The strategic purpose of the Allied attack on the Gothic Line in Italy in August 1944 was to engage the enemy and prevent the transfer of German divisions to France or the eastern front.
On Aug. 31, when the Canadian Corps broke through the main defensive positions known as Green Line I, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, the German commander-in-chief for Italy, was told all local reserves available to the German 10th Army had been committed, but they were unable “to seal off enemy penetrations.” Kesselring agreed to transfer 29 Panzer Grenadier Division and other resources to meet the Allied thrust. It was clear to him that the Allied centre of gravity was the Adriatic sector, not the Florence-Bologna route, and so there would be no more German troop withdrawals from Italy.
However, before reinforcements could arrive, the Princess Louise Dragoon Guards, now fighting as infantry in the 12th Brigade, captured Tomba di Pesaro (Tavulla). “For a unit that had been raised as a reconnaissance regiment, and having just converted to infantry, the PLDG demonstrated tremendous courage and tenacity in its first infantry battle,” writes historian Doug Delaney.
German mortar fire on the forming up place delayed the attack and when the advance along the spine of the ridge began, the enemy directed mortar, machine-gun and anti-tank fire at the tanks of the supporting Lord Strathcona’s Horse. The Canadian battlegroup suffered more than 100 casualties, but the enemy withdrew once the high ground above the village was taken.
Lieutenant-Colonel W.W.G. Darling, who had recently assumed command of the battalion, was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his leadership and example in leading his men onto the objective.
The PLDG was not the only battalion to win vital ground Sept. 1, 1944. On the 1st Canadian Div. front, 2nd Bde. continued to filter though the Green Line. The Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry—with support from British tanks—won control of Point 115 in a textbook example of tank-infantry co-operation. It then pressed on to the next hill, “a long bald slope” repeatedly stonked by enemy mortars and artillery. The Seaforth Highlanders of Canada, with 145 Regt. of the Royal Armoured Corps, reached the edge of Pozzo Alto on Aug. 31, but found the village strongly defended. After two failed attempts to rush the defenders, Lt.-Col. S.W. Thomson decided to wait until daylight. The next day the village was secured. The PPCLI and Seaforths were now well beyond the forward positions of the Green Line. This left the Germans with one isolated position overlooking the Foglia River.
The German paratroopers holding Pt. 131 ought to have withdrawn or surrendered, but their orders, and their mystique as elite troops, kept them fighting. Lt.-Col. Jean Allard’s Royal 22nd Regt., with an attached company from the Carleton and York Regt., was assigned to take Pt. 131. No tanks were available and after a failed attempt at dawn on Sept. 1, Allard used his Bren gun carriers to attack the enemy pillboxes. By evening, the strongpoint was in Canadian hands.
Allied intelligence officers who had plotted the Green Line defences concluded that since no other prepared positions were evident in the air photographs, a breakthrough would quickly be followed by a breakout to the town of Rimini and the Po Valley. The corps commander, Lieutenant-General E.L.M. Burns, shared this view. He ordered his divisions to continue the advance on Sept. 2. The 5th Armoured Div. was to cross the Conca River, and then angle northeast toward the town of Cattolica on the Adriatic. Major-General Chris Vokes and 1st Div. were to parallel this move, employing an armoured brigade group commanded by Brig. D. Dawnay, the officer commanding 21st (British) Tank Brigade, in order to trap the Germans defending Pesaro. Dawnay employed his three tank regiments, each with a battalion of Canadian infantry, plus the divisional armoured car regiment, the Royal Canadian Dragoons.
The RCDs, with a company of the Royal 22nd Regt., were told to use the cover of darkness to cut the railway and coastal road, Highway 16, south of Cattolica. A squadron of British tanks was to follow this daring left hook. The RCD regimental history notes that “night movement was not an armoured car regiment’s strong point” and since there was no opportunity for reconnaissance and little time to marry up sub-units, distribute loads, tune and net radios, form an order of march—in the dark and under harassing mortar and shell fire—some delay was inevitable. When the RCDs reached the coastal road, only German rearguards remained south of Cattolica.
