Operation Olive, 8th Army’s offensive of September 1944, had been promoted as the “last lap” in a long and bloody battle to break the enemy’s Gothic Line defence. “Breaking the Gothic Line,” General Oliver Leese declared, promised to be “the beginning of the end of the German armies in Italy.” The operation itself was expected to take one or two weeks.
Unfortunately, the mountain ridges stretching down from the Apennines to the narrow coastal plain provided the Germans with a series of natural fall-back positions. The Gothic Line turned out to be a superb, in-depth defensive zone protected by artillery and mortar positions located on the reverse slopes of the ridges.
Long after the battle, war veterans would disagree over whether the worst fighting occurred at the Foglia River or in the towns Coriano or San Martino. However, everyone who survived remembered the anxiety that was felt on the morning of Sept. 19 when the last German rearguards withdrew across the Ausa River to dig in on San Fortunato Ridge, southwest of the city of Rimini on the Adriatic coast.
From the perspective of senior Allied commanders, the ridge and so-called Rimini Line were the last obstacles before the open Romagna plain and the Po River Valley further north. To the soldiers of 4th British and 1st Canadian Infantry divisions, with their half-strength battalions worn down to the point of exhaustion, the river and the ridge seemed proof that the nightmare would never end.
Today, the A14 Autostrada and the Rimini-San Marino highway have greatly altered the landscape. However, approaching the river and then the ridge from the south—from Coriano and San Martino—gives visitors today a better view of what was once a formidable enemy position. Much of the ridge was too steep for tanks to traverse, and attacking it with soldiers who had just experienced the bloody struggle for San Martino seemed like a dubious decision. Fortunately, the German army’s 76 Corps was in even worse shape and this may have been the key factor in the battle.
On paper, German General Traugott Herr had eight battalions from 1st Parachute, 29 Panzer Grenadier and 162 (Turcoman) divisions, but the fighting strength of these forces was less than 2,000 men. The defenders would try to rely on firepower, especially the artillery. It had withdrawn behind the next river, but was still within range.
German morale, meanwhile, had not collapsed, but on the night of Sept. 18, the Allies began employing searchlights—out of range of the artillery—to illuminate the battle area. The war diary of Germany’s 76 Corps reported that this technique produced a “psychological effect” on their troops who had previously used hours of darkness for free movement as well as relief and supply operations. It concluded that the challenge of the “battle of materiel is itself heightened by the feeling of helplessness against this new technical weapon.”
The operational research section that had suggested using searchlights was also trying to persuade 8th Army that there were ways of using artillery to demoralize rather than neutralize the enemy. The section obtained permission to employ a battery of 25-pounder field guns against an identifiable sector in a defended area. This involved firing individual guns according to a random time schedule. For example, two shells from each gun would be fired in quick succession followed by a lull and then a different firing pattern. The section’s scientists believed that the uncertainty created by this technique would immobilize the enemy and prey upon its nerves. When the sector was assaulted by ground forces there was virtually no resistance. However, for the generals who constantly planned for breakthroughs, such methods were too slow and uncertain, but the Royal Artillery did agree that trial results for random shooting were impressive.
No commander was willing to consider a pause before attacking San Fortunato Ridge, and on the night of Sept. 17-18, 4th British Div., still part of 1st Cdn. Corps, seized bridgeheads across the Ausa River. During the next morning British and Canadians launched attacks towards the ridge. In the Canadian sector, Major-General Chris Vokes ordered a two-brigade attack to begin at 4:30 a.m. The artillery of the New Zealand Div. and 5th Armoured joined in a “heavy bombardment” that kept the enemy in shelters until it lifted.
Kittyhawk fighter bombers of the Desert Air Force joined in at first light. The air plan called for bombing and strafing on the ridge’s forward slope. This was to last until the infantry arrived. At that point, the pilots would switch to aerial attacks on the ridge’s reverse slope. This turned out to be a very difficult task because the ridge was barely discernable from the air on account of the vast clouds of dust caused by the morning’s artillery bombardment. In fact, leading troops on the ground reported a number of “friendly fire” incidents.
