The Last Objective – The Santerno Bridgehead

On the morning of the 10th, I held a final conference at Brigade Headquarters in Forli to go through the plan that appeared to be the most likely one for us to embark on. The grouping was designed to be appropriate to any variety of the plan that might be dictated by future events. The Brigade Group that we handled during the Santerno Bridgehead phase was about the size of an Armoured Division. In addition to our battalions, our armour included the 2nd Armoured Brigade (less the 10th Hussars), 4th Hussars, B Squadron 51 Royal Tank Regiment (Flails), C Squadron 51 Royal Tank Regiment (Crocodiles), an armoured assault troop RE, a donor troop RE. The artillery under command was the 17t Field Regiment, 11 RHA, 2 troop 209 Self Propelled Battery, 254 Anti Tank Battery and the support of as much of the remainder of the Divisional artillery as we could use, which included a medium regiment. In addition, of course, we had our 214 Field Company RE, 152 Field Ambulance and D Support Group.

The object of our operation was to pas through the 8 Indian Division’s bridgehead over the Santerno, about Mondaniga, swing north between the west bank of the Santerno and the Scalo Fossatone and capture the bridge over the River Reno near Bastia, an advance of about 12,000 yards. Obviously this was too deep an attack to carry through with the same units landing as there was no reason to suppose that the Germans would not contest every yard of the way from their well prepared positions. I, therefore, had three elements to undertake the task – a breaking out force, a mobile force to follow through and the reserve force for special roles. This mobile force was entirely mounted on trucked vehicles and should be able to maintain a uniform speed of cross country performance throughout all its units and sub units. The object of the mobile force, under command of Brigadier John Coombe, was to be ready to pass through the breaking out force as soon as that force had either shot its bolt or the going appeared to be favourable for the armour. I hoped to be able to pass this force through as soon as the breaking out force had cleared up to the bottle neck at Giovecca. We hoped that the speed of the final advance, might bounce the River Reno bridge, which was our objective.

In detail, the grouping was as follows:

The Break Out Force.

1 RirF                                                                                     2 Innisks.

A Squadron Bays.                                                             B Squadron Bays.

D Support Group MMG Platoon.                                               C Squadron 51 RTR (Crocodiles).

Scissors Bridge.                                                                 D Support Group MMG Platoon.

Bulldozer Troop RE.                                                         Reconnaissance Party Re.

Artillery in Immediate Support.

17 Field Regiment RA.

11 RHA.

The Mobile Force (Kangaroo Army).

Headquarters 2 Armoured Brigade.

9 Lancers.

4 Hussars (Kangaroos).

Z Troop 209 SP Battery.

Assault Detachment RE

2 LIR.

Reserves for Special Roles.

C Squadron, Bays.

254 Anti Tank Battery.

SP Troop 254 Anti Tank Battery.

Armoured Troop RE.

D Support Group, Mortar Platoon.

214 Field Company RE.

152 Field Ambulance.

At 1300 hrs on the 10th, we left Forli and concentrated, less the armour, south of Bagnacavello. Our teeing up was really being done in two stages. We had two assembly areas east of the Senio – one for infantry and one for armour and we had a marrying up area near Lugo on the west of the Senio. It was necessary to assemble fairly near the Senio in order that we might start making use of the bridges as soon as they were ready. If possible, infantry and tanks should never cross an obstacle in the same place and so there was no object in bringing them together until they had got across the river by their different routes. We got into our assembly area without incident and, in the light of the latest information, I issued verbal orders for the move to the wedding area east of the Senio where the tanks and infantry would join up to start at 6 o’clock the next morning.

This move went without incident and, slowly but surely, we gathered the bits and pieces that were to form our force, At 9 o’clock that evening, I held a coordinating conference in Lugo, checked over the plan and the tying up of all the Group and made provisional arrangements for the order of march forward. During this night, the 8 Indian Division were to form their bridgehead over the Santerno and to link up with the New Zealand Division, who had already got troops across in some places but whose bridgehead was not yet formed.

One of the characteristics of crossing rivers is the conflicting and often contradictory information that one receives over the state of bridges. One person says a bridge will be ready in two hours, then it is put back to six, then someone else says it was ready half an hour ago. The next thing that happens is that something falls in. We had learned that the only way to overcome this is by direct communication to our own representative at the bridge site. Even that does not overcome the human factor of incorrect estimates of time required to complete a job. The main point was that we were in a good position to get across the Santerno bridge as soon as it was ready. Apart from a few harmless shells that were scattered around Lugo, we suffered no discomforts.

