.
Dawn broke on a foul day, with the wind howling and sleet pelting a battlefield ankle deep in mud. The enemy was in such straits that the inevitable counter-attack was delayed for twenty-four hours. At 0445 hours on September 7th a heavy thrust reached the Gurkha positions. A wild free-for-all ensued as the hillmen, exulting in the opportunity, sprang at their foes. A Gurkha machine-gunner, who had exhausted his ammunition, finished his first adversary with the barrel of his weapon, grappled with the next and gave him quietus by jumping on him on the ground . A similar attack struck at the Royal Sussex; whereupon a platoon commander armed with grenades dashed ahead of his men to meet the Germans and drove them back in disorder. Beaten everywhere, the Germans sullenly withdrew to their next layback positions.
This toe-to-toe slogging, with its interminable succession of attacks, consolidations, and counter-attacks repulsed, characterized much of the Italian campaign. In compiling the narrative it is right and proper that the infantry should occupy the centre of the picture. Yet other arms should never be crowded from view. On many occasions air, artillery or armour took over the battle, to win or retrieve the day. The adventures of 6th Royal Tank Regiment in close support of the Indians in the Pian di Castello fighting deserve to be chronicled as typical of the manner in which support arms shared the rigours of the battlefield, and helped to enforce the decision upon the enemy.
After midnight on September 8th, "B" Squadron of 6th Royal Tank Regiment moved off to come up in close support of the Royal Sussex at Cemetery Hill, one thousand yards to the north-west of Pian di Castello village. As it took the trail, the leading tank blew up on a mine, blocking the narrow lane. The next tank in line, in extricating itself, shed a track. The remainder cut across country to their rendezvous and arrived only twenty minutes late. The infantry were later still, and the armour entered the attack without a protective screen. A well-sited German gun blew up the leading tank, but the following troop manuvred into position and destroyed the gun. Still advancing, this troop spotted fifty Germans racing for cover into a house a few hundred yards ahead. A dozen rapid rounds blew the house to pieces. Only a handful of survivors, frantically waving white rags, emerged.
The forward Observation Officer with the tanks walked across a cornfield to inspect the ruins. Twenty yards from the house he heard a faint noise coming out of the ground. Carefully moving aside the corn stooks he discovered the muzzle of a Spandau protruding from a weapon-pit. A tank lurched forward, and three Germans, including an officer climbed out to surrender, literally shaking with fright. Armed with a captured Luger pistol and covered by the tank, the artillery officer began to investigate other stooks. He unearthed twenty Germans, five with bazookas which they had not attempted to use, even at point-blank range.
The Chaplain of the. Royal Sussex rushed up to pull the wounded from a blazing tank. Out of nowhere, twenty Germans appeared, without arms, clamouring to be taken prisoner. Having cleared Cemetery Hill, "C" Company of the Sussex in carriers and escorted by two troops of tanks, followed the barrage up the ridge towards the next high ground. In the darkness and without warning. the leading troop lurched over a thirty foot precipice. The first Sherman executed a faultless forward somersault, landed on its tracks and continued imperturbably. The next three tumbled in such fashion as to disable themselves. The remaining three slid cautiously down the declivity and continued on their way.
The Sussex mopped up the high ground, and consolidation began. Carrier tanks brought up mortar teams to engage the forward slopes of the hill, since the angle of descent was too steep for the gunners to search it. In line with the infantry the remaining tanks took over the battle. Five times a German force of battalion strength emerged from cover and charged for Cemetery Hill. Browning guns from the tanks sprayed the front until white hot. The infantry could hear the agonized screams of the Germans as the tank fire caught them in the open. After five attempts the enemy threw in his hand. According to the record the Royal Sussex had won another position, but the infantry themselves were the first to pay unstinted tribute to the essential and indefatigable support of 6th Royal Tank Regiment.
