Excerpt From The River Battles: Canada’s Final Campaign in World War II ItalyAll rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced in any form without permission of the author.
Lieutenant syD frost and his seventeen survivors from ‘D’ Company’s No. 18 Platoon were out in the blue. Not only were they on point for the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, but they were literally at the very tip of the Canadian advance across the Marecchia River. Gaining the river’s north bank was considered the first step by I Canadian Corps into the broad, fertile plains of the Emilia–Romagna region. It was about 0730 hours on September 22, 1944, and the tall twenty-two-year-old platoon leader thought it likely this foray beyond the Marecchia was going to end with them all dead. In the past few minutes, the white-stoned, two-storey farm building in which Frost had established his platoon headquarters the evening before had been struck repeatedly by 88-millimetre shells. Chunks of stone, wood, and plaster flew about the large downstairs room where his headquarters section and one section of men hunkered. The other two platoon sections were out in the farmyard, dug into slit trenches that Frost hoped were carved deep. A lance corporal whom Frost had posted upstairs as an observer crashed down the stairs, head smeared with blood. “Christ, those were big ones,” he shouted. “The front room is a shambles.”
More shells pounded the building, while five-pound explosive rounds from probably an entire battery of six-barrelled Nebelwerfer rocket launchers pounded the yard with so many explosions that Frost could see no sign of his men through the thickening smoke. Deciding there was nothing he could do for those outside, Frost turned his attention to the wounded lance corporal. Although a large gash on the man’s forehead bled fiercely, Frost saw that the wound was superficial. A bandage stemmed the bleeding. Once the shock of the wound passed, the man should be able to continue functioning.
Frost wished he knew these men better. But he had only returned to the regiment on the 19th and had immediately taken them into battle. On October 26 the year before, while leading a patrol along a road in southern Italy, he had had most of his jaw torn off by a bullet. The wound was so grievious that Frost had not expected to survive. Long months of highly experimental facial reconstruction surgery at a hospital in England had followed. What had been a ruined face was slowly reassembled to near normalcy, with just a little paralysis in the right cheek. Frost had eventually been declared fit to return to the regiment in Italy.
He arrived just as the bloodiest battle the Canadians fought in Italy was ending. Since August 25, 1944, I Canadian Corps had been slugging its way up the Adriatic coast through the last major German defences in Italy—the vaunted Gothic Line. More than 4,500 casualties were suffered in an advance from just south of Pesaro to the Marecchia River—a little north of Rimini. The Patricias had been in the thick of the last fighting on San Fortunato Ridge, west of Rimini, when Frost arrived.
Counting himself and the men of No. 18 Platoon, ‘D’ Company now numbered only about 60 soldiers. It should have numbered about 130. Its commander, Captain Sam Potts, was the only other officer. San Fortunato Ridge crowded up close to the south bank of the Marecchia, and Potts had led the company down its flank under cover of darkness on the night of September 21–22. After the intense heat and dust that had prevailed during the Gothic Line Battle, that night brought a cool rain, and the clay underfoot turned slimy. Only a little water ran down a series of shallow channels in the riverbed that were separated by ridges of sand and gravel. But nobody had to get their feet wet, as the Germans had damaged, but failed to blow, a wooden bridge.
Although the Germans had tried to stem the advance, their efforts were disorganized and disconnected. A couple of strongpoints established in small hamlets were easily bypassed, the Tiger tanks and infantry holding them left to be dealt with later. ‘D’ Company’s priority was to cut Highway 9 (the Via Emilia), which paralleled the river about five hundred yards to the north and ran in a virtually straight line from Rimini to Bologna. Well before dawn, ‘D’ Company had dashed across the highway and established a holding position. Guarding the rest of the company’s left flank, No. 18 Platoon had stormed a white farmhouse and taken five confused Germans prisoner. Potts and the other two platoons were in buildings to the east. ‘A’ Company was also in the vicinity, but about five hundred yards back and just north of the river. This left No. 18 Platoon out front with its left flank entirely exposed. Shortly after dawn, the rain ceased. The sky cleared, and a brilliant sun brought back the summer heat.
