Operation Merlin (ii)

'Merlin' (ii) was a British operation by Lieutenant General Sir Richard McCreery’s 8th Army to capture Faenza in the Ravenna region in north-eastern Italy (21/25 November 1944).

The grand strategic situation at this time was set by the difficulties being faced in North-West Europe by the forces of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander Allied Expeditionary Force, who demanded that the emphasis on the Italian front should be placed on the exertion of continuing pressure on the the two German armies controlled by Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, the Oberbefehlshaber 'Südwest' and, since 26 November 1943 the commander of the new Heeresgruppe 'C' in northern Italy. Eisenhower’s reasoning was that any weakening of the Allies' present offensive in northern Italy could, even if it made possible a stronger blow to be delivered at a later time, could easily allow the Germans to withdraw veteran divisions from Italy for deployment into the campaign in North-West Europe.

The only course that could assist Eisenhower in his present predicament was for the current 'Olive' offensive to be 'pressed on in Italy despite all the difficulties of climate and terrain, of deficient manpower and material'. There were major limiting factors, however, inasmuch as the deteriorating weather conditions which would soon halt major operations in Italy, there was a shortage of artillery ammunition and, lastly, if the Germans held out into 1945 it would be necessary to rest and reorganise the Allied formations in preparation for an all-out spring offensive.

The overall plan which therefore emerged was that the offensive in Italy must continue as long as the weather and the capability of the Allied formations permitted. Following this there would be 'a period of active defence', in which the maximum number of troops would be taken out of the line for rest and to prepare for the offensive of the spring in 1945. Meanwhile, if the Germans could be driven back to the line of the Adige river, the 8th Army would plan and prepare the amphibious operation across the Adriatic Sea which was already being planned.

By the end of October, General the Hon. Sir Harold Alexander, heading the Allied Armies in Italy command, appreciated that he could no longer expect his formations to drive the Germans back to the Adige river, but was nonetheless determined to capture Ravenna and Bologna before the current offensive was called to a halt. Plans were therefore made for the 8th Army to press forward its offensive, with the object of reaching Ravenna by mid-November and thus, it was hoped, forcing the Germans to move divisions from the front farther to the west, where they faced Lieutenant General Mark W. Clark’s US 5th Army, which would then make a final effort to take Bologna.

On 24 October General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson, the Allied commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean theatre, warned the Combined Chiefs-of-Staff that he would be forced to call an end to the Allied offensive unless it had reached the line between Ravenna and La Spezia via Ravenna, even if Bologna had not been taken, as a result of a 'shortage of formations adequate to effect a breakthrough, the onset of winter conditions to offset our superiority in armour and in the air, as well as the replacement and ammunition situation'. Wilson also proposed an alternative, at this same time, of 'continuing the frontal attacks against successive river lines'. Assuming that the Allied forces took Bologna, Wilson proposed to call a halt to offensive operations and prepare to put into effect the already decided but postponed outflanking attack across the Adriatic Sea.

Throughout November the 8th Army struggled forward against General Traugott Herr’s LXXVI Panzerkorps of Generaloberst Heinrich-Gottfried von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s 10th Army with Lieutenant General C. F. Keightley’s British V Corps attacking toward Forlì and Generał dywizji Władysław Anders’s Polish II Corps on its left directed toward the high ground to the south of Faenza. After heavy fighting the Germans withdrew behind the line of the Montone river, and units of the 8th Army entered Forlì on 9 November.

The advance was still driven forward through the foothills, and by 12 November a strong force had crossed the river at Ladino and the Poles had reached the strongly fortified village of Modigliana. In the coastal sector of the Romagna plain, from which Lieutenant General E. L. M. Burns''s Canadian II Corps had been withdrawn into reserve, a composite force was operating under Lieutenant Colonel Horsburgh-Porter, commanding officer of the 27th Lancers: this 'Porter' Force was a mixed British and Canadian mobile force consisting of one armoured car and three armoured regiments, one of which was dismounted, with artillery and engineer supporting units and including the Desert Commando Force known as Popski’s Private Army. In a series of skilful tactical engagements 'Porter' Force reached the Fiumi Uniti river immediately to the south-east of Ravenna. Here the Germans had breached the river’s banks to increase the already considerable area of floods.

Farther inland and to the south of Ravenna, the 12th Lancers advanced as flank protection to the V Corps, but was checked by strong opposition at Coccolia. This successful drive forward in the coastal sector had been greatly aided by a period of fine weather in the second week of November. Air Vice Marshal W. F. Dickson’s (from 3 December Air Vice Marshal R. M. Foster’s) Desert Air Force also took advantage of better flying conditions and with the help of two wings of Martin B-26 Marauder medium bombers some 900 sorties were flown against the German positions in the Forlì area on 7/8 November. During the subsequent operations directed at the capture of Faenza, medium bombers of Major General John K. Cannon’s Mediterranean Allied Tactical Air Force attacked the bridges at Faenza in 114 sorties during 16/19 November and 262 sorties against German battery positions in the same area during 21/24 November. During this latter period the Desert Air Force flew some 1,200 sorties in close support of the V Corps.

The attack on Faenza was made by Major General A. D. Ward’s 4th Division and Major General C. E. Weir’s 46th Division, and was launched against fierce opposition early on 21 November. The assault was renewed the following day, and on the night of 23/24 November the Germans withdrew behind the lines of the Lamone and Marzeno rivers. By 25 November the 4th Division was pursuing the German rearguards through Scaldino and on the following day the 46th Division crossed the Marzeno river to reach Sarna.

On the left the Poles had reached a point some 6 miles (10 km) to the south of Faenza, where a strong German counterattack retook and held the village of Converselle until it was recaptured by a fresh Polish division on 21 November.

Farther into the mountains, Lieutenant General S. C. Kirkman’s British XIII Corps, on the right of the 5th Army, had kept pace with the Polish advance and Major General D. Russell’s Indian 8th Division had beaten off an attempt to retake Modigliana.

A break in the weather now temporarily halted the advance. At this time the 4th Division was under orders to leave the theatre and its relief, Major General R. A. Hull’s 5th Division, was not scheduled to arrive until January. The only reinforcement the Allied Armies in Italy command had received was a second regimental combat team of General Mascarenhas de Morais’s Brazilian Expeditionary Force, which needed a settling period before being committed to operations.

By 5 December the four US divisions of Major General Geoffrey T. Keyes’s US II Corps would be ready, but there was only enough US artillery ammunition for 15 days of full-scale operations and the XIII Corps could play only a minor part in the offensive as its divisions had received neither relief nor rest. The 8th Army had just about enough artillery ammunition left for 21 days of operations.

The first phase of the renewed offensive was to be an attack by the 8th Army to breach the line of the Santerno river, and then both armies were to launch a concerted drive on Bologna. The 5th Army would attack straight up Highway 65 with a subsidiary thrust at San Pietro, and the 8th Army would attack to the north of Highway 9. The date for the opening of this second phase of the offensive would be not before 8 December, and would depend on the presence of favourable weather conditions.

McCreery’s orders to the 8th Army were to attack with all three corps up, the Canadian I Corps on the right, the V Corps astride Highway 9, and the Polish II Corps on the left continuing its advance through the mountains. The 8th Army had a formidable task: it had firstly to cross both the Lamone and the Senio rivers, and secondly to seize bridgeheads over the Santerno river by 7 December if Alexander’s earliest date for the general offensive was to be met.

Only a day or so before the attack was due to start a reply was received from the Combined Chiefs-of-Staff to Wilson’s proposals despatched on 24 October. The reply was unequivocal: there were to be no operations across the Adriatic Sea, and the primary objective was to be the immediate capture of Bologna, followed by the seizure of the line between La Spezia and Ravenna via Bologna and the continuation of operations with a view to containing the German armies in Italy.

The German line opposite the 8th Army followed the Fiume Uniti and Montone rivers to a point 3 miles (4.8 km) upstream of San Pancrazio, and thence through Albereto and Scaldino to join the defences on the Lamone river to Faenza and beyond. On the Adriatic coast a new headquarters, that of General Hans Schlemmer’s LXXV Corps, controlled the sector from the sea to about the switch line in the area to the south-east of Russi with three divisions, including Generalleutnant Gerhard Graf von Schwerin’s 90th Panzergrenadierdivision, which were sent from the army group reserve behind Bologna before the end of the month. Herr’s LXXVI Panzerkorps covered Highway 9 and the land as far to the south as the Santerno river with four divisions, which included Generalleutnant Edouard Crasemann’s (from 15 December Oberst Carl Stollbrock’s) 26th Panzerdivision and Generalleutnant Dr Fritz Pollack’s 29th Panzergrenadierdivision. The central sector opposing the 5th Army’s salient near San Pietro and the approaches to Bologna by Highway 65 was held by General Fridolin Senger und Etterlin’s XIV Panzerkorps with five divisions, and the south-western approaches to Bologna were covered by Generalleutnant Richard Heidrich’s I Fallschirmkorps with three divisions.

All four corps came under the control of the 10th Army, and a further three to four divisions were held in army reserve in the Bologna area.

The long western flank from Vergato to the sea was covered by Herr’s (from 12 December General Kurt von Tippelskirch’s) 14th Army with General Valentin Feurstein’s LI Gebirgskorps containing two German and two Italian divisions. A corps of two German divisions and one Italian division remained on the Franco-Italian frontier, while another Italian division kept watch on Gulf of Genoa.

Taking into account the four weak divisions in north-eastern Italy, von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s Heeresgruppe 'C' now comprised 27 German and four Italian divisions, and included one Panzer and three Panzergrenadier divisions. No less than 14 German divisions were deployed to cover the front from Bologna to the Adriatic, with another four in reserve behind Bologna.

Alexander’s two armies contained 16 infantry and four armoured divisions as well as the equivalent of six infantry brigades and eight armoured or tank brigades.

The three corps of the 8th Army involved in the first phase of the new offensive comprised six infantry divisions and Brigadier A. R. Barker’s Indian 43rd Brigade (Lorried) and two armoured divisions, plus three armoured brigades and a tank brigade. In the second phase, the double thrust on Bologna, the whole might of the II Corps (four infantry and one armoured division) of the 5th Army would be added.

On 4 November Field Marshal Sir John Dill died in Washington and early in December Wilson was appointed to take his place as head of the British Joint Staff Mission and Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s personal military representative in the USA. Field Marshal Alexander (the promotion backdated to June 1944) was appointed Supreme Allied Commander Mediterranean Theatre on 12 December, and at Churchill’s request Clark, who was to be promoted to full general on 10 March 1945, assumed command of the Allied Armies in Italy, while Lieutenant General Lucian K. Truscott returned from France to assume command of the 5th Army.

In Greece civil war was flaring up, and the 4th Division left Italy in the middle of the month to join Major General A. W. W. Holworthy’s Indian 4th Division in the Athens area, where Lieutenant General R. M. Scobie’s III Corps had taken control.

On 1 December the Canadian I Corps took over from 'Porter' Force and prepared to attack through Major General D. W. Reid’s Indian 10th Division, which was holding the area between the two rivers opposite the German switch line near Albereto. The Germans were believed to be comparatively weak in this sector and the plan was to make a sudden surprise attack to cut Highway 16 in the area to the west of Ravenna and to capture the city.

Striking at Russi and San Pancrazio on 2 December, the Canadians opened a gap between Generalmajor Hans-Joachim Ehlert’s 114th Jägerdivision and Oberst Kleinhenz’s 356th Division near Govo, through which their armour advanced to cut Highway 16 at Mezzano. By dawn on 5 December Ravenna had been taken. Alberto Bardi’s 28a Brigata Garibaldi 'Mario Gordini' played a significant part in the capture of the town by attacking the Germans from the rear. Comprising several hundred partisans, this force was commanded by an Italian leader known as 'Falco', and co-operated most actively with the Canadian I Corps. The Italians were supplied with arms by air drop and extra small arms ammunition had been delivered to them by 'row boat' patrols of Popski’s Private Army.

By 6 December Major General B. M. Hoffmeister’s Canadian 5th Armoured Division had reached the Lamone river on a 5-mile (8-km) front to the south from Mezzano. On the night of 3/4 December the British 46th Division and Generał brygady Bronisław Duch’s Polish 3rd 'Carpathian' Division launched a joint attack across the Lamone river in the area to the south of Highway 9, and a bridgehead extending to Pideura and Montecchio had been secured against stiffening German resistance by 7 December. von Vietinghoff-Scheel now committed one of his reserve divisions against the 46th Division which, on 9 December, was being relieved by the Indian 10th Division, but this major counterattack was driven back with skill and vigour. The German repulse might have been turned to good account but the 46th Division, already much reduced in strength, could not follow up its advantage.

Faenza was still firmly held by the Germans and there was only one very poor road for the maintenance of the two divisions across the Lamone river. By 13 December, however, a second bridge had been built by Lieutenant General Sir Bernard Freyberg’s New Zealand 2nd Division and a regiment of tanks had crossed. By the following day a regrouping had been completed within the bridgehead, with the Indian 10th Division on the left and the New Zealand 2nd Division straddling the river to the south of Faenza. To the north of Faenza, the sector of Major General J. Y. Whitfield’s British 56th Division was comparatively quiet.

Meanwhile Lieutenant General C. Foulkes, commanding the Canadian I Corps since 10 November, had been preparing a co-ordinated attack by both Canadian divisions to force a crossing over the lower reaches of the Lamone river, but the meteorological report, forecasting storms in the mountains, was so bad and the rivers had become so swollen that the attack was postponed until the evening of 10 December. A surprise attack by the Canadian 5th Armoured Division was launched without previous artillery support and followed on the left by the attack of three infantry battalions of Major General H. W. Foster’s Canadian 1st Division, using the searchlights of 'artificial moonlight' and full artillery support. Both attacks made ground during the night and on the following day received excellent support from the Desert Air Force, which flew 312 sorties, its biggest effort for any single day in December.

von Vietinghoff-Scheel was still reluctant to reduce his reserves near Bologna and therefore formed a scratch counterattack Kampfgruppe by assembling local reserves, amounting to three weak battalions and about 20 tanks, from the three left-hand corps. This battle group was launched early on 11 December against the northern end of the Canadian 5th Armoured Division’s bridgehead, and here three separate attacks were beaten off by the Westminster Regiment. By 12 December the Canadian engineers had built tank bridges across the Lamone river and the infantry had reached the Fosso Vecchio, with the Germans holding the sector to the north and south of Bagnacavallo on the line of the Canale Naviglio, whose banks were 20 ft (9.1 m) tall, only some 500 to 700 yards (455 to 640 m) distant across the flat and treeless fields.

At this point the remainder of Generalleutnant Alfred Reinhardt’s 98th Division, which had already supplied a battalion for the earlier counterattacks, was hurried across from von Senger und Etterlin’s sector to hold Bagnacavallo, and an especially heavily armed machine gun battalion was allotted to the 114th Jägerdivision in the sector to the north of the town. When the Canadian I Corps attacked on the night of 12/13 December on each side of Bagnacavallo, with the object of seizing bridgeheads across the Naviglio river, it met fierce resistance and heavy counterattacks from the 98th Division and several groups of tanks. To the north of the town the fighting was particularly fierce and one German counterattack, supported by six regiments of artillery and two mortar regiments, was driven off only with the aid of the concentrated artillery fire of both Canadian divisions and the efforts of a number of fighter-bombers. Farther to the south, between Bagnacavallo and Crotignola, in a particularly difficult area where the advance was overlooked both from Bagnacavallo and also from the high banks of the Senio river, three days of fighting ended with the leading Canadian brigade still to the east of the Fosso Vecchio after being thrown back from a shallow bridgehead.