Four miles to the north of the Indian positions on Pian di Castello, the battle rose to climatic intensity around the enemy bastion of Gemmano. This ridge, rising to thirteen hundred feet above the valley, extended for nearly three miles across the front of Fifty-sixth British Division. The Londoners had launched their first attack upon this ground on September 5th. After four days of bitter fighting in which positions changed hands again and again, Forty-sixth Division took over the assault. When the new battle was planned, Fourth Indian Division was asked to co-operate by an advance on Gemmano from the west. On the night of September 11/12th 5th and 7th Brigades lined up on the Ventano. The Sikh battalion of each brigade led the way. Forcing the river in the face of intense Opposition, 4/11 Sikhs were thrown back by savage panzer attacks before they could consolidate. On 7th Brigade's front 2/11 Sikhs struck for Onferno, a small hamlet to the west of Castelnuovo. Once again the defenders held on stubbornly, and the leading Sikh companies were compelled to dig in on the face of a spur with the enemy holding the crest above them. Tanks from 6th Royal Tank Regiment came up into the firing line, smashing at the enemy strongpoints, and holding off the counterattack. Throughout the day and night and into the next day, the bitter struggle continued. Only a thin line of Sikhs remained, yet they disdained to yield ground. Towards evening on September 13th an enemy observation post which had been directing the harassing fire was discovered in the rear of the Sikhs' position and destroyed. With unabated frenzy the Germans sought to break the assault, counterattacking continually until a final effort pushed the gallant remnants of 2/11 Sikhs from the spur. On this same day 3/10 Baluchis joined in the fray, but encountered such intense fire that only limited gains could be made across the steep wet slopes, churned by incessant shellfire into slippery mud runs.
Forty-sixth Division on the right had no greater luck; on the British front September 13th was marked by bitter fighting in which ground changed hands again and again. By evening the British divisions had attacked Gemmano eleven times, each time to be thwarted by a desperate defence. The Corps Commander thereupon decided to commit Fourth Indian Division exclusively against this formidable obstacle. 11th Brigade took over the left sector of Forty-Sixth Division's front. At 0300 hours on September '5th, the artillery struck with crushing effect. Behind a shoot of devastating intensity the twelfth assault, led by 2nd Camerons, won home. With comparatively few casualties Gemmano was stormed and consolidated. Part of the credit for the reduction of this exceedingly difficult obstacle undoubtedly belongs to the Scotsmen, whose dashing attack pierced the defences, and part likewise goes to the British battalions that smashed at Gemmano again and again until the enemy's will to resist weakened. But the chief honour remains with the gunners, whose performance on this occasion may be cited in detail as a superb example of modern artillery technique.
Two hundred and sixty guns played on the German positions around Gemmano, in addition to machine-gun groups briefed for continuous high angle fire. The artillery included Bofors 40 mm. guns, 3.7 howitzers, 75 mm. guns and twenty-five pounders, 3.7 heavy antiaircraft guns, 4.5 and 5.5 howitzers, 155 mm. guns and 7.2 howitzers. The softening up began in the early afternoon when the heavy guns pumped shells at regular intervals into the German strongholds. Ninety minutes before the Camerons' attack, all guns were turned on the tiny intermediate objective of Zolana. Two thousand shells were cast on a few acres in the next thirty minutes. Forty minutes before zero hour Bofors guns began to lay deception lines of tracer to the west of where the attack would go in. Steadily the high angle machine-gun groups sprayed areas which the enemy support troops must traverse. Five minutes before zero hour all available artillery concentrated in a series of crash shoots on the four principal targets. As the hour ticked, the field guns switched to a straight barrage programme, while the mediums and heavies went over to counter-battery and counter-mortar shoots. Only far-sighted planning, accurate registration and thorough organization made such intensive support possible on such a crowded front. (On first sight of the fire plan the officers commanding the adjoining British troops were very unhappy, fearing complications. Yet this intricate enterprise was conducted without incident or misadventure.)
Gemmano was a scene of desolation. Mangled trees, grass bleached by the blast of shells, houses gaping or reduced to rubble, and German dead everywhere, marked the scene of some of the toughest fighting of the Italian campaign. It has been reported that the enemy lost over nine hundred killed on the few acres of high ground surrounding the village.
The capture of this dominating feature was immediately reflected in marked gains elsewhere. Forth-sixth Division advanced rapidly and forced the Conca. 11th Brigade occupied Monte San Colombo, picking up forty prisoners from Fifth Mountain Division after a sharp encounter. The Germans, however, continued to cling like limpets to Altavelio on the left of the battlefield. Here on September 15th a small action revealed a classic appreciation of tactical values upon the part of a non-commissioned officer. Havildar Kul Bahadur of 1/2 Gurkhas was in charge of a patrol of platoon strength sent to probe the front.
