When the German army in Italy was forced to abandon Coriano Ridge on Sept. 15, 1944, the withdrawal marked the end of the fourth phase of 8th Army’s Gothic Line offensive. The first phase, including the logistical and engineering triumph in moving 8th Army across the Apennine Mountains to the Adriatic coast, brought the Canadians, British and Poles to the Foglia River and the main Gothic Line defences known as Green Line One.
From there, 1st Canadian Infantry and 5th Canadian Armoured divisions broke through the defensive crust before the enemy had fully manned its positions. Next, the Canadians fought their way forward to the Conca River and the coastal town of Cattolica while British 5th Corps, which was supposed to lead the breakout from the mountains to “the green fields beyond,” tried and failed to capture Gemmano and Coriano Ridge. After a pause and a substantial reorganization of 8th Army, the 5th Canadian and 1st British armoured divisions fought and won the second battle of Coriano, forcing the Germans to withdraw to positions on the next fall-back position, the low ridgeline north of the Marano River.
Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, Hitler’s commander-in-chief for Italy, was now facing a new offensive by the United States 5th Army as well as the seemingly endless battle with 8th Army. He approved the withdrawal from Coriano, explaining his decision as necessary because, “we cannot permit the troops to reach the point where moral resistance collapses….” Both 29th Panzer Grenadier Div. and 1st Parachute Div., which had borne the brunt of the Coriano battle, had suffered heavy losses.
German corps commander General Heinrich von Vietinghoff attributed their defeat to the Allied use of “smokescreens which prevented aimed fire; the enemy’s policy of destroying all daylight counterattacks from the air, so that reserves suffered great casualties, and the impossible concentrations of artillery fire.”
From Aug. 26, when the Allied offensive began, to Sept. 15, Vietinghoff’s 76 Corps suffered 14,604 casualties of whom 7,000 were listed as missing and presumed captured. This number represented more than a third of the corps’ combat strength.
Kesselring ordered a vigorous defence of the low ridgeline beyond the Marano River to allow time for new divisions to arrive and man the Rimini Line, the higher ground between San Fortunato and the Republic of San Marino that formed the last mountain barrier to the plains of northern Italy. Germany’s 162nd (Turcoman) Div., brought down from Ravenna, and the 356th Infantry Div., brought in from the Franco-Italian border, were to help prepare the Rimini Line. The 20th Luftwaffe Field and 90th Panzer Grenadier divisions, the last reserves in northern Italy, were also committed.
The Supreme Allied Commander in Northwest Europe, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, must have been pleased to read the top secret Ultra intercepts that revealed these movements only 24 hours before the airborne army began Market Garden, the Allied operation to establish a bridgehead across the lower Rhine at the Dutch city of Arnhem. However, Gen. Harold Alexander, the army group commander in Italy, and his army commanders were dismayed by the news. Kesselring’s determination to reinforce and hold the Rimini Line meant a new series of battles, which would further strain the shrinking manpower resources of 8th Army, would have to be launched if the Allied offensive was to continue. Generals Alexander, Mark Clark and Oliver Leese refused to consider the option of recalibrating their operations to hold the enemy in place instead of attempting to overcome what was yet another well-prepared German defensive zone.
Today’s visitor to the battlefields beyond Coriano Ridge will have no difficulty understanding the challenges the terrain posed for the attackers. By Canadian standards the Marano River is usually no wider than a creek, though much of it was a tank obstacle after the rains began in September 1944. The first low ridgeline, with the stone buildings of San Lorenzo in Correggiano, is less than two kilometres beyond the river. Today, a highway cuts through the Canadian sector and this can create confusion for those attempting to familiarize themselves with the old battlefield. However, from higher ground one can ignore the highway and read the landscape. The Republic of San Marino, with spot elevations of 450 metres, looms over the battlefield to the west while the lower part of the feature, the San Fortunato Ridge, marks the 1944 Rimini Line. East of the highway or autostrada are the sprawling, chaotic Adriatic coastal resorts of Riccione (to the south) and Rimini (to the north). In between them was the airfield that 3rd Greek Mountain Brigade would capture at great cost on Sept. 16. Crossing this contested ground under observation and fire was not going to be easy.
