Preparing for the push to the Po on 24 April 1945

The plan for the day was as follows:

The Brigade would pass through the bridgehead with as little delay as possible and, with the Inniskillings leading, would seize the village of Saletta. This was chosen as the first Brigade objective because the small village of Tamara between Fossalta and Saletta, had been occupied during the day by 1 London Irish Rifles of 56th Division. Once in Saletta, the Inniskillings were to press north directed on the river crossings at Zocca and Ro, whilst the Royal Irish Fusiliers were to strike to north westwards towards Ruina and the banks of the river west of Zocca.

Having crossed the river, the Inniskillings moved north as planned and all went well until they began to approach Saletta at about 0200 hours. Here, in the narrow approaches to the village, they began to run into serious trouble. The enemy’s determination to stand was not one atom diminished from its earlier intensity and a fierce battle at close quarters ensued.

At this stage, it became glaringly apparent why the approaches to the Po just east of Ferrara were proving so troublesome. 76 Panzer Corps, containing 26th Panzer and 29th Panzer-Grenadier Divisions, which had been given the task of covering the withdrawal of all the other forces, had chosen as its own line of withdrawal the crossings over the Po in the area of Polesella. Thanks to the work of the RAF, the bulk of this Corps was still waiting to cross.

At 0500 hours on the 24th, the fighting in Saletta was over and the Inniskillings were breaking through the town and pushing north. As soon as they were clear of the village, the Irish Fusiliers followed and turned towards Ruina. As morning broke, both battalions were pushing on slowly, but surely, towards the Po.

On the left, 11 Brigade, with the Bays, had also made progress. The Northamptons, advancing north west from Giacomo, were nearing Correggio at dawn, and the Surreys on the right, were preparing to attack a strong enemy position at Corlo, covering the bridge over the canal north west of the village.

During the evening, a break began to appear. The Northamptons attacked and captured Corregio, the Surreys forced their way through Corlo and seized the bridge intact – a notable achievement and, one of the first importance at this stage: the RAF struck at very strong enemy positions on the line of the Canale Fossetta in front of which the Irish Brigade was held up; the ‘Kangaroo Force’ was passed over the river and prepared to strike out on its last taste of destruction.

Amidst all this activity, a further great work was at hand; plans were being made for crossing the Po and the next stage of the pursuit. In this connection, 78th Division had been ordered to cross the river with one Brigade Group as soon as could be done after reaching the south bank. At the same time, a Brigade of 56th Division was to assault on the right.

The Divisional Commander had chosen 36 Brigade to lead the Division over the river and, accordingly, operations were in progress during the evening of the 23rd and the morning of the 24th to relieve the Brigade of its existing commitments south east of Ferrara. By 1045 hours on the 24th, this relief was complete and 56 Recce Regiment had taken over the Brigade’s positions. At midday, a big planning conference was in progress at Brigade Headquarters: ‘Fantails’ and amphibious tanks were being discussed; the launching and landing beaches were being chosen; a thousand questions, not previously thought of, were popping up to puzzle; and at 1300 hours, the operation was cancelled. 6th Armoured, 2nd New Zealand and 8th Indian Division were all up to the Po farther to the west and were meeting no opposition on the banks; it was obviously a waste of time for building operations to be delayed until the 78th Division reached the river, through an area still strongly held by the enemy.

Soon after midday, 2 Armoured Brigade’s private army was launched. It was ordered to pass between the two infantry brigades and sweep westwards towards the Ferrara – Pontelagoscuro canal moving between the Canale Fossetta and the Fossa Lavezoola. At the same time, 11 Brigade was to do a similar sweep westwards and clear the ground between the Canale Fossetta and the Po di Volano. The Irish Brigade was to continue on its original axis, directed on Zocca and Ruina.

“Mobile battle” and “fluid situations” reigned during the afternoon but, as evening approached, a distinct stiffening of resistance was noticeable on the Armoured Brigade’s front. At 1800 hours, there were reports of many enemy tanks in the area just north of Ferrara and, shortly afterwards, as the light was failing, 9 Lancers fought an exciting action in which 7 enemy Mark IV tanks, moving north east towards the ferries, were knocked out for the loss of only one of their own.

