Night advance through il Quartiere.
By April 18th, Argenta had been cleared and the enemy was on the run. By their crossing of the Fossa Marina, 2 LF had played a large part in clearing a way for the armoured striking force and the Battalion now hoped to have a day or two’s rest. Companies had concentrated on the 18th, and mobile baths were arranged for the following day. However, late in the afternoon, orders were received to be ready to move at midnight. The Battalion was to move from the Argenta area, to Stazione di Consandolo with the proviso, “If you can’t there, get as near to it as you can “. 2nd Armoured Brigade and LIR were driving for the intact bridges across the Fossa di Porto, west of Portomaggiore; if the bridges were secured, the Battalion was to reinforce was to reinforce the LIR, if not, the Battalion was to remain under command 11 Brigade.
An advance party was sent ahead, under Major K Hill MC, to arrange a concentration area in the new location. The Battalion left Argenta at midnight, no longer a Battalion, but a Battalion group. Apart from the TCVs, there were the Bttn HQ vehicles, S Company, a Platoon of Kensington MMGs, a Platoon of their 4.2” Mortars and a troop of M10. Information regarding the roads was slight and, all that was known was that an armoured formation had covered the area. It was a strange journey, with fires blazing along the route and the sound of battle to the left rear, between Argenta and Consandolo on Route 16. Eventually, possibilities of flanking moves were explored. Only way round was found and this was blocked by a 3 tonner, which had collapsed through a bridge. The CO went to see OC, 2nd Armoured Brigade and instructed to have the Battalion ready for action by dawn. As it was impossible to reach the original location, another area was found where it was possible to get off the road. Breakfast was immediately prepared and consumed by dawn.
At first light, it was possible to recce a new route to the original concentration area at Consandolo St and the Battalion arrived there at 0600 hours. After a hasty night move, a battle was to be expected soon but it did not take place. All day, the Battalion remained on the alert and the CO was called to 11 Brigade HQ, to whose command, the Battalion had reverted. Several tentative plans were made: at one time, the Battalion was to cross the Fossa di Porto, at another it was to go through Portomaggiore. The day was perhaps the most exasperating, of many exasperating occasions. A sudden move in the night was followed by a seemingly endless period of waiting. In the late afternoon, the CO received orders to pass through a small bridgehead formed by the LIR across the Fossa di Porto. The Battalion was then to advance westwards along the bank, turning north along the road through il Quartiere and finally westwards again to the bridge over the Canale San Nicolo. The canal was to be crossed and the advance continued. No enemy worth mentioning were expected – possibly the odd chap. Such statements had been made before, in the history of the Battalion.
The CO, IO and OCs of D and B Companies went down to the river to visit the LIR forward Company, to obtain a view of the country over which the Battalion was to advance at night. Meanwhile, the 2.i.c. had recced an assembly area for the Battalion at Ripapersico. The CO’s plan was as follows: D, B, A, C Companies were to advance in this order with the axis as previously described. The advance was not to commence until a bridge had been completed across the Fossa di Porto, fit for all types of traffic. The estimated time for the completion of the bridge was midnight but, in fact, it turned out to be somewhat later.
The Battalion moved to the assembly area at dusk on the 19th, with squadron of tanks that had joined it in the morning. Owing to the lack of time, the O Group was held in the assembly area. The only light was found in the room occupied by the REs and they were somewhat disconcerted by the influx of people. By midnight, the Battalion was read to move ad waited only for the signal from Brigade to cross the bridge. A bridge had been made by bulldozing in the banks of the river, which is divided into two separate branches. During the bulldozing, the area attracted considerable harassing fire and there was some anxiety lest enemy activity should impede the crossing. The Companies crossed without difficulty, but some congestion was caused by the transport. Until the bridgehead could be expanded by the leading Companies, there was little room for the transport and tanks, which accompanied the Battalion and which were not likely to be needed before dawn. 1 Surreys were following immediately behind the Battalion and hence it was necessary for the Battalion to get clear of the bridge area as soon as possible.
