Irish Brigade attack of 21 April 1945

The attack went in as planned in the early hours of 21st April, with 1 RIrF on the left and 2 Innisks on the right. On the north side of the railway, 5 Northamptons gave protection to the right flank and, beyond the twin canals in the south, 5 Buffs conformed with the advance.  Both Irish battalions moved forward quickly behind the gunners’ barrage and, by 0220 hours, two companies from each were across the canal, having used the rubble of the demolished bridge as stepping stones.

Opposition was far lighter than had been expected, many enemy having probably withdrawn as the barrage approached. By 0500 hours, the bridgehead was 800 yards deep, taking in the village of Montesanto and 30 prisoners had been taken, mostly from the 26th Panzer Division. Under cover of the bridgehead, 237 Field Company of the Divisional engineers succeeded in bulldozing a crossing of the canal, which allowed 10 Hussars to begin moving across at about 0800 hours. This regiment of the 2nd Armoured Brigade had been under the 56th Division’s command until a few days previously and had only just returned to its parent formation. The Bays, having already been deployed with 11 Brigade and 9 Lancers, being held on the leash to go through with the ‘Kangaroo’ force, 10 Hussars were now allotted the role of armoured support for the Irish Brigade. By mid morning, most of the two squadrons had joined the infantry around Montesanto.

Meanwhile, B Squadron of the Recce Regiment, with the tanks of 4 Hussars and the company of Northamptons, succeeded in clearing Croatia and so removed a constricting pressure from the right flank. The Surreys, at about the same time, occupied Runco, to the north of the railway and almost up to the Nicolo canal.

In order to obtain a major breakthrough, however, it was necessary to unleash the ‘Kangaroo’ force as soon as possible. Before this could be done, a larger bridgehead over the Nicolo canal was essential and 38 Brigade was ordered, therefore, to exploits gains with all speed.

In spite of still opposition and some very heavy shelling, the two Irish battalions succeeded in making a considerable enlargement of the whole bridgehead area by midday, and there was room, at last, for the ‘Kangaroo’ forced to form up over the canal.

This time, the orders to the Armoured Brigade were to seize Quartesana and Cona and the bridges over the canals at these two places. The distance involved was about 5 miles from the bridgehead and it was getting late.

After an unpleasant spell in an assembly area, the force began to rattle on its way at about 1500 hrs, creeping out in the open through the positions of the Inniskillings. As usual, difficulty was experienced in getting clear of our own forward positions and before the force was finally out in the open, it was late in afternoon.

As they tried to push on, both tanks and infantry came under intense fire from self propelled guns and enemy tanks. Frequently, these were sited in and around the farm buildings, which dotted the whole area and every house was a potential strong point. Several times, the infantry were compelled to de-buss and mop up enemy points of this kind as well as individual enemy with Bazookas, who were troublesome over the entire area.

Invaluable assistance to the armour was given by the RAF, whose cab ranks were at immediate call to the Brigade. A number of enemy strong points, tanks and guns were destroyed by this means.

As time wore on, resistance began to stiffen more and more. Despite all that had been done by the RAF and the infantry in ‘Kangaroos’, fire from enemy tanks and self propelled guns increased. The gunners were trying to give their maximum support and several ‘Uncle Targets’ were engaged with good effect. It was, however, just beginning to be difficult for the main weight of the divisional artillery to cover the ground ahead of this highly mobile force. It was the first and only occasion during the whole operation when the full weight of the divisional artillery was not available for each portion of the front. Eve at this time, the armoured force was able to call on the fire of 11 RHA, which was moving with the armour on 17 Field Regiment RA (two batteries using supercharge) and on tow medium regiments, which were able to give full support.

As darkness began to fall there, there was a growing atmosphere of suspense. The force, with its tanks and infantry and ‘Kangaroos’, was out on its own; no friendly troops were on either flank; close air support was over for the day and gunner support was limited; despite his disorganisation, the enemy had plenty of men and guns in the neighbourhood.

A quick conference was held by the 2nd Armoured Brigade’s commander: he confirmed that the bridges at Cona and Quartesana were to be seized that night.

The battle, which followed, was unorthodox, thrilling and magnificently fruitful. By the light of a bright moon and burning tanks and farm house, the force approached the bridges simultaneously in two columns. E Company made for Quartesana and F Company for Cona. Chaotic fighting ensued with tracer flying in every direction.

Quartesana, the approaches of which were continuously under mortar fire, contained three enemy tanks, several strong points of ‘Bazooka-men’ and a number of machine posts. The village, and the bridge beyond it, were rushed by the tanks and ‘Kangaroos’ and, after knocking out two of 9 Lancers’ tanks, the enemy withdrew in confusion into the darkness. The bridge was taken intact.

