After the capture of Rimini, Italy, on Sept. 21, 1944, 1st Canadian Division was withdrawn into 8th Army reserve to rest, reorganize and retrain while absorbing hundreds of replacements. Since Operation Olive, the battles for the Gothic Line had begun and the division had suffered 2,511 battle casualties, including 626 killed in action. More than 1,000 other men had been evacuated as “sick,” including over 400 evacuated for “battle exhaustion.”
These psychiatric casualties had proved to be a major issue in all of the Allied armies, accounting for 20 to 25 per cent of casualties. The Canadians had long since determined that the large majority of men who broke under stress of battle could not be safely returned to combat units, so Special Employment Companies were created to provide a useful role in the rear areas.
The division’s rest period on the coast near Cattolica included opportunities to swim in the still-warm Adriatic and trips to Riccione or Florence. The leave centre in nearby Riccione was operated by the Salvation Army and was located in the Grand Hotel, “a first-class resort in peacetime.” Reserved for non-commissioned officers and ordinary soldiers, the hotel could accommodate 500 men in rooms with clean sheets and hot water. There were movies, army shows and dance music every night. The food was supplied by the army, but prepared and served by Italian chefs and waiters. Everyone in 1 Canadian Corps was eligible for a 48-hour pass to Riccione where, for a brief period, the war seemed to exist in a parallel universe.
Hitler, however, was determined to defend Italy south of the Po River because the industrial production of northern Italy was needed and “another withdrawal might be too much of a shock for the German people.” Churchill, who had stopped in Rome en route to meet Stalin in Moscow, was determined to press forward in Italy and mount an amphibious assault across the Adriatic. Resources for such an adventure could only come from the Americans, but President Roosevelt refused to consider new initiatives in the Mediterranean. He told Churchill that “overshadowing all other military problems is the need for quick provision of fresh troops to reinforce Eisenhower in his battle to break into Germany and end the European War.” Neither Churchill nor General Harold Alexander accepted this view and plans for a continued advance in Italy as well as a quick strike across the Adriatic were developed. Alexander ordered 8th Army to continue operations to seize Ravenna while 5th Army withdrew divisions into reserve until the weather improved and a new offensive could be mounted.
All of this meant that 1st Canadian Division’s rest period came to an abrupt end as the new commander of 8th Army, Sir Richard McCreery, ordered the Canadians to relieve a British division taking over the advance to Cesena, using the Via Emilia, the main road between Ravenna and Bologna as their centre line. The New Zealand Div. was to advance to the Savio River on 1st Division’s right flank while 5th British Corps worked forward in the foothills of the Apennine Mountains.
General E.L.M. “Tommy” Burns met with his divisional commanders to explain McCreery’s plan. In his memoirs, titled General Mud, Burns recalled their reaction: “All divisional commanders pointed out the very bad going, and expressed the opinion that we might be drifting into carrying on an offensive in similar conditions to those of last autumn and winter where hard fighting and numerous casualties resulted in no great gain.”
Burns, who notoriously lacked any human touch in his relations with subordinates, won no friends when he replied curtly that “other troops in Italy and Northwest Europe were fighting under similar conditions and 1 Canadian Corps would have to do its share.” Despite this, Burns carried their protest to McCreery who reluctantly changed the plan to emphasize 5th British Corp’s advance in the foothills with the Canadian Corps providing support.
The protests of the divisional commanders reflected a crisis in morale that was affecting front line troops in both 5th and 8th Armies. The Canadians, short of trained reinforcements, were particularly bitter about the Zombies, those conscripted but for service in Canada only. Farley Mowat, in his postwar history of the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment, described “the growing disillusionment with all authority…beyond the regiment,” quoting the sardonic verses troops sang as they marched back into battle:
Six and twenty panther tanks
are waiting on the shore,
But Corps intelligence has sworn
there’s only four.
We must believe there are no more,
Comes from Corps.
So onward to Bologna—
drive onward to the Po!
Another, more famous line, “We are the D-Day dodgers—in sunny Italy” was sung with particular emphasis in the cold October rain.
Despite their doubts about another winter campaign, the Hasty Ps went about their task with consummate skill. The British 56th Div. had won a shallow bridgehead across the Fiumicino and occupied the village of Savignano before handing over to 1st Canadian Brigade. The Hasty Ps, with a squadron of Strathconas, carved a deep salient into the German lines well beyond the New Zealand Div. that had been held up by stronger resistance. With artillery and air support the Hastings and Strathconas, who had never worked together before, in “a spontaneous demonstration of genuine, wholehearted co-operation between infantry and tanks” attacked out of the salient into the flank of the 90th Panzer Grenadier Div. which was blocking the New Zealand advance. The 48th Highlanders joined in and the Germans began to withdraw towards the town of Cesena and the Savio.
The Loyal Edmonton Regt., now commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel J.R. “Big Jim” Stone, was the first to reach the enemy rearguards at the Pisciatello River. Stone had served in every appointment in the regiment from private to regimental sergeant major and was admired in the battalion for his courage and concern for every soldier under his command. Stone carried out his own reconnaissance and decided on a silent night crossing. The squadron commander from one of the regiment’s familiar partners, the 12th Royal Tanks, found a crossing and together they forced an enemy withdrawal to the Savio.
The Royal 22nd Regt. led 3rd Brigade’s advance to Cesena. Lt.-Col. J.C. Allard commanded a battle group that included two troops of tanks, a platoon of heavy mortars, plus a troop of self-propelled anti-tank guns. The Carleton and York Regt. passed through and reached the town centre late on Oct. 19. It was, as usual, raining and the Savio was threatening “to lose its banks.” The best news was that 10th Indian Div. was across the river a few miles to the west and 4th British Div., was to cross the next morning.
