This is the story of the part played by the 2nd Battalion, London Irish Rifles, in the advance of the 8th Army from the River Po resulting in the destruction of a good part of the German Army in Italy.
During these operations, the Battalion, which was mounted in Armoured Troop Carriers, known as ‘Kangaroos’, of the 4th Hussars, formed with the 9th Lancers a powerful mobile striking force under command of the Second Armoured Brigade.
It all really began on 9th April when, after a long and dusty drive, searching all the concentration area east of the Senio, representatives of the battalion found 9th Lancers at cocktail time and opposite numbers were introduced to one another. During this “get together”, a tremendous barrage could be heard to the west and, at 1900 hrs, the appearance of a thick black cloud of smoke on the horizon showed that the flamethrowers, our own included, were putting a final touch to the softening up process of the Senio defences, before the New Zealand and the 8th Indian Divisions went into assault in this way, our “engagement” to 9th Lancers and 4th Hussars took place.
The “marriage” was performed two days later just north of Lugo in territory cleared by the 8th Indian Division between the Rivers Senio and Santerno. It comprised the superimposing of first, squadrons of the 9th Lancers and then the Kangaroos, on the company areas.
Before proceeding further with this narrative, a word should be said about the organisation within this peculiar private army. Each company, together with its allotment of eight Priest Kangaroos, were stocked with reserve ammunition and 48 hours rations, thus making the force completely independent for a given period, if necessary. In the same way, Battalion HQ was mounted in eight Kangaroos, including two for medical purposes and two for reserve ammunition. At all times, it moved in the closest liaison with Tac HQ and Armoured Regimental HQ. In addition, at various times, the force included an armoured squadron of the 4th Hussars, some ‘Flail’ Shermans for mine clearance, Sherman ARCS, Churchill flame throwing ‘Crocodiles’ and the inevitable and priceless Sherman bull dozers.
The force, which was under command of the armour, comprised in total 100 major tracked vehicles. The difficulties of controlling such a force as this were readily overcome by the means of the excellent wireless communications provided in all armoured vehicles.
To return to our story, early on the 13th April, 2nd Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers broke out of the 8th Indian Division’s bridgehead over the River Santerno and advanced in a northerly direction. Following up, the Battalion crossed the Santerno to a concentration area in readiness to pass through, Orders to do the latter were received at midday but it was not until 1330 hrs that the leading Squadrons were out in the open with only the enemy in front. It was found that, on all occasions, great difficulty was experienced in getting through the mass of vehicles which accumulated behind our own FDLs.
The line of advance was due northwards through a thousand yards wide corridor hemmed in on the right by the Santerno River and on the left by the Fossatone Canal. The country was typical of that experienced right up to the banks of the Po; perfectly flat, with orchards and farm houses at regular intervals and the occasional small village. The only variety of terrain came from the varying widths of the numerous canals and rivers.
Our advance to the River Reno is written by the account of the Brigade Commander. It was followed by a pause during which the 56th Division on the north bank of the Reno fought westwards towards Bastia.
During this holding period of two days, the only noteworthy occurrence was the posting from us of RSM Girvan MC, who had been with the battalion throughout its fighting existence.
56th Division, having pushed on westwards opposite us, the battalion crossed the bridge, which had been constructed over the River Reno early on the morning of the 17th and once again “married up” with the tanks and Kangaroos, which had gone over the previous evening. The rest of the day was chiefly noteworthy for a remarkable series of conferences, which went on at Brigade HQ to decide the proper moment to unleash the Kangaroo army once again. At this time, the battle for the Argenta Gap was in full swing.
At first light on the 18th, the force moved forward into battle. This was an unforgettable move. Through the orchards north of Argenta, in the narrow gap between lake and canal, moved a mass of armour, all passing over one bridge that had been constructed over the main water obstacle. Wrecked vehicles, equipment and enemy dead strewed the route, whilst machine gun fire from a position in Argenta, already surrounded, cracked away on the left flank.
The usual difficulty was experienced in breaking through our own FDLs but, by 1000 hrs, we were in the open and the tanks were engaging SPs and Mk IVs. A ‘Kangaroo’ was hit by an AP shot and some trouble was experienced from Boccaleone and Consandalo on the left, neither of which had been captured but the weight of armour and Mobile Infantry was beginning to make itself felt and the advance continued with prisoners streaming in.
