Part 2:  The Battle in Each of its Four Phases

This is the second of three parts of the story of the Royal Canadian Engineers during the Gothic Line Battle. The first part provides the background leading to the battle, while the third describes the role of the Royal Canadian Engineers throughout the fighting and the acts of gallantry recognized with the award of Military Crosses and Military Medals to its officers and men.

Opening Shots

Issuing his orders on 21 August, General Burns, the 1 Canadian Corps Commander and a Sapper, broke the operation into four phases:

Advance to the Gothic Line 26 - 29 August 1944

  1. 1st Canadian Infantry Division to establish bridgeheads over the Metauro
  2. Corps to advance quickly to the Foglia, ten miles distant, at the forward edge of the Gothic Line
  3. Breach the Gothic Line and exploit any and all success
  4. Press on to Rimini

Although the structure of the plan reflected the deliberate nature of Canadian planning at the time, the phases were not rigid. Burns understood what Leese wanted and build flexibility into his plan so he could keep the enemy on the run and keep him running until the battle was won.  Generals Vokes and Hoffmeister, for their parts, both prepared for any number of eventualities once their divisions reached the Gothic Line.

The crossing of the Metauro went as planned and expected. H-Hour had been set for one minute before midnight on the 25th of August went the guns opened up in a crushing thump of fire. Infantry waded across the river, achieved their initial objectives and waited for the tanks to cross at first light. They resumed their advance at 07:30, leaving the tanks and wheeled vehicles behind due to extensive mining and cratering on all routes forward. In the afternoon, they came on rear guard positions and increasing artillery fire. With limited tank support, these were not cleared until well after night fall. Mr. Churchill, having crossed the Metauro that day in the Canadian sector, approached as close as he ever had to the enemy and met with elements of the Royal Canadian Regiment as it moved forward. He telephoned his congratulations to General Burns on the success of the Corps to date.

The rush to the Foglia was slower after that as the enemy had made movement very difficult with thicker minefields, craters and blown bridges and culverts. The Sappers were busy, not just with the actions of the enemy, but the natural challenge presented by poor roads, deep gullies, and hills after hill. It was not until the morning of 29 August that forward battalions were on the hills overlooking the Foglia and the main defences of the Gothic Line.

The Gate Crash

By this time, the Germans were convinced this was the main assault on the Gothic Line and started to bring reinforcements from the 5th US Army’s sector into action against the 8th Army, and specifically the Canadian Corps.  Unfortunately for them, they were not quick enough and Leese pushed his troops more aggressively than he had planned and gate crash the Gothic Line to start Phase III of the operation on 30 August.  Active patrolling and heavy bombardment opened the door for the establishment of bridgeheads over the Foglia allowing infantry to push forward into the hills by the morning of 31 August.

Breaking the Gothic Line 30 Aug - 3 Sep 44

The fighting over the next few days was fierce. The Foglia Valley was almost three kilometres wide, flat and cleared of all obstructing buildings, trees and crops.  It was sown with overlapping panels of mines and crisscrossed with interlocking arcs of fire.  Strong points were mutually supporting and protected by wire heavier and stronger than any the Canadians had confronted previously. Burning haystacks created smoke and haze and also contributed to the German’s night vision plan.  Zigzagging antitank ditches were up to 14 feet wide.  Along with marshy ground, the valley floor was far from suitable for tank movement and the infantry were left largely on their own in the opening actions. It was only after 3 September that the Corps had closed on the Conca marking the end of the beginning. The Gothic Line had been broken. Phase III was complete.

The Rimini Line

Less than twelve miles of foothills now remained between the Canadians, the Lombardy Plain and the Valley of the Po.  The German’s had withdrawn in good order behind Green Line II across the Conca River.  They offered fierce resistance supported by intense artillery fire from the Coriano on the left and a series of strongpoints along a strong line of ridges along the Rimini Line. The order to cross the Conca had been issued on 1 September when it appeared enemy resistance had been crushed.  Remember the reinforcements mentioned earlier.  They were now in position and the German defence was anything but broken.  Phase IV of Operation OLIVE would be the longest and possibly most costly of the operation.

