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Nations at war
Zuehlke, Mark. The Gothic Line: Canada's Climactic World War II Triumph in Italy. Vancouver, BC: Douglas & McIntyre, 2003
Preface; Acknowledgements; Introduction; maps; photos; Epilogue; Notes; Glossary; Bibliography; General Index; Index of Formations, Units and Corps; About the Author
Appendix: Eighth Army Order of Battle; Canadians at the Gothic Line; Canadian Infantry Battalion (typical organization); Canadian Military Order Rank; German Military Order Rank; The Decorations
In many respects, Mark Zuehlke's new book resembles Peter Brune's recent A Bastard of a Place: The Australians in Papua. Both look at a distinct national force within a larger multi-national organization. In both cases higher Allied commanders had little faith in the top national commander. In both situations the national troops undertook the toughest combat jobs. And in both books the author focuses on small unit actions and individual recollections.
Zuehlke's book has been criticized in some quarters for that last pair of similarities: failing to examine larger strategic issues and too much reliance on the fading memories of aging veterans. Concerning the former, this book, like the first two in Zuehlke's trilogy covering the Canadians in Italy, unabashedly seeks to describe what happened to platoons and companies in the confusing swirl of combat, and how individual soldiers acted and reacted in the heat of battle. The Gothic Line in that sense is quite unlike the relentless and relatively sterile procession of operations as described from the perspective of higher headquarters in otherwise excellent books like those by, for example, David Glantz. As to the latter criticism, Zuehlke answers the charge in his Preface. He uses the recollections of veterans to put a human face on the battle and to bring a strong sense of immediacy to his writing in much the same manner as Brune in A Bastard of a Place.
There are, however, times when memory and record do not mesh
so cleanly. Most of these instances occur where the perception of regimental honour or the reputation of an individualmost probably a senior officermight be compromised by the reality of events and behaviour during the course of combat. At such times, the regimental
histories and official contemporary military records become suddenly
vague or highly sanitized to avoid the hint of aspersion. My approach
in these instances is to consult as many sources as possible, both by
contacting more veterans who were present at the time and by checking every possible document. This approach usually makes it possible to develop an accurate depiction of how that event transpired. At
other times, however, the matter remains obscure and it is necessary
to finally make a calculated judgement call as to how a situation likely played out. In these rare circumstances, I have tended to accept veteran memory over the official record, for it is, after all, their story that I present here. The veterans lived through the battle, buried friends
who did not, and have carried the memory of war's experience
through the rest of their lives.
As the years have passed, memories have generally dimmed. There
are few veterans still able to extensively recall the twenty-six days of
combat that was the Gothic Line Battle. What they impart are fragments, anecdotal incidents that burned so deeply into consciousness
they remain there still. Seldom are these moments that bathe the remembering veteran in a heroic spotlight. That light they direct elsewhere, onto friends and compatriots they served alongside. Often the
memories are humorous, because there is little pain in such stories.
These are generally the only tales that veterans will tell wives, children,
and grandchildren. When askedas I have askedfor them to relate
the darker events, some refuse, but surprisingly most do their best.
One veteran's small fragment linked to those of other veterans is then
tied together with the historical and official record to yield a credible
account. An account that does honour to those who lived through a
terrible test of spirit.
When the book opens, the Canadians were mostly in and around Florence after the long summertime pursuit up the boot of Italy following the battles described in Zuehlke's previous book, The Liri Valley: Canada's World War II Breakthrough to Rome. Although theoretically in an open city, Allies and Germans faced each other in Florence across the Arno river and exchanged desultory fire. Fascist and anti-Fascist factions also sniped at each other. The Canadians, incognito, enjoyed quarters temporarily in sumptuous villas and private residences. As part of an elaborate cover plan to deceive German commanders, the Canadians had removed all identifying insignia from their uniforms. Within a few days, however, the plan changed. The Canadians sewed their insignia back on and the presence of Canadians in Florence was flaunted in the hope the Germans would notice, but the troops were soon ordered to remove insignia once more and move in secret to a new destination. Zuehlke's style is such that instead of writing something like "I Canadian Corps was ordered to begin moving from Florence...." he allows participants to explain:
As the sun started edging over the horizon, an officer woke Worton and ordered the mortars broken down. "We're moving out," he said.