Leese was forced to recognize that the Canadians, not Lieutenant-General Charles Keightley’s powerful 5th British Corps, had broken through the German defences. He reinforced this success by transferring 4th British Infantry Div., 2nd New Zealand Div.—with its integral armoured brigade—and 3rd Greek Mountain Bde. to 1st Canadian Corps. The Greek soldiers, some 3,500 infantry from disbanded Greek units in Egypt, had been brought into Italy and trained by New Zealanders who regarded them as an extra infantry brigade.
The corps commander, Lt.-Gen. E.L.M. Burns, developed a complex eight-stage plan which he admitted was “rather elaborate” but “based on our experience after the breakthrough of the Gothic Line which showed that we would have to fight our way forward against continued and effective enemy opposition. Without careful co-ordination of the moves of two divisions and clear orders as to their objectives…momentum could be lost.” In fact, momentum was lost in the first hours of the advance beyond Coriano and never recovered. Both Burns and Keightley chose to commit reserve brigades to the advance before the battle for Coriano Ridge was over. Once again, 1st British Armd. Div. sent its armoured brigade forward without sufficient infantry. The move began in the early evening but was stopped by the difficult inland terrain and the rain that created swollen creeks. Other significant and deciding factors were minefields and German guns.
On the Canadian front, 4th British Division’s lead brigade began to descend into the Marano River valley on the afternoon of Sept. 13 while the battle for Coriano raged. However, the troops were forced to seek cover from accurate, heavy shellfire.
The next day, 1st Canadian Div. moved forward on 4th Division’s right flank. The densely built-up coastal strip along Highway 16 was assigned to the Greek brigade with assistance from 1st Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery, the armoured cars of the Royal Canadian Dragoons, mortars, and machine-guns of the Saskatoon Light Infantry. A New Zealand tank regiment was also made available. The irony of assigning mountain-trained troops (the Greek brigade) to the flatlands reminds us of the fate of 52nd Div., the elite mountain troops who fought in the flood waters of Walcheren in Northwest Europe.
The Greek infantry began the advance by clearing a group of enemy-held farmhouses in an attempt to secure the Canadian flank before the Royal 22nd Regt. and West Nova Scotia Regt. began to cross the Marano. The battalions of 3rd Bde., supported by British tanks, were supposed to seize the village of San Lorenzo with the help of artillery shooting them on to the objective. The Canadian official history records the result: “The enemy replied vigorously with all his guns and mortars. The deadliest fire came from his armour and anti-tank guns, some concealed on the high ground ahead, some lurking in positions at the bends of the Marano River to the east of the Canadian crossing place. It took the leading sections of the Royal 22nd Regt. two hours to cover 200 yards through the fields.… Three times the Van Doos assaulted, but each time they were driven back with heavy casualties.… The battalion’s blackest day of the war had cost it 32 killed and 61 wounded.”
The West Novas found that the enemy was holding positions on both banks of the river with—as the regimental history describes—“machine-guns, mortars and several self-propelled cannons concealed amongst the wrecked houses.” When the acting brigade commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Pat Bogert, came forward “to see how things were going…the forward area was a bedlam of dim struggling figures, bursting shells, bombs and smoke. Battalion headquarters itself was under a vicious fire from machine-guns and self-propelled cannon.”
The Germans had left a single bridge intact to allow the rearguards on the south bank an escape route. The bridge was rigged with explosives, but “Lieutenant G. M. Hebb (later killed in action), with magnificent courage and initiative, sprinted across and tore out the demolition charges.” By mid-afternoon the West Novas and Van Doos had been forced back to shallow, isolated bridgeheads. Fourth British Div. had encountered similar problems and was temporarily stymied by enemy control of the high ground towards the San Marino Republic.
The next day, after several fruitless attempts to take San Lorenzo, the 21st British Tank Bde. committed much of its remaining strength to the battle. The West Novas and a squadron of the 12th Royal Tank Regt. reached the edge of the village “despite the attentions of a Tiger (tank) which was engaged and set on fire.” It was also noted that “the confused and bitter fighting” that marked the day continued until just before dark when “a goodly bag” of paratroopers who had been holding the stone church surrendered.
