The River Battles

A nonfiction book by Mark Zuehlke.

Mark Zuehlke

The Canadians called it the Promised Land. In late September 1944, the Emilia-Romagna plain before I Canadian Corps stretched to the far horizon — a deceptively wide-open space where the tanks could run free. Throughout British Eighth Army, hopes ran high that once it entered the plain, the Germans could be driven from Italy. As soon as the advance began, however, the plain's true nature was revealed: the land was criss-crossed by rivers, canals and drainage ditches over which all bridges had been demolished.

With higher command urging haste, the Canadians entered a long and nightmarish series of battles to win crossings over each waterway, whose high banks provided the Germans with perfect defensive positions. Early fall rains caused rivers to spill their banks and transformed the countryside into the worst quagmire the soldiers had ever seen.

More than five months of battle followed, with weeks of hard fighting required to advance from one river to the next. Each month, conditions only worsened, and the casualty rates rose appallingly. As their comrades fell one by one, most soldiers sought merely to survive. Doing that much required every measure of stamina, courage and fighting skill they possessed. (From Douglas & McIntyre)

From the book

On September 22, 1944, Brigadier John S. Lind, commanding 5th Canadian Armoured Division's 12th Canadian Infantry Brigade, gathered his three battalion commanders and that of the attached supporting tank regiment — Lord Strathcona's Horse — on the heights of San Fortunato Ridge to examine their next field of battle. Before them, a vast sprawling plain stretched to the far horizon. This was what the division's tankers and the motorized infantry of the Westminster Regiment had longed for since their November 1943 deployment in Italy. The rugged terrain the Canadians encountered during their advances up either flank of the Appennines, which formed a hard spine in the country's centre, had prevented this kind of mobile warfare. Now, however, the Apennines had doglegged westward to the French Alps and stood behind them. It seemed they had reached that final ridge and were ready to "emerge in flat country where teh Tedeschi [Germans] would not be looking down (and accurately directing fire) from higher points further back." Westminster Regiment's Lieutenant Colonel Gordon Corbould returned to his battalion headquarters "fairly beaming. 'As far as you can see from up there, it's as flat as a pool table,'" he reported.

From The River Battles by Mark Zuehlke ©2019. Published by Douglas & McIntyre.

Author interviews

Gregor Craigie spoke with military historian Mark Zuehlke about his new book, The River Battles: Canada's Final Campaign in World War II Italy. 9:59

Other books by Mark Zuehlke