Within three hundred yards of a group of farmhouses he crawled forward with two men for closer inspection. The houses were found to hold Germans. Distributing his sections to cover all exits, the havildar with two riflemen silently moved to the attack. Surprise was complete, twelve out of twenty-two Germans being killed without loss to the Gurkhas. Continuing to Altavelio, the Havildar Kul Bahadur explored in the same fashion, discovering a self-propelled gun and its crew in the village square. While mopping up this party a group of Germans on the outskirts of Altavelio attacked the covering section, while a still stronger enemy force worked around to cut the Gurkhas' line of withdrawal. Detecting the move the havildar immediately sent half his platoon to block the encirclement while the remainder broke off the fight and retired. Throughout this brisk skirmish everyone behaved as on manoeuvres, and no staff officer could have improved on Havildar Kul Bahadur's handling of the situation. Divisional pickup vans, knowing only one platoon of Gurkhas to be in action, were astounded when excited intercepts revealed that a German reserve battalion, nine miles away, had been ordered to force march to the relief of the Altavelio garrison.
The progress of the British divisions in the centre of the Eighth Army attack enabled Fourth Indian Division to widen the battlefield by a move into the west. Forty-Sixth Division had occupied Montescudo, and the seizure of this important road junction permitted 5th Brigade to pass through and to strike for San Marino, the Gibraltar-shaped buttress with a skyline like a Disney drawing, which stood high above the countryside seven miles to the west. During the night of September 17/18th, 3/10 Baluchis reached the frontier of San Marino State on the Merano River. Along the boundary, white crosses had been cut in the chalky soil to proclaim the neutrality of the oldest republic in the world. (Its independence is alleged to date from A.D. 300.) San Marino town is built along the western slopes of the mountainside. The only road winds up from the Adriatic to encircle the northern haunches of the buttress before climbing in a series of switchbacks into the town. The peacetime population of 14,000 was now swollen to 120,000 by refugees from the coastal areas. Nine days before Eighth Army's attack opened, Marshal Kesselring had demanded the use of state territory and had occupied the mountain crest.
Forward companies of the Baluchis crossed the Merano at dusk and established a bridgehead north and south of Faetano. 1/9 Gurkhas passed through and struck for two commanding knolls above the river. Bitter fighting ensued, and it was only after five hours' stubborn battling that the first of these knolls, Point 343, was captured. Although dawn was near the gallant Gurkhas pushed on to bid for the second hummock, Point 366. The enemy was strongly entrenched and the hillmen encountered vicious opposition. From a leading platoon Rifleman Sher Bahadur Thapa and his section commander charged an enemy post, killing the machine-gunner and putting the rest of the detachment to flight. The Germans struck back at once and the section commander fell badly wounded. Sher Bahadur Thapa thereupon dashed lone-handed to the attack, gained the crest of the knoll and brought his machine-gun into play against the main body of the counter-attack. He silenced a number of machine-guns and shot down several Germans who disputed his point of vantage. For two hours in the open he held up the enemy. The crossings on the Merano had been delayed, and the ammunition mules were late, so it was felt necessary to break off the action. As the forward elements withdrew, Sher Bahadur Thapa covered their retirement, blocking enemy advance to the crest of the knoll until his ammunition ran out. He then dashed forward and rescued two wounded comrades who lay on the reverse slopes in full view of the enemy. He remained the great-hearted commander of a one-man army until he died under a hail of bullets, to join the gallant company which has not lived to know of the supreme honour of a posthumous Victoria Cross.
As dawn broke the Germans struck at the Gurkhas on Point 343, which stands above a ravine with precipitous clay cliffsides. Clinging like flies to a wall, the Gurkhas refused to be dislodged. Their precarious predicament led to a multiple "clear-all-lines" to corps artillery. Within ten minutes four hundred guns had intervened with an impenetrable curtain of defensive fire. The German scattered. With the high ground lost, they gave up the fight in Faetano. 4/11 Sikhs moving wide around the right flank, swept up to Valdragona without halt.
5th Brigade now lay under the shadow of San Marino, with its cliffsides crowned by spires and towers. At noon on September 19th, the Camerons had mopped up Valdragona, and had sent forward strong fighting patrols to deal with any enemies who might be lurking under the shelter of the cliffs. After nightfall the Scotsmen pushed on, closing upon three sides of the San Marino buttress. In the intense darkness, sharp hand-to-hand fighting ensued as patrols clashed. Lieut. Ellis of "D" Company killed six Germans and captured six more, without loss to his party. Behind these patrols the remainder of the battalion began to work around the hillsides into the west, where the road mounted into the town. Machine-guns at the foot of the switchback held up the advance until tanks came forward to deal with them. By the evening of the next day San Marino was isolated, and all but in Camerons' hands. This commanding position, which with proper defences might have proved another Cassino, was won at the low cost of four killed and thirty-four wounded. Twenty dead Germans and fifty-four bedraggled and miserable prisoners we're picked along the mountainsides. Next morning the Divisional Commander, General Holworthy, accompanied by Brigadier Saunders Jacobs of 5th Brigade, drove into San Marino in their jeeps.
