The original plan for 1st Canadian Corps’ Operation Chuckle, December 1944, called for the capture of Ravenna, situated along the Adriatic coast in northeastern Italy, and an advance beyond the Senio and Santerno rivers to the town of Massa Lombarda. If the Canadians succeeded, their thrust would outflank German positions at Imola and threaten the enemy’s hold on Bologna further to the west. While Ravenna was liberated on Dec. 4, the 1st Canadian Division suffered a serious reversal when a hastily prepared attack across the Lamone River failed, forcing a withdrawal.
Two battalions of 1st Brigade, the Royal Canadian Regiment and the Hastings and Prince Edward Regt., suffered close to 200 casualties in this ill-advised, chaotic action. For the Hasty Ps, Dec. 5 was the black day when their own medium artillery struck them down on the banks of the river.
Fortunately, 5th Armoured Div. reached the Lamone in good order where it paused to prepare for a proper co-ordinated assault crossing. The 8th Army commander, Lieutenant-General Richard McCreery, had promised that his troops would “not have to fight both the weather and the enemy.” So, the attack was postponed when heavy rain began to fall. The enemy took full advantage of the respite and the weather, which limited air operations, to reorganize their forces. The fighting strength of German battalions averaged less than 250 men, raising the possibility of a more favourable force ratio for the 8th Army if something could be done to get Allied armour across the water obstacles that stood between them and their objective.
During the weeklong wait a series of command changes took place. Both Brigadier Allan Calder and Lieutenant-Colonel J.W. Ritchie, commanding officer of the RCRs, were replaced due to their “failure” in the abortive attack across the Lamone. Ironically, Brig. J.D. Smith, who as acting divisional commander had ordered the improvised assault, was given command of Calder’s brigade when Major-General Harry Foster arrived from Holland to take up his appointment as divisional commander.
Foster presided over his first Orders Group on Dec. 10, confirming the division’s part in a corps attack scheduled for that night. Third Bde. Brig. J.P.E. Bernatchez was to take the first bound in an effort to create a half-mile-deep bridgehead across the Lamone. If all went well, 1st Bde. would follow and press forward to Bagnacavallo, a town astride the Canale Navaglio. Since the action was to take place on the same stretch of river that the 1st Bde. had failed to secure, no effort was spared in preparing for the new operation.
This time, both Canadian divisions would launch a simultaneous assault while a British brigade staged a feint attack. Two medium artillery regiments with increased ammunition allocations were available, and when dawn broke, the Desert Air Force would, weather permitting, engage the enemy employing a new method of air-to-ground support known as Timothy Targets. Using flights of 12 aircraft and direct contact with a Forward Air Control Post, pilots were briefed to strafe and bomb areas to a depth of 1,000 yards in front of a Bomb Safety Line identified by smoke. Marauder B26 medium bombers were tasked to destroy a long list of identified targets.
Bernatchez was given command of the 48th Highlanders of Canada for the crossing, allowing the use of three battalions in the initial assault. The division’s long-time partner, 21 British Tank Bde., was available and Bernatchez was given the 12 Royal Tank Regt. to provide direct fire during the crossing’s first phase. The regiment had been reorganized to include a Crocodile flame-throwing squadron, but this invaluable force-multiplier was not in range during the Lamone crossing. “Assault boats and Olafson footbridges were allotted to each infantry battalion and sufficient Mae Wests (inflatable life jackets) to protect the infantry during the crossing were provided.”
The German Army’s 356 Infantry Div., one of three divisions available to 73 Corps on the far bank of the river, was focused on the obvious crossing points near the remains of a railway bridge. The West Nova Scotia Regt. drew this sector with the Carleton and York Regt. and the 48th Highlanders on the flanks. During the rain-imposed delay, the banks of the river had deteriorated and by Dec. 9 the water was 60 feet wide and rushing between steep dikes.
Invicta, the history of the Carleton and York Regt., offers a description of the preparations.