"What about the shoot?" Worton demanded.
"Forget the shoot. Move it." When asked where they were going, the officer replied, "We'll all know when we get there."
An hour later, the mortar platoon drove away from Florence with no idea where they were bound. As he bounced along in the front seat, Worton started unstitching the regimental, divisional, and other identification insignia that distinguished him as Canadian. Once more, it appeared, I Canadian Corps was supposed to disappear into the midst of Eighth Army, leaving no trace of its movements to be detected by German intelligence. The sojourn of 1st Canadian Infantry Division in Florence was over and the Canadians were once again marching off in secret towards an unknown battlefield.
After briefly examining the German side of the line, Zuehlke explains the secrecy surrounding the change of Allied plans and the Canadian move across Italy. Originally intending to deceive the Germans into believing the Canadians were on the Adriatic coast but actually planning to use them much farther to the west, at the last moment General Oliver Leese decided to switch the Canadians and the weight of his British Eighth Army offensive to the Adriatic coast after all. This necessitated abrupt changes in the deception scheme. It also meant that the Canadians needed to be transported from one side of the Appenines to the other with little time to spare so they could play a key role in the offensive.
Leese and Sir Harold Alexander considered the Canadians among their very best troops and assigned them a vital role, but neither British officer had confidence in the tactical abilities of General Tommy Burns, commanding officer of I Canadian Corps. Had it been within their power, Burns would have been relieved before the Gothic Line campaign began. Both division commanders in the Canadian corps, Bert Hoffmeister of 5th Canadian Armored Division and Chris Vokes of 1st Canadian Infantry Division, agreed that Burns should go. It was not to be, but Leese's lack of confidence in Burns meant he was unwilling to assign a British division to operate in the Canadian corps. From the beginning, then, the two Canadian divisions would be operating under the handicap of not having a third division available as a reserve or exploitation force. The best Burns could do was to reorganize his forces to create a second infantry brigade for 5th Armored Division.
Just moving the Canadians across the Appenines to the Adriatic coast was a major undertaking that taxed engineering resources to the limit and generated immense traffic jams. More than one vehicle slid off hastily constructed roads and tumbled over steep slopes. Zuehlke gives two incompatible sets of figures for various vehicles transferred across the Appenines, but whatever the number it was clearly a huge job carried out under difficult conditions.
In Brune's book, the Aussies in Papua usually took their heaviest losses when forced to attack unknown enemy positions without sufficient probing and planning. In Italy, the Canadians after completing their unprecedented redeployment were faced with the equally challenging task of planning a corps-size offensive on unfamiliar ground less than forty-eight hours before it was scheduled by Leese to be launched. Like the Aussies, the Canadians had little time to scout the ground and probe enemy defenses. And, also like the Aussies, the Canadians would pay a price for the lack of reconnaissance and preparation.
On August 22, I CID began moving from Jesi to assembly areas for the Metauro River assault. The Royal Canadian Regiment tromped through the night to a midpoint position that lay five hours of cross-country marching from their final assembly point two hundred yards south of the hilltop village of Montemaggiore. Although it was night, temperatures hovered in the nineties; the air was lifeless and heavy. Underfoot, the ground was cracked and fissured from weeks of exposure to baking hot sun. Staggering under the weight of their heavy packs, the men sweated and quietly cursed every time they had to climb another of the steep slopes in this crazily rolling countryside.
At first light, the column stumbled into a cluster of olive groves. While the troops flopped under the scant cover of the trees to wait until nightfall and the last leg of the march, Major Strome Galloway and several other officers went ahead in a jeep to scout the final assembly area. They were soon standing out in the open on a small hill, looking down on the virtually dried-up Metauro. Galloway calculated that the water trickling over the stony-looking riverbed was no more than ankle depth. While the river itself wound oxbow fashion towards the coast, parallelling it at a distance of between three hundred and five hundred yards was the Via Flaminia Highway. Centuries might have passed, but the Roman engineering that had created the original great highway was still obvious. As Galloway started pointing out the various positions from which the RCR'S rifle companies would launch their attacks, Lieutenant Geoff Wright remarked casually, "I feel as though some bloody Jerry is staring at me through a pair of Zeiss field glasses." No sooner had he spoken than an artillery shell struck a house to the front of the officers.