"I was taken to the Governor's Palace," wrote General Holworthy, "where I was met by the San Marino Military Guard and escorted into the sanctum sanctorum. The Captain Regent was seated beside a large table. He wore a tail coat, butterfly collar, pepper and salt trousers, and elastic-sided boots. I was in shorts, khaki shirt, battledress blouse, and coat duffle. With the aid of an 'American-speaking local girl, we discussed matters. I told him that refugees had to be kept off the roads until military movement was finished. We wanted local labour to mend road blows. We had come to kick out the Boche and not to take over the Republic.
"We then adjourned through the Council Chamber to a dining-room, where I signed my name in the Golden Book. We had some wine. I was asked to state what I desired. I said I wanted headquarters for myself and one for Brigade, and some stamps. I was allotted a villa and was told that all the stamps of the Republic were at my disposal. I could have anything I wanted. The Captain Regent expressed his gratitude to the Allies for their restraint in not bombarding the town. We then shook hands warmly and I went back to see how the battle was going."
The battle was still moving into the west. The remainder of 11th Brigade and 3/12 Frontier Force Regiment had seized Monte Cerreto, a height above the Marecchia River, three miles beyond San Marino. Next day the Frontiersmen and 2/7 Gurkhas reconnoitred for crossings. While examining the position, General Holworthy and Brigadier de Fonblanque, the Corps Artillery Commander, drew an accurate enemy shoot which forced the party into the roadside ditches and seriously wounded Brigadier de Fonblanque.
It was decided to seize high ground across the Marecchia that same night. The objective was a shaggy ridge, fourteen hundred feet high, standing in a loop of the river. This feature was more than a mile in length. Its crest rose in a series of knolls, each of which bore a hamlet: Montebelle at the southern end and Scortica at the northern end were of military importance. At 2300 hours 2/7 Gurkhas and 3/12 Frontier Force Regiment crossed the river and pushed up the hill. The Gurkhas struck for the northern, the Frontiersmen for the southern extremity of the ridge. The advance began in silence and ominous silence it proved. Both battalions were ambushed by units of One Hundred and Fourteenth Division, which was encountered in its most aggressive and belligerent mood. Throughout the night the Jaeger riflemen swarmed to counter-attack after counter-attack, striking at the companies which had penetrated their defences. Ammunition began to run short yet the Gurkhas and Frontiersmen stuck it; as each rush swept in upon them, they gave as good as they got. By dawn one hundred and thirty Gurkhas were down, but their comrades were still pushing forward. 2nd Camerons, with tanks close behind surged across the river and thickened the fighting line. During the forenoon Frontier Force Regiment smashed through as far as Montebello; from counterattack the enemy reverted to desperate defence. By noon 11th Brigade's positions on the ridge were secure.
7th Brigade now moved up on 11th Brigade's right flank and linked up with Forty-Sixth Division. During the night of September 24/25 the Royal Sussex occupied Trebbio, on the enemy's side of the Marecchia. Next morning the South Countrymen pushed on until they stood above the valley of the insignificant stream which bears the famous name of Rubicon. Twenty-four hours later they endeavoured to cross only to find both Trebola on the near bank, and Reggiano on the far bank, to be strongly held. Large scale reinforcements including a new division from Ravenna had arrived, and the enemy was set for a fresh stand. Yet the obstinacy of the Germans was a less obstacle than the inclemency of the weather. It was next to impossible to keep roads and tracks open. Mud and slides blocked diversions, hastily repaired demolitions were undermined, stormwater scoured away the footing in the fords. Hour-long traffic jams held up food, water, ammunition, and ambulances. In connection with the evacuation of wounded, old friends of American Field Service reappeared in a graphic letter from a Medical Officer.