The Carleton and York Regiment managed to reach the Ausa River but “the area could not be cleared without 75 per cent casualties” because most of its supporting armour had been knocked out. The Carletons decided to dig in and wait until dark. Meanwhile, the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry reported a similar situation. By 10 a.m. “the known strength of the two lead companies was 60 and they were still being engaged by enemy anti-tank guns and medium machine-guns from behind the Ausa. No tanks remained of the force with the forward companies.”
The British infantry had also gone to ground in the face of relentless and well-aimed fire, and by midday both the division and corps had recognized that any further advance would have to wait for darkness.
Colonel Syd Frost, then a lieutenant recovering from malaria which had hospitalized him in England, arrived to find his beloved Patricias dug in under intense shellfire. The regiment had secured a crossing of the Ausa, but further movement was impossible. That evening he reached the platoon he was to command by “stumbling over Patricia slit trenches…dug into the railway embankment and craters from large enemy shells.” He expected to see fallen soldiers, but noted the padre had done his work quickly and well.
Continuing along the track, Frost noticed that San Fortunato Ridge rose abruptly. “The whole feature (was) aglow with tracers, bursting shells, Verey lights (a type of flare) and parachute flares.” The ridge seemed impenetrable to Frost who arrived at the front without a rifle or a Tommy Gun. He was warned at the time not to use a discarded German weapon because the distinct sound would draw immediate fire from his own soldiers.
The corps commander, Lieutenant-General E.L.M. “Tommy” Burns organized a new attack with 10th British Bde. (4th Div.) and 3rd Cdn. Bde., reinforced by the Hastings and Prince Edward Regt. which took the lead. Tank squadrons from the 51st and 48th Royal Tank Regt. were allocated and the night advance began.
Searchlights bounced low-level illumination off the clouds, creating “artificial moonlight” which the Carletons pronounced to be “excellently useful” as they fought their way forward to the Ausa River. The engineers moved in behind the infantry with a bulldozer and an Ark—a turretless Churchill tank with attached bridging spans. The Ark was driven into the riverbed and the resulting bridge was strong enough to hold the weight of a heavy Churchill tank.
The West Nova Scotia Regt., with C Squadron of the 48th Royal Tanks Regt., passed through at 5 a.m. but it was full daylight when a creeping barrage lifted to the top of the ridge. In the dust and smoke the lead platoons of the West Novas saw small groups of enemy emerge from shelters and dive into their slit trenches. “Only a few steps—a matter of seconds—lay between the attacking infantry and success, but the interval was fatal.” The West Nova Scotia Regt. was pinned down and unable to move. The Hastings and Prince Edward Regt., attacking to the right, suffered a similar fate as anti-tank guns knocked out the armour while the enemy infantry made good use of the higher ground to block any advance with direct fire. It was time for a new plan.
Vokes and his brigade commanders decided to commit their last reserves to the battle. Third Brigade’s task would be to outflank the main defences on the left while 2nd. Bde. would launch a daring night infiltration designed to penetrate the German position on a narrow front where it would advance across the ridge to San Lorenzo situated well behind enemy lines.
Brigadier J.P.E. Bernatchez ordered his reserve battalion, the Royal 22nd Regt., to attempt the left hook but he told them to wait for darkness. This gave time for careful preparation. The regiment’s Major Henri Tellier described the scene to the divisional historical officer a few weeks after the battle. He had been able to show every man the objective—the hamlet of Villa Belvedere—as well as the route each platoon would take. It was also possible to observe and thus avoid the enemy’s defensive fire tasks. The Van Doos asked the British armour to stay put and fire on the objective “until they saw a white Verey Light.” At that point they were to target the area immediately behind the Villa Belvedere. Tellier recalled telling his men “speed, speed, get through his DF (defensive fire), get close to him. Run until you are exhausted.”
The race began just before last light, and the objective was almost a mile away, “mostly up.” They ran, stopping every 300 or 400 yards to draw breath. “We went up so fast that we kept ahead of the enemy fire which chased us all the way up…the last 250 yards or so every man was firing on the run and yelling like mad,” recounted the company commander of the Royal 22nd Regt. The Vandoos had read the ground and the situation, and by ignoring doctrine they had improvised a swift and sure attack.
