The Last Offensive – The Santerno Bridgehead.
By the Commander of 38th (Irish) Infantry Brigade.
On the morning of the 10th, I held a final conference at Brigade Headquarters in Forli to go through the plan that appeared to be the most likely one for us to embark on. The grouping was designed to be appropriate to any variety of the plan that might be dictated by future events. The Brigade Group that we handled during the Santerno bridgehead phase was about the size of an Armoured Division. In addition to our own battalions, our armour included the 2nd Armoured Brigade (less the 10th Hussars), 4th Hussars, B Squadron 51 Royal Tank Regiment (Flails), C Squadron 51 Royal Tank Regiment (Crocodiles), an armoured assault troop RE, a dozen troop RE. The artillery under command was the 17th Field Regiment, 11 RHA, Z Troop 209 Self Propelled Battery, 254 Anti Tank Battery and the support of as much as the remainder of the Divisional artillery as we could use, which included a medium regiment. In addition, of course, we had our own 214 Field Company RE, 152 Field Ambulance and D Support Group.
The object of our operation was to pass through the 8 Indian Division’s bridgehead over the Santerno about Mondaniga, swing north between the west bank of the Santerno and the Scolo Fossatone and capture the bridge over the River Reno near Bastia, an advance of about 12,000 yards, Obviously, this was too deep an attack to carry through with the same units leading as there was no reason to suppose that the Germans would not contest every yard of the way from their well prepared positions. I, therefore, had three elements to undertake this task – a breaking out force, a mobile force to follow through and the reserve force for special roles. This mobile force was entirely mounted on tracked vehicles and should be able to maintain a uniform speed of cross country performance throughout all its units and sub units. The object of the mobile force, under command of Brigadier John Coombe, was to be ready to pass through the breaking out force as soon as that force had either shot its bolt or the going appeared to be favourable for the armour. I hoped to be able to pass this force through as soon as the breaking out force had cleared up to the bottle neck at La Giovecca. We had hoped that the speed of the final advance might bounce the River Reno bridge, which was our objective.
In detail, the group was as follows:
The Break Out Force.
1 RIrF 2 Innisks.
A Squadron Bays. B Squadron Bays.
D Support Group MMG Platoon. C Squadron 51 RTR (Crocodiles).
Reconnaissance Party RE. D Support Group MMG Platoon.
Scissors Brigade. Reconnaissance Party RE.
Bulldozer Troop RE.
Artillery in Immediate Support.
17 Field Regiment RA 11 RHA.
The Mobile Force (Kangaroo Army).
Headquarters 2 Armoured Brigade. Z Troop 209 SP Battery.
9 Lancers. Assault Detachment RE.
4 Hussars (Kangaroo). 2 LIR.
Reserves for Special Roles.
C Squadron Bays. D Support Group Mortar Platoon.
254 Anti Tank Battery. 214 Field Company RE.
SP Troop 254 Anti Tank Battery. 152 Field Ambulance.
Armoured Troop RE.
At 1300 hours on the 10th, we left Forli and concentrated, less the armour, south of Bagnacavallo. Our teeing up was really being done in stages. We had two assembly areas east of the Senio – one for the infantry and one for armour and we had a marrying up area near Lugo on the west of the Senio. It was necessary to assemble fairly near the Senio in order that we might start making use of the bridges as soon as they were ready. If possible, infantry and tanks should never cross an obstacle in the same place and so there was no objective in bringing them together until they had got across the river by their different routes. We got into our assembly area without incident and, in the light of the latest information, I issued verbal orders for the move to the wedding area west of the Senio where the tanks and infantry would join up, to start at 6 o’clock the next morning.
This move was without incident and slowly but surely, we gathered up all the bits and pieces that were to form our force. At 9 o’clock that evening, I head a coordinating conference in Lugo, checked over the plan and the tying up of all the Group and made provisional arrangements for the order of march forward. During this night, 8 Indian Division were to form their bridgehead over the Santerno and to link up with the New Zealand Division, who had already got troops across in some places but whose bridgehead was not yet formed.
One of the characteristics of crossing rivers is the conflicting and often contradictory information that one receives over the state of bridges. One person says a bridge will be ready in two hours, then it is put back to six, then someone else says it was ready half an hour ago. The next thing that happens is that something falls in. We had learned that the only way to overcome this is by direct communication to our own representative at the bridge site. Even that does not overcome the human factor of incorrect estimates of time required to complete a job. The main point was that we were in a good position to get across the Santerno bridge as soon as it was ready. Apart from a few harmless shells that were scattered across Lugo, we suffered no discomforts.
