This is the third of three parts of the story of the Royal Canadian Engineers during the Gothic Line Battle. The previous two parts provide the background leading up to the battle and each of its phases.
- Part 1: The Background of the Gothic Line Battle
- Part 2: The Battle in Each of its Four Phases
- Part 3: The Role of the RCE in The Gothic Line Battle
- Part 4: The Cost - Tributes to Fallen Sappers
An Engineer's War
The Italian Campaign was very much an Engineer’s war and the sappers were involved in every step. There were more than 4000 sapper and supporting troops in the 1st Cdn Corps – two Field Squadrons, six Field Companies, two Field Park Companies and several bridging, heavy equipment and transport units. Of these, five squadrons and companies moved ahead of or with the infantry in direct support roles whenever there was action. When the infantry was out of action, the sappers continued their work without rest to ensure forward troops were resupplied, reinforced and protected.
The sappers were kept busy both before and during the battle. After having supported the transfer of an entire Corps (over 200 kilometres from Perugia across the Apennine Mountains to a staging area near Ancona. Over 11,000 vehicles including 650 tanks were moved halfway across Italy. 5th Armoured Division Engineers built a new road that is still in use today. From there, they spent the first five days before the attack preparing routes and clearing mines on the way up to the Metauro River marking the start line for the Gothic Line assault. Active German patrolling in the area more than once replaced mines the Canadians had removed. On the night of the attack, Sappers prepared tracked and wheeled crossings over the Metauro. Tanks were kept well back out of enemy earshot, while for the first time the RCE used Sherman Dozers to open two crossings.
A 40-foot Bailey bridge was built as well as a ford. Lieutenant Reginald Wild of the 4th Field Company carried out a reconnaissance and led the bridge build. The site was difficult, under fire and observation, but he was able to move men and equipment safely to the site and complete the build before dawn. He was awarded a Military Cross for his courage. A dozer tank hit a mine later that morning at the Bailey site, but the crossing was opened in time to allow Winston Churchill to cross over that afternoon. Later in the day, another 80-foot Bailey bridge was built.
The Corps advanced quickly to the Foglia, but not without considerable Engineer support. The German engineers had done their best in the delay. Sapper tasks were as expected with mines and craters almost everywhere one looked. Batteries leapfrogged to keep up with the foot-borne infantry and Sappers cut separate tracks for tanks running along-side rough dirt trails carrying most of the Corps’ traffic. Kesselring remained uncertain this was the main attack and demanded a prisoner be taken. He knew that if Canadians were involved, this was indeed the main thrust.
Once across the Metauro, initial attacks on the outward defences of the Gothic Line met with mixed success. The Germans were indeed taken by surprise but their resistance was at times brutal. Heavy bombing started that day and continued until late the next morning. Engineer reconnaissance patrols started crossing the Foglia later that night finding suitable crossing places. Sappers worked through the night of the 30th gapping minefields and suffering significant casualties from shelling and enemy fire. In one case, Sapper Bill Weind, of the 4th Field Company, found himself 600 yards in front of the infantry lines. The rest of the gapping party was withdrawn when the shelling was most heavy, but Weind stayed behind tending to the wounded, infantry and Sappers, dressing their wounds. He later re-joined the gapping party allowing the infantry to capture the village of Borgo and force a crossing of the Foglia. For this he was awarded the Military Medal.
By the night of 31 August, four brigades of the Corps were over and moving forward. Two days later, Canadian units were across the Conca, while back at the Foglia, Corps engineers continued route construction and repair, as well as bridging tasks. Rain, sometimes heavy, began on 3 September and continued for four days, making all these tasks that much more difficult to complete. There were washouts on the Foglia and a number of tracks became impassable. The weather began to clear on the 12th, and the Corps pressed onwards.
On the night 10/11 September, the 10th Field Squadron, supporting the 11th Infantry Brigade, completed their reconnaissance of the approaches to what the 5th Canadian Armoured Division Engineers adjutant called an ‘embarrassing ridge on our left flank’ in reference to the first battle of Coriano 3 – 5 September. The second Battle of Coriano began on the night of 12 September when the 11th Infantry Brigade attacked with the tanks of the New Brunswick Hussars and Lord Strathcona's Horse. Over 500 tons of bombs had been dropped over 700 missions on the ridge. Again, the fighting was fierce but by 14 September, Coriano Ridge was in Canadian hands. Lt Doug Graham and Sgt Dennis McLaughlin, both of the 10th Field Squadron and using Sherman Dozers to build crossings across the Besanigo, had won a Military Cross and a Military Medal respectively.
While the 5th Division was fighting at Coriano, the 1st Division was pushing hard across the Marano River to the east to seize the San Lorenzo Ridge. The approach routes were sown with mines and the routes were badly destroyed. Diversions were built around demolished bridges and a Churchill Arc bridge was allowing armour to cross supporting the infantry on their hard climb up the San Lorenzo Ridge
Beyond the Coriano Ridge lay the key positions of San Fortunato and the town of Rimini.
Over the course of the month-long battle, officers and men of the Royal Canadian Engineers fought with tenacity and bravery under trying conditions. A few were singled out for acts of gallantry that attracted the attention of senior officers: