The mine strewn beaches of Anzio and Salerno Bay, the mountain winter lines along the icy Sangro and snow Apennines, the “impregnable” Gothic Line, even the formidable Cassino Fortress, itself wee not be compared for one moment with this superbly situated and ingeniously exploited strategic strong point that the Brigade was destined to attack during the month of April 1945.
Such were the impressions we gained from the available reports on the notorious “Gap” at Argenta and, even sitting on the floodbanks of the Senio two weeks before the offensive of 1945 started, it was obvious these impressions were not over exaggerated. The probability that 11 Brigade would have to storm this vital point of the German defences in Italy was taken into account in the pre offensive planning so it was with eager personal interest that we studied maps and photographs of the area. From the maps, it was apparent the position would be ideal for defence, from the air photographs, it looked impossible of penetration. The natural barriers were considerable, the “improvements” carried out by the cunning enemy left one with but a single choice for the direction of attack. To the north and east of Argenta lay the “Bonfica di Argenta”, formerly part of the extensive Valli di Comacchio, which had been drained of water by endless patient toil and with the aid of expensive modern machinery. This area had become prosperous fertile farm land with numerous flourishing steadings controlling vast tracts of first class yielding soil. All this had been destroyed entirely by the enemy with typical Teutonic thoroughness – the dams and dykes were breached, the pumping stations smashed and the entire area re-flooded, leaving only the tops of the houses and the forlorn white streak of Route 16 on its high embankment, visible in all the watery desolation.
Similar measures and similar results existed to the south and west of Argenta town – here, if possible, the position was worse as the swamps and naturally waterlogged ground stretched to within 15 km of Bologna itself and, in addition, the Reno River, with its towering floodbanks, provided an effective tank proof obstacle for any attack originating from the west.
The gap between these two watery barriers consisted of a narrow funnel of dry land averaging 2 ½ miles in width throughout its length of 5 miles, based on the town of Argenta, itself. Inside this restricted area, the enemy had carefully built up his long planned defences to perfection. It was proved, during subsequent operations, that work on these defences had commenced as long before as the summer of 1943 and no pains had been spared to ensure that the soldiers defending the area would be provided with every possible chance of success. Each ditch and canal had been dug out on the southern side and methodically fortified with strongly revetted positions, numerous OP and HQ sites had been recced and earmarked, every culvert ad bridge was prepared for demolition, even booby traps were laid in position and sealed off. But most fantastic of all were the minefields – indeed, the whole gap was one single solid minefield – never before had we encountered such a concentrated piece of mining – in shape, the main field was triangular, with its apex at Bastia and stretching east for a distance of more than 3 miles. The mines here had been laid in peace conditions and the ground had since lain fallow – much to the annoyance of the surrounding Italian farmers. The mined areas were now completely overgrown and it was quite impossible to pick out the dangerous places. Before the offensive, however, a great stroke of luck, resulted in information being obtained from partisans as to the exact situation of the safe paths through this field, which contributed enormously to the success of the battles to come.
To the north lay further scattered fields between the Reno and the water to the east as far as the Fossa Marina – a 12 foot wide waterway running diagonally across the northern end of the gap and constituting the most continuous natural obstacle in the bottleneck.
So much for the Argenta Gap itself – now what was the reason for all the special attention in this particular part of the Italian countryside? Surely, if necessary, the main direction of attack from the south could completely by pass Argenta to the west, further up the Po Valley, therefore, why was there this need for special preparation?
The answer was this – the most important factor at stake during the battles south of the Po was to cut off and capture as many of the enemy as possible before they could cross the river Po and escape to the north. If Argenta was not attacked and the main drive put into the west, it would have to be so much farther west as to allow the enemy unrestricted access to first class Po crossings such as Pontelagoscuro, north of Ferrara, and others equally as good to the east. The enemy would probably be able to ferry over sufficient troops to organise resistance further north perhaps along the shortened line of the Adige and so delay our further progress more than was desired. Argenta had to be forced by attackers to get at the Ferrara Po crossings quickly and accordingly the enemy appreciated that a firm stand here was absolutely essential to allow the 10th and 14th Armies access to some of their main escape routes to the north. The proviso was that sufficient troops must be made available immediately after the opening of a Po offensive to man the Argenta defences. It was here that the enemy made his big mistake, in leaving too late the commitment of his reserve forces to the area – which enabled the Gap to be broken and the river crossings secured with consequent chaotic results for 76 Panzer Corps in particular – but all of this was not accomplished without a hard and bloody struggle.
Crossing the Reno and moving up to the mouth of the Gap.
At 0330 hours on the 15th April, the new Bailey bridge over the river Reno was proclaimed in working order. The Brigade crossed with the Surreys in the lead. At 1100 hours, just as the Surreys were ready to pass through 167 Brigade of 56 Division, the first counter-order arrived. 11 Brigade was to switch its axis to pass through 169 Brigade to the north. So it was not until dark that the Surreys moved up through the 2/7 Queens into the mouth of the Argenta Gap. Acting simultaneously with the Surreys, the Northamptons, to the west, passed through the left flanking positions of the Queens and were soon moving parallel between the Reno and the railway.
