This was the British attack on Bibbiena in the Arezzo area of Tuscany by Major General A. W. W. Holworthy’s Indian 4th Division and Major General D. W. Reid’s Indian 10th Division of Lieutenant General Sir Richard McCreery’s X Corps within Lieutenant General Sir Oliver Leese’s British 8th Army (3/9 August 1944).
Undertaken in the northern part of the Apennine mountains, ‘Vandal’ was not in itself successful, as the Allied overall plan for Italian operations changed in the middle of the operation with the adoption of ‘Olive’, but was nonetheless significant in allowing McCreery to develop the mountain warfare techniques which were to prove especially useful in the campaigning of the autumn and early winter of 1944.
The X Corps had already closed on Bibbiena in the upper valley of the Arno river, which Leese’s 8th Army needed as a base for further operations against its sector of the ‘Gotisch-Linie’ defences. When the Allied plan was changed on 4 August, the future role and composition of the X Corps was revised in a major fashion, but by this time the corps was already committed to the operation to secure the two mountain masses flanking the upper reaches of the Arno river valley, namely the Alpe di Catenaia in the east and the Pratomagno in the west. McCreery had appreciated, as early as 21 July, that the primary task of the X Corps in its attack on the ‘Gotisch-Linie’ defences would be an outflanking movement through the mountains on a mule-pack basis. He envisaged his Indian infantry working forward on foot while his sappers, heavily reinforced with mechanical plant, blasting equipment and labour units, built tracks for Jeeps and armour to come up behind them. The success of his operations would depend upon the speed with which his sappers could open up these tracks, of which one would be needed for each division. The advance on Bibbiena would give him an opportunity to try out the necessary techniques and gain invaluable experience on which to base his plans for the advance on Bologna through the high country in front of him.
McCreery planned to launch his trial offensive at the beginning of August with a converging attack on Bibbiena by the two Indian divisions, each with one tank regiment in support. The Indian 10th Division would advance on the right across the mountains from Anghiari to clear the Alpe di Catenaia and approach Bibbiena from the south-east, and the Indian 4th Division would move forward on the left, at first through the hills on the eastern side of Highway 71 as far as the Subbiano spur and Falciano, and then astride Highway 71. The flanks of the X Corps would be protected by Brigadier M. G. Roddick’s 9th Armoured Brigade in the east and Lieutenant Colonel M. J. Lindsay’s ‘Lind’ Force armoured reconnaissance grouping in the west.
The Indian 10th Division had by far the harder of the tasks allocated to the two divisions as it had no road to help it. For this reason McCreery allotted to this division all the mountain artillery available, this comprising two mountain regiments and one Jeep-drawn regiment. The divisional supply track was to run from a jumping off point to the north of the lateral road linking Anghiari and Chiassa at Castello di Montanto. Three field companies of the divisional sappers and miners, two Italian labour companies, a Canadian drilling section, and three sections of a general transport company, were employed building this supply route.
Preliminary operations started on 2 August, when the Indian 4th Division advanced to secure the Subbiano ridge and moved ahead with considerable success against weak opposition. By the end of the day Brigadier J. C. Saunders-Jacobs’s Indian 5th Brigade on the right was secure on the Poggio Alto while, on the left, Brigadier H. C. Partridge’s Indian 11th Brigade entered Subbiano.
Operating on Indian 4th Division’s left, west of Highway 71, ‘Lind’ Force was in contact with Generalleutnant Eberhardt Rodt’s 15th Panzergrenadierdivision, of General Traugott Herr’s LXXVI Panzerkorps within General Joachim Lemelsen’s 14th Army, which was holding Monte Ferrari in some strength.
In the Indian 10th Division’s sector, Brigadier J. B. McDonald’s Indian 20th Brigade, which was to lead with one battalion from each of its fellow brigades under command, moved forward to Castello di Montanto ready to start the advance to the north. It was organised entirely on a mule and man-pack basis.
The success of the Indian 4th Division in the upper part of the Arno river valley led McCreery on 3 August to reinforce his thrust on the axis of Highway 71 by bringing the 9th Armoured Brigade across from the extreme eastern flank to take over from ‘Lind’ Force, which was then disbanded. Only the 12th and 27th Lancers, with supporting arms, remained to the east of the upper reaches of the Tiber river to watch the area between that river and the western flank of Generał dywizji Władisław Anders’s Polish II Corps. This all took time and the new 9th Armoured Brigade was not ready to participate in the battle until 5 August.
Meanwhile the X Corps’ main attack had started on 3 August when, in a silent night movement, the Indian 10th Brigade secured Monte Filetto and, continuing through thickly wooded country, occupied Monte Altuccia by the fall of night. This feature had been held by Generalleutnant Friedrich-Wilhelm Hauck’s 305th Division of General Walter von Seydlitz-Kurzbach’s LI Corps within Generaloberst Heinrich-Gottfried von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s 10th Army.
On the following day the 2/3rd Gurkhas took Il Castello by assault after a fierce close-quarter fight, and secured a foothold on the Sasso della Regina spur.
On the Indian 4th Division’s front, the Indian 5th Brigade moved forward from Falciano and secured the high ground to the west of Monte Filetto. To the west of the Arno river valley the Indian 11th Brigade took Monte Ferrato against light opposition and secured Poggio del Grillo. Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, commanding Heeresgruppe ‘C’, was angry about these German failures and rushed reinforcements from the 15th Panzergrenadierdivision to the area. The 115th Panzergrenadierregiment launched a counterattack at Poggio del Grillo, overrunning one company of the 2/Cameron Highlanders, and another of the Panzergrenadier battalions went to the aid of the 305th Division struggling to retake Il Castello. The 2/3rd Gurkhas was able to hold the feature, but only by abandoning the Regina spur to help to repel these counterattacks.
The Indian 20th Brigade also sent up reinforcements and re-established a foothold on the Regina spur during the night 6/7 August, but again was forced to withdraw when its ammunition supply failed. The brigade then reorganised and consolidated around Il Castello.
During these operations Air Vice Marshal W. F. Dickson’s Desert Air Force was hampered by poor weather, and could offer only sporadic air support.
Only on the extreme left flank were further gains made. Here Brigadier O. de T. Lovett’s Indian 7th Brigade of the Indian 4th Division was advancing in strength against light opposition on the Pratomagna, and by 7 August had captured Monte Lori.
It was at this stage in the X Corps’ offensive that the 8th Army’s change of plan forced the corps to halt its operations in order to facilitate the regrouping which was now demanded. This left McCreery with only the Indian 10th Division, 9th Armoured Brigade, 12th and 27th Lancers (armoured cars) and two newly arriving units, the Lovat Scouts and 4/11th Sikh Regiment, both trained for mountain warfare.
Just before its relief, the Indian 4th Division managed to retake Poggio del Grillo, but the division’s subsequent withdrawal meant that the Indian 10th Division had to take over both divisional sectors. McCreery could no longer expect to continue full-scale operations with just a single division along a front which extended for some 50 miles (80 km), but it was nonetheless essential that he concealed the drastic weakening of the X Corps, and this required vigorous action by his remaining troops. McCreery decided, therefore, to concentrate his infantry strength in sectors considered to be vital to the German defence and to cover the rest of his extended front with armoured car and tank patrols.
On 9 August McCreery ordered the X Corps to pass onto the defensive in its existing positions, concealing the withdrawal of the Indian 4th Division and the change of policy on the corps’ front by deep and aggressive patrol activities. Bibbiena was eventually taken on 28 August by the Indian 10th Brigade.