The battle of San Marino (17-20 September 1944) was a short battle that saw the 4th Indian Division of the Eighth Army clear out a German force that had moved into neutral San Marino to take advantage of its position overlooking the right flank of the Allied advance up the Adriatic.
The neutral Republic of San Marino sits on the north-eastern slopes of the Apennines, to the south-west of Rimini. The centre of the Republic is eleven miles from the coast, but its nearest point, around Rovereta is only six miles inland. This presented the Allies with something of a dilemma. They were advancing along a wider front - the fighting on the Gemmano Ridge had taken place eight miles from the coast, and only 4 miles from the south-eastern corner of San Marino. If the Germans didn’t enter San Marino themselves, then the Allies would have to restrict their attack to the six mile corridor along the coast. That was certainly their plan during the battle of Gemmano. The aim had been to clear the Coriano Ridge and cross the Marano River at Ospedaletto, nearly three miles east of the north-eastern tip of San Marino, then advance around the northern end of the republic, past Rimini and out onto the Po Plains.
The Germans had a similar problem. If they respected the neutrality of San Marino, and the Allies didn’t, then that would leave a gap in their defences of Rimini. San Marino’s fascist government had attempted to stay out of the war, officially correcting an erroneous report that they had declared war on Britain in September 1940, and officially stating that they weren’t at war with the United States in 1942. In 1944 the British Foreign Office believed that military action in San Marino would be justified if the Germans were operating on its territory. The Fascists had been deposed after the fall of Mussolini, but came back into power on 1 April 1944 while attempting to remain neutral.
The key to the importance of San Marino was Monte Titano, a dramatic mountain that ran north-south across the centre of the Republic, with cliffs on the eastern side and the city of San Marino on the western slopes. This was potentially an excellent observation point, with impressive views to the north and east.
The eastern border of San Marino runs along the River Marano, one of the German defensive positions during the fighting at Gemmano. The eastern flanks of Monte Titano were effectively impregnable, but a ridge ran west/ north west from Faetano on the eastern border to the northern end of the mountain, giving access to the city from the north-west.
As the Allies slowly pushed the Germans off the Gemmano and Coriano ridges, the Germans posted troops from the 278th Infantry Division in San Marino, taking advantage of the excellent positions for observation. The 4th Indian Division was given the task of clearing the Germans out of the area.
The attack began on the night of 17-18 September when the 3rd/10th Baluch Regiment crossed the Marano River around Faetano. The 1/9ths Gurkhas passed through them, attacking two hills. The Germans counterattacked, retaking one of the hills. The defenders were able to retreat because of a single handed defence by Rifleman Sherbahadur Thapa, who managed to knock out some of the German machine guns before being killed. He was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for allowing his battalion to retreat intact.
By the evening of 18 September a force of tanks had arrived to support the attack. The 4th/ 11th Sikh Regiment then moved round to the north to attack to the north of Monte Titano. The 11th Brigade then passed through them to encircle the city from the north. The brigade began to push into the outskirts of San Marino city from the north, but were held up on the morning of 20 September by German positions in the north-wets of the city, at the start of the road leading up to the hilltop city. Tanks were moved into the suburbs to help, supported by troops from the Cameron Highlands. The city was secured by the early afternoon, with the loss of 24 Allied casualties.
On 21 September the local defence forces were pressed into service to help mop up any German stragglers, while the 4th Indian Division moved north to resume its part in the advance towards Rimini.