The Last Offensive – The Plan and Opening Phase

Before the big offensive on Rome started last year, the Army Commander had held a “Malaria Conference.” This year, it was to be a “Welfare Conference.” It could never do if the Germans thought we were really having a conference about the war.

General McCreery held his “Welfare Conference” on the morning of 5th April when he explained the general plan of both the Army and the Army Group in the coming offensive. This conference was attended down to COs but its general terms were to remain secret until the last possible moment. The operation was to be known as “Buckland” and D Day was later given out as 9th April.

As we were not due to take part in the proceedings at the outset, I decided that 9th April would be a good day for us to talk to the three battalions about the coming battle as I could then say anything I liked without danger of breaking security. I accordingly walked to each one in turn as the first of the heavy bombers were passing overheard to open the last round.

The object of 15 Army Group was to defeat the Germans in Italy, south of the Po. Five Corps and the Polish Corps were to attack in the Eighth Army in a westerly and north-westerly direction. The American Fifth Army was to attack due north to the west of Bologna, about three days after the attack of the Eighth Army had started. The two Armies were to converge on the Po somewhere to the west of Ferrara and, between these two great claws, it was hoped the bulk of the German Army would be smashed. In point of fact, this is what actually happened.

Five Corps had already started several days before with 56th Division, the Cremona Gruppe and the Commandos attacking on our extreme right in the neighbourhood of Lake Comacchio. They had achieved some very reassuring results. The main attack of 5 Corps was to be launched on the afternoon of D Day by 2nd New Zealand Division and 8th Indian Division, north and south of Cotignola, and the Polish Corps attacking between 5 Corps and Route 9. The cover plan was to try and make the Bosche believe that the main attack was to be astride Route 9 and that the Americans were participating in it also. 78 Division was to pass through either the 2 New Zealand or 8 Indian Division before or after they had passed over the River Santerno to Bastia and so link up with 56 Division’s advance along the north bank of the Reno. After this had been successfully done, the plan was to break through the Argenta Gap and advance to Ferrara. Six Armoured Division were to remain in Army reserve during the opening phase.

Considerable controversy had arisen over the correct ‘H’ hour – whether it should be by day or night and what artillery or air support should herald assault. Each Division had different ideas. It was not unnatural that this should be so, for some Divisions were up the floodbank, while others were not. ‘H’ hour was eventually fixed for the Eighth Army at 1920 hours and was to be preceded by alternating artillery preparation and intense pattern bombing by heavy and medium bombers for some 5 hours. After the effects of Cassino last year, people had always been a little chary about the use of these bombers for close support and very careful safety precautions were being taken. They were to fly on a beam, they were not to bomb until they crossed on intersecting beams. There were to be marks on the ground which would guide them. There was to be flak barrage fired below them and they were not to bomb until they got beyond it. With these and other aids, it sounded pretty cast iron. 25 pounder fragmentation bombs were decided as being the best type to use. There were to be vast numbers of them. The entire Strategic Air Force was to carry out this project.

In spite of all these precautions, a certain number of bombs did go astray, especially on the Polish Corps front but, on the whole, results were excellent. Noone really knew at the time what the effect was, but we found out from prisoners afterwards that the German communications had been entirely disrupted and it was that which largely accounted for the absence of German defensive fire when the offensive started. Our only contribution to the initial assault was the use of ‘Wasps’ – a extensive flame throwing programme was carried out along the Army front and this terrified the Germans even more than the bombing. None of our ‘Wasps’ were any the worse for the experience.

The Senio was strongly defended but the defensive positions that the Germans had prepared on the River Santerno, about 8,000 yards to the west of the Senio were infinitely better. It was a really formidable set up. These positions had been carefully prepared throughout the winter in the light of knowledge that the Germans had gained in the defence of the River Senio. We estimated that, at present, the Germans had no fresh troops to man these positions. The one real danger to the offensive, therefore, was that the Germans should withdraw to the Santerno before our attack. A few days before ‘D’ Day, there had been a considerable amount of German artillery fire throughout the Corps area and it was feared that he was shooting off his ammunition as a prelude to an immediate withdrawal. Had he done this, we might well have had to carry out a costly preliminary offensive up to the Santerno and started mounting the battle all over again. We found out later, when the German Corps Commander gave himself up, that this artillery activity, to which I referred, had, in fact, been the prelude to his withdrawal to the Santerno, but the withdrawal had been cancelled on the personal orders of Hitler at the last minute. Once again, we have Hitler to thank for a German military error.

The German Army Group had only two Divisions in general reserve, 90th Panzer Grenadier Division, somewhere south-east of Bologna and the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division, believed to be in the Rovigo area. On 5 Corps sector, the Germans had 362th Division and 98th Division with one battalion in reserve to each. Everything also was in the shop window and an immediate counter attack appeared unlikely on anything larger than a platoon basis. 42nd Division were opposite 56th Division’s exploits around Lake Comacchio and 26th Panzer Division was opposite the Poles. In armour, the Germans were believed to have thirty Mark IV tanks in reserve and thirty Tiger tanks stretched across the front. Actually, the Germans had a good deal more Mark IVs than was originally believed. They also were believed to have some forty self propelled assault guns of various calibres in 242 Assault Gun Brigade, plus the normal element with their infantry Divisions. We had about five Armoured Brigades to set against this.

The crossing of the Senio was successful. 8th Indian Division met a good deal more opposition than the New Zealanders, especially on the floodbank itself but, by the morning of the 10th, the bridgehead had a general depth of about 2,000 yards. In most places, it was up to the Canale Lugo.

11 Brigade had had the job of undertaking a limited attack between the assaulting Divisions and had rather a sticky time getting up to the floodbank on their front but, later on, successfully cleaned up Cotignola.

Read ‘The Last Objective – The Santerno Bridgehead’.

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