Advance to Rimini 3 - 22 Sep 44

The first Allied objective was the Coriano Ridge launched by the British 1st Armoured Division on the right and elements of the 1st Canadian Infantry Division on the left on 3 September.  The Canadians were driven back and the British assault stopped dead in its tracks. By the end of the first day, only 79 tanks out of the 156 British Shermans deployed were still fit for battle. The battle ended on 5 September. The 8th Army’s progress was blocked and any hope of a weakening German defence and easy victory was extinguished. That night, heavy rain started and the 4-foot wide Marano River became impassable and would remain that way until 14 September.  Bailey bridges on the Metauro washed away, slowing 8th Army re-supply and reinforcements.  On 6 September, Leese called a halt took the time to re-group his troops and ordered Burns to prepare for a deliberate assault of the Marano.

The second attack on Coriano started on the night of 13 September and was carried out by the 5th Canadian Armoured Division while the British assaulted ridges to the west.  Under cover of darkness, assaulting infantry secured small bridgeheads over the Besanigo, a small creek on the approaches to the town.  The sappers prepared crossings under fire, and the tanks were over by first light. The town was cleared by 0900 hours the following morning. Said the Germans, “Enemy armoured formations, particularly Canadian tanks, [are] no longer sensitive to artillery fire, but carry on even under the heaviest fire concentrations”.

On the morning of 14 September, the Canadians launched a drive to establish a bridgehead over the Marano and take the San Lorenzo ridge.  Action along the front continued for days against a tenacious and resourceful enemy.  Fighting up steep hills and taking fire from the flanks, Canadian troops, with New Zealand and Greek formations on the coastal plain, were able to finally seize all of the San Lorenzo Ridge by the morning of 19 September.

In the valley before them ran the Ausa River and beyond was the San Fortunato Ridge – more formidable than either the Coriano or San Lorenzo Ridges before. The Ausa was described as a definite tank obstacle and was held in strength.  Burns allowed no time for rest or regrouping and the Canadians drove onwards as best they could. While there was still action on the San Lorenzo Ridge, Vokes spent much of the 18th clearing the ground before the Ausa and closed on the railway embankment early on the morning of the 19th, but at a high cost – the Germans had considered this to be their most successful day of the campaign. The enemy’s elation was short-lived. The Canadians did not let up on their constant pressure and by the night of the 19th and morning of the 20th, San Fortunato Ridge was cleared.

The loss of  San Fortunato Ridge made it impossible for the Germans to defend Rimini. The next day saw the Greek Brigade enter Rimini and raise both the Greek and Canadian flags over the City Hall. By the 22nd, the Germans had withdrawn all their forces across the Maracchia River north of Rimini. Kesselring wrote in his diary, “I have the terrible feeling that the whole thing is beginning to slide.”  Along the entire line from coast to coast, the fall rains had brought floodwaters and thick mud and the Allied offensive slowed. When the Canadian tanks deployed onto the Romagna Plain, they found the ground had been turned into a quagmire by the seemingly endless rain. While Alexander had hoped to advance beyond the line from Pisa to Rimini, such was not to be. “The plains so long hoped for and so fiercely fought for,” he wrote in a dispatch, “[were] clogging mud and brimming watercourses.”

The battle had cost the 8th Army over 14,000 casualties of which 4,511 were Canadian, one-quarter of which were killed.  By now, the autumn rains had come early that year and the hoped for a lightning strike across the Po Valley quickly became a lost vision.  The Canadian Corps would fight for four more months in Italy.

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Further Reading

McAndrews, Bill, Canadians and the Italian Campaign 1943 – 1945, ISBN 2-920718-63-0

Kerry and McDill, The History of the Corps of Royal Canadian Engineers, Volume II

Nicholson, The Canadians in Italy 1943 – 1945

YouTube:   Greatest Tank Battles - Smashing the Gothic Line