Urban expansion had blurred the outlines of the old town and with a population of 100,000 spread out beyond the river, the main visible landmark left is the town fortress on a craggy extension of an Apennine ridge. Below the castle, winding streets—lined with houses—show no signs of the battle that raged here in 1944. North of the town the Savio widens near the village of Martorano where the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry was the first Canadian battalion to try and cross.
The Canadian official history of the Italian Campaign describes the Savio as “a strong natural military barrier, at all times a tank obstacle, and when in flood, virtually impassable to infantry,” so it is not unreasonable to wonder what prompted the order to send the PPCLI across a rapidly rising river before the results of 4th Division’s crossing were known. The Canadians were supposed to be supporting 5th Corps, not the other way around, and the Savio was a much less formidable river in 4th Division’s sector. To make matters worse, the PPCLI was to cross on its own—there was no prospect of tanks joining since the river lay in a muddy trough 15 feet below the dikes lining the bank.
When Lt.-Col. R.P. Clark called his orders group on the afternoon of Oct. 20, British battalions were across the river 500 yards south of Cesena. Despite this there was no change in the Canadian brigade’s orders and two PPCLI companies began to cross while the early evening light still held. Sydney Frost’s memoir, Once a Patricia, describes the scene: “The whole front erupts in one tremendous roar. Shells scream over our heads. Mortars fill the air with deadly missiles.… Tons of steel land on the far side of the river and explode in sheets of flame and clouds of dust and smoke. Able and Dog companies rise from their positions as one man…and surge forward to the riverbank. The barrage lifts 100 yards. The Germans stream out of their dugouts and run to their weapon pits. Smoke…gives our troops little cover…our men start to fall. German tanks are seen closing up the river.”
The Patricia’s Dog Company went to ground before reaching the river, a small group—17 men of Able Co.—got to the far side and clung to positions along the bank.
Brigadier Pat Bogert decided to commit both the Seaforths and Edmontons to the battle, using the darkness to get the lead companies across. The Savio was still rising as the advance began and the surface was black with an oily mixture that saturated the uniforms of the men wading across the river. The Loyal Eddies reached a cluster of houses beyond the Savio and held them against enemy infantry and armour. The Seaforths gained an equally small bridgehead, employing their tank-hunting platoon equipped with Projector, Infantry, Anti-Tank guns (PIATs) and Tommy guns to counter the threat by “a German force consisting of four Panther tanks, two self-propelled guns and 30 infantrymen.”
Sergeant K.P. Thompson positioned the tank-killers to trap and destroy the German armour. Placing a string of anti-tank mines across the road, he put the PIAT teams in ambush position. The lead enemy vehicle, a self-propelled gun, hit a mine, breaking its track. It came to a halt and was quickly destroyed. Private Ernest “Smokey” Smith dealt with the next arrival, a Panther, by stopping it with a single shot at a range of 30 yards. Smith then held his position against German panzer grenadiers and rescued his team partner who had been wounded in the encounter. Smith earned the Victoria Cross for his “dogged determination, outstanding devotion to duty, and superb gallantry.” Major Stewart Lynch, the company commander who recommended the award, noted that “it was a section commander’s battle…and each did his job more than admirably. Some were luckier than others, some results more spectacular, but I can assure you when it came to the question of awards it was a very difficult decision to favour one over the other.”
The next morning the bridgehead was far from secure. The river, running as deep as 16 feet, was in full flood and the engineers could not construct a bridge on the water-softened banks. As the rain eased, slings and rafts were used to transport basic supplies, including rum and PIAT bombs. The saturated ground was also causing problems for the enemy who complained that their counterattacks were foiled because “our tanks bogged down.”
On the night of Oct. 22, D Co. of the Patricia’s was ordered to cross the river at a point where engineers believed a bridge could be built. Before the advance could begin, the rain returned and when the lead Patricia’s bumped into a German patrol, all surprise was lost and a chaotic battle developed. The West Nova Scotia Regt., temporarily under 2nd Brigade’s command, did manage to get two companies across and one company was able to establish itself in a farmhouse 300 yards beyond the river. Major J.K. Rhode, who was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his actions, held off counterattacks with the assistance of a Forward Observation Officer and his PIAT team. The next morning enemy fire destroyed the farmhouse and Rhodes had to direct the battle from a shell hole. A troop of self-propelled guns from 1st Anti-Tank Regt., Royal Canadian Artillery, knocked out a particularly aggressive German assault gun but the engineers reported that the rain had softened the river banks, ending all attempts to bridge the river. Rhodes and his men withdrew under a smokescreen, leaving the Edmontons and Seaforths clinging to their precarious positions.
The 5th Cdn. Armoured Div. had relieved the New Zealanders at the Savio and corps Commander “Tommy” Burns outlined a plan for a new attack. Burns did not know, or did not appreciate, the significance of 4th British Division’s success west of Cesena where tanks were across the river. When he explained his intentions to the army commander, Burns was told to cancel further offensive operations. That night Canadian patrols reported a German withdrawal.
The fight for the Savio cost 2nd Bde., including the West Novas, 191 casualties, 33 of them fatal. Both the Royal 22nd Regt. and the Carleton and York Regt. also suffered losses in an operation everyone at the time saw as a disaster.
- Banner photo: German prisoners and Canadian soldiers carry wounded in Cesena, Italy, October 1944. Credit: Library and Archives Canada.
- Originally published in Legion Magazine on February 7, 2010.