By this time, a peculiar state of affairs had been reached. Having swept right across 11 Brigade’s front, the ‘Kangaroo Force’ was strung out for some 4,000 yards with an open right flank and, with tank actions in progress over the whole area; night was drawing on; the infantry, in their ‘Kangaroos’, were a wonderful target for lurking enemy tanks in the general confusion and semi darkness. To exploit the enemy’s distress, however, it was decided that the battle would be pressed on by moonlight. The landscape was ablaze with burning houses and vehicles: further north, the RAF was dropping flares and bombing the roads and railways beyond the Po: in addition to the fires caused by bombing, shelling and mortaring, a new destruction had begun – the enemy was setting light to everything he had.

At 2030 hours, 5 Corps telephoned to say there were strong indications that the enemy had lost control of the situation. Intelligence channels had intercepted messages from the German command, that the situation was desperate and that each man must fend for himself. It was believed that the chief confusion was centred round the river crossings north of Pescara and Francolino.

As a result of this information, the Divisional Commander ordered 2 Armoured Brigade to swing round the north, cross the Fossa Lavezzola and make for the “disorderly enemy”. This was not, however, to be done before the engagement already in progress was brought to an end.

At 2235 hours, the Armoured Brigade, having had some four hours of intense and swift fighting, reported that things were beginning to quieten down. There had been a great deal of hostile fire from enemy tanks and self propelled guns throughout the Brigade battle zone and the force had become widely dispersed, each portion, including Brigade Headquarters, having had its own battle to fight. The intention was now to collect the bits and pieces together and move on towards the river, as soon as possible.

In order to carry out this new task and switch the axis through more than ninety degrees, a deliberate advance was decided upon and a fire plan was arranged. By 0130 hours, the infantry, with F and G Companies up, began to feel their way north, the tanks following some distance behind, ready to press through if opposition was met.

In the past few hours, however, the whole complexion of the front had changed. At sunset on the 24th, there had been strong groups of enemy tanks and self propelled guns mingled with numerous small detachments of infantry equipped with machine guns and bazookas. These forces – although scattered and disorganised, had known their job and were determined to do it. They were to delay our advances by every means at their disposals and, especially in front of the crossings at Polesella, Zocca and Francolino. They were to fight until all their main elements had crossed the river.

From 9 Lancers account:

“At 1415 hours, the Regimental Group, which consisted of 156 tracked vehicles and some 50 A Echelon soft skinned vehicles, moved off from the concentration area and, at 1500 hours, the two leading Squadrons began passing through the Infantry FDLS.

Almost immediately, both Squadrons reported that they were engaged with the enemy and bring troubled by snipers, Bazookas, Spandau fire and the odd SP gun.

For the first two and a half hours, the advance was once again extremely slow and Squadrons were only doing one thousand yards an hour. Once more, it was evident that we would have to fight in order to reach the objective. However, from now on, the advance proceeded apace and it was evident that the enemy crust was broken. Both Squadrons reported that they were pushing on fast but there were constant reports of AP shot coming from the front and both flanks. A Squadron, on the right, were picking up prisoners all the time and, once again, feeling embarrassed by the number. They eventually decided to leave one rifleman guarding over 50, including 3 Officers at a farmhouse and some of S Company were despatched to collect them.

B Squadron reported that they were running into more and more AP and then announced that they had knocked out one Mark IV and one SP 75 mm in the Boara area and a patrol from Recce Troop reported that the bridge over the Scolo Conca and Canale Bianco at Ponte del Diavolo were intact. They had great difficulty in getting up to the second one owing to heavy stonking. On this information, B Squadron 4th Hussars and F Company were brought forward: they went past very quickly and got into positions between A and B Squadrons. From now on, we advanced three Squadrons up with RHQ behind B Squadron 9th Lancers and C Squadron and H Company bringing up the rear. There was only now one hour of daylight left ad all Squadrons reported that they were being engaged by AP shot from all directions – C Squadron, behind, reporting that AP was coming in to them from their right rear. The odd AP shot was also landing in RHQ.