The Patricias had been told they would be relieved on the morning of September 22 by elements of 2nd New Zealand Armoured Division, which was taking over the frontage from 1st Canadian Infantry Division. The Canadians were to withdraw for a welldeserved rest and refit. It seemed, however, the Germans had other ideas and were intent on killing Frost and his men before the relief occurred. Undoubtedly, this battering by artillery and Nebelwerfers was a prelude to a combined attack by infantry and tanks. The platoon might stop the infantry, Frost thought, but with only two PIat anti-tank launchers, it had little hope of knocking out even one of the Tigers lurking in the bypassed hamlets.
Unable to see anything out the first-floor windows, Frost called for a volunteer to go upstairs and watch for the Germans. The volunteer barely made it to the top of the stairs when several shells smashed into the upper storey and sent him tumbling down. Gamely regaining his feet, the man started back up, but Frost told him to stop. More shells tearing into the upper storey convinced Frost to abandon it.
Another volley of Nebelwerfer fire crashed into the farmyard. Frost dashed to the back door, intent on finding his section leaders. One hurtled through the door as he opened it. “God Almighty, the bastards are throwing everything they’ve got at us. Never seen anything like it.” The man had a broken arm gushing blood. As Frost dressed the wound and rigged an ad hoc sling, the soldier urged him to get the sections outside into the house’s dubious shelter. Looking out the back door, Frost spotted the other section leader looking his way and signalled him to retreat.
Moments later, the entire platoon was crowded into the ground floor of the house. Frost considered the situation. With the New Zealanders expected and 5th Canadian Armoured Division also supposedly coming up on the left flank, it was possible the Germans would abandon an actual attack. Even if they retook the house, they would soon be overwhelmed. Survive the shelling for a few more hours, then. And just hope the house held together until help arrived.
This was a big hope, because more shells had torn the upper storey clean away, and the 88-millimetre guns now battered the main floor. Its three rooms had stouter outside walls than the upstairs, and for now the shells were failing to penetrate. But if a shell or mortar round lobbed down upon the ruined upper storey, it could easily penetrate the first floor’s thin ceiling.
How to deploy the men? The big room serving as his headquarters was in the centre and more protected, but did it make sense to keep everyone together? As he considered whether to divide men between rooms, a mortar round dropped into the eastern one, and its outside wall collapsed. Two rooms now. Frost thought about poker and his “phenomenal luck” with cards. No chance at a full house. “That’s shot to hell,” he wrote later. “Do I keep my pair or throw one away and draw a straight? I feel like I am on a high induced by sodium pentothal after one of my operations. I’ll let the pair go and try for a straight.”
A good decision. Seconds later, a 105-millimetre shell from a new gun entering the game demolished the second room. That was it for the house’s outer stone walls. As Frost bent to speak to a wounded soldier, an armour-piercing round tore through the main room’s interior wall, passed directly over him, and punched out the wall on the other side. Everybody flattened down on the earthen floor. Nebelwerfer rounds, mortar bombs, and artillery shells started slamming into the rapidly crumbling house. Whole sections of ceiling crashed down, but the stout beams on which the upper storey had been built held.
Everyone was covered in debris. Through gaping holes in the ceiling Frost saw blue sky. The room filled with smoke and plaster dust. A man sobbed hysterically, pulled out a bible, and started to pray. “There is no hope. We are doomed. We must confess our sins to Him before we are all blown straight to hell,” he cried.
“No one is going to be blown to hell in this platoon,” Frost shouted, shaking the man’s shoulders and striking him lightly with the back of a hand. The soldier calmed. “Anyone else think he’s going to hell?” Frost snapped.
A badly wounded man whimpered. Frost spoke with him quietly and administered a shot of morphine. The shelling seemed to slacken. Frost peered out a shattered window. Another armour-piercing round punched a hole through the wall. “Will it never stop?” he whispered.
Then from the exposed flank came a dreaded sound—the clank of tank tracks. Panicky, Frost rushed to the rear door. Through a cloud of dust a troop of tanks emerged, headed directly for the house. Panic turned to elation. Frost ran into the open, waving and shouting at the Churchill tanks of the 2nd New Zealand Division. “I have just drawn my straight—ace high,” he thought.
The New Zealanders had arrived. An Allied toehold on the Marecchia’s north shore was firm and would provide the start point for British Eighth Army—with I Canadian Corps under command— to begin its advance into the Romagna. That advance, higher command believed, would be the beginning of an armoured romp across open plains that would liberate northern Italy and bring the long Italian Campaign to a victorious end.