The Advance to the Po di Volano

The 20th started as a day of rest but, at 4pm, we got a message that we were to pass through 11 Brigade that night and form a bridgehead over the San Nicolo canal. Short of this canal and running between San Nicolo Ferrarese and Portomaggiore were the twin canals of the Scolo Bolognese and Fossa Porto.

The London Irish, with two companies, had tried to bounce bridges over these canals in the early hours of the 19th but they were all found to be blown. They established positions on the near bank and were joined by their armour at first light. At 11 o’clock, another company of the London Irish were ordered to go to the assistance of 56 Recce in clearing the Germans out of Portomaggiore. During all these minor operations, prisoners were continually being taken in groups of ten or fifteen. At 1430 hours, G Company, to a considerable accompaniment of smoke, high explosive and flame throwing weapons, forced a bridgehead over the Scolo Bolognese. H Company, on their right, followed suit and, as soon as G Company’s bridgehead was established, H Company cleared the village of Porto Rotta.

The success of these operations led to the decision that the main Divisional axis was to pass through Porto Rottta and the London Irish were, therefore, ordered to enlarge their bridgehead. This was done at 2200 hrs that evening with the support of the Divisional artillery. By 2300 hours, they had captured all their objectives. Under mortar fire, the REs bulldozed a crossing place over the twin canals; and, by 0200 hrs on the morning of the 20th, 11 Brigade had begun to pass through in a north westerly direction. It had been hoped that 11 Brigade would reach the San Nicole canal and possibly make a bridgehead.

Unfortunately, this did not materialise and so it was, that in the late evening, it was decided that the Irish Brigade was to establish a bridgehead that night and continue the advance on the 21st.

Our Brigade was some miles in the rear at this time, not having moved since the Battle of the Argenta Gap. It would take two or three hours on the congested dirt track to get to anything approaching an assembly area. The chances of being able to carry out any reconnaissance were nil.  I went off to 11 Brigade to get the form and, after discussing the project with the General, gave out orders to a hastily assembled ‘O’ Group from the side of my Dingo. It was getting almost too dark to read the maps. The 10th Hussars were to be our supporting tanks as the Bays were heavily involved. This added a further delay and complication. Gombi had been chosen off the map as an assembly area and, to that place, I had directed everyone before leaving Brigade Headquarters. This assembly area proved to be 4,000 yards in the rear of our start line. Working out problems of time and space, it seemed to me that we would do extremely well if we were ready to cross our start line by 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning – which would leave little enough time for the REs to bridge the San Nicole canal before first light. The country was pretty open. The more we could do under cover of darkness, the better for all concerned. We had tasted that type of country before, north of Argenta.

The object of our operation was to form a deep bridgehead over this canal and advance as far north west as we could. The plan was to form up behind 11 Brigade’s forward elements and cross the canal between the railway and the Fossa di Porto about 2,000 yards east of San Nicolo Ferrarese. The Skins were to be on the right, the Faughs on the left. As 11 Brigade had been held up by considerable infantry opposition, I laid on a barrage to cover the front of the assault. The start line and coordinates for the barrage were fixed but the timing was to be left until COs had completed their plans and get in touch with the forward troops from 11 Brigade. It would be impossible to arrive at the right answer until this had been done. ‘Z’ hour was later fixed for 0130 hours. The 5 Northamptons and 11 Brigade were to get to the canal and protect our right flank and 36 Brigade were to conform with our advance on the left.

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. 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.

Both battalions advanced quickly behind the barrage and each had two companies across within an hour. Opposition on our side of the canal was lighter than we had been led to expect – the barrage must have done some good work.

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.

Johnny Duane was a most unfortunate loss. His cheerfulness over long periods of time had been a never failing source of inspiration to his company, who very rightly thought the world of him. He is now at home trying to recover the use of his fingers after having had his hand nearly severed at the wrist. Mike Murray is now back again, not much the worse.

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. It is a little hard for the chaps, who are suffering a “short” gun to realise it but, unfortunately, it is practically impossible to do anything to help them over an effort in a barrage now it has started. The only answer is to try and stop the whole thing, which would usually be far worse in the final count.

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 630 am, the first of our tanks was over and the Skins and been encouraged by finding a German Officer still in bed. The Bosche defensive fire on all likely crossing places in this area was extremely good. The Skins had lost fifteen men at one Company crossing place alone. Soon after starting in their new direction, the Skins lost two tanks from SP guns and the shelling and mortaring was increasing, while the cover was almost negligible. However, smoke was a great help. The Skins’ B Company, once it got started, never stopped till it reached its objective, which was far the best way of dealing with the situation. D Company, on their left, was having a more difficult time, receiving the full attention of the Bosche, who had occupied all the houses on the route to their objective. A Company joined them and held a firm base, while D Company got under way again and, once started, they, like B Company, went bald headed for their objective.

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. The Indian Division was coming up on the left of the Faughs but it would take some time before they would really ease the Faughs’ situation; in the meanwhile, they had to keep a close watch on their left flank and be pretty careful how they moved about.

It was difficult to get the ‘Kangaroo Army’ quickly across the bridge and they had an unpleasant wait in an assembly area where the RMO, Rhys Evans, was wounded by a shell, which burst in a tree above his ‘Kangaroo’.

I include now the London Irish account of this phase:

“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.”

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.

After the ‘Kangaroo Army’ had launched itself, 36 Brigade advanced on an axis to the left of it, with 8th Argylls followed by 6th Royal West Kents. This force did a very fine advance up to the Po di Volano.