The successful battles fought by both divisions of the Canadian Corps were in marked contrast to the difficulties encountered by the British divisions on the inland flank. The more mountainous terrain and the arrival of 26 Panzer Grenadier Div. on the British front no doubt explains the problems encountered by 5th Corps, but British national pride must account for 8th Army’s decision to try and exploit the Canadian breakthrough by ordering 5th Corps to lead the advance. Lt.-Gen. Charles Keightley, 5th Corps commander, prefaced his orders for the pursuit with the words: “The enemy has been badly mauled by 1st Canadian Corps and there is a possibility of a breakthrough on that front during 2 September.”
Keightley proposed to capitalize on the Canadian victory by attacking on the corps’ right flank, squeezing the Canadians who were assigned the more modest task of securing the coastal town of Cattolica.
During a recent visit to these battlefields, we tried to understand whether 8th Army realized what it was asking 5th Corps to do. The road from Montegridolfo to the Conca River that was to serve as the centre line for both 46th Div., tasked to seize a crossing of the Conca, and 1st British Armd. Div., which was to advance to Coriano and beyond, is much improved today compared to 1944. However, the challenges of this winding, narrow roadway through the mountains are still evident. The lead brigade of 46th Div. did reach the river by dawn on Sept. 3, making contact with the Canadians and securing two intact bridges. This rapid success must have tempted Keightley to order the infantry battalions forward to Coriano, but 46th Div. was slated to go into reserve, making way for the prestigious 1st British Armd. Div. which would, according to 8th Army intelligence reports, fight a “fluid battle” against light enemy resistance until a new defensive position—the Rimini Line—was reached. Unfortunately, the terrain, the weather, and the Germans did not co-operate.
The problems began well before the armour reached the Conca. The British official history blames “unrealistic staff estimates” for a frustratingly slow night advance over “a bulldozed mountain trail with sharp bends and steep gradients.” It would have been difficult in daylight, “but at night, in choking dust, it put too heavy a strain on both drivers and tanks, many of which broke down.” Once the Conca was reached, traffic congestion added to the misery.
Major-General R.A. Hull, an experienced armoured corps officer, had accepted the available intelligence estimates that predicted a fluid battle beyond the Conca. He sent his armoured brigade forward without additional infantry. The German commanders read the situation differently. Inland from the narrow coastal plain, a series of distinct low ridges, comparable to the fingers of a widespread hand, ran in a northeasterly direction. The Misano-San Clemente ridge north of the Conca was selected as a temporary position for the Germans withdrawing from the Green Line, but a new main position was to be created on Coriano Ridge where 29 Panzer Grenadier Div. prepared to block any further Allied advance.
The British tank regiments tried to advance in broad daylight and were quickly brought to a halt “by high velocity fire from the ridge in front of them” and artillery fire “from their left rear.” By nightfall, the brigade’s tank strength had been cut in half through accidents more than enemy guns. The brigade had been pressed into action despite three nights with little sleep and was still in poor shape the next morning, Sept. 4, when corps headquarters insisted they attack Coriano immediately. The lead squadrons reached the foot of the ridge, but could go no further.
The 56th British Div., attacking on the corps’ left flank, was also checked. The first battle for Coriano Ridge should have ended when the first heavy rains of the season began on the night of Sept. 6. The rain turned the clouds of dust into clinging mud, but the struggle for the southern end of the ridge continued for another week. Eleven separate attacks were beaten back by German mountain troops before the area fell to 4th Indian Div.
The attritional battles in and beyond the Green Line had cost both sides numerous casualties. Since the Germans were rushing replacements forward and adding divisions to their order of battle, the Allies had already won the strategic victory they were seeking. This did not satisfy the Commander-in-Chief, Gen. Harold Alexander or his two army commanders, Gen. Mark Clark and Gen. Oliver Leese. They were unwilling to accept strategic victory through operational “failure” and were determined to continue offensive action. On Sept. 8, Alexander met with Leese and agreed to a pause and regrouping of 8th Army before renewing the battle. In addition, Alexander wrote: “I have decided to unleash 5th Army.”
