In late August of 1944, the 8th Hussars were very much in the fight for control of the Gothic Line, the last and by many accounts, the most fortified line of defence remaining on the Italian boot.
On August 29, the Hussars moved up to their designated outpost zone. They were supposed to have a few days to organize and prepare for battle but as often happens in war, the original timing of attack was changed. It was learned that the Germans were in fact unprepared for a possible attack. Yes, they had the fortifications in place but not the manpower as they had suffered great losses in recent days. It was obvious that this was the time to attack before the arrival of German reinforcements. New Brunswick boys proved their mettle in this success. Howard Keirstead, Bob McLeod, Cliff McEwen, Ron Lisson, Frenchy Blanchet, Jack Boyer and Padre Bill Burnett all distinguished themselves. Their leadership, intuition, determination and self-sacrifice were central to the Hussars movements and ultimate success over the next few days.
By September 1, The Gothic Line was no more. The Hussars had played an important role here. They were exhausted and had suffered many casualties but there was another objective which had to be taken.
The Hussars moved on to Coriano, a farm village perched on a ridge. This was yet another German strongpoint that had to be cleaned out before the allied forces could move on to the Marono River and Rimini. A well-planned attack would be required in order to advance.
By September 3, the Hussars were back in the thick of battle. On September 4, it became clear how strong a foothold the Germans had at Coriano as they let loose on the 8th Hussars “B” squadron. “A” squadron came quickly to assist. Heavy gun fire was exchanged at a range of 1000 meters. During the day, 2 “B” squadron tanks became trapped on a riverbed. It was a precarious situation for the two tank crews: 6 men in total. Earl Hilchie and Charlie Stevenson were killed by German gunfire. Charlie Stevens was paralysed below the waist after being hit in several places. Howard Keirstead received 7 bullets to his leg and two more in the arm. John Wentworth sustained serious leg injuries. Charlie Stevens perished on the way to the field hospital. This story is elaborated in greater detail in the museum. I encourage you to learn more about the heroism of Keith Fisher and Howard Keirstead. Theirs is an incredible story of determination in the face of insurmountable odds.
After this tragedy, the advance on Coriano was paused. It was necessary to tweak the plan. Lee Windsor succinctly sums up the situation in his book “Steel Cavalry: The 8th (NB) Hussars and the Italian Campaign” as the Hussars prepared for another assault on the ridge. Lee states, “The opponent was fresh, strong, prepared, well dug-in, concealed and held excellent defensive ground overlooking the Canadian front. The enemy force on Coriano Ridge was the strongest the 8th Hussars had ever faced in terms of both men and weapons. The mission now was not to break through the enemy line and seize a glorious prize but to wade into a powerful enemy force and destroy it”.
As the Hussars prepared for battle, they also had to contend with constant shelling and torrential rains which made navigating the terrain a real challenge. Changes in leadership were made as a result of injuries and sickness. Gordon Bruce, the new commander of “A” squadron, brought his troops in line with the Perth Regiment. Tim Ellis’ “B” squadron was paired with the Cape Breton Highlanders and Cliff McEwen remained with “C” squadron who were linked with Toronto’s Irish Regiment.
The second Battle of Coriano began on September 12. The front came alive with the sounds of artillery units firing on the Germans, an attempt to soften up the enemy line in preparation for the coordinated advance of the infantry and armour. Allied success was minimal in these initial steps as the Germans had their numerous guns shielded in ravines and reverse slopes behind the ridge. The forward slope of the ridge was protected by the Besanigo Stream and hundreds of mines which slowed down the advance of infantry and tanks.
The Canadians would have to navigate this perilous slope. The Germans, meanwhile, were positioned on a plateau which provided them with an excellent view of the valleys in front of and behind Coriano. The buildings of the town were central to the German defense as they were constructed of thick stone walls with a church and a castle serving as a central fortification within the village.
The key to crossing this plateau and seizing the ridge was to do so with the infantry leading the charge under the cover of darkness. The Perth Regiment would proceed on the left and the Cape Bretoners on the right. Once there, the engineers would clear the mine fields opening up two crossings over the Besanigo for the Hussars. “A” and “B” squadron then would pair up with their respective infantry cohorts to take control of the ridge. Once done, McEwen’s “C” squadron and the Irish would take on the bastion.
By 8:30 on September 13, all three Hussar squadrons had successfully dug into their objectives only to learn the Germans were preparing a counterattack. The allied response was swift as long-range medium and heavy artillery hammered the Germans, followed by an Allied bomber attack on the convoys. The counterattack was no longer a menace. However, the Coriano fortress was still a threat as survivors of the 15th Panzer Grenadier Regiment remained in place and they were backed by a Panzer regiment.
By mid-morning, Tim Ellis’ “B” squadron along with the Cape Breton Highlanders slowly advanced pounding each building along the way. The Highlanders then went in with grenades and bayonets to clean out the German infantry. “C” squadron and the Irish Regiment moved in at dawn. The town appeared abandoned. McEwen’s squadron was instructed to advance on the church and the castle. The 15th Panzer Grenadiers still had men there who were not about to surrender. At 10:25, the Irish Regiment found itself cut off and surrounded.
“B” and “C” squadrons and the Irish were facing a vicious battle. German infantry positioned in the houses surrounding the town piazza fired Panzer faust rockets at the 7 Shermans. The tanks responded and the town square became a close quarter battlefield. The Hussars felt it best to get out of this dangerous situation and withdrew to the northeast edge of town. From here, they shot at targets to support the infantry’s house cleaning operation throughout the day.
As the sun went down, enemy mortar and artillery fire continued to hammer the infantry units and the Hussars. To make the circumstances even more difficult, the Germans had received fresh troops which they positioned in front of the Marono River. Also, the Germans still held control of the castello. The Hussars had two essential tasks to perform:
- They had to blast the Panzer-Grenadiers out of the castle and cover the Irish Regiment as they moved in.
- They had to cover the 4th British Division as they advanced beyond Coriano.
The Hussars had been involved in battle for 18 consecutive days and had lost 25 men. Major Cliff McEwen and Major Tim Ellis both were awarded a Distinguished Service Order for their “skill, boldness and handling” of their squadrons in the face of the enemy during this two-week period. Lieutenant Colonel George Robinson received the Distinguished Service Order, and was appointed an officer of the Order of the British Empire, for his service with the Hussars and especially for his leadership at Coriano.
It was also during this two-week period that a new four-legged recruit was added to the ranks of the 8th Hussars. During the first attack on Coriano on September 4, “A” squadron spotted a young foal pacing in the middle of the battlefield. She was hurt, hungry and circling the body of her mother killed by a shell. The foal was taken back to the regiment’s aide post where her wounds were tended and she was given a shot of rum. She was named Princess Louise and became the regimental mascot. She would be secretly transported with the Hussars until their last actions in Holland, and after the war, she was brought home where she became a treasured symbol of the regiment and its illustrious service overseas.
The Battle of Coriano remains one of the defining battles of the Hussar history. The regiment truly distinguished itself here during the Italian campaign as it demonstrated its mastery of infantry-armour cooperation during battle.
Today, we honour Coriano’s place in the Hussar history. We remember the Hussars who fought there and came home and those who paid the ultimate price in the name of freedom. Lest we forget.
Windsor, Lee. Steel Cavalry: The 8th (New Brunswick) Hussars and the Italian Campaign. Fredericton NB: Goose Lane Editions, 2011.
Zuehlke, Mark. The Gothic Line: Canada’s Month of Hell in World War II. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2003.
Presented by Stephen Wilson at the 8th Hussars Museum on September 28, 2019 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Coriano.