About half past eleven on the 12th, the Santerno bridgehead was beginning to look pretty good and bridges were expected to be ready sometime during the afternoon. The general advance on our Northern flank was such that a variation to the original Divisional plan could be made. In the original plan, 36 Brigade were to sweep north along the east of the Santerno while we were on the west. It seemed unlikely that organised resistance east of the river would amount to anything very much and the wise alternative of switching 36 Brigade on to our left and merely using some of the Reconnaissance Regiment on the east of the river was decided upon. 36 Brigade were to strike out in a westerly direction towards San Patrizio and Conselice and so give us more elbow room to jump off and cover our flank. To be of most value in this role, it was clearly necessary that 36 Brigade could move first and fortunately the lay out in the wedding area permitted this to be done without any difficulty.

They started off about 4 o’clock and were able to begin their attack that evening. We had also hoped to start that evening but congestion on the tracks and bridges and the shelling of our bridge delayed matters so much that we could not manage it. The attack was therefore postponed till dawn and the Faughs were told to maintain contact that night by patrolling. The Indians kept contact on the Skins’ front.

0630 hrs on the 13th was the zero hour for our breaking out force.

36 Brigade, in the meanwhile, had done well and gave us considerable elbow room on our left flank. The Germans must have been a bit foxed when we turned north that morning, as 36 Brigade’s advance would have made them expect the main thrust to be in a westerly direction.

I left Main Brigade in the ‘wedding area’ and established a Tactical HQ just east of Mondinaga with John Coombe, Margot Asquith commanding the Bays, Rupert Lecky commanding the 17th Field Regiment and with John McClinton as assistant.

I was very keen for the Faughs to get some elements of infantry and tanks across the Scolo Fossatone to cover the left flank. This was more easily said than done but, fortunately, with the assistance of the Assault REs, we got them across. As the advance went northwards to the bottle neck of La Giovecca, the frontage between the Santerno and the Fossatone narrowed down to less than a thousand yards. I felt it was important that we should be on a rather broader front than this if we were to have room to get the ponderous Kangaroo Army through the Gap.

The nature of the country was true to the form that I had previously described. Although not yet in leaf, the vines and trees restricted visibility to about 100 yards and provided excellent cover for small determined parties on both sides. Especially did it help the Bosche bazooka men. Enemy strong points were continually being met but, by the speedy and determined efforts of the tank-cum-infantry packets, they were soon dealt with.

The strongest resistance was probably met about the line running east and west through San Bernadino. Elements of the 8th Indian Division were advancing on this place from the east but, even so, the Skins had a tough time in this sector. The Bosche were sitting tight in their holes and it took quite a lot of determined work to kill or capture them.

By about midday, both battalions were approaching the La Giovecca bottleneck and the moment seemed ripe to unleash John Coombe and his Kangaroo Army.

It was a difficult job getting so many armoured vehicles through this thick country and to pass them through our foremost troops. I had arranged for recognition signals to be fired by verey pistol to indicate our forward positions to the approaching tanks but, even with this aid, they found great difficulty in determining friend from foe. Leading elements of the mobile force was beginning to take on the enemy by about 1330.

I include here the London Irish account of this phase of the battle:

“The object of the Kangaroo Army was to secure crossings over the Conselice Canal and, if possible, exploit to the River Reno, several thousands of yards ahead.

At first, little resistance was encountered. The Skins and the Faughs had given the enemy a good shaking and he was on the move back. Scattered enemy Bazooka men were met and one tank was lost through the fire of an anti tank gun but a number of prisoners were taken by G Company.

As the Conselice Canal was approached, the rivers opened out and H Company, with C Squadron of the 9th Lancers, came up on the left. Resistance was encountered in the village of La Frascata. This was immediately by passed but, as the leading tanks arrived at the canal, the bridge was blown up immediately in front of them. H Company, who had driven past La Frascata in their Kangaroos, speedily de bussed on the banks of the canal and, covered by the tanks, forced a crossing over the remains of the road and railway bridges, getting into the houses on the far bank so rapidly that few of the defenders managed to escape.

