The battle for, and leading up to, Lungurella.
The battle for, and leading up to, Lungarella started for the 1st Battalion, The East Surrey Regiment,when they had left Consandolo in TCVs for a forward concentration area near Ripapersico, arriving there about 2245 hours on 19th April 1945.
The Brigade plan for this action was for the 2 Lancashire Fusiliers, followed by the 1st East Surreys, to pass through the bridgehead over the Fossa di Porta, 2 LF were to strike westwards and the East Surreys northwards through Runco to Lungurella.
The present state of enemy opposition was stated to be light and disorganised. This report, however, proved to be quite groundless as will be seen from the bitter fighting, which took place before the Battalion succeeded in entering Lungurella a little over two days later.
At 0245 hours on the 20th April, the Battalion left their concentration area by march route but, due to the difficulties encountered by the 2 LF, were two hours late in crossing the Fossa di Porto. The order of march was A Company, followed by B and D Companies, with C Company in reserve. When dawn broke, Tac HQ and C Company were established over the canal but the rifle companies found themselves a little to the north and feeling extremely naked.
That morning was memorable for B Company, for shortly after first light, having taken up a position round a cluster of farm buildings about 100 yards in the rear of A Company, a heavy mortar bomb exploded on the roof of the barn, where breakfast was being served. Fortunately, most of the Company had already eaten their breakfast and there was only one casualty.
The Battalion was unable to continue its advance as 2 LF were encountering stiff resistance from the area il Quartiere in the form of sniper and MG fire.
Lt Col HMA Hunter MBE, who was commanding the Battalion, then formulated the plan of attacking in a northerly direction, thereby by passing the resistance to the east.
C Company was to secure a bridgehead over the railway running north west from Portomaggiore and D Company was to move up from the right and secure the road junction on the Runco – Portomaggiore road. This attack was to be preceded by the ‘Wasps’ in attacking a group of houses, just to the north of the start line, where it was suspected that there might be an enemy strongpoint.
At 1015 hours, the ‘Wasps’ reported their objective cleared and, immediately afterwards, C and D Companies commenced their advance. C Company, under the command of Major EH Giles MC, moving forward in open formation, secured their bridgehead and were soon joined by D Company. During the advance, both Companies were being continually harassed by snipers and AP shells that were being directed at the supporting tanks, but no casualties were inflicted.
Whilst exploiting forward from the bridgehead, 13 Platoon was ordered to attack a house on the right of the Company’s axis of advance from which heavy fire was coming. 14 Platoon were working round to a position to give them covering fire when all three Bren gunners were killed and Sgt Charlton seriously wounded. However, he led 14 Platoon on to a position from which they could support 13 Platoon and objective was captured.
Throughout the morning, the Battalion continued its advance with D Company right and C Company left but soon the position became very confused owing to the fact that Company Commanders were unable to say exactly where they were, due to the regular pattern of the ground, which was very flat with continual drainage ditches running at regular intervals across the axis of advance. From the banks of these drainage ditches, the enemy were harassing our troops with both sniper and Spandau fire. The position, during the afternoon, became even more confused with the conflicting reports as to the positions of the forward troops.
At about 1500 hours, C Company was forced to cede some of the ground it had gained during the morning, due to a heavy enemy DF that was brought down in the area of their leading troops and, as they were withdrawing to take cover in a ditch some fifty yards to their rear, were enfiladed by small arms fire, which inflicted several casualties. They were then counter attacked under cover of the enemy barrage and were again forced back to the ditch immediately to their rear.
It was during this counter attack that Lieut JF Louis, the platoon commander with the longest record of service with the Battalion having joined the Battalion in North Africa in December 1942, was killed by a burst of Spandau Fire. Lieut Louis was unfortunately not the only casualty and L/Cpl Morrish found that he was the only NCO present that still survived. He immediately assumed command of the platoon, although himself wounded and. rallying the platoon. led a counter attack, which completely caught the enemy unawares and enabled the company to continue their advance and capture Gobbia, their objective.
D Company was experiencing similar trouble for they found themselves pinned down in a ditch by ever increasing small arms fire. The leading Platoon Commanders, Lieut JWC Ledger of 17 Platoon and Lieut FGM Keiger of 18 Platoon, being unable to contact their Company HQ, as the 38 Set had been put out of action, decided in conjunction with the tank commander, that it was still possible to gain their final objective by covering the tanks forward in bounds. However, the leading tank got bogged in spite of using a Fascine and, whilst the other tank attempted to tow the first one out, both were bazooka-ed and set on fire, forcing their crews to abandon their tanks and join the infantry in the ditch.
Then, a heavy enemy stonk came down in the area – forcing both platoons to retire. At this stage, Major CP Genillard MC, who commanded the company, arrived on the scene, having crawled forward along under intense small arms fire. He proceeded to make a plan whereby 17 Platoon was to return to the position it had just vacated and support 18 Platoon on to the final objective. Here, 17 Platoon came up against some unexpected trouble, for it was found that a party of some ten to twenty Bosche had crept forward under cover of the stonk and were occupying the ditch, which 17 Platoon had just left. Major CP Genillard MC was then forced to withdraw 17 and 18 Platoons to the east to join 16 Platoon. This was accomplished under cover of smoke.
The casualties suffered by C and D Companies during the afternoon were – C Company, Lieut JF Louis and four ORs killed and nine wounded and D Company three ORs killed and one wounded.
During the day, C and D Companies had taken sixty five prisoners, quite apart from the many that have been killed. They were a strangely assorted collection, including many new identifications from 155 Division – a training and garrison division – never before committed in battle and only recently brought south of the Po to bolster up the morale of the seriously mauled Panzer Grenadiers. One prisoner was even dressed in civilian clothes, explaining himself by saying that he had been hiding for five days and was too frightened to attempt to escape in uniform.
At 2030 hours, A and B Companies relieved D and C Companies. By 2130 hours, they had attacked and captured Gobbietta and some farm buildings two to three hundred yards east of it.
Shortly before dawn, No 10 Platoon, commanded by Lieut LAS Harbourne MC, was ordered forward to seize a canal crossing north of the railway. The platoon, which was accompanied by Captain Booth, FOO of 132 Field Regiment RA, succeeded in occupying a farmhouse some eight hundred yards south of the canal but was unable to proceed any further. Later in the day, after the platoon had moved on, the roof of the house collapsed, killing some gunners, who had only recently moved in.
No 16 Platoon, D Company, with one tank in support had in the meanwhile gone through on the right flank and had, by 0500 hours on the 21st, without incident, advanced through Runco to within 150 yards of the canal running south of Lungurella. By 0700 hours, 16 Platoon was joined by the rest of the Company. It was obvious that the enemy had not expected such a rapid advance for, on the approach of daylight, a number of enemy could be seen furiously digging in on the opposite bank of the canal. Quick advantage of this was taken both by L/Cpl McNally of the Sniper Section, attached to D Company and the two forward platoons, for when the Battalion eventually crossed the canal, four dead Bosche were found all shot through the centre of the forehead.
It was not possible for D Company to get any nearer to the canal for, whenever they left their cover, they were met by heavy and accurate DF and Spandau fire. They were unable to see, however, whether the all important bridge over the canal leading to Lungarella was still intact. The enemy seemed to realise the importance of holding this bridge.
Tac HQ, together with Main HQ, was established in an excellent building to the north of Gobbietta. The only trouble about this house was that there was a dead horse in one of the downstairs rooms. How it ever got through the small door into the room will always remain a mystery. However, due to the possibility of Brigade HQ taking over the house, it was decided not to try to remove the swollen and already stinking carcass.
During the morning, B Company, with 12 Platoon leading – commanded by Lieut RR McLean – had been edging forward over open country, under every conceivable type of DF fire and had succeeded in occupying a large farm some four hundred yards to the south of the canal. At the farm were found nearly one hundred very panicky refugees. Shortly afterwards, the farm came under shell fire, causing the hundred refugees to flee in all directions, leaving an old man to die in the hands of the Company Runner.