"Here as elsewhere," he writes, "the exploits of the American drivers have become the talk of the Division. McKinley, so well known and beloved from Tunisian days, has reappeared and is in the thick of it. Attached to the Sussex Regimental Aid Post he has driven every type of transport except a tank in his efforts to get the wounded across the flooded Rubicon. When he could not get his ambulance forward he deserted it for a jeep or a DUKW. At one stage when evacuation was impossible, he established his own First Aid Post under the noses of the enemy. We felt uneasy that day and we thought we might have lost him, but he soon appeared with his six badly wounded men to inform us that thereafter his Dodge would get through."
"Then there was Jack, with his rows of last-war ribbons, leading any convoy and getting every vehicle through when it seemed impossible to do so. I fell asleep one night with little hope of seeing my unit for twenty-four hours, and then not all of it. I was awakened at 0130 hours by a voice enquiring, 'Where do I put them, Doc? They are all outside.' Jack confessed that he had to ditch a few Brigade vehicles to clear the road, but he didn't appear to be worried. That night I damn nearly kissed him."
At 0100 hours on October 1st, 7th Brigade resumed the attack. Royal Sussex and 1/2 Gurkhas, both of whom had been badly knocked about, were left to contain the enemy garrisons in Reggiano, while 2nd Camerons and 2nd Royal Sikhs pushed forward. The attack was supported by a shoot by Corps artillery, which fired 22,000 shells in under three hours. The Camerons were speedily on their objectives and "D" Company had shooting gallery practice when fifty Germans rabbited across their front in search of safety. 2/11th Sikhs ran on a mine-field, but by morning they likewise had taken their objective with forty-eight prisoners. The weather worsened; after a night's rain the ground mist reduced visibility to a few yards. In an endeavour to push home the attack a Sikh company was ambushed near San Martino and pinned down by automatic weapon fire. An enemy force with self-propelled guns in the van raced out of the mist and overran the Indians. Only a handful escaped to join up with the Camerons, whose company strength by this time averaged less than thirty rifles.
Tempestuous gales, pouring rain, bitter cold, rivers in flood and crumbling roads had done more to halt the offensive than the tenacity of the enemy. It was now thirty-five days since Fourth Indian Division had moved out of Fossato, and thirty-one days since its committal to continuous battle. During this period the Indians had advanced over sixty miles, the last twenty-five miles through a defensive zone heavily massed by first line troops with a great weight of artillery and armour in support. Mile by mile the wearers of the Red Eagles had smashed, probed, and infiltrated through the strongest defences. Many of the battalions famous in Africa had disappeared, but the new units maintained the indomitable spirit of their predecessors.
"I don't believe the old crowd was better," wrote an officer. "They couldn't be."
The Division moved to rest in Umbria in anticipation of rejoining Eighth Army for the final overthrow of the enemy in Italy. At Lake Trasimeno, as at Sidi Barrani, as at Keren, as at Enfidaville, dramatic news arrived. Greece was about to be liberated, and Fourth Indian Division would proceed to that theatre at once.
WHEN MEN OF 43RD INDIAN INFANTRY BRIGADE came forward for their first ordeal by battle, they found themselves in a countryside of fields and vineyards, with the late fruit still on the vines. It was rolling land, so that they saw little except the gentle slopes of the ridges before and behind; but likewise in the north-west they saw a tall mountain on the horizon, which bore three castles on its crest, and which commanded the countryside for many miles around. On all sides of San Marino the ground fell away in ridges broad and narrow, with watercourses between them. These ridges were slashed by deep eroded ravines, whose streams fed rivers which twisted and turned, now north, now south, now directly east, on their way to the Adriatic. There was no constant grain to the ground, and the high crests tended to be higgledy-piggledy in direction. The rounded contours of the ridges along the Adriatic gave fruitful soil, so that greenery and farmhouses showed everywhere. The countryside was crazy-patched by farm boundaries, each with its hedgerow and ditching, and sometimes with sunken lanes. Arcady to the pastoral, it was a countryside stiff with menaces for the soldier.
During the month which the Gurkha Lorried Brigade had spent in moving forward, the officers and men had found full comrades in the officers and men of First British Armoured Division. The British troops consisted of Second Armoured Brigade, and 18th Lorried Infantry Brigade. The armoured regiments were the Queen's Bays, Ninth Lancers and Tenth Hussars. The riflemen took a proprietarial pride in their armoured escorts, and the tankmen in turn admired the good humour, discipline and soldierly bearing of the Gurkhas.