Meanwhile, G Company was clearing the area up to the canal bank on the right and E Company was ordered to clear La Frascata and assist H Company in holding and enlarging the bridgehead. The enemy had been surprised by the speed and weight of the attack. Few of them, not more than ten, had been killed but all three forward companies had taken numbers of prisoners. By 1830 hours, the total was eighty.

The bridgehead was firmly established by 2200 hours and Companies were dug in for the night. Sappers were building a bridge over the canal, the armour was in leaguers and plans for the following day were being made. A large increase in the number of wrist watches possessed by H Company was noticed.

Early on the 14th, before dawn, patrols from E Company were feeling their way up through Lavezzola towards the River Reno. At first light, they were followed by the armour in two columns, one due North along the axis of the main road and the other sweeping round to the right to avoid the minefield that were known to exist in the Lavezzola area. The whole area was heavily mined and the houses booby trapped in the northern half of the village but luckily the German mine warning notices were still in place and not a single casualty was caused to either tanks or infantry. The flails had a great morning exploding mines.

The Reno was reached at 0940 hours, about 30 prisoners having been taken. These included eight taken in the act of laying further mines. Both the road and rail bridges over the river were gone but sufficient rubble still remained to allow foot soldiers to cross dry shod. Reconnaissance was carried out and a plan evolved for two platoons of E Company to cross and form a small bridgehead. This took place at 1230 hours without resistance and under cover of smoke, but while the platoons were advancing North from the river they were heavily counter attacked and most of them over run. No assistance could be given by the tanks owing to the high floodbanks and the absence of a bridge. Positions were now taken up on the next bank and further reconnaissance carried out with a view to making a deliberate crossing.

At this time, 56 Division, who had landed on the southern shores of Lake Comacchio were still several thousand yards east of this attempted bridgehead and the enemy was therefore very sensitive to a threat from their southern flank. It was however, decided to hold positions on the southern bank of the river for the night and eventually the battalion was ordered to maintain their static positions for the next two days. A point of special interest which arose at this time was that the 1st Battalion, London Irish on the left flank of 56 Division was, for the first time in this war, sharing a common piece of the front with this battalion and, on the first night, one of their patrols crossed the Reno and contacted G Company.”

On the evening of the 13th, the Skins clamped down about La Giovecca and the Faughs were spread out on the West of the Fassatone watching the flank. Both battalions had fought magnificently during the day and had had a long and anxious period moving up for the battle. We captured two officers and one hundred and fifty seven ORs mainly from 362 Division during the day’s work.

On the 14th, the London Irish were the main participants as already described by them. The Skins had a day off and the Faughs were patrolling out in the West. Brigade Headquarters were established at La Palazzina about half way between the Skins and the London Irish.

Partisans appeared in this area. They proved a mixed blessing. There were two types, those who put on their arm bands and slung their muskets round their shoulders after the Bosche had pulled out and those who did fight genuinely, many of whom had fresh wounds. The second variety were extremely helpful and had detailed maps and drawings showing enemy positions and minefields, which later proved to be very accurate. They all, however, had one big failing, common throughout Italy. Once having allowed them to start taking, nothing would induce them to stop. They held non-stop meetings throughout the day, which were soon referred to as “Partisan O Groups”. These meetings resembled mobile arsenals, for all the men and also the women carried at least four weapons and were festooned with bandoliers, grenades, knives and every sort of “what have you”. Bala Bredin CO of 2 LIR enlisted a platoon of these scoundrels, from which he was expecting great things but I never heard much more about them. As well as the partisans, some odd members of the Cremona Gruppo got mixed up in the proceedings – I suppose they had friends in those parts.

On the 15th, the Faughs sent patrols to clear up the marsh lands up to the Sillaro river. The enemy was holding the far bank in some places and had strong points in houses. That evening, this clearing up job was taken over by 36 Brigade and the Faughs concentrated.