During the 16th, two tenacious strongholds on the Northampton’s front (in the area of Celetta) were summarily dealt with in a perfect example of infantry-aircraft cooperation. Fighter bombers were called in to help and six very bomb happy survivors of their attention were eloquent witnesses of the severely accurate bombing and strafing that resulted. Fifty PW were taken that day. Four or five were from the crack 29 Panzer Grenadier Division: the information they gave was of the highest significance. Their division had recently moved in a great hurry out of the battles north east of Bologna across the Po and had been directed to the Adige river defences farther north. Apparently, a last minute change in plans had resulted in a switch round of the Grenadier battalions to the south with orders to stem the flood at Argenta at all costs. The tanks of the Division were mainly left north of the Po, but the motorised infantry troops (some of the finest the Wehrmacht had produced) were now being recommitted, almost too late, opposite 11 Brigade. This step was a sure indication that the enemy were, at last realising their mistake and appreciating, fully, the significance of our drive through the gap – this was proof positive the battle to come would be a hard and bloody one, with no quarter asked for, or given.
By last light on the 16th, the stiffening of the front was obvious. The Northamptons on the left were right up to Argenta cemetery on the southern outskirts of the town with patrols probing forward to test the enemy defences – which were proved to be especially strong at the station and surrounding building. On the right, the Surreys were beginning to outflank the town from the north and were moving up to Fossa Marina, the 12 foot high tranverse tank proof obstacle, which the enemy had chosen for his all out stand.
This was the last and most difficult natural obstacle in the Gap itself, nearly everywhere, we were now through the worst mined areas and, if our advance was not stopped here, it would be the beginning of the end for the enemy. At dusk, forward movement was temporarily halted, as the Brigade Commander made his plan for the attack over the Fossa Marina. That this attack would have to be carried out by fresh troops on a battalion scale was a foregone conclusion and the Lancashire Fusiliers, until then in Brigade reserve, were quickly moved up and concentrated just behind the leading companies of the Surreys from, which position, they would be favourably situated to spring off and penetrate the Marina line.
The attack over the Fossa Marina and the final stages.
The line of the canal was held by II and III battalions of 71 Panzer Grenadier Regiment of 29th Panzer Grenadier Division – two of the hardest fighting then at the disposal of the German Commander in Italy. For support, they had approximately twenty to thirty self propelled and tank destroyer equipments and the usual artillery and mortar sub units from Regiment and Divisional resources. To attack them was the single infantry battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers, backed up by the supporting arms already enumerated. 2100 hours was set as ‘H’ Hour and, exactly on the dot, the barrage opened with a soul shattering roar that seemed to shake the very atmosphere itself and lit up the flat surrounding farmland as if it were day. The vital consequences of the barrage were only discovered after the battle, when it was proved that the enemy had been surprised in the middle of a relief and many troops, who were moving up to the trenches, were caught in the open without cover and, as a result, suffered disastrous casualties, which affected subsequent operations.
As the barrage opened, the Surreys’ leading companies moved nearer to the canal banks and, from their firmly established bases, the Lancashire Fusiliers sprang forward at the main defence. Within twenty minutes, the Fusiliers were engaged in fierce hand to hand fighting with the fanatically resisting enemy – the fury of the struggle continued unabated for nearly forty minutes. By 2200 hours, however, it became evident that the terrific vigour of the attack was beginning to take effect and, shortly after, the news came through that one infantry company was across complete and in the process of beating off a series of hastily organised counter attacks. A second company forced its way over the waterway within another hour and soon the familiar signs of disintegration among the enemy ranks began to show themselves. Over forty PW had been taken and more coming in every minute – hundreds of dead were counted on the far banks and floating in the blood soaked waters of the canal itself.
Three of the Bays tanks had, by this time, also succeeded in crossing the canal by means of superhuman efforts on the part of an ‘Ark’ tank and the supporting Royal Engineers, who had established a serviceable bridge immediately behind the first infantry company to cross the canal, approximately 2 km north east of Argenta town.
The bridgehead won by midnight then was two companies strong and in depth measured nearly three hundred yards constituting a menacing salient right into the crust of the enemy fortress. Three strong counter attacks had been successfully beaten off and not an inch ceded to the enemy. At this stage, however, the bridgehead troops were pinned to the ground by an accurate and devastating counter barrage, which the enemy kept up for the remainder of that night. The Battalion Commander, Lt Col MC Pulford MC had, unfortunately, been wounded in the initial stages of the attack and Major JAH Saunders 2.i.c. took over for the rest of the battle – fighting the battalion with great courage and skill, which later won for him the award of the DSO.
When dawn broke, the fatal breach in the enemy line was still there and the road lay open for fresh troops to get at the vital inner defences. The enemy’s flanks, too, were beginning to show signs of wavering and, taking advantage of this, the Surreys quickly moved up a company on the left of the Lancashire Fusiliers to occupy the north eastern outskirts of Argenta itself.
The town, however, was still held strongly by part of III/71 Panzer Grenadier Regiment, as was proved by patrols from the Northamptons, which had attempted to infiltrate during the night.
But the main doors had been forced open and, that morning, the Irish Fusiliers and Inniskillings were passed through. At 1700 hours on the 17th, the Northamptons began the unenviable task of clearing up the enemy pockets in Argenta itself and, three hours later, were in full occupation. They found that their worst problem was the disposal of the numerous civilian dead, who lay piled in gruesome masses, mute testimony to the previous artillery and air bombardment and which had reduced the town to heaps of shattered rubble.
Trapped between the Northamptons in Argenta and the Inniskillings in the north, the Germans put in a counter attack, on the left forward company of the Northamptons. The attack was broken up by sustained fire from our infantry and gunners and the remnants of the attacking forces were taken prisoner. The much vaunted defences of the Gap had been irreparably smashed and the numerically superior enemy so knocked about that the remainder of that regiment of 29th Division was never again able to fight as an effective unit