About half past eleven on the 12th, the Santerno bridgehead was beginning to look pretty good and bridges were expected to be ready sometime during the afternoon. The general advance on our northern flank was such that a variation to the original Divisional plan could be made. In the original plan, 36 Brigade were to sweep North along the east of the Santerno while we were on the West. It seemed unlikely that organised resistance East of the river would amount to anything very much and the wise alternative of switching 36 Brigade on to our left and merely using some of the Reconnaissance Regiment on the East of the river was decided upon. 36 Brigade were to strike out in a Westerly direction towards San Patrizio and Conselice and so give us more elbow room to jump off and cover our flank. To be of most value in this role, it was clearly necessary that 36 Brigade should move first and fortunately the lay out in the wedding area permitted this to be done without any difficulty.
They started off about 4 o’clock and were able to begin their attack that evening. We had also hoped to start that evening but congestion on the tracks and bridges and the shelling of our bridge delayed matters so much that we could not manage it. The attack was therefore postponed until dawn and the Faughs were told to maintain contact that night by patrolling. The Indians kept contact on the Skins’ front.
0630 hours on the 13th was the Zero hour for our breaking out force.
36 Brigade, in the meanwhile, had done well and gave us considerable elbow room on our left flank. The Germans must have been a bit foxed when we turned North that morning, as 36 Brigade’s advance would have made them expect the main thrust to be in a Westerly direction.
I left Main Brigade in the wedding area and established a Tactical HQ just East of Mondaniga with John Coombe, Margot Asquith commanding the Bays, Rupert Lecky commanding the 17th Field Regiment and with John McClinton as assistant.
I was very keen for the Faughs to set some elements of infantry and tanks across the Scolo Fossatone to cover the left flank. This was more easily said than done but fortunately, with the assistance of the Assault REs, we got them across. As the advance went Northwards to the bottle neck at La Giovecca, the frontage between the Santerno and the Fossatone narrowed down to less than a thousand yards. I felt it was important that we should be in a rather broader front that this if we were to have room to get the ponderous Kangaroo Army through the Gap.
The nature of the country was true to the form that I have previously described. Although not yet in leaf, the vines and trees restricted visibility to about 100 yards and provided excellent cover for small determined parties on both sides. Especially did it help the Bosche bazooka men. Enemy strongpoints were continually being met but, by the speedy and determined efforts of the tank cum infantry, they were soon deal with.
The strongest resistance was probably met about the line running East and West through San Bernadino. Elements of the 8th Indian Division were advancing on this place from the East but, even so, the Skins had a tough time in this sector. The Bosche were sitting tight in their holes and it took quite a bit of determined work to kill or capture them.
By about midday, both battalions were approaching the La Giovecca bottleneck and the moment seemed ripe to unleash John Coombe and his Kangaroo army.
It was a difficult job getting so many armoured vehicles through this thick country and to pass them through our foremost troops. I had arranged for recognition signals to be fired by verey pistol to indicate our forward positions to the approaching tanks, but even with this aid, they found great difficulty in determining friend from foe. Leading elements of the mobile force were beginning to take on the enemy by about 1330. I include here the London Irish account of this phase of the battle:
“The object of the Kangaroo army was to secure crossings over the Conselice Canal and, if possible, exploit to the River Reno, several thousands of yards ahead.
At first, little resistance was encountered. The Skins and the Faughs had given the enemy a good shaking and he was on the move back. Scattered enemy Bazooka men were met and one tank was lost through the fire of an anti tank gun but a number of prisoners were taken by G Company.
As the Conselice Canal was approached, the rivers opened out and H Company, with C Squadron of the 9th Lancers, came up on the left. Resistance was encountered in the village of La Frascata. This was immediately by passed but, as the leading tanks arrived at the canal, the bridge was blown up immediately in front of them. H Company, who had driven past La Frascata in their Kangaroos, speedily de bussed on the banks of the canal and, covered by the tanks, forced a crossing over the remains of the road and railway bridges, getting into the houses on the far bank so rapidly that few of the defenders managed to escape.
Meanwhile, G Company was clearing the area up to the canal bank on the right and E Company was ordered to clear La Frascata and assist H Company in holding and enlarging the bridgehead. The enemy had been surprised by the speed and weight of the attack. Few of them, not more than ten, had been killed but all three forward companies had taken numbers of prisoners. By 1830 hours, the total was eighty.
