Over the Santerno and the advance to Conselice.
The final offensive in Italy was the first time that the 48th Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment had the hour to fight with the 78th Division. The result of the affiliation was the successful advance from the Santerno to the Sillaro and Reno and the bursting of the Argenta Gap. This short account deals with the former as it was the first of a series of infantry – tank advances that were to prove so successful during the next three weeks.
The Battalion had supported 21 Brigade of 8 Indian Division across the Senio and up to the Santerno and was leaguered in the Lugo when orders were received on 11th April that the Battalion was placed in support of 36 Brigade of 78th Division. Lt Col PWD Sturdee, commanding the Battalion, visited 36 Brigade in the afternoon and Squadrons were affiliated as follows: ‘A’ Squadron to 5 Buffs, ‘B’ Squadron to 8 A & SH and ‘C’ Squadron to 6 RWK. Liaison was carried out during the evening and the Battalion officially came under command 78 Division that night.
Early next morning, ‘B’ Squadron moved to 8 A & SH’s location and troops tied up with companies and both ‘B’ Squadron and the rest of the Battalion were, at short notice, to move all day.
At 1345 hours, orders were issued at Argyll’s HQ for operation ‘Archie’. ‘B’ Squadron and 8 A & SH were to cross the Santerno and to attack north west to enlarge the bridgehead already made by 17 Indian Infantry Brigade with 12 Battalion RTR and to allow 38 (Irish) Brigade, with 2 Armoured Brigade, to assemble for their break through to the north. The attack started at 1800 hours. The objective was the S Fossatone and the tanks started on the west side of the river. At 1930 hours, the infantry were on the objective with no casualties and no resistance. A small number of PW were taken and a few enemy killed. Owing to the lack of resistance and the reports of the local civilians that the enemy had pulled back, it was decided to exploit boldly forward and capture Conselice before dawn.
6 Troop with ‘B’ Company, therefore, advanced to Zeppa Nuova about two miles to the west and 8 Troop with ‘B’ Company to Zeppa Superiore, about 300 yards to the north. On arrival here, the Squadron, less 6 Troop, were formed up in order of march – 8 Troop, Squadron HQ, 10 Troop, 7 Troop and ‘R’ Company riding on the tanks. It was now dark but artificial moonlight and the flares of a bombing programme to the north made visibility good. This task force, followed by the reserve companies, on foot advanced with the first objective, San Patrizio. Before starting, the bridge, 300 yards short of the village, was shelled to encourage demolition parties and three wounded Germans were found in the ditch on arrival there. Along the whole, advance small packets of enemy were rounded up ad taken prisoner – the total bag for the night’s work was over seventy.
San Patrizio was reached and cleared before midnight and the infantry dug in. Further orders were then asked for and the force was ordered to seize and hold two bridges to the west of San Patrizio, 7 Troop, with one platoon, went to the northern one and 8 Troop, with a platoon, to the southern one. Both met opposition from parties guarding the bridges but both bridges were intact and were secured by 0130 hours. 7 Troop shout up a bridge demolition party, who tried to sneak up the canal bank and fire the prepared charges. During the night, a Rhinoceros 88 mm SP gun swanned into the village hopelessly lost and out of touch with the situation and was promptly put in the bag – completely equipped and in good running order. The crew was taken prisoner, very surprised and indignant at losing their vehicle.
At 0430 hours, 6 RWK arrived, followed by ‘C’ Squadron and, at first light, they passed through 8 A & SH and ‘B’ Squadron to attack Conselice. By 0630 hours, the infantry were within 500 yards of the outskirts of the town, where they met heavy opposition from enemy in farmhouses. The Squadron Leader decided to make an armoured recce and, at 0715 hours, 2 Troop were ordered to move up the road running north east from San Patrizio as far as the crossroads east of Conselice. They reached C Raffi, 800 yards short of this crossroads by 0825 hours with little opposition. This Troop was then halted to watch the east and north east approaches of the town. At about 1100 hours, the Troop was ordered forward from their position to attack a house 300 yards to the north, which would be taken over by the right company when cleared. The enemy was well entrenched in this house and, during this small engagement, the troop leader’s tank was hit and brewed up, killing the officer and some of the crew. The enemy attempted to salvage the tank but later were prevented by our own artillery and air. The enemy lost two anti tank guns, their crews being killed. The shooting by these tanks was first class as, on later inspection, a 6 pounder shell was found embedded in the muzzle brake of one of the guns. Meanwhile, 1 Troop, in support of the left company, had spent the morning shooting up enemy positions that were giving the infantry trouble. This company and Troop were under very heavy fire and the Troop Leader was wounded early in the afternoon but the Troop Sergeant reorganised the troop and continued to give the infantry support until relieved by 4 Troop. At about 1645 hours, one platoon, occupying a house, was completely surrounded and this troop went to their assistance. The situation was restored by 1730 hours.
During the morning, ‘A’ Squadron had moved up with the 5 Buffs to San Patrizio. Battalion HQ had also moved with 36 Brigade HQ to farmhouses north of Zeppa. The enemy were still not clear from the area east of Conselice and north of Zeppa and ‘A’ Squadron had to send 1 Troop and 2 Troop out with 2 companies from the 5 Buffs to clear the area. As they moved up with the infantry on the tanks, they were cheered by Battalion HQ as they passed, who then felt a bit more comfortable with someone else between them and the enemy. A few PW were taken – 36 Brigade took twenty when they moved into their farmhouse.
The enemy was doggedly holding onto Conselice and a combined attack to clear the town was staged for the night 13/14 April with a troop from ‘C’ Squadron supporting a company of 6 RWK in an attack north-east of the town. The attack went in at 2100 hours and, by 2230 hours, the area of the cemetery at the crossroads had been reached. The company of the RWK, with its troop of tanks, entered the town at 0400 hours. On the left, ‘B’ Squadron and 8 A & SH had the task of securing the left flank, while ‘A’ Squadron, with the Buffs, attacked north-west of the town. The attack went forward slowly and surely, supported by concentrations from field and medium artillery. Just before midnight, ‘A’Squadron were on their objective and civilians passed on the information that the Germans had left half an hour before. Several tanks and SP guns had been seen passing towards the west. The town was quickly occupied and, there, the battalion remained for two days before being called upon to take part in the next phase.