On September 5th, after a fortnight near Ancona, First Armoured Division moved into the line on the left of the Canadian Corps, taking over from elements of Forty-Sixth and Fifty-Sixth British Divisions, who were committing more and more of their strength to the stern struggle on the approaches to the Conca. The plan of battle called for the storming of the Passano-Coriano Ridge. The unblooded Gurkhas,, with 18th Lorried Infantry, would strike for the left flank of the ridge, and would exploit northwards towards Coriano, which was the most westerly objective of the Canadian Corps. Further to the west, Fifty-Sixth and Forty-Sixth Divisions would join in. assaults upon Croce and Gemmano.
From the flat beaches at Riccione to Gemmano is slightly over seven miles. Five divisions were to move into battle on this narrow front. The deployment of the enemy was equally dense. In the coastal sector First Parachute Division, One Hundred and Sixty-Second Turcoman Division, and Twenty-Ninth Panzer Division confronted the Canadians. Twenty-Sixth Panzer and Ninety-Eighth Infantry Divisions were opposed to First British Armoured Division. Further to the left, Two Hundred and Seventy-ninth Infantry Division, Fifth Mountain Division, Seventy-First Infantry Division and One Hundred and Fourteenth Jaeger Division were arrayed against two British and one Indian Divisions. On the Gurkhas' front, Twenty-Sixth Panzer Division, which had held its ground in Eighth Army's opening attack, was strongly supported by artillery, and confident that it would break the teeth of any assault.
On the evening of September 12th, the assault battalions moved silently towards the line of the Fosse del Valle, a small tributary of the Conca which it was necessary to cross before a start line could be established. The night was dark, warm and dry. The low skyline of the ridge ahead indicated the objective. Along its crest, the glow of smouldering fires identified the villages: during the day bombers had plastered key points with incendiaries which would act as a guide for the advance. The Gurkhas themselves had left nothing to chance. Air photographs had been intensively studied, and the riflemen had been told the number of hedgerows they must count before they closed with the enemy.
As 2300 hours five hundred and four guns crashed into action. Passano Ridge disappeared in the dust and smoke of the torrent of shell cast upon it. The Gurkhas, arrayed on their start line, began to trudge forward. But the Germans likewise were standing to their guns, and immediately laid a counter-barrage on the line of the Fosse del Valle. Star shell illuminated the slopes with chandelier flares. Enemy outposts inside the barrage---close to the start line---gave trouble, and a flanking machine-gun nest was knocked out just in time. The Gurkhas marched steadily up the hillside. On the crest of the ridge spandau teams which had survived the bombardment sprang from their bolt holes and spat fire down the slopes. Out of the night the little hillmen swarmed to close quarters, for the hand-to-hand fighting in which they have no peers. One Gurkha officer killed six Germans, another five, in clearing farmhouses. Three German tanks were pounced upon, and their crews slaughtered. Half an hour after midnight, 2/8 Gurkhas had taken all objectives with twenty-seven prisoners. 2/10 Gurkhas were slowed up by tenacious resistance, and it was an hour later before they reported success. They had taken sixty-seven prisoners. Casualties in both battalions had been light.
When dawn broke the Brigade had made excellent progress in consolidation. Their officers, peering through the smoke from the crest of the ridge, were less concerned with what lay ahead than what had happened behind. The enemy barrage still fell in curtain fire along the Fosse del Valle, and there were no signs of urgently needed support weapons for the defence of this tankable terrain. Would bridges be thrown across in time for British armour to come up, or would the panzers arrive first ?
Of this battle, as of nearly every battle in Italy, the story is really of two battles---the storming of the high ground by the infantry, and the equally grim fight against time by the sappers and armour to construct crossings and to get support weapons forward before the enemy could throw his reserves at the newly won positions. It is perhaps as well that the anxious officers on Passano Ridge could not see the grim destruction on the tracks leading to the Fosse del Valle. Smashed and blazing vehicles cluttered the approaches, and supplied fresh targets in the long lines of blocked transport. One "Ark" Bridge had been knocked out by a direct hit, and the other had gone astray. Other crossings were disorganized by serious casualties among the sappers. Tanks and self-propelled guns, striving to penetrate the barrage, had been disabled and overturned. Queen's Bays and troops of anti-tank gunners, chafing at the delay, disentangled themselves and swung away on a long detour. After a search they found a crossing of their own. At dawn the armour came sweeping up the ridge led by Honey tanks carrying much needed ammunition. The forenoon was nearly spent before the counter-attack developed. It struck at "D" Company of 2/10 Gurkhas, who blasted the first waves of enemy infantry into the ground. The panzers sheered off when they found artillery waiting for them. Thereafter hour by hour, the tanks, self-propelled guns, and the deadly 17-pounder anti-tank guns thickened around Pesano, until counter-attack counted as suicide.
