On 16 April 1945, 2 Innisks concentrated in La Giovecca. A Brigade ‘O’ Group was held at 1430 hours and plans for the breakthrough at Argenta were made. The plan was for 38 (Irish) Brigade to pass through the Lancashire Fusiliers as soon as they had secured their bridgehead over the Fossa Marina Canal. This obstacle was the largest canal that ran from Argenta in a northeasterly direction across our front. The RIrF were to go first and advance in a NNW direction; 2 Innisks were to follow them and to swing west. Zero hour was to be first light on 17 April. Each Battalion had its Squadron of Tanks (Queen’s Bays) and normal supporting arms. The whole move was designed to outflank the town of Argenta on the east and then cut Route 16 north of it. The plan, if successful, would seal off the town and open a way through the gap.
The CO issued his orders. The Battalion would advance on a two company front, ‘C’ and ‘D’ Companies forward. ‘A’ Company following ‘C’, and ‘B’ Company following ‘D’. Each Company had its own troop of tanks and the leading Companies each had an Artillery FOO.
Due to difficulty experienced by the Lancashire Fusiliers in crossing the Fossa Marine, our advance was postponed until 1200 hours at which time a firm bridgehead across the obstacle had been formed. Our 7 hours in the assembly area had been enlivened by a grandstand view of the MAAF bombing of the town of Argenta only 1,000 yards away on our left front.
Punctually, at 1200 hrs, ‘C’ and ‘D’ Companies moved forward.
‘D’ Company’s first objective was a group of houses on the right flank, which was being held by the enemy as strong points. These houses were taken by 17 Platoon without loss to themselves in spite of considerable MG fire and sniping from the left. Immediately after this, a very heavy mortar ‘stonk’ was put down by the enemy, which completely pinned the remainder of the Company to the ground. ‘D’ Company’s own description of this is given below:
“The Platoon Commander led one section into a ditch, the section crowded and the Section Leader, sensing an approach of a slight panic, climbed out of the ditch with his Caubeen at a rakish angle, lit a cigarette, glared down at his men and, with supreme contempt in his voice, said, ‘You Bloody fool, for Jesus sake, learn how to behave.’ The shells did not seem to worry him at all, nor his men after that.”
In the advance to Route 16, north of San Antonio, a total bag of two Officers and 18 OR were taken prisoner. In some farm buildings just short of Route 16, the enemy had his main force, together with a Tiger Tank. Our guns gave excellent close support but, in spite of scoring several direct hits on the buildings, the Tiger continued to pump round after round into the Company position.
To return to ‘D’ Company’s account:
“The two leading Sections were making great progress and had managed to get within about 100 yards of the house without being spotted. When they were, the enemy fired everything he had at them and the right hand section was completely pinned down and any movement attracted fire. A shell landed right amongst the left hand section wounding every one of them. A smoke screen was put down and the platoon was withdrawn, having suffered 1 killed a 15 wounded.”
From the left rear, the houses in Argenta continued to give trouble and the Company Commander decided to consolidate and set out a patrol to contact 5 Northamptons. The Company consolidated in the area of the railway line. The patrol found the Northamptons in Argenta but without Tanks and they reported enemy Tanks in the town.
‘C’ Company, meanwhile had continued their advance without very much incident. At 1445 hours, however, ‘A’ Company, who were following ‘C’, were subjected to a very heavy concentration of shells from A/Tk and SP Guns.
‘A’ Company’s account of this states:
“Our leading tank was knocked out and, 5 minutes later, the No 2 Tank was set ablaze by A/Tk Gun fire. Things were looking very bad indeed but it never put us off the job we had to do. In simple words, it made us want to get to grips with the Bosche himself. 7 Platoon was moved up the road leading to the level crossing. A Tiger Tank commenced firing AP Shells at the Platoon causing 25 casualties.
‘C’ Company was ordered to attack these Guns from the North West. They were eventually dealt with and the advance continued. ‘C’ Company Commander reported that Route 16 was under observation by his leading troops but they would not get on to the floodbank immediately west of the road because of heavy enemy small arms fire. They had met considerable resistance from Tanks and SP guns and the close of the day’s fighting found two enemy tanks destroyed and two 15 cm SP guns abandoned.
During the night, patrols from both ‘C’ and ‘D’ Companies discovered the enemy were holding the floodbank in great strength, but it was considered by both Company Commanders that a full scale attack under a barrage would carry the objective.