As two more shells shrieked down, the men scattered. Flinging himself into a pigsty, Galloway pressed his trembling body against "the filthy hide of a huge, squealing sow." Captain Ted Maxted ran towards the beckoning safety of an open door belonging to the house struck by the opening round. Just as he reached the door, however, an Italian peasant inside slammed it in the officer's face. No other cover available, Maxted jumped into a ditch. The other officers had meanwhile wormed their way into a small cave. The Germans pounded the hill for six minutes with what Galloway estimated must have been seventy-five shells.
If the Germans had this forming-up position so well registered
that they didn't hesitate to waste that much ammunition on five
officers, Galloway realized a deluge of explosives and shrapnel would
greet the regiment's arrival here. He raced back in the jeep to 1st Canadian Infantry Brigade headquarters and warned commander Brigadier Allan Calder of the danger. Calder said it was too late to dramatically shift the regiment's forming-up position. All he could do was give the RCR a slightly wider front line so that it could disperse
the rifle companies farther afield to take advantage of available cover
inside the farm buildings.
Shortly before midnight on 25 August the Canadian assault opened, only to find the Germans had silently withdrawn from their forward positions. The supporting artillery barrage mostly hit empty ground, and the Canadians advanced unhindered. By daylight, however, the attackers were bumping against defended positions.
The point where combat commences in earnest is also the point, approximately 120 pages into the book, where Zuehlke begins using the recollections of Canadian veterans to best advantage. Unlike Brune, who sets slabs of paragraphs of direct quotes on almost every page, Zuehlke works the stories of Canadians into his own paragraphs and mostly limits the direct quotes to snippets of wartime conversations reported by the soldiers.
While Ritchie and the tankers searched uncertainly for Convent Hill, a small convoy of cars and motorcycles barrelled into Sahara in a boiling cloud of dust at 1630 hours. Out of a large convertible stepped Prime Minister Winston Churchill with General Harold Alexander at his side. As the headquarters was still being established, the situation was confused. Only the regimental padre, Major Rusty Wilkes, was on hand to receive the illustrious pair. Churchill asked after the tactical situation and Wilkes, somewhat flustered at having one of the
most powerful men in the world at his side and being no tactician,
sent a runner scrambling to find the nearest "combatant officer."
A few minutes later and some two hundred yards away, Captain Ted Shuter saw platoon sergeant Jack Napier jogging towards him. The commander of the antitank platoon had been trying to get all the regiment's vehicles concealed from German observation inside an old gravel pit, but the sudden kicking up of a plume of dust back at the headquarters had drawn mortar fire down on the pit itself. When Napier told him some visitors had arrived who wanted his immediate presence, Shuter was thrown into a foul temper. He, stalked back towards the party standing around Padre Wilkes.
As he got closer, Shuter forcefully swallowed his temper when he recognized General Alexander. Without looking at anyone else, Shuter crisply saluted the general. Alexander then turned to the portly civilian by his side and said, "You know Mr. Churchill, of course."
Churchill was wearing a pith helmet and tropical kit uniform
with no rank insignia. He gave the flabbergasted captain's hand a
hearty shake, while Alexander asked if "there was a possibility of seeing troops in action from the top of our sheltering hill?" Shuter warned that using the hill was dangerous, for the area was under
German observation. Alexander told Shuter to lead on anyway. As
they climbed the slope, Churchill continuously sucked on one of his
trademark cigars. From the hilltop, Shuter could "see some troops running diagonally across our front, about eight hundred yards
away." Having no idea of the real identity of the soldiers, he told
Churchill "they were RCR in an attack."
Suddenly, Ritchie's artillery started shelling the general area of
Convent Hill. Churchill beamed with pleasure as plumes of dirt were
thrown up and the black smudges of airbursts appeared. "Ah, cannon," he exclaimed and lowered his binoculars. Shuter could tell
that Alexander was getting increasingly twitchy about their situation
and so too was Shuter. The British Prime Minister should not be so
close to the front lines, exposing himself to this kind of danger.
Alexander finally coaxed Churchill off the hill. After thanking Shuter
for his kind assistance, the party roared off in another dusty trail.
