Operation Battle of Gemmano

The 'Battle of Gemmano' was a battle between British and German forces in the 'Gotisch-Linie' area near the Apennine mountains in northern Italy (4/15 September 1944).

The village of Gemmano was eventually taken on 9 September by Lieutenant General Sir Oliver Leese’s British 8th Army, but it required another two attacks before the British took the area round the village. The fighting was so fierce, similar to that of the battles for Monte Cassino, that the battle came to be known as the 'Cassino of the Adriatic'.

The fighting for Gemmano and the area round it involved elements of Lieutenant General C. F. Keightley’s British V Corps of the 8th Army and General Traugott Herr’s LXXVI Panzerkorps of Generaloberst Wilhelm-Gottfried von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s 10th Army. The formations of the V Corps committed in the battle were those of Major General J. L. I. Hawkesworth’s 46th Division (128th, 138th and 139th Brigades), Major General J. Y. Whitfield’s 56th Division (167th, 168th and 169th Brigades), the 7th Armoured Brigade, the 25th Army Tank Brigade, and Major General A. W. W. Holworthy’s Indian 4th Division (Indian 5th, 7th and 11th Brigades).

On the other side of the front line, the German forces of the LXXVI Panzerkorps included Generalleutnant Wilhelm Raapke’s 71st Division (191st, 194th and 211th Grenadierregimenter), Generalleutnant Alfred Reinhardt’s 98th Division (117th, 289th and 290th Grenadierregimenter), Generalleutnant Max-Günther Schrank’s 5th Gebirgsdivision (85th and 100th Gebirgsjägerregimenter, and 95th Gebirgsartillerieregiment) and Generalleutnant Harry Hoppe’s 278th Division (992nd, 993rd and 994th Grenadierregimenter, and 278th Divisionsfüsilierbataillon).

In the 'Olive' offensive, the objective for the 8th Army along the coast of the Adriatic Sea was to break through the German defences at the eastern end of the 'Gotisch-Linie' and debouch onto the plain of the Po river. Lieutenant General Mark W. Clark’s US 5th Army would then follow with an attack to the north of Florence, completing the German defeat. The first assault, as well as the following 10, would prove to be futile for the Allies. The final assault by the Indian 4th Division, after heavy bombardment, was finally successful in the capture and clearance of all the German positions in Gemmano.

Two days before the first attack, on 4 September, a British battalion despatched a 30-man platoon to establish the size and strength of the German defences at Gemmano. The British made an unfortunate mistake, however, in underestimating the size of the German force as just one battalion when it actual size was about three battalions or 4,500 men of the 100th Gebirgsjägerregiment in positions overlooking the British positions. The British therefore left only one battalion to fight the first stage of the Battle of Gemmano. The German battalions also had the benefit of anti-aircraft weapons that could also be used as field and anti-tank artillery against the advancing British infantry and armour.

As the numerous attacks on the village of Gemmano were fought, heavy falls of rain also hindered the British advance, causing roads to crumble, rivers to overflow, and mud to replace earth, all of which made movement and transport very difficult. Mountain slopes became slippery, and the prevailing mud caused numberless weapon malfunctions.

The key German position facing the British offensive was the Gemmano Ridge, now defended by the elite Austrian mountain troops of the 100th Gebirgsjägerregiment. Every Allied attack to the north came under heavy artillery fire, directed by observers on that ridge. The British armour was about to suffer from that fire. On 3 September the 1st Armoured Division reached the starting point for the armoured attack, to the south of the Conca river, while its reconnaissance unit pushed on to join the infantry at Castelleale.

On 4 September the 1st Armoured Division began its attack, heading toward San Savino at the southern end of the Coriano ridge. The tanks on the left wing came under heavy artillery fire from the Gemmano ridge as they advanced, and by the end of the day they were down to half strength. On 5 September, supported by the 56th Division’s 167th and 168th Brigades, some tanks managed to get into San Savino. The infantry also attempted to take Croce, at the southern end of the ridge, but were held by the Germans. Whitfield, commander of the 56th Division, sent his last brigade, the 169th, to attack the Gemmano ridge, and on 8/9 September the 2/7th Queens actually managed to take the village of Gemmano, at the eastern end of the ridge.

Leese now came up with a fresh plan, for a three-phase attack. In the first phase, the V Corps would attack at Gemmano and Croce, pinning the Germans at the southern end of the line. The Canadian I Corps would be brought into the attack in the north and would take Coriano. In the second phase, the 1st Armoured Division and Indian 4th Division would pass through the Canadians and cross the Marano river. In the third phase, the New Zealand 2nd Division and the Canadian armour would advance toward Bologna and Ferrara.

The first phase of the new plan met with total success. The 46th Division was given the task of taking Gemmano ridge. The division’s attack began on 10 September, but the 100th Gebirgsjägerregiment managed to hold its ground. The deadlock was broken farther to the north. On 13 September the 56th Division pushed northward from Croce and opened a gap in the front held by the 98th Division. At the northern end of the ridge the Canadian 11th Brigade captured Coriano and the 1st Armoured Division took Passano.

By the end of the day von Vietinghoff-Scheel believed that his line was about to be broken, but by this time the best British chance for a major success had already gone. A week of heavy rain meant that the area’s rivers had become much more serious obstacles, and the 1st Armoured Division was unable to make the rapid advance required. The supporting infantry of the Indian 4th Division was hit by heavy artillery fire while assembling for the attack, and the British decided to postpone the attack until 14 September. On that day the Germans finally evacuated the Gemmano ridge, just as the British were attacking once again, but at the same time they were feeding reinforcements onto the Mulazzano ridge, to the north of the Marano, filling the gap that had briefly existed in their lines. Instead of a breakthrough, the 8th Army found itself engaged in a week-long battle to take Rimini.

The two sides' casualties are not well documented, but according to British sources, the Germans lost more than 800 men in action, and one German regimental commander estimated that his unit;s losses were 2,400 men killed, wounded or missing. The British casualties were also very large: each battalion lost, on average, 100 to 150 men. More than 100 civilians were also killed during the battle, mainly to shelling of Gemmano by British warships.