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The Gothic Line: Canada's Month of Hell
 
 
"Stretching like an armor-toothed belt across Italy's upper thigh, the Gothic Line was the most fortified position the German army had yet thrown into the Allied forces' path. On August 25, 1944, it fell to Canadian troops to spearhead a major offensive: to rip through that fiercely defended line. This gripping chronicle tells, through the eyes of the soldiers who fought there, of the twenty-eight-day clash that ultimately ended in glory for the Canadians." The Gothic Line: Canada's Month of Hell in WW2, M. Zuehlke.

The Cost

  • 4,000 Canadian casualties, 1/4 of them fatal.

The Battle

Autumn and winter 1944 saw the Canadians back on the Adriatic coast with the objective of breaking through the Gothic Line. This line, running roughly between Pisa and Pesaro, was the last major German defence line separating the Allies from the Po Valley and the great Lombardy Plain in northern Italy. Since many factories producing vital supplies were located in the north, the Germans would fight hard to prevent a breakthrough. The line was formidable, composed of machine-gun posts, anti-tank guns, mortar- and assault-gun positions and tank turrets set in concrete, as well as mines, wire obstacles and anti-tank ditches.

The Allied plan called for a surprise attack upon the east flank, followed by a swing towards Bologna. To deceive the Germans into believing the attack would come in the west, the 1st Canadian Division was concentrated near Florence, then secretly moved northwards to the Adriatic.

In the last week of August 1944, the entire Canadian Corps began its attack on the Gothic Line with the objective of capturing Rimini. On August 25, the Canadians crossed the Metauro River, the first of six rivers lying across the path of the advance. They moved on to the Foglia River to find that the Germans had concentrated their forces here. It required days of bitter fighting and softening of the line by Allied air forces to reach it.

On August 30, two Canadian brigades crossed the Foglia River and fought their way through the Gothic Line. On September 2, General Burns reported that; "the Gothic Line is completely broken in the Adriatic Sector and the 1st Canadian Corps is advancing to the River Conca". The announcement was premature for the enemy recovered quickly, reinforced the Adriatic defence by moving divisions from other lines and thus, slowed the advance to Rimini to bitter, step-by-step progress. Five kilometres south of the Conca, the forward troops came under fire from the German 1st Parachute Division, while heavy fighting was developing on the Coriano Ridge to the west. By hard fighting, the Canadians captured the ridge and it appeared that the Gothic Line as finally about to collapse. The Canadians battled for three more weeks, however, to take the hill position of San Fortunato which block the approach to the Po Valley.

On September 21, the Allies entered a deserted Rimini. That same day, the 1st Division was relieved by the New Zealand Division, ready with the 5th Armoured Division to sweep across the Lombardy Plain to Bologna and the Po. But the rains came. Streams turned into raging torrents, mud replaced the powdery dust and the tanks bogged down in the swamp lands of the Romagna. The Germans still resisted.

September 1944 waned and with it the hopes of quickly advancing into the valley of the Po. On October 11, the 1st Canadian Infantry Division returned to the line and the 5th Division went into corps reserve. For three weeks, the Canadians fought in the water-logged Romagna. The formidable defences of the Savio River were breached, but the Germans counter-attacked to try to throw the Canadians back. Meanwhile, the Americans were progressing towards Bologna, and to halt their advance, the Germans took two crack divisions from the Adriatic front. The Canadians were thus able to move up to the banks of the Ronco, some ten kilometres farther on.

The Canadian Corps was now withdrawn into Army Reserve to recuperate from the ten weeks of continuous fighting and train for the battles which lay ahead. The 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade, meanwhile, continued to operate with the Americans and British in the area north of Florence. They would end their campaign in Italy in the snow-covered peaks in February 1945.

Changes in command occurred before the Corps returned to the line. On November 5, Lieut.-General Charles Foulkes succeeded Lieut.-General Burns as commander of the 1st Canadian Corps, and Major-General Vokes left for Holland to exchange appointments with Major-General H.W. Foster.

The Canadians returned to battle on December 1 as the Eighth Army made one last attempt to break through into the Lombardy Plain. In a bloody month of river crossings which resulted in extremely heavy casualties, they fought through to the Senio River. Here the Germans, desperate in their resistance, drew reinforcements from their western flank and, aided by the weather and topography, stopped the Eighth Army. In January 1945 the Senio became stablilized as the winter line, and in appalling weather both sides employed minimum troops as they observed each other from concealed positions.

The Italian campaign continued into the spring of 1945, but the Canadians did not participate in the final victory. In February 1945 the 1st Canadian Corps began the move to Northwest Europe to be re-united with the First Canadian Army. There they would join in the drive into Germany and Holland and see the war in Europe to its conclusion.

The First Battle of Coriano
The first battle of Coriano began September 3rd when the Royal Canadian Regiment attacked the Germans at Riccione and the Irish of Canada and Cape Breton Highlanders, supported by the tanks of the 8th New Brunswick Hussars attacked at Besanigo while the British 1st Armoured Division  attacked Coriano ridge itself.

The battle brought about a heavy toll. At the end of the first day 79 tanks out of the 156 deployed were still fit for battle. The fighting continued for two days, with gruesome losses on both sides, on the entire front stretching from Riccione to San Savino until fighting ended on the evening of September 5. The first battle of Coriano had come to an end and the Ridge was in German hands... for now.

The Second Battle of Coriano
Gen. Leese decided that the time was right for a decisive attack on Coriano. The first battle for Coriano, September 5 1944, was won by the Germans. It was decided that the 5th Canadian Armored Division was to target Coriano while San Celmente would be taken by the 1st British Armored Division.

During the night of September 12-13, the New Brunswick Hussars, the Perth Regiment, the Cape Breton Highlanders, the Irish Regiment of Canada, The Royal Westminster Regiment and tanks of the Lord Strathcona's horse, suppored by a large storm of shells and bombs which paralyzed the enemy, launched their final assault on Corino Ridge. By September 14, the battle had been won and Coriano was in Allied hands. in 24 hours more than 500 tons of bombs were dropped during the course of more than 700 missions.

 Photo Gallery
Infantrymen of the 48th Highlanders of Canada advancing on Point 146 during the advance on the Gothic Line near the River Foglia. August 28-29, 1944, River Foglia, Italy.
German prisoners-of-war carrying wounded members of the 1st Canadian Corps through Cesena. October 21, 1944, Cesena, Italy.
Unidentified Ontario unit of Canadian Infantry advance against the Gothic Line.
Private Stanley Rodgers of the 48th Highlanders of Canada, who holds a PIAT anti-tank weapon, resting north of the Conca River en route to Rimini. September, 1944, Rimini, Italy.
 
Sources: Veterans Affairs Canada, Library and Archives Canada

Last updated on Sep 12, 2006 00:00. Page viewed 25576 times.