56 Division, in the meanwhile, had come up level with us on the north of the Reno and had passed across our front towards Bastia and Argenta so were able to start bridging operations across the River Reno. It was estimated that the bridge would be ready for our further advance by midday the following day and we were accordingly placed at four hours notice to continue the advance the next morning. Not only had our part of the battle gone according to plan – which is a very rare thing to happen – but the whole of the Army Group was moving according to schedule too. Everything was looking very promising, but the big battle of the Argenta Gap, on which the whole success of the 5 Corps advance depended, still lay above us. Some regrouping took place at this stage and we lost a good deal of our force. The Bays were to join 11 Brigade and the 9th Lancers were to be with us. The 2nd Armoured Brigade from now on remained directly under Division. The ‘Crocodiles’, ‘Flails’ and Assault REs also left us as all those sort of things would be playing a big part in the dense minefields of the Argenta Gap.

On the morning of the 16th, 11 Brigade passed through 56th Division towards Argenta, having made a detour to the east and passed over 56th Division’s bridges. At 1400 hours, we got a telephone message to say that we were to move at 1700 hours and pass through 11 Brigade after they had made a bridgehead over the Fosso Marina. The Bays were to cross back under our command on our arrival and the Kangaroo Army of 9 Lancers, 4 Hussars and London Irish were to be reformed under command 2 Armoured Brigade. This sudden change in the armour caused some confusion, as preparations had already been made with 9 Lancers with regard to carrying ammunition in their tanks, netting their wireless sets and fixing in additional sets.

Our bridge was ready and we duly started off but there was the most terrible congestion on the road and bridge over the Reno. Something had gone a bit funny with the bridge at the last moment – it was a very long one.

The London Irish were to go over at 0400 hrs the next morning in their ‘Kangaroos’ and “marry up” with 9 Lancers on the north of the Reno. Brigade Headquarters opened up that evening about 3,000 yards east of Bastia. The Brigade, less the London Irish, concentrated just to the north.

The plan was for us to pass through the Lancashire Fusiliers, as soon as they had secured their bridgehead over the Fossa Marina. These obstacles were the largest canal that ran from Argenta in a north westerly direction across our front. It was the main obstacle in the area. The Faughs were to go first and advance in a north westerly direction; the Skins were to follow them and swing west.

Zero hour was to be first light on the 17th. Each battalion had its squadron of tanks and normal supporting arms. The whole move was designed to outflank the town of Argenta on the east and then cut Route 16 north of it. The plan, if successful, would seal off the town and open a way through the gap.

The Argenta Gap was no ordinary problem. It was flanked on the left by the river Reno and on the right by flooded low lying country and the Comacchio lake. The enemy was determined to prevent all attempts to break through this Gap of a little over 4,000 yards wide. Another gap in the floods about 1,000 yards wide existed further east by the Strada dell Pioppi and, in that area, 56th Division were smashing their way through against stubborn resistance.

The country, itself, was cut up by irrigation ditches and cultivation until it suddenly became very open beyond the Fossa Marina.

Most elaborate minefield had been laid to the south of the Fossa Marina. 11 Brigade had the ‘Flails’ to assist them in their advance up to the Fossa Marina. In the later stages, they tried to use them in the dark and the chains got hung up in trees. There was a great dearth of chains – why we should have run out of this rather obvious and inexpensive item of this rather expensive piece of equipment was difficult to understand. More were alleged to be on their way out from England by air.

The results at issue in this battle would be far reaching. If we were successful, all the enemy’s river defence lines up to the River Reno would be turned, his rear and left flanks would be exposed and the way to the Po would be open for us. It was not surprising, therefore, that a hard battle lay ahead; perhaps the most important battle of the campaign. The Germans were rushing their reserve 29th Panzer Grenadier Division down from the north to back up what was left of the now battered 42nd Jaeger Division and 362nd Infantry Division.

The original plan, which catered for the Lancashire Fusiliers crossing the Fossa Marina during the night in order to give us a flying start at first light, was found to be so difficult that they were unable to carry it out during that night. Our start, therefore, had to be delayed for several hours while the bridgehead was formed and an ‘Ark’ put into position. Our forming up was considerably complicated by the fact that it had to be done in the middle of a German minefield. Fortunately, we had a trace of these minefields and their markings of its boundaries were still mostly in position. The usual bridge trouble was very much in evidence ad so we were very slow in getting things across.