In the early going, the Canadians found relatively easy success against the German 71st Infantry Division. Soon, however, they were up against their old foes from Ortona (covered in the first book of Zuehlke's trilogy) and the Hitler Line, the 1st Parachute Division. From that point the going grew much tougher. In addition to facing the paratroopers, as the Germans withdrew the Canadians ran up against the fortified positions of the Gothic Line itself: cleared fields of fire, anti-tank ditches, minefields, barbed wire, concrete casemates, trenches, and pillboxes.
Burns had hoped to "gatecrash" the Gothic Line before the Germans could deploy and fully man its defenses, but the Canadian advance seemed too slow. Upon their arrival, it appeared the paratroopers and 26th Panzer Division were in position, ready, and waiting. Instead of quickly overrunning the defenses, it was decided I Corps would need to prepare a set-piece attack with massive artillery shelling, air support, and even naval gunfire support. At the last moment, however, the tactical plan was changed. The Canadians would attempt to deliver an assault without preliminary bombardment in the hope that perhaps the Germans were not yet fully in position and could be taken by surprise. On 30 August I Canadian Corps launched its gamble. Despite heavy losses to some attacking units, it became apparent the Gothic Line was not fully manned in the Canadian zone.
Vokes and Hoffmeister both realized that I Canadian Corps was locked in a race with their German counterparts. They had struck just as the 26th Panzer Division and the 4th Regiment of the 1st Parachute Division had begun relieving the 71st Infantry Division. Some German companies were well emplaced, others still getting settled, and even more not yet in their assigned positions. If the Canadians moved quickly, Eighth Army commander General Oliver Leese's gatecrash could just happen. But more men were needed.
To the men in the thick of it, help would be welcome.
In the predawn light of August 31, the West Nova Scotia Regiment renewed its efforts to reach Point 133. Major Allan Nicholson's 'D' Company led, followed by 'C' Company, under Captain S.D.
Smith. As these companies passed the apex of the bridgehead held by
Captain J.H. Jones's shredded 'B' Company, German mortar and machine-gun fire smothered the entire front despite the effort of supporting artillery to force the enemy to take cover. Jones's men fired their rifles and Bren guns at the German positions, desperately trying
to support the two advancing companies.
Nicholson headed up a narrow gully that petered out just short of
the road. Although protected from the worst of the heavy fire, several
men tripped Schumines in the trenchlike channel. As 'D' company
emerged at the gully's end with 'C' Company still in trail, they became tangled in the minefield that had earlier maimed so many 'B'
Company men. They were also nakedly exposed to the Germans on
Point 133. Bullets cut men down, shrapnel from mortar rounds tore
into bodies, and mines exploded underfoot. Schumines tore legs off
both Nicholson and Smith. Soldiers hugged the ground or sought
any bush or depression for cover. When some men hit the dirt, they
landed on mines that detonated, ripping their chests or stomachs
open or tearing off arms. Others were similarly wounded trying to
crawl to safety.
Waterman ordered a withdrawal at 0630 hours, but the men were
unable to comply. They lay helpless under the German fusillade for
two and a half more hours until Waterman, still behaving with unusual sluggishness, finally arranged for a smokescreen to cover their
withdrawal to the gully. At 0840 hours, the Royal 22e Regiment
finished forming up in the bridgehead's rear and received orders to
take over the attack from the chewed up and utterly demoralized
West Novas. In just over twenty-four hours, the West Novas had lost
three men killed, seventy-two wounded, and three men missing.
Three of the wounded subsequently died. Everyone thought it a miracle that so few soldiers had actually been killed in the debacle.
The infantry were not the only ones with their hands full.
A Sherman tank commanded by Sergeant Weber escorted the prisoners back to the river. On the return trip, an armour-piercing round punched into the tank turret and exploded inside. Everyone
but the driver, Trooper Tom Blake, was killed. Shrapnel had, however,
penetrated the driver's compartment and passed through his chair,
peppering his back with a mix of metal and shredded horsehair from
the seatback. Painfully dragging himself towards the open turret
hatch, Blake saw the tank's main compartment was lathered in blood
and gore. Arms and legs lay everywhere. Only Weber seemed in one
piece, his corpse sort of leaning in a sitting position against the back
wall. Blake crawled out of the turret and fell to the ground. Because
of infection from the horsehair, his wounds would take two months to heal.