At approximately 0100 hours, OC D Company, Major P Henshall MC, went forward to liaise with the LIR Company Commander on the far bank of the canal. He was informed on arrival that the enemy appeared still to be holding il Quartiere in some strength. On the strength of this information, a preliminary shoot was put down on il Quartiere and also on the canal bank along which the Company was destined to advance before reaching the village. About 2330 hours, D Company, the leading Company reached the first objective just south of the village. During this short advance, already 20 PWs had been taken and it, thus, seemed as if the way was not to be so clear of enemy as the Battalion had been informed. The tanks were unable to follow the Company up to this point owing to the presence of a ditch 10 feet wide and 6 feet deep, which had to be bulldozed in.
As the operation consisted of an advance guard and not an attack on a definite objective, a pre arranged barrage had not been included in the plan. The route of the advance was, however, covered by a series of stonks in depth, available on call. Once inside il Quartiere, the leading Company found the scene extremely grim. At first sight, the place appeared completely deserted but the Platoon, moving up on the side of the road soon discerned flitting shadows retiring from house to house. A heavy volley of fire broke out from all sides but it would seem that the enemy were in no fit state to stand and fight, his sole concern was to escape as swiftly and as soundlessly as possible.
Shortly before dawn, D Company had secured and cleared the area of the village, il Quartiere. As B Company passed through to continue the advance, a stonk of considerable intensity, unfortunately, descended in the Company areas. Some 500 shells fell and a number of casualties were caused, including an Officer, who was killed. A Company was temporarily disorganised and remained in Il Quartiere as reserve. Progress was maintained until the area of the road junction was reached north of the village.
The Squadron of tanks in support had crossed the obstacle at dawn and had been supporting the advance from il Quartiere. The road junction was obviously an enemy stronghold and all approaches were well covered by MG fire. Whilst fire from SP guns was discouraging activity on the part of our tanks. One enemy SP, or tank, nipped round the bend in the road and hit one of our leading tanks, making good its retreat before fire was returned by the tanks.
Several attacks by B Company were repelled during the morning and any approach to the road junction produced an intense volume of MG fire. Finally, B Company succeeded in outflanking the road junction and seized some buildings on the road to the west. With these buildings firmly held, it was possible to sweep down to the road junction. In this operation, the Bttn HQ of 98 Fusiliers Battalion and most of its staff was captured. Some 25 PWs were taken, including an Officer. The CO, however, was able to escape on foot.
To secure the left flank, C Company had been sent out to the flank from il Quartiere and had reached the line of the canal. Information was received that two Battalions of 38 Brigade were passing through in the night, along the original axis of the Battalion. 5 Northanptons were advancing along the axis of the railway line. To facilitate their advance, the Battalion was ordered to clear the area between the road junction north of il Quartiere and the road and rail crossing. This task was accomplished by D Company, with the assistance of a barrage, arranged by 322 Battery Commander, Major R Horne. The Battalions of 36 Brigade passed through at midnight and the operation of the Battalion was momentarily ended.
Casualties from enemy sources were not heavy but the stonk, which fell on the forward Company, inflicted a number of fatal and non fatal casualties. Two officers were killed and two other Officers were wounded on other occasions.
This advance by the Battalion had been particularly tricky. A number of factors had contributed to make the operation difficult. In the first place, the familiar sequence of night moves, followed by a day of alerted inactivity, and its consequent loss of sleep, had got on everybody’s nerves. Secondly, the time for the CO to formulate his plans had been far too short, so that final orders for the advance had to be issued in the Assembly Area. This lack of time was also a heavy burden on the artillery, as it gave them little time to work out their plans in detail. Thirdly, the change from Battalion to Battalion Group, greatly increased the responsibility of the CO and his staff. The anti tank and the support group platoons were under command of the Battalion and this widened the scope of any plan the CO had to make. Fourthly, only negligible opposition was forecast and this did not turn out to be the case. Fifthly, owing to the nature of the operation, an advance guard, as opposed to a set attack, less planning could be done before the operation commenced and more had to be left to planning as the operation developed.