B Squadron’s leading troops had now reached Malborghetto and reported three Mark IVs moving fast down the road northwards, 900 yards away. Shortly afterwards, they reported that two of them were brewing and the third had got away but was hit and had smoke coming out of its tail. The third one was afterwards found holed and abandoned about two hundred yards off the road with two of the crew dead. Sgt Edmunds had scored a right and a left with two shots right through the turrets and Cpl Nicholls had disposed of the third. A magnificent piece of shooting. Several of the crew were dead and Sgt Riley from his Recce Troop Honey had a good Browning shoot at the others bailing out. A Squadron, on the right, now reported that 3rd Troop had brewed two Mark IVs and that AP was coming at them fast and furiously from every direction and they were heavily engaged. B Squadron was also heavily engaged to their front and left front and there were two Mark IVs knocked out. For the last hour of daylight, both A and B Squadrons were very heavily engaged. Both Squadrons were pinned by AP fire and they were constantly reporting knocking out German tanks and SP guns. AP shot was flying in every direction.

Once more, the 9th Lancers were engaged in a major tank versus tank battle. At last light, both Squadrons were still pinned. B Squadron had knocked out seven Mark IVs and two SPs and A Squadron, three Mark IVs and two SPs. A Squadron had one tank holed through the turret, killing the gunner and slightly wounding the Troop Leader.

We were now ordered not to go on to our objectives but to concentrate where we were and be prepared to go off either north east to two crossings over the Po, where there were supposed to be two pontoon bridges, possibly still intact, or to go south west to Ferrara and contact 8th Indian Division. Two slightly different roles. The Regiment was therefore ordered to concentrate in, and north of, Malborghetto. This was an extremely difficult operation for A Squadron and B Squadron to perform. Both Squadrons were still pinned. Even though it was now night, there was a full moon and the whole countryside was lit up by burning farmhouses and Mark IV tanks. Any tank movement brought a hail of AP shot and our tanks, when they moved, were silhouetted against the burning farmhouses. However, by moving one tank at a time, all Squadrons managed to get concentrated by midnight and all sounds of battle had died down. At this time, A Squadron captured intact a Mark IV tank in a farm, 200 yards from their concentration area. The engine was still warm and it was doubtless one of the tanks, which had been firing at them. Once again, the 9th Lancers group was sitting surrounded by a ring of fire and destroyed German equipment.

We now got definite orders to proceed to the River Po at Francolino and Borgo, where it was suspected that the German positions were still in operation. It was now after midnight and this was a tall order as the Regiment had already advanced 10,000 yards against heavy opposition since 1500 hours and this entailed a further advance of 5,000 yards, retracing our steps part of the way. There was no information about the enemy except what we knew ourselves. ie that there were still a considerable number of tanks and SP guns to our north and it was suspected we might meet heavy opposition.  We ordered, therefore, a patrol forward to the two objectives with a platoon of infantry leading in each case backed up by a troop of tanks and the rest of the squadron and company backing them about 500 yards behind. A careful fire plan was laid on with the Divisional Artillery including mediums covering the whole of both routes. This could be called on when required. At 0200 hours, A Squadron and C Company advanced north towards Francolino and B Squadron 4th Hussars and F Company north east towards Borgo. This advance proceeded smoothly, but slowly, with the infantry walking the whole way and, by first light, both companies were established on their objectives having met only light opposition on the way and having taken a number of prisoners.  There was no sign of a pontoon at either place.

On checking up in the morning, we found the whole area between Ferrara and Francolino littered with German tanks, SP guns and equipment of all sorts. Apparently, 26th Panzers were taken completely by surprise by the arrival of the ‘Kangaroo Force’. They had started to withdraw in front of us and eventually decided to stand and fight but, after losing ten of their tanks by our accurate fire, the remaining crews became so demoralised that they deserted their tanks and vehicles and self destroyed them between 2000 hours and midnight. This was confirmed by the civilians on the spot.

Not since Alamein, have 9 Lancers so beaten up a German Tank Regiment. Almost the entire tank strength of 26th Panzers must have been destroyed. Ten of their tanks were knocked out by our AP, the remainder became so frightened that the crews of two of them bailed out and gave themselves up and eleven bailed out and destroyed their own tanks.

During the day and night, we had advanced 15,000 yards; destroyed, captured or overrun much equipment. This amounted to:

10 Mark IV tanks destroyed. 2 Mark IV tanks captured intact. 4 SP guns destroyed. 11 Mark IV tanks (found abandoned and destroyed by the enemy on the southern banks of the River Po at Francolino). 1 SP gun. 2 Large Mortars destroyed. 1 20 mm gun overrun. 230 prisoners taken (including 2 Officers including 1 MO).