The tanks of the British Columbia Dragoons under command of Lieutenant Colonel Fred Vokes managed at great cost to kick a hole in the Gothic Line although Vokes himself (younger brother of Chris Vokes, CO of 1st Canadian Infantry Division) was killed during the attack he directed more or less against the orders he'd been given. Vokes and his tanks were supposed to wait for supporting infantry, but the officer impetuously sent the tankers charging without waiting for the riflemen. This is one event in the book where Zuehlke acknowledges some contradiction between what veterans remember and what contemporary 5th Armored Brigade records state, including the unit war diary. The latter claims it was a joint attack but the infantry became separated from the tanks after it began. The official history volume by Nicholson states "...the component forces did not come together." Fortunately, the supporting infantry arrived in time to help drive off the German counter-attack after dark.
Thanks in large measure to the costly assault by the Dragoons, the Canadians finally cracked the Gothic Line and sent forces hooking toward the Adriatic to cut off German paratroopers still holding out along the coast in the Polish sector. However, both Canadian divisions were exhausted and Burns held no division in reserve to fully exploit through the gap toward the Po river. In conference with Leese and Alexander, who days earlier had been ready to sack him, Burns was informed by the British they were recommending him for the Distinguished Service Order.
Burns left Eighth Army HQ cheerfully, but he also left lacking the very thing he most needed. Having cracked the Gothic Line wide open, I Canadian Corps desperately required reinforcement in the form of a fresh armoured division capable of shoving the disorganized Germans aside and plunging straight through to the Po Valley. The opportunity existed. The Canadians had created a gaping hole. Leese had the 1st British Armoured Division positioned to the south in readiness to carry out just such a breakout. But Leese had set his strategy in mid-August and predicated his operations on the supposition that the Germans would crumble in front of V Corps. The Eighth Army commander therefore offered Burns nothing more than the Greeksan infantry brigade of dubious value....
Not only was Leese still banking on breaking out through a corps
beginning to founder [British V Corps], but he made no effort on September 1 to move
1st Armoured Division rapidly north from its holding position to
where it could enter any breach that was opened. In a curious attempt
to reduce traffic on the few and heavily congested roads in Eighth
Army's rear, Leese had positioned the division one hundred miles
from the front. His initial instructions to its commander, Major General Richard Hull, were to be ready to start operations on September 7. These instructions went unmodified, even after Leese had approved the attempt to gatecrash the Gothic Line. Only on the night of August 31 did Leese order the division to start a ponderous approach
towards the Metauro River. No haste was urged and no accelerated
timetable was proposed for the division's breakout operation....
Hence, even as the Canadian Corps won its finest
victory in Italy, the decisive opportunity this success offered Eighth
Army was beginning to slip away.
Burns pushed his tired formations forward. For the first time, the Canadians were able to deploy their armored cars effectively in the role of cavalry in the more open terrain along the coast, sweeping through disorganized groups of Germans and reaching the coast highway in an effort to cut off the enemy facing the Polish corps on the Canadian right. But even with the armored cars the Canadians were not quite fast enough. When the advance was renewed on 3 September, the armored cars ran into a new line of resistance. In fact, the Germans had rapidly cobbled together new positions and there would be no grand waltz into Rimini and the Po valley, at least not without more heavy fighting.
While Zuehlke focuses on the action on the ground, it's interesting that there's scarcely a mention of air support until the night of 4-5 September. Surprisingly, it was not an Allied operation. The Luftwaffe sent a few raiders over the Canadians and caused disruption far in excess of their numbers and the actual physical destruction. It appears airpower was not much of a factor in these battles, and Zuehlke writes on only a couple of occasions about air support for the Canadians.
By 7 September it had become clear to Oliver Leese that the concurrent Eighth Army attacks by the Canadians and British V Corps on their left were stalled. It also became apparent that the Eighth Army commander would need to overcome his earlier aversion to assigning British divisions to the Canadian corps. Thus, 4th British Infantry Division, 25th British Tank Brigade, and elements of the New Zealand division joined Burns along with the previously assigned Greek brigade. The weight of Eighth Army's offensive was also shifted to Burns' corps as the autumn rains drew nearer.
