The battle of the Romagna or of the Rivers was the final Eighth Army offensive of 1944 and saw them narrowly fail to break out onto the Po Plain before the winter weather forced an end to the fighting.
The Eighth Army had been moved to the Adriatic coast to take part in the assault on the Arno and Gothic Lines. The offensive began on 25 September, and at first the Eighth Army made good progress, passing the Arno Line and then the Gothic Line, before getting bogged down south of its initial target at Rimini. The offensive was renewed in September, and Rimini fell after a bitter battle (battle of Rimini, 13-21 September 1944).
After the fall of Rimini, the British advanced into the Romagna Plain, a flat area between the Apennines and the sea that the British expected would be good tank country. Instead they discovered that it was a low lying swampy area cut across by a series of rivers, many of which ran in deeply dredged channels between high embankments. Between the rivers there were many drainage ditches, which also posed a problem for tanks. There were also many stone built farms dotted around the countryside, each of which could be turned into a mini fortress. This was the wetland area that had kept Roman Ravenna safe for so many years during the decline of the Western Empire, and it would not be easy territory for armour. The rivers were running high after heavy autumn rains.
The area was crossed by a long series of rivers. This started with the Marecchia, which flowed into the sea near Rimini. Next was the Uso. This was followed by the Fiumicino, then the Pisciatello and then the Savio, which passes through Cesena. Next was the Ronco (known as the Bidente in the mountains). This was followed by the Montone, which flows through Forli, and merges with the Ronco to flow into the sea as the Uniti, south of Ravenna. The last of the rivers to flow directly into the sea was the Lamone, which emerges from the mountains at Faenza. Finally, at least as far as the offensive of 1944 was concerned, is the Senio, which leaves the mountains half way between Faenza and Imola and flows north into the Reno, which then flows east into the sea.
The Eighth Army attack, Operation Cavalcade, was planned as a 5th Corps advance towards Bologna.
The advance into the Romagna began with an easy success. After the fall of Ravenna the Germans pulled back to the Marecchia River, but on 22 September the New Zealand Division crossed the river and inflicted a defeat on the 162nd Turkoman Division. After that the slog began. The New Zealanders ran into the German 1st Parachute Division, which held its ground for some time, reporting that it had held off 27 attacks by 24 September. Heavy rains meant that the Marecchia flooded, going from being an ankle deep stream on 21 September to a 12ft deep torrent on 28 September. It rained continuously from 29 September-2 October, blocking all off the fords across the Marecchia and making bridging the rivers very difficult.
The Germans retreated across the Uso, but then made a stand on the Fiumicino. The Eighth Army advanced up to the river, and prepared for a full scale attack across it.
At the beginning of October General Leese was promoted to take command of Allied land forces in South East Asia, and he was replaced by General Sir Richard McCreery.
McCreery decided not to attack across the heavily defended river. Instead he sent the 10th Indian Division to advance through the foothills of the Apennines. The Indians captured two crossing points over the upper stretches of the river, including one to the north of Sogliano al Rubicone, taken on 5 October, outflanking the German lines. The 90th Panzer Grenadiers were forced to retreat. On the night of 10-11 October the Canadians were able to make an unopposed crossing of the river.
The Indians and the 46th British Division reached Cesena on the Savio a week later, and the town was secured by 20 October. The first troops crossed the Savio on the night of 20-21 September and the engineers had completed a bridge over the Savio by 24 October. On 23 October the 20th Indian Brigade captured Monte Cavvallo, and the Germans withdrew to the Ronco.
Further to the left the Poles had also been sent on an outflanking movement, and they emerged in the upper Ronco. From there they advanced to Monte Grosso, 14 miles into the mountains between the Ronco and the Montone. The mountain was secured after four days of heavy fighting, and the Poles were them able to advance down the valley, taking Mussolini’s birthplace at Predappio on 27 October. The Germans were thus forced to pull back from the Ronco to the Montone.
A new plan was then put in place for a limited offensive - the Eighth Army would take Ravenna and the Fifth Army Bologna, but no overall breakthrough was expected. The offensive was to end by 15 December, and was being launched because Eisenhower planned to invade Germany on 15 December, and wanted to make sure that no troops could be moved from Italy to resist his advance.
McCreery decided to begin with a feint towards Forli, which he hoped would both distract the Germans and open Highway 67 which led across the mountains to Florence and could be used as an extra supply route. 5th Corps attacked Forli on the night of 7-8 November, and the Germans were soon forced to abandon the town. On 21 November an attack was launched to push the Germans away from Forli, after a delay caused by heavy rain that cause the Montone to rise and become a major barrier. This attack was quickly successful, and the Germans retreated to the Lamone at Faenza.
By 26 November the Germans had formed a new defensive line. The 305th, 26th Panzer and 278th Divisions were defending the Lamone, while one regiment from the 278th held the ‘Ausberger Line’, which ran from the Lamone to the Montone and was meant to protect Ravenna. The 356th Infantry and 114th Jager Divisions held the lower reaches of the Montone, from Casa Bettini, to the junction with the Ronco, and then along the Uniti to the coast south of Ravenna.
On the Allied side the Poles held a stretch of the Lamone between Brisighella and San Ruffillo in the mountains. The 5th Corps was in the centre, ready to attack Faenza. On the right the Canadian Corps was to attack north-west towards the Senio and Santerno rivers and north-east towards Ravenna.
This part of the battle was designated Operation Chuckle, which had originally been a purely Canadian plan to take Ravenna, but was later adopted for the Eighth Army’s entire offensive. Once again the overall plan was ambitious. On the left the army would take Imola and then advance towards Budrio, to the north-east of Bolgona, while on the right there would be an attack towards Argenta and then Ferrara. Needless to say, almost none of these ambitious aims were actually achieved.
Operation Chuckle began with a Canadian success. On 2 December the Canadian 3rd Brigade, on the left, captured Russi and then pushed west to the Lamone. On the right the 12th Brigade reached Godo, just over six miles to the west of Ravenna, on 3 December. On 4 December the brigade occupied Ravenna itself. The only setback was a failed attack over the Lamone on the night of 4-5 December.
On the Eighth Army’s left wing the Poles advanced to the south-west of Faenza. Their advance helped the 5th Corps on their right, and Faenza fell on 16 December. The Eighth Army then moved up the Senio, and by 21 December had reached the river along most of their line.
The Eighth Army had managed to cross eight rivers, but now had to admit defeat for the winter. Even Churchill finally had to admit that the Allies wouldn’t be able to beat the Russians to Vienna from Italy, one of his long term strategic aims. The Allies now began to plan their spring offensive of 1945, Operation Grapeshot. The Eighth Army contribution to this would be the attack into the Argenta Gap, Operation Buckland, which would finally break through the left wing of the German line in Italy. In the gap there were a series of minor operations to clear the last German footholds east of the Senio