In Cona, a more complex battle developed. An enemy 15 cm gun was sited 100 yards beyond the river and was being used to fire over open sights into the area of the bridge and the village. It was backed up by strong points into the area of the bridge and the village. It was backed up strong groups of machine gunners and ‘Bazooka-men’. Two attempts were made by F Company, with the tanks, to rush the bridge and the second shot was successful; a firm bridgehead was seized shortly after 2300 hours and H Company was rushed up to reinforce F Company in holding the ground.

At 0100 hours on the 22nd, both bridges were securely in our hands, nearly 10,000 yards beyond the Nicolo Canal, which had been the front line at midday. A number of enemy had been killed and nearly 60 prisoners taken. Several trucks and a 15 centimetre gun had been captured: a heavily laden lorry, trying to escape, was hit at close range at close range by a shot from one of our tanks: the cargo was, or had been, artillery ammunition.

Meanwhile, other elements of the Division had not been idle. Operating o the right flank of the Armoured Brigade and under its command, 56 Recce Regiment (less B Squadron), advanced during the late advance during the late afternoon to occupy the general line of the Condito Belriguardo from Voghenza northwards to just short of Quartesana. In the course of this operation, many mines and demolitions were encountered and numerous pockets of enemy were eliminated.  Voghenza was seized and 19 prisoners were taken.

At the same time, on the left of the Armoured Brigade, 36 Brigade, with 48 RTR, was again doing great things. During the morning of the 21st, while the Irish Brigade was extending its bridgehead over the Nicolo Canal, the Buffs crossed the Fossa di Porto and came up on left. At 1330 hours, the Argylls were put at half hour’s notice to move and, at 1530 hours, they, too, were off.

These last few miles before Ferrara covered flat and very open country which, despite the multitude of canals and dykes, proved to be favourable ground for the tanks. The regiment made the most of it; by 1900 hours, with the Argylls, the armour reached Possessione San Antonio, after encountering resistance similar to that in the Armoured Brigade’s sector. Being without ‘Kangaroo’ Carriers, however, the infantry in this spearhead were less fortunate and suffered a number of casualties (about 25 wounded) between mid afternoon and sunset. A number of prisoners was taken, including some ill mannered Nazis of the 26th Recce Unit.

After nightfall, the Argylls, followed now by 6 RWK, continued to push on rapidly and, by 0100 hours, had reached the line of the Po di Volano to the west of Cona. That this was achieved so close on the heels of the Armoured Brigade was a grand success of the pedestrian infantry.

The Argylls were anxious, having come so far and so rapidly, to push on over the Po di Volano without delay. This request, however, was refused as there were no bridges intact across the river in the sector and tanks would not have been able to follow.

From Brigadier Pat Scott’s account.

“It was an achievement of the highest order on the part of both the Skins and the Faughs that they were in a position to launch this attack by 0130 hours on 21st April. The General had told me that he considered it was about the highest test in the military art that he had yet asked us to undertake. It was a test in which both battalions once again proved their ability. Everyone who has handled a battalion in these circumstances knows only too well the number of things that can go wrong unless the CO and his team foresee the possibilities for a muddle accurately and forestall them. It reflected the greatest credit on everyone concerned in handling those battalions…

.. It was most unfortunate that one medium gun in the barrage was firing short and several times fell in the middle of C Company of the Skins, who had to choose between losing the barrage altogether or keeping up with it and enduring the inevitable casualties. They kept up with it – but at a price. Johnny Duane, the Company Commander and Mike Murray were wounded and a number of other casualties inflicted. The CSM took command of the remainder of the company but, by the time they had reached the canal, they were too reduced to be effective for the next phase.

These barrage incidents are always far more upsetting to people’s morale than a higher number of casualties inflicted by the enemy and, in view of what happened the next day, must give the greatest credit to those fellows for the magnificent way they kept the fight up. ..

..The troops were able to cross over the remains of blown bridges more or less dry shod and, by 0500 hours, both battalions were firm with a bridgehead about 800 yards deep and the REs were bulldozing a tank crossing. This crossing eventually took wheels as well. We had taken about thirty prisoners from 26th Panzer Division. It was the first time that we had met this Division, hurriedly brought across from the south west, who hoped, together with 98th Division, to stem the serious thrust that was now developing against the Germans.

It was unquestionably the time to take risks. Open flanks and things of that kind were just too bad. The point was that a deep penetration was far more upsetting to the Germans at this phase than the open flank was to us. They were already too disorganised to profit by such things.