The corps commander then decided to put in a co-ordinated attack to the north of the town, where the armoured division had established a firm bridgehead. Here a series of skilful attacks allowed the Canadians to reach the line of the Senio river by 21 December, on which day the Germans were forced to withdraw from Bagnacavallo. To the south of the town the Germans held on for several days but by 4/5 January both the Canadian 1st Division and the British 56th Division had closed to the eastern bank of the river.

During the advance to the Senio river, the Canadian I Corps and divisional artillery had fired 184,000 rounds and 1,670 Germans had been taken prisoner, but at the cost to the Canadians, over 20 days of fighting since 2 December, of 548 dead, 1,796 wounded and 212 missing or taken prisoner.

During the night of 14/15 December, the British V Corps and the Polish II Corps resumed their attack to outflank Faenza by a thrust from Pideura down to Route 9 in the area to the west of the city. This move was bitterly contested and during the first day the 90th Panzergrenadierdivision lost 500 men killed or taken prisoner. On the inner flank the New Zealand 2nd Division captured Celle on 15 December and reached the Senio river during the following day. On the New Zealanders' left, the Indian 10th Division secured Pergola and by 17 December had established two small bridgeheads across the river.

Farther into the mountains Generalmajor Hanns von Rohr’s 715th Division suffered heavy losses as it tried without success to prevent the Polish II Corps from drawing level. The 26th Panzerdivision, now reduced to 1,000 men but still holding Faenza, now found itself outflanked and the one Indian and two Gurkha battalions of the Indian 43rd Brigade (Lorried) entered the city with little difficulty on 16 December. But the Panzer division’s men retained their hold on a switch line between the Senio and Lamone rivers, which run immediately behind the north-eastern outskirts of Faenza, and successfully beat off the Indian attack on the following day before it was relieved by the 29th Panzergrenadierdivision brought over from von Senger und Etterlin’s sector.

Supply problems and heavy casualties to both Allied divisions prevented any full-scale attack, at least until new bridges could be built at Faenza. On the night of 19/20 December the 5th Division continued the attack north from Faenza, and by 6 January had cleared the eastern bank of the Senio to link with the Canadians near Cotignola. This was a period of bitter fighting with the Germans contesting every yard of ground. Winter weather had now set in with a vengeance, characterised by blizzards and heavy snow in the mountains, and snow also falling on the plain.

The 8th Army’s offensive had not drawn off as many German reserves as had been hoped, but nonetheless there had been a shifting of strength away from the Bologna sector during the fighting for the Lamone river crossing and the advance to the Senio river. Since 20 November the XIV Panzerkorps had been ordered to send three divisions to help this flank, one of them to the LXXV Corps and the other two to the LXXVI Corps. Two of these divisions, however, had been replaced from local reserves and, to compensate for the loss of a third, his front had been somewhat shortened. Another formation, the 90th Panzergrenadierdivision, which had been in army group reserve behind the XIV Panzerkorps' front, had already been committed and von Vietinghoff-Scheel took good care to hang on to the remainder of his central reserve.

Furthermore, Adolf Hitler was not prepared to weaken the Apennine mountains position, and when in November von Vietinghoff-Scheel sent two infantry divisions to meet a crisis in Hungary they were immediately replaced from Germany’s meagre reserves: one of these replacement divisions travelled without pause from Norway to reach Italy in the middle of December.