After the Faughs had got two companies across and had started off on their axis, I gave the Skins permission to start their crossing in order to get the attack going on a two battalion front. It was no place to hang about waiting for people. Even so, it was about midday before the leading companies of the Skins were across. Both battalions were very soon involved in hard fighting and were engaged by tanks, both large and medium and Self Propelled guns. The open nature of the country in place rather played into the enemy’s hands and it was unavoidable that we incurred a certain number of both tank and infantry casualties. By 3 o’clock, the Skins had reported forty two prisoners and one Tiger knocked out.

Our artillery was first class in all these contacts. The FOOs were excellent in their immediate response to stonks, which were called for. Throughout these battles, we were using the air photographs with the ‘Uncle’ targets marked on them, which had always proved so invaluable in the past.

By the evening, our advance did not represent much more than 1,000 yards all round, but we were beginning to achieve our object. The Skins were getting round beyond Argenta and were firmly established astride the railway and the Faughs were practically established up to the Scolo Cantonacci. In the afternoon, Brigade Headquarters moved up to Olmo, 2,000 yards east of Argenta. So far, we had captured twenty Officers and one hundred and forty Other Ranks. Our advance did not look much on the map but it was one of the toughest day’s fighting we had had and probably one of the most important. A gap had been opened to the right of Argenta and 36 Brigade passed through that gap during the night. Some of them had started to move up before it got dark and I remember David Shay calling us up on the blower and asking how anyone could expect him to fight his battle when all sorts of other people were swarming past between his Headquarters and his troops. I endeavoured to assure him that it was a “good thing”. He said no doubt it was but he would rather have his own battlefield to himself.

It was a “good thing” too. The Division was taking a big chance pushing its nose right out like that before the Argenta battle had settled. But more was to follow.

At dawn, the ‘Kangaroo Army’ passed through.

On the 18th, the Argylls had got to Consandolo and the West Kent to Boccaleone while the ‘Kangaroo Army’ moved on their right flank and reached the Fossa Sabbiossola to the north of Consandolo by the evening of the same day. However, more of that later.

We all expected a counter attack during the night of the 18th/19th but it did not materialise and, apart from spasmodic shelling and collecting up odd parties of Bosche that tried to get out of Argenta, the night was uneventful.

At first light the next morning we started off again. By midday, the Skins had reached Route 16 and cleared the area behind them. Argenta was now definitely cut off. D Company, who played the main part in this operation, took sixty six prisoners, killed more than that number and knocked out a Tiger. The Faughs were pushing forward on their front as well but the opposition was a good deal less and anything that still remained there was definitely cut off.

The real focus of attention, from my point of view, at this time was the Skins’ battle to complete the encirclement of Argenta. Beyond Route 16, there were two enormous floodbanks with the Reno beyond them and beyond the Reno was a very strong party of Germans. On the west side of the Reno, moving up from the south west, was the Commando Brigade. They had had a very sticky time and suffered a considerable number of casualties. Any attempt by them to close with the Bosche met with most unfortunate results. By the evening, it became clear what all this was in aid of. The Bosche were holding the corner of the Reno very strongly – evidently with the idea of a counter attack. Now a successful counter attack delivered from here would have had the most dire results, as the bulk of the Division had pushed well on to the north west and the Germans would have landed us in our gun lines and other such places, where counter attacks are not supposed to take place.

Next morning the 6th Armoured Division were supposed to be passing through too. Unless this very difficult corner could be eliminated with certainty before morning, things were going to look a bit awkward. Unless we could really get this gap properly opened, 5 Corps would not be able to be able to fan out and surge forward in the manner, which was essential if a real victory was to be obtained.

The Skins cleaned up to the floodbank with the aid of ‘Crocodiles’ by 1700 hrs but they did not have much time to consolidate their objectives for, almost immediately, a counter attack by about 300 Bosche, supported by a Tiger on the west of the floodbank, was delivered. The object of these forces, it later transpired, was an attack on Argenta to re-close the Gap. We found that a Bosche Divisional Commander was directing operations there himself and he had collected three battalions in this area for the purpose of achieving his object. This first sortie of the Bosche’s got such a smack that the General evidently changed his mind but we did not know that at the time. One platoon of Skins succeeded in getting to the west of the floodbank and found itself in an extremely difficult position there. The Bosche was vastly superior in numbers and the platoon was faced with running out of ammunition, so they withdrew to the floodbank in good order where they took up positions from where they could hit back more effectively. With this platoon out of the way, the artillery had a clear field and they did considerable destruction to any Bosche who were caught in the open.