The Loyal Edmonton Regt., meanwhile, had been brought forward to lend help to 2nd Brigade’s attack. Lt.-Col. H.P. Bell-Irving selected D Co. for the first bound up to a group of ruined houses—codenamed Bovey—1,200 yards from the start line. If 80 men could establish a firm base, B Co. could pass through to an objective codenamed Moire. Shortly before midnight, D Co. climbed the slope and “went into the blue” as wireless contact was lost and no runners made it back to report. B Co. was sent forward making contact with Maj. F.H. McDougall who with a single platoon had secured the intermediate objective. G.R. Stevens, the historian of the Loyal Edmonton Regt. described what happened next. “Soon after arrival at Bovey, a Mark VI Tiger (tank) passed through B Company’s position. It had a tail of infantry behind it. The Edmontons laid low…then pounced upon its escort, killing, wounding or capturing the entire party. The German tank came lumbering back. Sergeant H.O.W. Powell laid a bracelet of 75-mm grenades in its path which blew off a track. Its crew, however, continued full of fight, searching for its assailants in the darkness with its main armament. Powell, manning a PIAT (Projector Infantry Anti-Tank) gun scored a hit which glanced off. Closing to a range of 15 feet, he put paid to the panzer with a second bomb.”
Bell-Irving decided to keep B Co. at Bovey and ordered C Co. to press on to the battalion objective. After some tense moments and an intense fire fight with a column of German infantry, Captain J. A. Dougan and his men reached San Lorenzo, dug in and called down artillery to break up a counterattack. Shortly after dawn, tanks and anti-tank guns arrived to firm up the position.
The Seaforths followed the Loyal Eddies through the infiltration gap, but the lead company commanded by Maj. E.D. “Davey” Fulton, a future justice minister, alerted the enemy. Remembering his orders and military training with its insistence on “maintenance of the objective,” Fulton moved his company to the north before turning east to seize the ruins of the village of Covignano. The second company of the Seaforth Highlanders ran into more determined opposition “but by a judicious use of artillery fire as well as its platoon weapons” it reached the objective, Le Grazie, overlooking Rimini before dawn. Lt.-Col. S.W. Thomson, the Seaforth’s commanding officer, re-directed his third company to a road junction south of Le Grazie where Major H.L. Glendinning used textbook battle drill tactics to clear and hold the area until the tanks arrived to force a final German withdrawal.
The torch now passed to the Patricias who were to pass through the Eddies and sieze a crossing of the Marecchia River northwest of Rimini. The autumn rains that the Germans had been praying for finally began on the night of Sept.19-20 and so the “ground was very sloppy.” The lead Patricia companies were held up by German rearguards, including tanks and self-propelled guns. Despite severe difficulties with communications, Lt.-Col. R.P. Clark, using radio relay stations, was able to maintain control, ordering the reserve companies to bypass the firefight and gain the river crossing while the lead Patricia company, working with B Sqdn. of the 48th Royal Tanks, figured out how to deal with the panzers.
The German version of the collapse of the Rimini Line blamed “the Turcoman battalions” which 29 Panzer Grenadier Div. had placed in the front line. This fits with the general reluctance of German generals to admit that their soldiers ever lost a battle due to superior Allied tactics and leadership, as was clearly the case at San Fortunato. The Royal 22nd Regt., the Loyal Edmonton Regt. and the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada had skillfully exploited the gains made by their sister battalions and improvised one of the most brilliantly executed tactical victories of the Italian Campaign.
The German high command briefly considered holding Rimini “so that the paratroopers might do their house-to-house fighting,” but the determination of the Greek Mountain Bde., which was clearing the southern part of the city, coupled with the aggressive advance of the 48th Highlanders of Canada who crossed the Marecchia River north of the city, persuaded the remaining paratroopers to live to fight another day.
Leese sent a congratulatory message to Burns and the Canadian Corps, describing the fighting as “the bitterest since El Alamein and Cassino.” But this victory was not enough and so Leese insisted that “we must now hit hard day and night and force them back over the Po (River),” a task assigned to 5th Cdn. Armd. Div. and the New Zealanders.
- Banner photo: General Sir Oliver Leese thanks troops for their success in Italy. Credit: Library and Archives Canada.
- Originally published in Legion Magazine on August 18, 2009.