On 22nd April, 11 Brigade passed through the ‘Kangaroo Army’ to attack towards the Po di Volano at Fossalta and Baura.

We had a rest that day and the battalions had certainly earned it. It had been a very tough battle under a very difficult circumstances and everyone had done magnificently. I had a good look at that open ground that the Skins had advanced over in their turn north eastwards. It was perfectly foul!

We moved Brigade Headquarters to Voghiera and the Skins brought their Battalion Headquarters there too. As I was driving back towards the village from visiting the Faughs, I heard an appalling rattle of musketry over my head and saw a Lightning shooting up the congested traffic approaching the village. Not content with that, he unleashed a couple of bombs at it. Divisional Headquarters’ transport was passing at that moment but luckily escaped unscathed though, when I appeared on the scene, there were one or two staff cars strewn about at odd angles when the drivers had very wisely made a quick move for a ditch.

On 23rd April, 11 Brigade succeeded in forcing a crossing over the Po di Volano and established a bridgehead, which enabled a bridge to be built about 500 yards south of Fossalta. 36 Brigade were warned to plan an assault crossing over the Po using swimming tanks, fantails etc.

At 0900 hrs, we were warned to be ready to go through 11 Brigade that night and carry out a final rush on the Po. At midday, we received definite orders for this. The Brigade was to move at 1700 hrs in TCVs to a suitable assembly area, south of the bridge. I went to Division at 1630 hrs to get the latest form and ordered an ‘O’ Group at my new Headquarters near the assembly area at 1800 hrs. Our objective was the Po. The enemy resistance was undoubtedly stiff and would probably become stiffer. He was defending the various canal barriers as much as possible in order to complete the withdrawal of the bulk of his forces and transport which lay east of Ferrara. If ever, it was necessary for the Bosche to stand and fight, it was now.

1 London Irish, with 56th Division, were now in Tamara and 11 Brigade were striking out towards Corlo and Baura. The plan was for the Skins to pass over first near Saletta and advance towards Zocca while the Faughs were to follow them, turn left and advance towards Ruina and the Po on their front. A Squadron of 10 Hussars was with each leading battalion and we had some assault REs to deal with the canals.

I had been giving out orders clustered round John O’Rourke’s big map outside the front door – one needed a big map these days to see all the country. When I had finished, we were inside and, shortly afterwards, there was a loud report outside, followed by others for the next ten minutes or so. When we looked out again, we found a shell splinter had gone slap through the map. It was just as well it had not arrived a quarter of an hour earlier. John was very distressed at the damage to his talc. Personally, I was more relieved that my skin was intact. It might have been the skin of several of us quite easily.

Bridge trouble was going on again but, by a bit of good luck, we had estimated the delays correctly and the Skins started to arrive at the bridge just after it was completed at about 2345 hours.

By 0245 hours, the Skins had reached Saletta and found it very much occupied. It was not captured until 0500 hours after a very still 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 wee 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 were 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 the 9th 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 from 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 Pp 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 on 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 or could not swim, were rounded up.

Thus ended the fourth and longest advance made by the Kangaroo Army. The force settles 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. Their 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. The advance was to continue at 0200 hours. By 0300 hours, B Company of the Skins had crossed the Canale Fossetta and, an hour later, C Company had reached the Fossa Lavezzola.

About this time, it was beginning to become evident that something had happened to the Bosche. We had no knowledge about our own troops on our right to help us but, whatever had happened, we could not afford to let up yet. This advance was continued as planned and the Skins captured the villages of Ro and Zocca without finding any Bosche in them. The Faughs reached Ruina at about 1000 hours and pushed on to the Po.

The next thing to do was a quick round up throughout the area. C Squadron, 56 Reconnaissance Regiment came under my command and I pushed them out on the right of the Skins. A real field day was had by all. Three officers and three hundred and ten other ranks, who had missed the last boat, were rounded up. The amount of equipment that was found strewn along the river bank was nobody’s business. There was mile after mile of wreckage and rubbish intermingled with thousands of horse. It was an unbelievable sight! No wonder our last battle had been such a stiff one with all that stuff at stake. He had enough guns there to blow us off the earth, to say nothing of all the tanks and other things there were.

Whatever else had happened, there seemed to be little room for doubt that 76 Panzer Corps had been well and truly defeated. This was evidently realised by their Commander, who had given himself up to 56th Division on our right on the previous day. The battle of Argenta Gap, he said, had been his downfall. Whatever was left of his Corps was in a completely useless state. The Brigade, alone, counting the ‘Kangaroo Force’ had passed back to Prisoner of War cages 22 officers and 2,099 Other Ranks since we started this campaign. Casualties inflicted had been far greater.

Leaflets were dropped to the remnants of the German 76 Panzer Corps.

They said:

“Divisional Commander, Officers, NCOs and Soldiers of 76 Panzer Corps.

Today, the 25th April 1945, Lt General Graf von Schwerin, accompanied by his ADCs. Lt Huss and Lt Reiners, surrendered to 27 Lancers.

Your General declared:

‘I know the situation. For German soldiers in Italy, it is hopeless. My Corps has had it. Under these circumstances, I cannot give further commands.

In full knowledge of the situation, I have chosen the only way open to a soldier, who had been honourably but decisively defeated.

It is now the duty of very officer, of every NCO and of every soldier bravely to look facts in the face and to realise that it is criminal to throw away more human lives.’

Read ‘The Po and the end of the War’



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