The ridge had been won, and Eighth Army had elbow room to continue the battle. Far away in Whitehall the soldier's eye of the Prime Minister had followed the course of the fighting. His congratulations on "this brilliant feat of arms" was a proud tribute to the first engagement of Gurkha Lorried Brigade.
From their weapon pits and strong points around Passano the Gurkhas looked northward into the valley of the Marano with Ripabianca Ridge between them and the river, and the higher Mulazzano, ridge dominating the further bank. On September 14th, 18th Lorried Infantry Brigade with 2nd Armoured Brigade in support, pushed obliquely across the Gurkhas' front, and after bitter fighting cleared Ripabianca of the enemy. On the next day 43rd Brigade took up the running. Desert Air Force spent the afternoon hammering Mulazzano Ridge. By 1700 hours, 2/6 and 2/8 Gurkhas were deployed on the eastern bank of the Marano. A terrific artillery shoot crashed down on the high ground across the river. The Gurkhas leapt into the stream, clambered up the far bank, and surged into the smoke. The early hour of the attack had taken the enemy by surprise and had forestalled the arrival of reinforcements which at that moment were moving up the reverse slopes of Mulazzano Ridge. The artillery wrought fearful havoc among these columns. A complete mortar company was found afterwards, slaughtered to a man as they hurried along a sunken lane to battle positions. German dead were strewn everywhere---in the ditches, under the vines, in the broken farmhouses. More than fifty machine-guns were picked up on the Brigade front. One hundred and twenty-five prisoners were taken, together with all the equipment of the battalion which held Mulazzano---half-track vehicles, telephones, wireless sets, mortars; and certain interesting documents which should not have been allowed so far forward. 2/6 Gurkhas had very few casualties, and the 2/8 battalion on the left lost under fifty men in all.
Once again, from the crest of Mulazzano, a river and a ridge confronted the victorious Gurkhas. This time the ridge lay five miles away across a wide watercourse, and it was less a ridge than a hump in the plain upon which the fortress of Sanarcangelo stood, with its walled town closely clustered about it. Between the Gurkhas on the high ground and the Marecchia river lay a low valley through which a metalled road led up to San Marino. Beyond this road three miles of broken land intervened. Then came the watercourse of the Maricchia, one thousand yards wide, with a number of small streams feeling their way through the gravel. Behind the river Sanarcangelo sat on its knoll, with the main highway from Rimini to Bologna skirting its southern walls. Beyond the highway, the plains of Northern Italy opened in a cape of low fruitful farmlands.
While the Gurkhas consolidated at Mulazzano, the two flanking divisions---Fourth British Division from the east and Fifty-Sixth London Division from the west---launched converging attacks over the difficult ground on the Gurkhas' front. The enemy fought grimly, with great strength in anti-tank and self-propelled guns. 2nd Armoured Brigade went forward to punch a hole on to the plains. It was a black day; Queen's Bays alone lost thirty tanks along the Marecchia valley. When the armour assault failed 43rd Brigade was ordered forward to reconnoitre the crossings and to join in the battle.
Contradictory information concerning the situation on the flanks raised doubts in Brigadier Barker's mind. On the Brigade front itself the position remained confused. The enemy was standing at bay, and it seemed obvious that careful reconnaissance, plus a substantial artillery programme, would be necessary to eject him. Intelligence reports, however, insisted that only scattered rearguards held Sanarcangelo and its adjoining ridges, and that a quick attack would significantly affect the battle. At 1915 hours on September 22nd, 43rd Brigade was ordered to establish a bridgehead over the Marecchia that night.. Without reconnaissance or even detailed maps, battalion orders were completed half an hour before midnight. Thirty minutes later 2/8 Gurkhas moved in single file through 2/6 Gurkhas front, heading on a compass bearing for the line of the river. 2/10 Gurkhas set out immediately afterwards, and came up on the left. After an hour's march through rain and mist, the Gurkhas reached the Marecchia and organized for the assault.