The bridgehead was firmly established by 1200 hours and Companies were dug in for the night. Sappers were building a bridge over the canal, the armour was in leaguers and plans for the following day were being made. A large increase in the number of wrist watches possessed by H Company was noticed.
Early on the 14th, before dawn, patrols from E Company were feeling their way up through Lavezzola towards the River Reno. At first light, they were followed by the armour in two columns, one due North along the axis of the main road and the other sweeping round to the right to avoid the minefield that were known to exist in the Lavezzola area. The whole area was heavily mined and the houses booby trapped in the northern half of the village but luckily the German mine warning notices were still in place and not a single casualty was caused to either tanks or infantry. The flails had a great morning exploding mines.
The Reno was reached at 0940 hours, about 30 prisoners having been taken. These included eight taken in the act of laying further mines. Both the road and rail bridges over the river were gone but sufficient rubble still remained to allow foot soldiers to cross dry shod. Reconnaissance was carried out and a plan evolved for two platoons of E Company to cross and form a small bridgehead. This took place at 1230 hours without resistance and under cover of smoke, but while the platoons were advancing North from the river they were heavily counter attacked and most of them over run. No assistance could be given by the tanks owing to the high floodbanks and the absence of a bridge. Positions were now taken up on the next bank and further reconnaissance carried out with a view to making a deliberate crossing.
At this time, 56 Division, who had landed on the southern shores of Lake Comachio were still several thousand yards East of this attempted bridgehead and the enemy was therefore very sensitive to a threat from their southern flank. It was however, decided to hold positions on the southern bank of the river for the night and eventually the battalion was ordered to maintain their static positions for the next two days. A point of special interest which arose at this time was that the 1st Battalion, London Irish on the left flank of 56 Division was, for the first time in this war, sharing a common piece of the front with this battalion and, on the first night, one of their patrols crossed the Reno and contacted G Company.”
On the evening of the 13th, the Skins clamped down about La Giovecca and the Faughs were spread out on the West of the Fassatone watching the flank. Both battalions had fought magnificently during the day and had had a long and anxious period moving up for the battle. We captured two officers and one hundred and fifty seven ORs mainly from 362 Division during the day’s work.
On the 14th, the London Irish were the main participants as already described by them. The Skins had a day off and the Faughs were patrolling out in the West. Brigade Headquarters were established at La Palazzina about half way between the Skins and the London Irish.
Partisans appeared in this area. They proved a mixed blessing. There were two types, those who put on their arm bands and slung their muskets round their shoulders after the Bosche had pulled out and those who did fight genuinely, many of whom had fresh wounds. The second variety were extremely helpful and had detailed maps and drawings showing enemy positions and minefields, which later proved to be very accurate. They all, however, had one big failing, common throughout Italy. Once having allowed them to start taking, nothing would induce them to stop. They held non-stop meetings throughout the day, which were soon referred to as “Partisan O Groups”. These meetings resembled mobile arsenals, for all the men and also the women carried at least four weapons and were festooned with bandoliers, grenades, knives and every sort of “what have you”. Bala Bredin CO of 2 LIR enlisted a platoon of these scoundrels, from which he was expecting great things but I never heard much more about them. As well as the partisans, some odd members of the Cremona Gruppo got mixed up in the proceedings – I suppose they had friends in those parts.
On the 17th, the Faughs sent patrols to clear up the marsh lands up to the Sillaro river. The enemy was holding the far bank in some places and had strong points in houses. That evening, this clearing up job was taken over by 36 Brigade and the Faughs concentrated.
36 Division, in the meanwhile, had come up level with us on the North of the Reno and had passed across our front towards Bastia and Argenta so were able to start bridging operations across the River Reno. It was estimated that the bridge would be ready for our further advance by midday the following day and we were accordingly placed at four hours notice to continue the advance the next morning. Not only had our part of the battle gone according to plan – which is a very rare thing to happen – but the whole of the Army Group was moving according to schedule too.
Everything was looking very promising, but the big battle of the Argenta Gap, on which the whole success of the 5 Corps advance depended, still lay above us. Some regrouping took place at this stage and we lost a good deal of our force. The Bays were to join 11 Brigade and the 9th Lancers were to be with us. The 2nd Armoured Brigade from now on remained directly under Division. The Crocodiles, Flails and Assault REs also left us as all those sort of things would be playing a big part in the dense minefields of the Argenta Gap.