The next day, Clark’s 5th U.S. Army, which included British 13th Corps and 1st Canadian Armd. Bde., began advancing on a broad front. It met light resistance until it arrived on the crests of the Apennines where the mountain passes were strongly defended. Both the American and British formations in 5th Army were soon locked in a violent struggle over some of the most difficult terrain in Italy. There would be no rapid breakthrough to Bologna.
On the 8th Army front, Leese grudgingly accepted the evidence that his “pursuit corps,” the British 5th, was unable to make progress in what he described as “the difficult country on the corps front.” Despite his dislike and distrust of Burns, Leese reinforced the Canadians with 4th British and 2nd New Zealand divisions, as well as the 2nd Greek Mountain Bde. The Canadians were now to become the pursuit corps.
First, however, there was the problem of Coriano Ridge and 29 Panzer Grenadier Div. Leese ordered 5th Canadian and 1st British Armd. divisions to attack from two directions using the artillery of both corps, 700 guns. Major-Gen. Bert Hoffmeister gave this unpleasant task to Brig.-Gen. I.S. Johnston’s 11th Infantry Bde. with the Westminster Regt. and the New Brunswick Hussars under command. The British used the 43rd Gurkha Bde. with similar armoured support.
Today, the town fathers describe Coriano as a refuge from the hectic tourist triangle of Rimini-Riccione-San Marino. They say it “offers the tranquility of a township that is off the beaten track. The countryside, which surrounds the town, is rich in rustic hamlets and isolated cottages, set in the midst of ripe golden wheat vineyards which produce some of the best wines in Romagna.” The colourful tourist brochures make no reference to the nearby Coriano Ridge War Cemetery with its 1,940 graves, 427 of them Canadian. Nor do they mention the scores of civilian casualties.
The second battle for Coriano Ridge began Sept. 13 when the 43rd Gurkha Bde. began the assault from the south. The Allied artillery had struck the obvious targets with what the German soldiers called “continuous drumfire” and the Gurkhas were able to capture Passano, one of the rustic hamlets on the ridge, well before the Canadian attack began.
The success by the Gurkhas helped the Perths on the left flank of the Canadians gain their objective—3,000 yards south of Coriano—within 30 minutes. The Cape Breton Highlanders, who were to reach positions north of the town, had a much tougher time as they had to provide their own flank protection. Accurate German defensive fire inflicted numerous casualties, but the battalion pressed on to its objective.
The regimental historian of the 8th Hussars who watched the early stages of the battle wrote a powerful description of the “dark autumn night” which “leaped and vaulted with sights and sounds, flickered, jumped and rolled with the clash of heavy weapons.” At times, “there could be heard the human cries of the wounded. Tracers stitched across the sky. Explosions tore it apart. German spandaus burped. The more deliberate Brens answered them… the wounded were taken back as soon as they could be. The dead were left for a quieter time. The living kept on….”
With daylight, Allied airpower limited the enemy’s ability to mount the kind of counterattacks their doctrine and training called for. Meanwhile, smokescreens created by the field artillery and mortars help ‘blind’ the German guns. Air observation pilots, linked to the counter battery medium regiments, silenced long-range enemy fire whenever they were in sight.
With two battalions firm on either side of Coriano, the Irish Regt. and a squadron of Hussars began to clear the town. The Panzer Grenadiers had fortified many of the houses, linking them with tunnels. Tanks and self-propelled guns were hidden in the shells of buildings. It was a small-scale version of the December 1943 battle in Ortona (Into Ortona, Then And Now page 11). “The square of Coriano, already torn and cracked from days of shellfire, began to crumble…the Irish began to fight house to house in a deadly game of hide-and-seek. At nightfall the Canadians withdrew to prepare a new assault, but at dawn the Germans were gone.” The Westminster Regt., working with a squadron of Strathcona tanks, had cleared the north end of the ridge in a superb tank-infantry action which had involved “tanks shooting up houses and the infantry moving in and flushing out the enemy.” Once this task was accomplished the enemy had to abandon Coriano and withdraw to their temporary fall-back position on the next ridge where the struggle would continue.
- Banner photo: Personnel from the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery near Cattolica, Italy, September 1944. Credit: Ellis Kerr, Library and Archives Canada.
- Originally published in Legion Magazine on April 11, 2009.