While we were advancing up to the Argenta battle, the Germans had been thoughtfully distributing a variety of terrifying pamphlets as he withdrew. They all had the same theme: “the horrors of the River Po.”
They told us how we had suffered at previous rivers – the Sangro, the Trigno, the Volturno, the Garigliano, and so on, but none of these were going to be a patch on the horrors we would meet on the Po. There were blood curdling pictures of boats being sunk in midstream and people struggling in the water. Had we believed them, it might have deterred the stoutest heart! Fortunately, we knew two things. The Po had not got an elaborate system of defences and there were no fresh troops to put along it, even if it had. What actually happened was that the Germans, in crossing the Po, suffered the fate that their misguided propaganda had in mind for us. We pushed them so hard and so fast and the river was so wide that it became a veritable Dunkirk for them. the Po turned out to be the Germans’ downfall and not ours.
The Americans had got up to the Po and shot across it away to the west. Once they had broken out into the plains – which took a good deal of doing – nothing stopped them. They had gone like the “Bats out of Hell”. As it was apparent in Germany at this time, the Americans are magnificent in a pursuit battle and, of course, their equipment is the finest in the world.
Everyone also was carrying on in the same style. 56th Division and 6th Armoured Division were across the Po and everyone was tearing after the retreating Huns. The story went round that the New Zealand Division had bought their passage over an American bridge with three bottles of whiskey; one for each brigade. They must have kept a bit for themselves, I think, as General Freyberg and his New Zealanders were alleged to be outpacing everyone else. There just was not a bridge for us to get over, so we had to stay where were until we had made one for ourselves and anyway nobody seemed to want out assistance. The crossing of the Po had been, to all intents and purpose, unopposed throughout its entire length.
The real ‘piece de resistance’ for the German stand in Italy was the Adige Line, sometimes called the Venetian Line; it was, in fact, north of the Adige. I saw this line at a later date. It would have been the very devil to attack. It was based on two high hills, which gave the Bosche all the observations across the plain leading up to it.
Everything now turned on the big question. Would the Adige Line be held?
Well, it was not.
There was nothing to hold it with.
Our Armies were through and out on the other side, the Eighth Army going straight through it towards Padua and Venice and the Fifth US Army swinging round in a big left hook, which turned it from behind. It was a masterly finish.
Every day, it became more and more evident that the 15th Army Group had achieved its object – the defeat of the German Armies in Italy, south of the Po.
By the evening of the 26th, we had cleaned up every Hun in our area and the war had passed us. The next day, we were resting and reorganising – at least, that is what it was called officially. In point of fact there was mighty little rest and plenty of reorganisation on unorthodox lines. It was a chance of a lifetime with all this enemy equipment littered all round us and everyone had the greatest amusement catching likely looking horses and trying out various German vehicles from tanks downwards. All over the countryside, there were small packets of chaps bent on their business; pulling trailers out of canals, climbing about a 210 cm gun, driving the most horrible looking bone shakers, falling off horses, investigating dumps and, in every way, having no end of a time.
I was absolutely thrilled myself. Paddy Bowen Colthurst and I went all round the floodbanks admiring the spoils. There were batteries of guns completely intact. Unfortunately, a lot of the more useful transport had been burned out by the Bosche before leaving and some of it had been hit by our own aircraft. But even so, there was enough to while away the time for most people.
Ferrara was now open for day visits – it was not much of a place, though Bala Bredin and I spent quite an amusing afternoon rummaging about in a big castle in the middle of the town, which I believe had been the Fascist Headquarters. We did not find anything of interest there. Some officers came up to me in the castle and asked if I was the new Brigadier, who had come to take over command of the area. Bala Bredin said “Now you know what you are like – an AMGOT Brigadier”. I said, “Well, if he mistook me for an AMGOT Brigadier, he obviously thought you were an AMGOT Brigadier’s stooge which, to my mind, is a good deal worse.” He reckoned that that was fair enough and agreed to say no more about the matter.
On the 28th, the London Irish held a very good cocktail party in the evening, which was really to mark the closing scene of the ‘Kangaroo Army’. The ‘Kangaroo Army’ had been a great organisation and the spirit of goodwill and friendship that had grown up between 9 Lancers and the London Irish was unique. John Coombe and his Brigade Headquarters had looked after them extremely well. A similar feeling of friendship and mutual respect had developed between our battalions and the Bays and later 10 Hussars. I hope we did not have to start fighting again any more wars but, if we do, I hope we may have 2 Armoured Brigade with us.
On the 29th, 56th Division entered Venice and 2nd New Zealand reached the River Piave the next day.
The Army Commander sent us a special message recording his appreciation of the part we had played:
Personal for General Arbuthnott from Army Commander.
My best congratulations on the splendid part 78 Division has taken in these operations. A fine victory. The decisive part that your Division played in forcing the formidable Argenta position was a splendid achievement. By night and day, your brigades exerted relentless pressure on the enemy and succeeded in capturing this position of great strength. Fine cooperation between all arms, good leadership and splendid determination and fighting spirit were shown. Your Division have added further laurels to their great battle record in Africa and Italy. Well done indeed.”