All night long, a vigilant watch was kept by All Ranks: the enemy occupied the houses in Argenta to our left rear as well as being in strength to our immediate front.
At 0600 hours on 18 April, ‘D’ Company again continued their attack. This time, the objective was to cut Route 16. The village of San Aontio was to be cleared by 16 Platoon and the farm buildings, which had given so much trouble the previous day by 18 Platoon. In reserve was 17 Platoon. To return to ‘D’ Company’s narrative:
“The Tanks made straight for the farm firing everything they had, with 18 Platoon followed by 16 Platoon finding it hard to keep up. Nothing happened for the first 200 yards, then the Boche opened up with Spandau fire. Our tanks kept up their fire and kept him pretty well subdued. When 18 Platoon got within 100 yards of the farm, as one man, the whole Platoon swept into the house, taking 12 prisoners. Here 16 Platoon swung left straight for San Antonio. They moved into this village with such speed that the enemy were taken completely by surprise and never had a chance to make any sort of stand. They ran out of the houses and made for the Reno Floodbank. The Company Commander forestalled them in this by sending 18 Platoon straight on and swinging them left across the road to cut them off.”
‘D’ Company had taken three other houses in rapid succession; 66 prisoners, killed 11 of the enemy and knocked our one Tiger Tank. Amongst the prisoners was the Commander of the enemy Battalion responsible for the defence of the area and two other Officers. The Company was now firmly established at a large white house, situated on Route 16 near the Reno floodbank. What was more important, Argenta, was now definitely cut off.
In the early afternoon, the CO decided to attack the floodbank and capture a house 400 yards forward of ‘D’ Company’s FDLs. This attack was to be done by ‘B’ Company.
At 1700 hrs, ‘B’ Company, supported by flamethrowers, attacked the flood bank west of Route 16. The Company carried its objective and it was then discovered that the bank was not the actual Reno floodbank but another artificial bank running parallel with Route 16, whilst the Reno floodbank swung west with the line of the river and was actually 300 yards west of this bank.
The house, which was the Company’s final objective was attacked under cover of the smoke from the flamethrowers and taken at the cost to the enemy of 16 wounded. The flamethrowers were withdrawn and 12 Platoon were left to mop up the area. When the smoke cleared, it became obvious that the enemy were on the Reno floodbank in great strength and 12 Platoon found themselves being heavily attacked by 300 enemy and a Tiger Tank. It later transpired that this force had formed up for a counter attack on Argenta. Overwhelming superiority in numbers plus the difficulty in obtaining adequate artillery support close behind the floodbank, forced this Platoon to withdraw to the bank nearest the road, where they were in a far better position to hit back at the enemy coming across the open ground between the two banks. 11 Platoon hastily went to their assistance, only to find themselves heavily engaged from their right by an enemy Company and two Tanks. 10 Platoon was sent to join the 12 Platoon on the bank, which was to be held at all costs.
The Battle, by this time, had become hectic and as 12 Platoon reached the bank safely a heavy artillery concentration was put down on the enemy force advancing across the open ground, inflicting many casualties. ‘B’ Company had now so many targets to engage that ammunition very soon ran short. !1 Platoon had inflicted so many casualties on their particular enemy force that the Tanks hoisted a Red Cross flag, picked up their casualties and the force withdrew. This left 10 and 12 Platoons resorting to firing off Verey lights and 2” Mortar smoke at the enemy trapped in the artillery barrage falling in front of them. Carriers with ammunition were rushed up and by 2000 hours the enemy had withdrawn.
Meanwhile, an attack by the Commando Brigade from the south west was being planned. Their attack was preceded by a heavy artillery barrage. At 2130 hrs, this barrage commenced. Two troops were firing out of line and their round fell on ‘D’ Company. Repeated requests to the artillery to correct this met with answer that there were far too many guns engaged to locate the offenders and the programme must continue. ‘D’ Company had to “grin and near it”. Fortunately, the casualties were slight. The great thing was, however, that the Commando attack was successful. At 2300 hours, an LO from this Brigade reported to the Battalion Headquarters that the west bank of the Reno was clear of enemy. The Argenta Gap was now fully opened and the armour could pass through.
The Battle of the Argenta Gap proved to be the turning point of the whole campaign. If the Inniskillings had failed to achieve all they did, it might have altered the whole course of the big operation of destroying the German Army south of the Po.