At 0300 hours both battalions crossed the river without opposition and began to close upon Sanarcangelo. A thousand yards beyond the river, on the line of a railway embankment, the leading companies of 2/8 Gurkhas were greeted with intense machine-gun fire from close at hand. The hillmen slipped through and around this opposition, struggled forward and seized Point 88 on Sanarcangelo Ridge. Battle flared up on all sides as the flanking British divisions went over to the assault. With dawn it became apparent that the intelligence summaries had painted a too rosy picture. The British line of attack was by no means up to Sanarcangelo Ridge, and the Gurkha thrust had created a narrow and dangerous salient in a strongly fortified position. Sanarcangelo itself was held in force, with self-propelled guns sited well forward to sweep its approaches. The Gurkhas on Point 88 were almost completely surrounded by German machine-gun nests. The wireless sets of the artillery Observation Officers had succumbed, and the only support came from three detached aircraft which appeared out of nowhere and as long as their petrol lasted attacked with audacity and success the self-propelled guns which were harassing the Gurkhas. The reinforcing companies lost heavily from shell fire on their way forward. The enemy threw in a counter-attack supported by tanks which forced the leading companies back to the railway embankment.
2/10 Gurkhas had no greater fortune. "D" Company was half-way up the hill when machine-gun fire opened from a series of nests along the crest. A large manor house was the centre of resistance, and this strongpoint only fell after two attacks. The enemy struck back with a company of infantry and seven tanks. Without anti-tank guns or PIATS, the Gurkhas were obliged to withdraw to the line of the embankment occupied by the survivors of 2/8 battalion. It was characteristic of the melee that while withdrawing 2/10 Gurkhas should have encountered panzers roving freely in the rear of their former positions; that on arrival on the line of the railway embankment they should find one of their companies engaged in hand-to-hand fighting with an enemy force which had struck from the flank; that battalion headquarters should have been attacked by a platoon of the enemy which had bobbed up out of the dark. Everything indicated that the enemy was so sure of his flanks that he could devote the full weight of his battle reserves to the ejection of the gallant few who had penetrated his defences.
Brigadier Barker was not prepared to accept defeat. On September 23rd 2/6 Gurkhas came forward to thicken the fighting line. After a number of attempts tanks managed to make their way across the Marecchia, and the artillery moved up to bring Sanarcangelo Ridge within range. In spite of heavy casualties the hillmen were full of fight, and that evening all three battalions of the Lorried Brigade drew together and surged forward. Tanks of 10th Hussars rolled among them as they struck with a momentum that would not be denied. The ridge was won and 2/6 Gurkhas broke into Sanarcangelo town. The castle garrison was mopped up, and partisans led by the local barber flocked to join the victors. Morning revealed that the Boche had taken his beating and had dropped back across the Rubicon, the next water barrier to the north. 18th Lorried Infantry Brigade and a brigade of Fifty-Sixth London Division passed through the Gurkhas, who came out to rest after eleven days of continuous fighting, in which when under fire for the first time they had borne themselves like veterans.
3/8 Punjab Regiment,
May 12th, 1944.
1/9 Gurkha Rifles,
Faetano, Gothic Line.
Sept. 18th, 1944.
3/5 Mahratta Light Infantry,
July 9th, 1944
1/5 Royal Gurkha Rifles,
Monte Bartolo .
November 11th, 1944
1/5 Mahratta Light Infantry,
April 9th, 1945.
6/13 Frontier Force Rifles,
April 9th, 1945.
The battle had caused sad losses, of which not the least was the end of a much prized association with First British Armoured Division. To the Gurkhas the White Rhino flash remained a warm and living memory. for the Englishmen who wore it had been mentors, sponsors and great comrades from the time of the Brigade's arrival in Italy. On October 1st, 43rd Brigade came under command of Fifty-Sixth London Division on the line of the Fiumicino, a stream which wanders down from the Apennine spurs on the left of Sanarcangelo. The cold autumnal rains were now continuous, the crossings of the Maricchia still insecure, and the forward roads impassable for large-scale troop movements. Plans for forcing the Fiumicino were postponed from day to day owing to the vagaries of stormwater.
The emphasis of Eighth Army's attack tended to shift westwards, on to higher ground and firmer footing. Tenth Indian Division had arrived from Central Italy, and now came forward to relieve Fourth Indian Division. On October 7th the Gurkha Lorried Brigade passed under command of the newcomers and moved eight miles to the east to occupy a less water-logged sector.
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