The battle of Gemmano (4-15 September 1944) was part of the Eighth Army’s assault on the eastern end of the Gothic Line, and saw the Germans carry out a skilful delaying action after their original defensive positions were overrun unexpectedly quickly.
The battle was part of the wider Allied attack on the Gothic Line, Operation Olive. The aim was for the British Eighth Army on the Adriatic Coast to break the German defensives and get out into the Po Plains. The US Fifth Army would then attack north from Florence, completing the defeat of the Germans.
The British attack began on 25 August, and the first barrier, the Arno Line, which in the east ran along the Metauro, quickly fell. By 29 August the British had reached the Foglia, the start of the main Gothic Line. This was a much stronger defensive position. The Germans had cleared all cover on the south bank, planted minefields, and built machine gun positions on the hills above the north bank.
General Leese, commander of the Eighth Army, didn’t want to give the Germans time to secure the new position and so he ordered the British 5th Corps on his left and Canadian 1st Corps on his right to carry out active patrols across the river at daybreak on 30 August in the hope that they could ‘bounce’ the Gothic Line.
This plan met with a fair amount of success. On the left the 4th Indian Division captured Monte della Croce and Montecalvo, two strong positions on the German right, and on 1 September captured the key position at Tavoleto. To their right the 46th Division captured Montegridolfo, a key position in the Gothic Line, on the first day of the attack.
On the Canadian front the 1st Canadian Infantry and 5th Canadian Armoured Divisions crossed the Foglia late on 30 August, but ran into more determined German resistance and their attacks were repulsed. On the following day the Canadians had a lucky break, catching the Germans in the open as they were about to counterattack, and inflicted such heavy damage that they were able to push north through the Gothic Line defences, threatening to cut off the German 1st Parachute Division on the coast. On the coast the Poles took Pesaro, while the Canadians managed to cross the next river barrier, the Conca, three miles from the coast.
The next target for the Eighth Army was the Coriano ridge, which ran north from the Conca River. The planned route to the Po passed around the northern end of this ridge, across the Marano River, then north-west through a narrow coastal gap near Rimini and out into ‘tank country’.
The problem for the Eighth Army was that the Germans still held some key areas of high ground on the western side of the battlefield. Most significant was the 400m high Gemmano Ridge, which ran west-east along the southern side of the Conca River. The lower Coriano ridge runs north from the opposite bank of the Conca. Possession of the Gemmano Ridge gave the Germans an excellent observation point overlooking the coastal gap where the British intended to move their armour.
In order to reach the Marano, the 138th Brigade, 46th Division, was ordered to take Ponte Rossa, a bridge over the Ventena, the last river before the Conca. This attack began on 3 September, and the division made slow progress. One brigade eventually got across the Ventena, and captured San Andrea, on the north bank of the Conca. It then advanced west to San Clemente, on a low hill east of the Coriano ridge. The aim was to advance north-west from San Clemente to Coriano, and from there to Ospedaletto on the Marano, but the division’s 128th Brigade was only able to reach Castelleale, a short distance to the north-west of San Clemente, at the foot of the Coriano ridge.
The key German position was the Gemmano Ridge, which was now defended by the elite Austrian 100th Mountain Regiment. 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, while its reconnaissance unit pushed on to join the infantry at Castelleale.
On 4 September the 1st Armoured Division began its attack, heading towards San Savino at the southern end of the Coriano ridge. The tanks came under heavy fire from the Gemmano Ridge, on their left flank as they advanced, and by the end of the day they were down to half strength. On 5 September, supported by 167th and 168th Brigades from the 56th Division, 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 up by the Germans. General 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 phased attack. In the first phase the 5th Corps would attack at Gemmano and Croce, pinning the Germans down at the southern end of the line. The Canadian Corps would be brought into the attack in the north and would take Coriano. In the second phase the 1st Armoured Divsiion and 4th Infantry Division would pass through the Canadians and cross the Marano. In the third phase the New Zealand Division and the Canadian armour would advance towards 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 attack began on 10 September, but the 100th Mountain Regiment managed to hold their ground. The deadlock was broken further north. On 13 September the 56th Division pushed north from Croce and broke a hole in the front held by the German 98th Infantry. At the northern end of the ridge the Canadian 11th Infantry Brigade captured Coriano and the 1st Armoured Division took Passano.
By the end of the day Vietinghoff believed that his line was about to be broke, but by the end of the day the best chance for a major Allied victory was already gone. A week of heavy rain meant that the rivers in the area had become much more serious obstacles, and the 1st Armoured Division was unable to make the rapid advance required. The supporting infantry of the 4th Division was hit by heavy artillery 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, north of the Marano, filling the gap that had briefly existed in their lines. Instead of a breakthrough, the Eighth Army found itself engaged in a week long battle to take Rimini.