After a pause in the fighting, on 12 September an artillery barrage involving 700 guns opened all along the Canadian front. At 2300 the assault commenced. The goal was Coriano ridge, Fortunato ridge, and a final breakthrough to Rimini and the Po valley. Even with the
Greek, British, and New Zealand units available, the advance was slow and costly. On the right flank, brigade HQ had been so certain of an easy victory that the battalion commanders were withdrawn so each second-in-command could gain experience leading the units in action. That didn't last long, because the German paratroopers and panzer grenadiers were not ready to call it quits. Five days later, the defensive line still had not been cracked, the Canadians were running out of strength, and nerves were fraying.
Lieutenant Colonel Syd Thomson was also receiving a new set of
orders for yet another attack. Brigadier Graeme Gibson told him that
the Seaforths should take San Martino by night assault. He made it
clear that Thomson was failing to push the regiment as hard as the
brigadier wanted. Neither officer was making any effort now to conceal his dislike for the other. Thomson thought Gibsonwho would seldom come up to the sharp endwas once again refusing to accept that his regimental commanders were capable of appreciating a tactical situation and making sound recommendations that would not be apparent to [brigade] or divisional staff from their rearward positions Because of this, there had been no tanks this afternoon and now just two companies of unsupported infantry would attack
Dissatisfaction with the performance of superiors and subordinates was not limited to Thomson and Gibson. All three of 1st Canadian Infantry Division's brigades were subject to escalating levels
of friction between officers. Throughout the day, 48th Highlanders'
Battle Adjutant Major Jim Counsell had endured constant calls from
Brigadier Calder demanding to know if the attacking companies had
secured their objectives. When Counsell passed these information
demands down to the officers trying to get their companies forward
in the face of mounting casualties, they would snap back: "Why don't
the staffs of Brigade or Division, or both, get off their fat backsides
and come up here and look at this country?" Thinking the same
thing, Counsell offered no reply.
September 17 ended with one regimental commander's replacement. Throughout the Gothic Line Battle, Lieutenant Colonel Ron Waterman's handling of the West Nova Scotia Regiment had ill
pleased Brigadier Paul Bernatchez. After stepping in following
Bernatchez's plane crash injury, Lieutenant Colonel Pat Bogert had
been equally dismayed to see the West Novas he had once commanded repeatedly mauled while being ineffectually led. With every urging to move faster and more aggressively, Waterman seemed to become only more plodding, more cautious. Finally at 0920 hours
on the 17th, Waterman had been called back to brigade headquarters.
Then, at 1100 hours, Major F.E. Hiltz, the West Novas' second-in-command took the regiment over.
At this point the Canadian problem much resembled the Aussie problem at Gona, Buna, and Sananandaforcing small units to attack strong positions without adequate scouting, probing, and preparation. Zuehlke quotes a captain of the Loyal Edmonton Regiment: "To send two companies without a reconnaissance to take an objective that the Seaforths had not been able to take when they were on the ground, and knew the lay of it, seemed a bit impossible...." The captain's fears were fully warranted, and the Edmonton companies failed to take the objective, suffering heavy losses in the attempt with nothing to show for it.
The Canadians nevertheless persevered in butting their heads against the German line, and eventually dislodged the defenders from some key positions. Along the coast, the Germans withdrew to the north of Rimini. According to the official history volume, the Greek brigade gained the honor of being the first Allied force to enter and liberate the city. According to Zuehlke, Canadian troops were actually the first into Rimini, but they were immediately ordered out of the city in deference to the Greeks for political reasons.
In any event, the fighting was not yet at an end. The Van Doos (all the Canadian regiments feature great nicknames like the Hasty P's and the West Novas) made a successful surprise attack to capture a foothold on Fortunato ridge during the night of 19-20 September. The Loyal Edmonton Regiment (the Eddies) also used unorthodox tactics to take San Lorenzo, and the German line was suddenly split open. Although their strength was not great, the spearhead of the Canadian corps looked down from their newly won positions to the broad plain of the Po river, with no more ridges to cross. The Canadians had broken the Gothic Line and captured Rimini, but the decisive stroke into the Po valley proved impossible. The Germans managed to form new defensive lines along every river, canal, and drainage ditch to bar further Allied progress. Here, as throughout the book, the prowess of the paratroopers and panzer grenadiers seems remarkable, in much the same way the Japanese fought tenaciously against the Australians in Papua under hopeless conditions. Almost without fail the Germans seemed to have machine guns perfectly placed to deliver interlocking fires on the attackers, their tanks were almost always Tigers and Panthers, their artillery and mortars constantly had Canadian positions precisely registered, and they inevitably launched brutal counter-attacks whenever they lost a piece of ground.