I myself sent out an Order of the Day to the battalions, which I reproduce here:
Special Order of the Day by Brigadier TPD Scott DSO, Commander, The Irish Brigade.
“About this time last year, the Irish Brigade was very highly commended for the successful smashing of the Gustav Line. We now receive the enclose tributes from our highest Commanders on this year’s battle.
Since we started in North Africa, I have never seen such magnificent form as each battalion is showing today.
Pride in a job splendidly done must be present in every platoon and section.
I am sure every Commander in the Brigade from myself downwards must be equally proud of the fact that we have found ourselves second to none. Proved, too, our ability to deal a knock out blow when we were really tired.
My very best congratulations to everyone.
In the Field, 27th April 1945.
Signed TPD Scott, Brigadier, Commander of the Irish Brigade.
In addition, I sent personal messages to the Regiments of 2 Armoured Brigade and to the other units of the Brigade Group thanking them for their work and cooperation.
On the afternoon of the 30th April, an excellent Gymkhana was held by the Division at Copparo. Several of us had been working very hard trying to collect decent horses during the preceding days and we had a few performers in this show, though I do not think any of them shone particularly. Somehow or other, our Brigade Headquarters team of Pat Spens (Brigade Major), John McClinton and myself managed to win a bundle of lira notes. The Drums and Pipes played during the intervals and the whole thing was a great success.
On the 1st May, the New Zealander Division linked up with Marshal Tito’s forces of Monfalcone, north west of Trieste. I had always imagined that linking up with allies is a rather dramatic moment. I found out later that it was not quite the sort of thing I imagined.
On the 2nd, Paddy Bowen Colthurst, John O’Rourke, John McClinton and myself went to have a look at Bologna and then on to see, from the German side, the old battlefields of the winter about San Clemente. Father Dan Kelleher had been there the day before and found the remains of three London Irish lads, who had been reported missing during a patrol to Tamagnin. How the Germans went on sitting in some of those forward positions of his, like Tamagnin, for month after month I cannot imagine. Tamagnin, for instance, was looked right down on from about three sides and some of his other positions between that and the Clemente–San Pietro road were not much better.
From the German positions, we had an excellent view of our old Brigade Headquarters and especially of the hill behind it where we used to go out ski-ing. I suppose that our ski-ing activities were not considered a worthwhile target – perhaps German brigadiers do not do that sort of thing or, at any rate, such places.
That horrible valley was now lovely in its clothing of spring. The black forbidding earth had changed to green and the valleys were a mass of wild flowers and young vines. It was difficult to force back into one’s mind the picture they presented only a few months before. Nightingales were now singing where previously there had been a continuous banging along some part of that big salient. It is a pity that the scars of war are not healed so quickly in towns.
We started back for home rather late and dusk was beginning to fall as we drew near Ferrara. Every evening since the battle stopped, there had been a mild display of verey light and so on. On this evening, there seemed to be more than usual as we drove towards the north. Paddy spotted a cart laden down with strawberries and asparagus. We bought as much as we could of these and filled the back of the car with them. As we went on again, more verey lights than ever seemed to be going up and we began to wonder if it meant that Hitler was dead or what on earth happened.
When we got through Ferrara, there was a veritable cascade of stuff going up along the Po. We stopped and asked someone what was going on and were greeted with the surprising information that the war was over. Although this possibility had crossed our minds, the statement took us by surprise. It seemed hard to believe. We stopped and asked somebody else to make sure. Yes, they said, the war was over or, at any rate, in Italy. We hurried on to get back quickly and see what was the truth about all this. We hurried for more reasons than one. Worse things than verey lights were now flying through the air. Bofors guns had opened up, tanks were sending streams of tracer into the air, there were bangs and flashes on all sides. We had no intention of stopping one of these missiles even if the war was over.
After going at about 60 mph through a barrage of two inch mortars firing light signals – which I thought might well get mixed up with High Explosive in the excitement – we got back to our Headquarters.
The Army Group South West, under General von Vietinghoff, had surrendered unconditionally to Field Marshal Alexander.
I authorised a rum issue. There was not much else I could do.
I knew we had no rum to issue except the buckshee stuff that the Quarter Masters always kept up their sleeves but I thought this was as good a night as any to work off some of that.
Such celebrations, as there were, did not go on very long and, by midnight, all was quiet and peaceful.
It was such a big event that it took time to assimilate.
I heard people remarking that, at any rate, we had beaten Monty to it; the “D Day Dodgers” had got in first; and other kindred remarks.
Poor old “D Day Dodgers”: they had a long fight for their money.
What a long time ago, it seems since these early days in North Africa with the appalling discomforts of that campaign. It seems a long time, too, since the epic battles of Sicily and Southern Italy.
How very few had seen them all.
How few in the Rifle Companies, who had landed in North Africa were still with us to see the culmination of their efforts.
One’s mind turned that evening to a lot of faces of old friends whom one would not see again. One hopes that they, too, were able to join in the feeling of satisfaction and thankfulness that the last shot had been fired.