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One More River
Between 9–16 April 1945, men of the 2NZEF fought what was to be one of the last “set piece” battles for the division during WWII. The RSA Review has a look at one aspect of the Battle for the Senio River.
The Senio River on the north-eastern coast of Italy formed one of the barriers of the German Winter line in late 1944. The topography during winter restricts movements of armies to the raised roads above the low-lying pastureland and vineyards. It was against this line that the British 8th Army was poised in spring of 1945.
The plan of attack called for the 2nd Polish Corps, 2NZEF and the 8th Indian Division to launch a simultaneous assault against enemy positions at the Senio, attacking across it and the nearby Santerno River, and establishing bridgeheads on a three divisional frontage. Both rivers flowed between large stopbanks, which were to prove a challenge to the attacking forces. For the New Zealand Division, the attack was to involve all its elements – artillery, infantry, armour, engineers, signals, supply, and medical.
On 8 April over 800 allied aircraft pounded the enemy positions, followed by 600 artillery pieces, laying down a series of creeping barrages. Between the artillery onslaughts allied fighter-bombers strafed and bombed forward enemy trenches.
At 7.20 pm on 9 April 1945, infantrymen of four New Zealand battalions began their assault over a three kilometre front. The enemy infantry also faced a new terror; Wasp and Crocodile flame-throwing armoured fighting vehicles hosed the opposite banks of the river. Using assault boats and bridges, the infantry quickly secured the far bank where the enemy soldiers appeared totally demoralised.
By daybreak the battalions stood on their objective, approximately three kilometres beyond the Senio.
During the night New Zealand engineers had erected several low-level Bailey bridges to allow the supporting armour to cross. One of those involved in the bridging operations was Driver Hugh Harrison. 60 years on he recalls his actions during the attack:
“I was a driver in 2 Platoon of the 1st Ammunition Company. For the past few evenings before 5 April 1945, the sky was criss-crossed with searchlight beams which reflected down and produced what was called artificial moonlight. In this eerie glow we had been taking ammunition to the guns and manhandling it to stockpiles within 1500 yards of the Senio River.
“Our platoon passed to the command of 5th Field Park Company engineers, and was then separated into two parts forming No.1 and No.2 Bridging Trains. I was in No.2 Train with 17 vehicles.
“We were told we would likely come under fire and there would be a man with a first aid kit in each train. I was detailed to be our medical man and if both drivers of a lorry were knocked out, the second driver of the nearest lorry was to take over. If a lorry broke down it would be put on tow at once or its load transferred to an empty vehicle.
“I was also the qualified Driver Mechanic in charge of our section of vehicles, with a personal driver and our lorry was fitted with a winch. We always travelled as the last vehicle in a convoy to be readily available for any emergency.
“On the morning of the attack we were told that three bridges were to be built across the Senio by 5th Field Company this night - Raglan high level and low level [100 feet and 60 feet] and Seymour low level [40 feet]. Our job was to carry in the material for the high level bridge.
“In the middle of the day we were loaded up with our bridging and assembled in an open area on higher ground about a 1.5 miles from the proposed bridge sites.
“Early in the afternoon 400 Fortresses in strict formation and accompanied by many free flying light bombers and fighter planes carried out the biggest bombardment we had ever seen. On the ground our 25-pounders and bigger field guns opened up with their barrage. It was said that this was the biggest artillery show ever seen anywhere in the Mediterranean.
“At 1750 hours our No.2 Train moved out to our assembly point with the engineers. Here it was impossible to see the river but its position was well indicated by the dense smoke, yellow, black and grey that billowed incessantly skywards. The bombardment had been going on for three hours and the noise was deafening. Looking up we could now see the fighter planes diving down making their low-level attacks on the German positions. Our infantry were preparing to advance and at sunset the guns fell silent. Bren carriers (Wasps) and Churchill tanks equipped with flame-throwing apparatus then attacked the enemy stopbank.
“Our section in No.2 Train waited long through the night, nose to tail in a tree bordered lane pointing straight towards the river only 500 yards away. All this time we were in the artificial moonlight and under heavy shell and mortar fire. By 0230, our low-level bridge had been completed and the work on our high level Raglan Bridge had begun. One by one our lorries were called forward as each particular sort of bridging components were required.
“At 0600 the last lorry was unloaded. By noon we had reloaded and were back in our assembly area. After a meal and a short rest, the lorries were serviced and examined for damage or holes resulting from our ordeal.
“We were back at the Senio again that night. By then German prisoners were being escorted back through our lines to their prison compounds away to the rear. After the Senio there were a lot more rivers and streams to cross on the way to Trieste.”
The division’s Advanced Dressing Station processed (9–16 April) 388 casualties of whom 187 were from 6 NZ Brigade, 71 other NZ personnel, 9 British, 76 POW, and 45 Italian civilians.
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