From this farm, there was an excellent view of the ground leading up to the canal and a section of MGs were sited on the top floor to give covering fire. Lt McLean then led No 12 Platoon at the double and, in open formation, to the canal bank. This was carried out under heavy and sustained Spandau fire from the far bank and mortar fire from the area of Lungurella. The latter could be seen by D Company OP and was successfully engaged by 496 Battery of 132 Field Regiment RA. There was found a small bridge, partly blown and scrambling the canal. Five prisoners were taken in this farm, the sixth member having been shot by Lieut RR Mclean in a pistol duel.
When No 12 Platoon was finally established in the area of this farm, they were joined by the remainder of the Company and the advance was continued at Lungarella itself.
The resistance was indeed fanatical for not one of the ten positions that were encountered up to nightfall would give in, each having to be silenced in turn.
By nightfall, the opposition had so stiffened that it was found impossible to advance any further but B Company was now only five hundred yards from Lungurella. They were, therefore, ordered to dig in and await complete dark when A Company would attack through them and capture the bridge south of Lungurella. During this advance, B Company’s casualties had been negligible but they had accounted for some fourteen in dead and had now taken twenty eight prisoners.
Shortly after B Company had forced the crossing of the canal, Lt Col HMA Hunter MBE was ordered to return to B Echelon for rest, for he had not slept during the past three days and the strain was beginning to tell on him. The 2.i.c., Major ME Fisher MC, then took over command of the Battalion.
Throughout the afternoon, D Company had been lying up in the area of the farm seventy five yards to the south of the canal and just opposite Lungurella, engaging with both small arms and artillery anything they saw moving. It was apparent that the enemy suspected this farm as containing an OP for it was continually stonked by both artillery and mortars.
At about 1700 hours, after B Company had secured their bridgehead across the canal and were advancing on Lungurella. It was decided by Major ME Fisher MC for a platoon attack to be made over the canal to capture a group of buildings, which lay on the outskirts of Lungurella and, thereby, to divert the attention of the enemy from the main advance along the northern bank of the canal by B Company.
At this point, the canal was about forty feet wide and seven feet deep and the bridge, as it was shortly learned, had been blown and so could not afford a means of crossing. No 17 Platoon, D Company – commanded by Lt JWC Ledger – went forward to make the attack, supported by artillery and MG fire. They reached the bank without incident but, when Lt Ledger and Cpl Donovan started to move over the bank to make a recce for a crossing place, they were met with such withering MG fire from well dug in positions on the opposite bank that Cpl Donovan was wounded and Lt Ledger had great difficulty in getting him back to the safety of the bank.
It was apparent that daylight attack was not practicable and 17 Platoon was accordingly withdrawn to the area of the farm houses.
A night attack was then planned, to be undertaken by A Company, in which the Company was to attack through the firm base that was being held by B Company, on the far side of the canal and only four hundred yards from Lungurella, against repeated counter attacks.
At 2300 hours on the 21st, this attack, which proved to be the final phase of the battle for, and leading up to Lungurella, was launched. The attack took place in the full light of burning hayricks and farm outhouses and, by 2345 hours, No 7 and 8 Platoons had gained their last objective – the bridge across the canal leading to Lungurella. No opposition had been met and only two wounded prisoners had been taken. The enemy had fled.
At 0100 hours on the 22nd, B Company occupied Lungurella, without opposition, followed by C Company, D Company and Main HQ.
The REs immediately set about constructing a Bailey across the canal and, by 0600 hours, the bridge had been completed and the Battalion’s B Echelon was roaring across.
It was then learned that other troops of the Division had reached the area of Ferrara, principal objective south of the Po and so, the expected and hoped for rest after the past arduous 48 hours could not now be had for, within a few hours, the Battalion was once again on the move chasing the now exhausted and fast disintegrating enemy forces.