A lot of ammunition had been used during the continuous fighting that had been going on all day and the Skins’ Bren carriers did excellent work in running consignments up to their companies. By dark, however, the position was still not in hand. We had three forces opposing the Germans in this corner of the Reno. The West Kents at Boccaleone, the Skins on the floodbank north west of Argenta and the Commandos, west of the Reno and south of Argenta, I felt it was essential to coordinate an assault by these three forces in order to make quite certain that 6th Armoured Division would get a free run through in the morning.

About 10pm, I was given authority to do this. The Commandos were to attack under a heavy artillery programme at midnight and the Skins and the West Kents were to do a converging attack at 130am. They could not start before, on account of the Commando’s artillery programme. I had had a guarantee that the Commando’s artillery programme would not include any shelling east or north of the Reno. Unfortunately, something went wrong in the works over this and the Skins had several unfortunate casualties. The great thing was, however, that all the Bosche were cleared out. The Argenta Gap was now fully opened and 6th Armoured Division could get cracking.

Our two battalions had taken prisoner three officers and one hundred and forty two other ranks and captured a fine assortment of equipment. The Faughs had collected a couple of Mark IV tanks with which they amused themselves for the next two or three days.  That evening, I ordered the Faughs to push on at first light the next day to the Fossa Sabbiossola on their front and make sure that the Bosche in that area had been cleared up. This was done without much opposition. I told the Skins to stay where they were the next day and wave 6 Armoured Division through.

I must now return to giving you the London Irish Account of the ‘Kangaroo’ Army during this period.

“At first light on the 18th, the force moved forward into battle. This was an unforgettable move. Through the orchards north of Argenta, in the narrow gap between lake and canal, moved a mass of armour, all passing over one bridge that had been constructed over the main water obstacle. Wrecked vehicles, equipment and enemy dead strewed the route, whilst machine gun fire from a position in Argenta, already surrounded, cracked away on the left flank.

The usual difficulty was experienced in breaking through our own FDLs but, by 1000 hrs, we were in the open and the tanks were engaging SPs and Mk IVs. A Kangaroo was hit by an AP shot and some trouble was experienced from Boccaleone and Consandolo on the left, neither of which had been captured but the weight of armour and mobile Infantry was beginning to make itself felt and the advance continued with prisoners streaming in.

At about 1700 hrs, the tanks, which had been trying to solve the jig saw puzzle of finding a way across the maze of ditches, discovered an intact crossing of the Fosso Benvignante and very soon they and the infantry were over and investing the area which lay between this and the next obstacle. As it was now late in the evening, this took the enemy completely by surprise and an Officers Mess, a battery of 15 cm guns, a battery of 88 mm guns and numerous smaller AA and A/Tk pieces together with approximately 200 prisoners were overrun. This, all in spite of the enemy’s attempts to hold us by close range firing over open sights. By the light of numerous burning houses and, with a sense of complete victory, the battalion moved to its final area for the night in the vicinity of Palazzo and Coltra, having already three intact bridges over the next canal in its hands.”

On the 19th, the Bays left us again to go off with 11 Brigade. They were not getting much rest these poor fellows. The Kangaroo Army was paying a great dividend but it produced one considerable disadvantage in that it left only two armoured regiments to fight with three infantry brigades as the 9th Lancers were always tied up with the London Irish. The General did his best to hang on to 48 Royal Tank Regiment and, if he had succeeded in this, the continual swapping of armour would not have arisen. Changing armour in a battle is always a tricky thing – especially when you have got to know one particular lot. It was difficult for people to realise why all this chopping and changing of armour was going on but, if we couldn’t get a fourth regiment of tanks, there was no other course open – that is, if we wanted to make the best use of the ‘Kangaroos’.

It was a day of rest for the Brigade and well earned rest too! Looking back on it, I still believe that the battle of the Argenta Gap was the turning point of the whole campaign and it was our two battalions that bore the brunt of it. If the Skins had failed to achieve all they did, it might have altered the whole course of the operation.

During the Argenta Gap battle, the Skins and Faughs took three hundred and four prisoners and the London Irish and 9th Lancers over two hundred besides a considerable amount of equipment, which all three battalions captured.

Read ‘The Advance to the Po di Volano’