The ‘Kangaroo Army’ was to pass through our bridgehead as soon as possible and strike in a north easterly direction. In order to do this, we would have to extend our bridgehead towards the north east. The ground was unpleasantly open for this sort of thing and there was a very considerable amount of stuff flying about. It meant that the Skins would have to swing north east and gain control of, at least, two crossings over the Condetta Motto and the Faughs would have to push forward a bit further and cover our left flank.

By midday, I was in a position to give the OK to the ‘Kangaroo Army’ and very glad I was to be able to get this strong force through this hotly contested battlefield. It appeared that we had defeated most of the Bosche on the ground but the battalions were suffering a good deal from well observed shelling. Out on each flank, observing both the battalions, were high towers in village and the situation would not alter until we could overrun the Bosche OPs so the sooner that was done, the better…”

(Note: 17 Skins and 4 Faughs were killed during the advance on the morning of 21st April 1945).

From the Irish Rifles’ narrative:

“The force moved through the Inniskillings going due north over very open country to the west of Voghenza. As before, some difficulty was experienced in discovering the exact locations of our own FDLs.

Continual opposition was met from well sited SPs and tanks, often situated behind ground of farm buildings and the companies were called upon several times to de bus and mop up enemy bazooka men and Spandau posts. The RAF, as always, was putting in magnificent work, the “cab ranks” flushing or destroying several SPs and tanks ahead of the leading squadrons.

As evening approached, the resistance stiffened more and more. Fire from enemy tanks increased and F Company dealt with several pockets of enemy troops, some of whom were sited up trees. Some ‘Uncle’ targets were put down by our guns on points of resistance but the force was now rapidly running out of the supporting range of the artillery. A definite feeling that we were out on our own with no friendly troops on either flank became very noticeable. Reports of “lots of Krauts on our right” or “can see Ted transport moving out of range on the left” began to come in.

Light now began to fail. A quick conference was held and it was decided to carry on to the final objectives. These objectives were the bridge at Cona and Quartasena,

A most unorthodox battle followed. By the light of the moon and burning farmhouses, the tanks, escorted by E and F Companies, attacked Quartasena and Cona respectively. Both columns were soon involved in a most chaotic battle in which tracer flew in every direction.

Quartasena, the approaches to which were continually being mortared, contained three enemy tanks and several strong parties of bazooka men and machine gunners. After two of our tanks had been knocked out, the enemy withdrew and escaped in the darkness over the bridge. This bridge, our objective, was captured intact.

In Cona, an even more complex battle developed. The enemy had a 15 cm gun sited 100 yards over the bridge, firing with open sights back onto the bridge and down the village. It was backed up by the usual groups of machine gunners and bazooka men. At the second attempt, F Company rushed the bridge, having been nobly backed up by the tanks, who were having a most uncomfortable time nosing their war round in the dark. A firm bridgehead was captured and H Company was rushed up in their Kangaroos to reinforce F Company. By 0100 hours on the 22nd, the situation at both bridges was satisfactory. Almost 60 PW were taken during the operation besides quite a few enemy killed. Several trucks and a 15 cm gun fell into our hands, while an enemy lorry laden with artillery ammunition was hit at short range, while trying to escape by one of our tanks.

By now, the battalion was extremely tired, at least half of it, having been on the go for over 72 hours. At 0600 hours on the 22nd, the Lancashire Fusiliers arrived up and relieved us. During that day, we all just slept.”

Brigadier Pat Scott’s narrative continues:

“After the ‘Kangaroo Army’ had passed through, the situation on the Skins’ front eased at once. Their Tactical Headquarters, which had been with the forward companies since the battle started, was now to establish itself in some more suitable building, a little further back. The IO was accordingly despatched to look for one. He went back to an area some distance behind B Company, where a likely house could be seen.

While crossing towards this farm, the IO was somewhat nonplussed by the antics of some British soldiers around some of the neighbouring buildings. Nearly 24 hours had passed since the Skins’ first crossing and so he decided that the first priority was a building where Battalion Headquarters could have a meal and a much needed clean up. He, therefore, continued on his way. When he got safely to the house, he noticed these British troops were advancing towards him under cover of a well laid smoke screen. They advanced in extended order, captured the house and promptly took him prisoner. In an immediate interrogation, the IO told these people, who I may say came from a flanking Brigade of our own Division, that this house was Battalion Headquarters of the Skins, who had been fighting all day in that area. This information was received with scorn, for those warriors claimed that they had just crossed the San Nicolo canal and, what was more, they were the first to do so. In reality, they were nearly the last unit in the Division to come over! This particular house, moreover, was their final objective. Even the IO’s identity card was eyed with considerable doubt. When an impasse appeared to have been reached the CO, David Shaw, fortunately turned up in a tank and told these veterans to go and look for some other objective. Enquiry showed that their attack had been a genuine one by a unit not quite in the picture and the whole thing was dismissed with a laugh.


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