The Van Doos, with a composite squadron of 12th Royal Tanks, launched its attack at 2:30 p.m. Rimini airfield had not yet been taken by the Greek brigade and the leading troop of tanks was caught in a crossfire from the ridge and the airfield. Despite the loss of six tanks and the squadron’s commander, the armour and infantry pressed on and after clearing the eastern end of the ridge they wheeled right towards San Martino, another fortified village beyond San Lorenzo. Today, San Martino is part of the Rimini industrial zone and the noise of battle has been replaced by the sounds of traffic on the autostrada, but the high ground and reverse slope the Germans used to repel the first attack is still evident. Once again the tanks, especially the heavily armoured Churchills, were decisive and the village was secured.
Third Canadian Bde. was then ordered into reserve and 2nd Bde. came forward to continue the advance to San Fortunato. Unfortunately, the company holding San Martino was withdrawn before the Seaforth Highlanders arrived to effect their relief, and the Germans quickly regained the village. In his memoirs, Burns claims that, “This unlucky slip-up was the principal cause of several days delay in attacking Fortunato Ridge, the key to the hoped for breakout.”
The loss of San Martino and its commanding location may have delayed the Canadian advance to San Fortunato, but all across the Allied front the lead elements of 1st Canadian and 5th British Corps were meeting well-organized resistance. 4th British Div., still under Burns’ command, was stymied by the failure of 5th Corps to keep pace and on Sept. 17 the corps boundary was changed to allow 4th Div. to clear the Germans from a ridge on their flank. That evening, Alexander’s report to London clearly expressed his frustration. “The enemy continues to put in reinforcements,” he wrote. “There is not the least sign of any intention on his part to withdraw: on the contrary…he intends to fight it out where he stands.”
One indication of Kesselring’s determination to impose a stalemate on 8th Army was the commitment of an additional heavy 88-mm anti-tank gun battalion to assist the paratroopers facing 1st Canadian Div. Both the Seaforth Highlanders and Loyal Edmonton regiments learned first-hand just how determined the enemy was. Lt.-Col. S.W. Thomson, who always insisted on seeing things for himself, rejected brigade plans to attack San Martino on Sept. 16 because, in the words of the regimental history, “there are times when a battalion commander on the spot may question such orders and this was one of them.” Thomson explained that earlier attempts to storm across the open ground had been met by such heavy fire that “the opposing enemy forces must have had a priority on the output of German munitions.” The Seaforths probed the defences with fighting patrols but any close approach to the village was met with intense machine-gun fire. A company-strength attack attempted that night also failed. Years later, Thomson, in reflecting on the battle, wrote that “four companies attacking might have succeeded, but only half would have survived. The art of war,” he insisted, “is to win and live.”
The next day the Seaforths and 48th Highlanders, with strong tank and artillery support, launched another attempt. The Seaforth history notes that “if capturing the miserable group of houses which constituted San Martino was only a matter of courage, the Seaforths would have had the village in their pocket, but…courage alone was not sufficient.”
The 48th Highlanders remember San Martino as blood-soaked Kestrel, their code name for the ridge. They endured a series of costly attempts to advance beyond it on the coastal flank. However, enfilade fire from the high ground checked every attempt. The 48th regimental history is especially critical of the persistence of higher command who “did not appreciate the terrain.” The battalion was “being asked to fight in a virtual German killing ground” until Kestrel was captured.
Finally, on Sept. 19, reason prevailed and San Martino was outflanked from the west, forcing the paratroopers to withdraw to San Fortunato.
Perhaps the most disturbing element in the story of the battles for San Lorenzo, San Martino and Rimini is the comment by Burns who in his memoirs recalls a conversation on Sept. 17 when he talked with Gen. Chris Vokes about “the state of 1st Div. troops.” They had suffered heavy casualties, particularly in officers and non-commissioned officers in recent battles, so Burns suggested that if Vokes “had any doubts about the continued offensive power of his battalions” the New Zealand Div. together with 5th Armd. Div. could relieve the Canadian and British infantry. However, Vokes was confident his men were still able to carry out the task assigned to them. He gave the officers a fiery pep talk and sent them back into battle. Armies are not democracies, so no one asked the soldiers.
- Banner photo: Canadian infantry advance toward Rimini, Italy, September 1944. Credit: Library and Archives Canada.
- Originally published in Legion Magazine on June 11, 2009.