“Getting the heavy boats to the water was a hard slog: they had to be dragged 600 yards through mud up to the ankles by men already burdened with weapons, ammunition, and equipment. The boats went down in single file to within 100 yards of the dike and then branched into three sections of two boats…. The boats were then dragged with great expenditure of effort to the top of the 30 feet high dike, and slid down the other side…with moments to spare before H. Hour.”
The Carletons and the 48th Highlanders got across before the enemy had recovered from the accurate artillery program, but in the centre, the West Nova Scotia Regt. ran into stiff opposition. The West Novas had elected to cross the river using the Olafson footbridge, but the current and problems with flotation demolished the bridge. The dilemma was solved by passing the assault companies through the other bridgeheads and attacking along the dike to the bridge embankment. The Royal 22nd Regt. joined its sister battalions before dawn and at first light began moving forward on a two-company front supported by the medium machine-guns of the Saskatoon Light Infantry as well as effective close air support and accurate mortar fire.
The brigade objective, the Fosso Vecchio, was less than 500 yards away but—as predicted—the Germans had withdrawn to prepared defences behind the creek. Attempts to rush the position proved too costly to continue.
Major-General Bert Hoffmeister had selected his veteran 11th Inf. Bde., with the British Columbia Dragoons under command, to cross the Lamone near the village of Villanova. The initial two-battalion attack was to be silent with the artillery on standby. If surprise was lost, the code word “Bedlam” would bring instant support on pre-arranged targets. The Perth Regt. was able to obtain surprise and was swiftly across, but the Cape Breton Highlanders signalled Bedlam shortly after their boats hit the river. Both battalions seized their initial objectives allowing Brig. Ian Johnston to send the Westminster and Irish regiments across to expand the bridgehead.
The expected enemy counterattacks were defeated with the Westminster’s tank-hunting platoon claiming the destruction of four tanks. By the evening of Dec. 11, elements of two Canadian brigades were ready to tackle the Fosso Vecchio defences, and seize the crossing over the Canale Naviglio. Hoffmeister committed the relatively fresh 12th Bde. in the 5th Division’s sector. Major-General Foster decided that despite, or because of, the morale problem that had shaken the resolve of the RCRs and Hasty Ps at the Lamone, they would take on the Naviglio, saving 2 Bde. for what he hoped would be a rapid advance to the Senio and beyond.
The decision to continue an operation that was costing the Canadians a steady stream of casualties, killed, wounded, and missing, not to mention a growing number of battle exhaustion cases requires explanation. When the army commanders met in Rome in November of that year they had agreed that their purpose was “to afford the greatest possible support to the Allied winter offensives on the Western and Eastern Fronts by bringing the enemy to battle, thereby compelling him to employ in Italy manpower and resources that might otherwise be available for use on other fronts.” They also agreed that “no attacks will be launched unless the ground and weather conditions are favourable.”
When McCreery returned to his headquarters he announced that 8th Army’s task was to “render all assistance to the 5th Army in the capture of Bologna.…” McCreery had agreed that 8th Army would open the offensive, advancing to the Santerno River and drawing off German reserves before 5th Army renewed its attempts to reach Bologna. By Dec. 11 two things were evident. First, the German high command had responded to 8th Army’s offensive by transferring three divisions from the Bologna front. Second, reaching the Santerno without the assistance of 5th Army was a pipedream. Nevertheless, McCreery ordered the Canadians, together with the Polish Corps, the New Zealand Div., and 10th Indian Div., to maintain pressure while 5th Army prepared an all-out attack using heavy bombers the way they had been employed in Normandy to break through German defences.
Suddenly, sweeping changes in command intervened to create an atmosphere of hesitation at 5th Army. General Harold Alexander was placed in overall charge of the Mediterranean theatre with Gen. Mark Clark taking his place at Army Group. Gen. Lucian Truscott was ordered to return from France to take charge of 5th Army. These events, combined with the uncertainty created when Hitler launched his Ardennes operation—the Battle of the Bulge—led 5th Army to abandon plans for an offensive and prepare to meet a German attack. Why then did 8th Army continue to press forward under such adverse conditions?