From Brigadier Pat Scott’s Narrative.

By 0245 hours, the Skins had reached Saletta and found it very much occupied, It was not captured until 0500 hours after a very stiff hand to hand fight. The enemy was fighting tooth and nail. About twenty of them were killed and four taken prisoner by the Skins. They then pushed on about 400 yards north of the village. The Faughs commenced to deploy on the left of the Skins about 0700 hours and began advancing up the road towards Ruina. The enemy resistance was increasing markedly and we were finally stuck on Canale Fossetta. The bridges were the main points of resistance where anti tank guns, self propelled guns of various types and a fair number of tanks were holding up all our attempts to push on or by-pass them. The enemy were bombed and strafed by aircraft and shelled continuously by everything we had throughout the afternoon but they still held on, keeping open the enemy’s escape route to the Po.

We moved Brigade Headquarters up to Tamara in the afternoon.

The ‘Kangaroo Army’ was again to be employed. They were to go up on the left of the Faughs across the Canale Fossetta and the Fossa Lavozzola, swing left and catch all the Krauts, who we anticipated were making for the main crossing place, which was on the Skins’ front towards Zocca and Guarda. The London Irish had crossed over the Po di Volano in their Kangaroos after the Faughs and were in an assembly area west of Fossetta, ready to be used either in an infantry or ‘Kangaroo’ role.

By 11 o’clock in the morning, the General decided on the ‘Kangaroo’ role and 9 Lancers was called up to join them. Their operation was a complex one entailing a wheel of more than 90 degrees after they had started and getting over the various canal obstacles. It went very well but, for some reason or other, they turned westwards before crossing Fossa Lavozzola.

Here is their account:

‘At 1330 hours, the ‘Kangaroo Army’ moved forward in two columns through the rest of the Irish Brigade in a movement designed to sweep the area between the River Po and the numerous canals running east from Ferrara and the Po immediately north of it. We moved forward through a maze of ditches and canals, the leading squadrons, aided it is true by air reports as to where bridges were or were not blown, doing a splendid job of work in finding a way through and, at the same time, keeping a sharp look out for the enemy.

By 1600 hours, opposition started to crop up and both G and E Companies did jobs of clearing enemy rear guards covered by our own tanks. Prisoners were now being taken in large numbers. At 1800 hours, reports came in over the air stating that enemy tanks could be seen in larger numbers than before. Between then and darkness, an exciting action was fought during which 7 Mark IVs were knocked out by 9 Lancers for the loss of only one of their own. The advance had gone so quickly that S Company carriers started to come under enemy AP fire from the right flank – a most undesirable situation.

As darkness fell, the tank action continued over a wide area, while the Companies in their conspicuous ‘Kangaroos’ tried their best to keep out of the armoured battle. Every farm for miles seemed to be burning and confusion seemed to reign. A decision to continue the advance by moonlight was again taken but, at 2200 hours, orders were received that the general direction of the advance was to be changed a full hundred degrees. We were now, when just short of our original objective, ordered to make straight for the Po at a point NE of Ferrara, where the Germans were reported to be evacuating their rearguards by pontoons.

A fire plan was laid on and, by 0130 hours, G and F Companies were feeling their way northwards with their respective tanks moving well behind. This complete change of direction during the hours of darkness was accomplished with very little difficulty in spite of the fact that we were still in contact with the enemy. As G and F Companies moved forward, the mass of armoured vehicles belonging to the combined armoured-infantry HW leaguered in a field only a mile or so north of Ferrara and waited for the two Company columns to report their progress. They met with only minor opposition and, by dawn, were on the banks of the Po in the midst of an extraordinary collection of abandoned and burning vehicles left behind by the enemy.

They included six more Mark IV tanks and a large number of lorries. Many Germans, who had either left it too late or could not swim, were rounded up.

Thus ended the fourth and longest advance made by the ‘Kangaroo Army’. The force settled down into billets in farms on its final battle field south of the Po and perhaps its final battlefield of the war.’

The ‘Kangaroo Army’ took about one hundred and fifty prisoners of war.

These exploits, of course, had a direct bearing on the situation in front of the rest of the Brigade. That night, there was to be an all out effort to get right up to the Po and finish the job.”


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