More months of mud and blood lay ahead, but the battle for the Gothic Line had ended. Most of the Canadians were allowed a brief rest. They had suffered over 4500 battle casualties in just under a month of offensive operations. Despite accolades for the performance of both Canadian divisions, not all their officers remained on the job. Waterman had already been replaced as CO of the West Novas. Syd Thomson of the Seaforth Highlanders and his brigade commander, Graeme Gibson, were both relieved (although Thomson soon took command of another Canadian regiment). At a higher level, Eighth Army's Oliver Leese was gently removed from command by the expedient of "promoting" him to a desk job in Southeast Asia. Leese's successor, Richard McCreery, promptly fired Tommy Burns as Leese had tried to do before the Gothic battles.
These changes in command and the way Zuehlke writes about them demonstrate one considerable difference between this book and Brune's book about the Australians. Brune voices his opinions very strongly and pulls no punches when
it comes to evaluating the performance of Australian commanders (and
MacArthur) in Papua. Zuehlke, on the other hand, is far more subtle and
perhaps too reticent in that regard. For example, he tiptoes around the
question of Waterman's competence and never explicitly states an opinion about the officer's dismissal, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions. Likewise, Zuehlke never
really clears up the story of Lieutenant Colonel Fred Vokes. Describing the officer as
"hard-driving, brash, profane, and abrasive," Zuehlke claims thatdespite all the relevant unit war diaries and
official documentsVokes disobeyed the pre-arranged plan when he ordered
his tanks to attack without waiting for the infantry to arrive. His unit took the ground, but suffered heavy losses. In
the same action, his impetuousnessor was it bravery and daring?led Vokes with his HQ tanks into a deadly ambush and, soon afterwards, his own death. Nevertheless, this costly attack drove the Canadians deep into the
Gothic Line and opened the way for the breakout. As with Waterman, Zuehlke
offers no weighing of facts or closing summary of Fred Vokes' performance. The same is true of Tommy Burns. Was he a competent corps commander or not? Zuehlke provides no specific evidence one way or the other, and offers no opinion of his own. This reticence goes in hand with the author's decision to get out of the way as much as possible and let the veterans tell the story.
Despite a certain lack of completeness concerning the leading personalities in the book, the author writes a touching epilogue about the Commonwealth war cemeteries where the dead of the Gothic Line are buried. His bittersweet description of the land as it looks today and the rows of headstones with worn inscriptions pays tribute to the gallant Canadians and closes the book on a perfect note.
The Gothic Line shares one other important similarity with A Bastard of a Place. Like Peter Brune, Mark Zuehlke has written one of the best books of the year. His entire trilogy about the Canadians in Italy deserves to be widely read and enjoyed, and this volume makes a strong, fitting conclusion to the long, bloody story. The Gothic Line earns a very high recommendation. We've already put it on our Recommended Reading list, and were it not for some difficulties in getting the book out of the chute this year it would likely have cracked our annual Top Ten readers' poll. Don't be surprised to see it with the cream of the crop on our year-end Editor's Choice page.
Available from online booksellers, local bookshops, or directly from Douglas & McIntyre Ltd.
Thanks to Douglas & McIntyre for providing this review copy.
Postscript: Publication of The Gothic Line was delayed for more than a year when the original publisher, Stoddart, went out of business. Fortunately, Douglas & McIntyre stepped in to pick up the pieces. The book has been available since November in Canada, but as of this writing seems not to be available elsewhere via the usual channels, online or otherwise. We're told it should be released in the US shortly after the first of the year.
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Reviewed 21 December 2003
Copyright © 2003 by Bill Stone
May not be reproduced in any form without written permission of Stone & Stone