At about 1700 hrs, the tanks, which had been used to solve the jig saw puzzle of finding a way across the maze of ditches, discovered an intact crossing of the Fosso Benvignante and very soon they and the infantry were over and infesting the area between this and the next obstacle. As it was now late in the evening, this took the enemy completely by surprise and an Officers Mess, a battery of 15 cm guns, a battery of 88 mm guns and numerous smaller AA and A/Tk pieces together with approximately 200 prisoners were overrun. This, all in spite of the enemy’s attempts to hold us by close range firing over open sights. By the light of numerous burning houses and, with a sense of complete victory, the battalion moved to its final area for the night in the vicinity of Palazzo and Coltra, having already three intact bridges over the next canal in its hands.
At 0400 hours the next morning, patrols from G and R Companies went forward two thousand yards in an attempt to capture bridges intact over the Fossa di Porto west of Portmaggiore. All bridges were found blown but positions were established on the near bank and, by first light, they were joined by the never failing armour. At 1100 hours, F Company was ordered to go to the assistance of 56 Recce Regiment in clearing the Germans from Portomaggiore. They rejoined the Battalion late in the evening. During all these major operations, prisoners were continually being taken in groups of ten or fifteen.
It was decided during the morning to make a bridgehead over the Fossa di Porto at 1430 hours. This was done by G Company to a great accompaniment of smoke, HE and the flame throwing ‘Wasps’. Fourteen prisoners were taken. H Company, on the right, followed suit as soon as GCompany’s bridgehead was established and 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 Rotta and the Battalion was therefore ordered to enlarge its bridgehead in order that a crossing for tanks might be prepared by Sappers. This was done at 2200 hours the same evening and was supported by timed concentrations from the Divisional Artillery. All objectives were taken by 2300 hours. Twenty enemy were captured and one SP Gun was “brewed up” by the concentrations. Our casualties were five wounded.
Under Mortar Fire, the RE bulldozed a crossing over the two canals comprising the Fossa di Porto and, by 0200 hours on the morning of the 20th, 11 Brigade had begun to pass through in a north westerly direction. Not until late the next night was the threat removed from the left flank, thus H Company was not released from guarding this flank until the morning of the 21st.
Early the same morning, the now familiar process of “re-marrying up” with the tanks and ‘Kangaroos’ once again took place and, at 0900 hours, the force moved off over the Fosso Bolognese, picking up H Company on the way. The direction was north-westwards towards a bridgehead which had been established, after heavy fighting by the Skins and Faughs, over the Canal south of Montesanto.
Here, after a short and unpleasant wait in an assembly area where the RMO was wounded by a shell, which burst in a tree above his ‘Kangaroo’, the forces 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 were 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 the day, we all just slept but, at 1900 hours, orders were received of a possible job as right flank protection to 11 Brigade, who were doing a push that night. This task we were not called upon to perform, much to the relief of everyone. The following day was again celebrated as a day of rest and reorganisation.
At 2000 hours, the battalion was warned to move in its ‘Kangaroos’ to a concentration area on the right flank of a bridgehead that had been established over the Po di Volano near Fossalta. It was thought probable that the rest of the Irish Brigade would need reinforcements in their attack up through Tamara and Saletta.
After waiting in this area until 1100 hours the following morning, the Battalion role was suddenly changed. The 9th Lancers were called up to rejoin us and, at 1330 hours, the private 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 for 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 Po 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 late or could not swim, were rounded up.
Thus ended the fourth and longest advance made by the ‘Kangaroo Army’. The force settled down into billets in farms on its final battlefield south of the Po and perhaps its final battlefield of the war. The total bag for the force is shown separately at the end of this narrative.
A very great feature of this series of operations was the cooperation and mutual trust between armour and infantry, a feature without which these successes would not have been possible.
The effect on the enemy of the full weight of this cohesive force thrusting on a narrow front and disgorging infantry rapidly at centres of strong resistance was disastrous every time as the force swung into action. Due appreciation must also be made of the fact that openings and opportunities for the force to be use were made on all four occasions by hard fighting on the part of the remainder of the Irish Brigade.
Bag of the operations carried out by the Kangaroo Army for the period 13th to 25th April 1945:
7 Officers, 2 MOs and 870 ORs were taken prisoner.
Tanks – 12 brewed.
1 captured intact.
6 self brewed.
Armoured Cars – 2 destroyed.
SPs – 1 overrun.
1 self destroyed
150 mm – 4 overrun.
105 mm – 2 overrun.
149 mm – 2 overrun.
88 mm – 4 overrun.
75 mm A/Tk – 1 destroyed.
20 mm – 2 overrun.
Mortars – 2 (large) destroyed.
Half Tracks – 1 overrun.
Transport – 29 destroyed and overrun.
Horses – 8 captured.
Alsatians – 2 captured.
Ponies/Traps – 2 Captured.