Heavy casualties as assault on Gothic Line begins

Panoramic views of the beginning of the Gothic Line, where the mountains rise up from the Umbertide - Citta Di Castello plain.

Panoramic views of the beginning of the Gothic Line, where the mountains rise up from the Umbertide – Citta Di Castello plain.

Sherman tanks of 1st Canadian Armoured Division advancing towards the Gothic Line, 26 August 1944.

Sherman tanks of 1st Canadian Armoured Division [probably Brigade - see comments below] advancing towards the Gothic Line, 26 August 1944.

Sherman tanks supporting infantry of 2/5th Leicestershire Regiment, 46th Division, near Coldazzo on the Gothic Line, 30 August 1944

Sherman tanks supporting infantry of 2/5th Leicestershire Regiment, 46th Division, near Coldazzo on the Gothic Line, 30 August 1944

In Italy the Allies had made good progress since taking Rome on the 5th June, although substantial numbers of US troops had been diverted away for the attack on the south of France.

Now the British 8th Army and U.S. 5th Army found themselves confronting another German prepared defence line – the Gothic Line. Slave labourers had been brought in to build an extended series of strong points, casemates and machine gun nests dominating the high ground right across the Apennine mountains, spanning the breadth of Italy.

The attacks on the Gothic Line had begun on the 25th but it was not until the 30th that some units found themselves facing the main line of defence. Attacks were made across a broad front in the hope that it might be possible to “burst through”. For Major Alan Hay leading a company of the 16th Durham Light Infantry, this found them facing a very difficult objective south of Rimini – secured German defensive positions on a ridge above them:

The CO came forward and he said, “I want you to take those buildings.” Which happened to be a place called Mondaino which was in the distance, about a mile and a half.

I said, “Well what is the plan, where are the tanks, what about the artillery fire?” He said, “Oh, they’ll be coming.” I said, “Well, we’ll wait till we get some support!”

Then he went away. We advanced a bit further and we took some prisoners. We were then waiting for support, this was just after mid-day and I got a message from the CO, that we were to advance immediately. I said, “Well what about the support, I can’t see any support.” He said, “That’ll be coming.”

So we waited a while, nothing came. Then he ordered me, he said, “The General said you must advance immediately!” I thought it was absolutely stupid, broad daylight! We were in a bowl.

When we were looking at this target the Colonel said, “Our friends the Leicesters are there.” I said, “Colonel — they’re Germans — look!” He said, “No, they’re our friends the Leicesters!” This was his first mistake. The Leicesters on our left had not taken their objective and they were still heavily engaged plus one of our companies.

The Hampshires on the right had taken their objective, our C Company was too far away to give us any support and I wasn’t in charge of them. So we all had to do this, I was threatened, I assumed I’d get court marshalled if I didn’t. But this was entirely unknown to me — a commander threatening…

I said, “Well this is suicide!” He said, “The General said you must or you will be in trouble!”

So we advanced over this open country. There were one or two vines to shield us a bit. We hadn’t got very far. There was road just underneath Mondaino, not much of a road. They were going forward to these lower buildings on Mondaino and they were immediately under machine gun fire coming from the left. [Lieutenant] Tim Marshall got quite a few of his platoon across the road to the first buildings. [Lieutenant] Hood got to the buildings on the right. I was following up.

When I saw Marshall’s platoon in trouble I took my third platoon to support them. But the casualties were alarming. The Gothic Line had been prepared specially for this. They had their lines of fire, they had machines set and it was just chaos.

I got forward, I said, “Where’s Mr Marshall?” They said he’s down here. By the time I got to him he’d been killed. I said, “Get out to the right to the other buildings.” I got quite a few of them out. We rested up, counted the cost, tended the casualties.

We’d lost almost a platoon. I looked at the situation, still no support, no sign of tanks. My wireless set had been knocked out by that stage and I was almost glad not to have a word with the Colonel.

We re-assembled and I got Hood to go round to the right behind these buildings and we were going to attack them from the side. By that time we were only one good platoon which was the one I’d taken over.

Just then two aircraft from the Desert Air Force came in quick succession and each dropped a bomb on what we were going for — which was super!

We were in the first buildings where the first bomb had hit. Of course there were still Germans in there, wounded, that we hadn’t time to look at. But this bomb had really done quite a lot of damage.

At that time we had to count the cost. I had lost one platoon officer, I didn’t know I’d lost the other one. I got the chaps in some sort of defensive positions. Getting behind these brick walls in the ruins, just to protect ourselves from this machine gun fire. There was certainly more than one machine gun. But they had us in their sights.

We were near enough to the Germans for them to be shouting at us to give up, surrender. We were very low at that time, we had chaps who’d been wounded and couldn’t be attended to, the stretcher bearers were doing what they could.

The Sergeant Major was extremely good, he was rallying them, taking command of the spare ones. I said to him, “I must go round to the right where I sent Hood’s platoon to see how they are doing.” I found Hood had been killed and I am quite sure a lot of the casualties were caused by this bomb.

We were on the objective, this was the main attack, we weren’t here alone. Generals, all sorts of people, must have seen what we were doing. You think you are alone but all sorts of people are there watching the battle as it proceeds. This astonished me that we were allowed to go on without support. I said, “Well, we’ll just wait, they’ll obviously wait until night time to reinforce us.” I went round the men and eventually the count of the men was 27, [out of] about 90 [who] went in.

Assuming that, as usual, the Germans would soon make a counterattack to regain the position Major Hay mounted a pre-emptive attack on the German lines. He was wounded in the head leading that attack. However by the end of the 31st August the Division was “firmly established on the Gridolfo Ridge”. See Peter Hart: The Heat of Battle: The 16th Battalion Durham Light Infantry, 1943-45

Troops from the 2nd Hampshire Regiment move up to their last objective before the Gothic Line, 27 August 1944.

Troops from the 2nd Hampshire Regiment move up to their last objective before the Gothic Line, 27 August 1944.

An M10 tank destroyer of 93rd Anti-Tank Regiment passes infantry of the 5th Sherwood Foresters during the advance to the Gothic Line, 27-28 August 1944.

An M10 tank destroyer of 93rd Anti-Tank Regiment passes infantry of the 5th Sherwood Foresters during the advance to the Gothic Line, 27-28 August 1944.

General Sir Harold Alexander (right), with Lt General Leese and Lt General Harding, inspect one of the German Panther tank turrets which formed part of the Gothic Line defences, September 1944.

General Sir Harold Alexander (right), with Lt General Leese and Lt General Harding, inspect one of the German Panther tank turrets which formed part of the Gothic Line defences, September 1944.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Editor August 31, 2014 at 8:06 pm

John

Many thanks for the extra detail, the captions to the images are the original ones from the War Office of the time.

Martin

John Selkirk August 31, 2014 at 3:20 pm

Although Canada had two armoured divisions in WWII they were titled 4th and 5th Armoured Divisions, following in numerical sequence the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Infantry Divisions. All five divisions served in Europe. A further three infantry divisions were raised for home defence and units from these also served in the Aleutian campaign with US forces as well as providing at least one imperial garrison in the Caribbean (Jamaica).
If that is a Canadian tank in the photo it would have been part of either the 1st Armoured Brigade, an independent armoured brigade that served in Italy throughout the Canadian presence there (often supporting British formations), or from the 5th Armoured Division which arrived in Italy in Nov ’43.

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