The answer is not easy or satisfactory. McCreery knew that the 98th German Inf. Div., supported by companies of Tiger and Panther tanks, had begun to deploy opposite the Canadians while other German units had reinforced the forces opposing 5th British Corps. McCrerry’s original orders to continue to the Senio River were based on the understanding that Clark would unleash 5th Army. If this was now unlikely, continuing the advance could only be justified if the Senio was a better defensive line than the Lamone or the Canale Naviglio. Those on the ground could see little advantage in pressing forward. There was no high ground to capture and the enemy was known to be still reinforcing the sector, adding the heavily armed Kesselring Machine-Gun Battalion to the defences. There were other problems. The Germans had fortified the Naviglio and the towns of Bagnacavollo and Villanova, cutting down the trees that lined the canal to improve their fields of fire. Everything about the situation pointed to another difficult and costly operation. Would McCreery have insisted on continuing the advance if British troops were involved? There were in fact, few British troops left in 8th Army. The 46th Div. had been withdrawn to reorganize before moving to Greece while 56 Div., reduced to two brigades, held a quiet stretch of front.
Lieutenant-General Charles Foulkes, now fully in command of the Canadian Corps, did not question McCreery’s orders. A plan for a simultaneous advance by both his divisions was devised relying on massive amounts of artillery to suppress the enemy while the infantry crossed 700 yards of ground and the 20-foot embankment. The canal itself was dry, though bridging was prepared to assist the armour.
The Carleton and York Regt., followed by the Hasty Ps, made the crossing in 1st Division’s sector while the Lanark and Renfrew Regt. and the Princess Louise Dragoon Guards led 5th Division’s attack. After 10 minutes of heavy concentrations from medium and field artillery, the field guns provided a rolling barrage. As had been so often demonstrated, good infantry, with enough support, could usually take a well-defined, limited objective. The challenge was to consolidate, dig in, and deal with enemy counterattacks with limited anti-tank assets and the inevitable communication breakdowns.
Both bridgeheads came under severe pressure. The Princess Louise Dragoon Guards were “cut into isolated segments by furious counterattacks. Much of a Hasty Ps’ company was surrounded and taken prisoner. The Lanarks were stopped cold. The Carletons held on, but were forced back to the canal. The weather, to no one’s surprise, cancelled air support while enemy artillery observers, occupying two high towers in Bagnacavollo directed accurate fire on the narrow bridgehead.
By midday, Dec. 14, anti-tank guns and Sherman tanks of the British Columbia Dragoons had entered the bridgehead relieving some of the pressure. Late in the day, the Westminster Regt. crossed in the 1st Div. sector and advanced north along the canal, breaking the German ring around 5th Division’s position.
The enemy was gradually forced to concede ground, but fighting for the narrow slice of ground, just two miles wide at its apex, continued for another week. Bagnacavollo, or what was left of it, fell on Dec. 21. The day before, Clark, who clearly knew little about the condition of 8th Army, announced that “the time is rapidly approaching when I shall give the signal for a combined all-out attack by 5th and 8th armies.” Instead, the Germans launched an attack on 5th Army’s weak right flank and all major offensive operations ended.
This still left 8th Army with two “minor” tasks: clearing what was called the Granarola Salient, carried out by 56th British and 1st Canadian divisions, and 5th Armoured Division’s advance to free the area south of the Valli di Comacchio. Both operations were completed by early January and they proved to be the last battles fought by the Canadians in Italy.
The conscription crisis of November 1944 had led to the replacement of Defence Minister J.L. Ralston by General Andrew McNaughton who pressed for reuniting all five divisions of the Canadian army in Northwest Europe. In early February 1945, at the Malta Conference, the decision to transfer up to five divisions, including all the Canadians, was made. Operation Gold Flake, the move from Italy through Marseilles to Belgium, began on Feb.13 and was largely complete a month later.
- Banner photo: Canadian soldiers speak to Italian partisans at Bagnacavallo, January 1945. Credit: Alexander Stirton, Library and Archives Canada.
- Originally published in Legion Magazine on June 6, 2010.