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5th Corps attack across the Rivers Senio and Santerno.
April 9th dawned fine and warm by the banks of the Senio with the ground hard underfoot and a cloudless sky. It was ideal weather for the air forces to begin that process ominously known as “softening up”.
The morning passed in comparative peace except at each headquarters, where telephones rang incessantly and paper continued to pour from the machinery of planning and fall into every lap “for action” or “for information”; liaison officers came and went and generally came again: on the river bank, it was unusually quiet.
At 1350 hours, the first rumblings of attack began with medium and heavy bombers passing overhead on their way to drop a “carpet” of small fragmentation bombs in the enemy’s rear areas. Ten minutes later, the first “cabrank” appeared; Spitfires circling high up in the sky, ready to pounce on targets chosen by the ground forces.
At 1520 hours, the overture began in earnest; first guns and mortars, then the air, then guns again, then both; there was no mistaking this, the prelude of the assault.
The bombardment was planned and carried out in five phases. Each phase opened with an intense gun attack, employing every available gun and mortar on the Corps front. Then followed a ten minute period during which the guns were silent and fighter bombers strafed the river banks with cannon. Next, the aircraft switched to the area behind the river and attacked with bombs, while the guns and mortars also lifted from the floodbank and laid down concentrations beyond it.
This cycle of destruction revolved five times between 1520 and 1920 hours, the time planned for the ground assault, this time known as ‘H’.
The artillery and mortar bombardment for the fifth phase of the attack ended at 1920 hours precisely; the fighter bombers came down to strafe the river bank; but the attack was a feint. As the aircraft swooped, ‘Wasp’ and ‘Crocodile’ flamethrowers all along the river bank opened their jets and the enemy’s posts were subjected to intense saturation of flame on an unprecedented scale. This was the climax of the “preparation”.
At ‘H’, the leading infantry assaulted across the river and the opening barrage began.
For two hours, the fog of war lay thickly over the front and conflicting news confounded efforts to paint a military picture with china graph on talc. By 2115 hours, however it was clear that substantial bridgeheads had been gained in the initial assault and progress seemed, on the whole, to be good.
During the night, and all next day, the Indians on the right and the New Zealanders on the left continued to make steady and substantial progress. By dawn on April 11th, they were approaching the second major obstacle in the way of the advance – the Santerno river. By nightfall on the same date, the Santerno had been crossed and each of the two leading divisions had a foothold on the far bank. The work of 78th Division was about to begin.
Preliminary Operations of the 78th Division.
On ‘D’ Day, the divisional sector was held by 11 Brigade, which under command the Queen’s Bays, 5 Buffs, 6 RWK and a composite squadron of 56 Recce Regiment. 5 Northamptons, supported by the 75 mm SP guns of 56 Recce Regiment were detached from the Division filling a gap in the Corps front near Alfonsine, 36 and 38 Brigades and 2 Armoured Brigade less 10 Hussars were concentrated in rear areas prepared to move forward, when required. 10 Hussars was detached from its Brigade and under command of the 56th (London) Division in the north.
Elsewhere, many of the division’s supporting arms were engaged in sundry tasks. The entire Divisional Artillery, including 11 RHA, was placed in support of the 2nd New Zealand Division for the preliminary gun attack and subsequently for the assault. By agreement with the New Zealanders, however, 138 Field Regiment was retained with its primary task, the support of the divisional sector.
In order to thicken the gunner support on the Division’s front, two batteries, each of six tanks equipped with 105 mm guns, were formed from 2 Armoured Brigade (Bays and 9 Lancers) and placed under command 11 RHA.
1 Kensingtons were deployed in support of the flanking divisions, having placed two platoons of heavy mortars with each.
The ‘Wasp’ Flamethrowers of the Division were dispersed along the Corps front so that the moral and physical onslaught, which was planned as the climax of the preparation might be more effective on the fronts of the assaulting formations, but the exact area of attack should remain concealed until the infantry were across. Nine were placed under command of each of the two assaulting divisions and which remained in 11 Brigade in the Divisional sector.
The Divisional Engineers were also engaged on tasks of assistance to the flanks and in particular on the business of road maintenance.
With the Division thus deployed, the preliminary air attacks on ‘D’ day necessitated the withdrawal of our own troops to a distance of 400 yards from the river bank. This operation was carried out by 11 Brigade at first light on April 9th, in conformity with the flanking divisions.
At ‘H’ hour, previous positions were to be reoccupied and 11 Brigade was then to push forward on the extreme right to occupy positions on the eastern floodbank some 300 or 400 yards beyond the original line, which here ran that distance short of the river.
In carrying out this task, the Brigade encountered some difficulty. By 2010 hours, all positions previously held in the Division’s sector were reoccupied but 2 Lancashire Fusiliers, supported by a squadron of Bays, were meeting string opposition as they tried to move forward to the new positions on the right. Enemy machine guns were very active from the area of the floodbank and many mines were causing some trouble. A further impediment came from individual enemy who, having observed our withdrawal early in the day, had moved forward from their posts and thus succeeded in avoiding the main weight of the air attack. These few enterprising huns kept bobbing up in the rear of the LF. With the machine gunners in the bank, they inflicted between 20 and 30 casualties, preventing the battalion from gaining the new position by dusk.
The progress of the main assault during the night of 9th April caused the enemy to withdraw from his positions on the Division’s front by dawn on the 10th. When this was discovered, 11 Brigade at once crossed the river and occupied the western bank. By 0940 hours, one company of 1 Surreys reached Cotignola without trouble and here contact was made with 27 New Zealand Battalion, which had entered the village from the west. Soon afterwards, the New Zealanders moved on and, at 1020 hours, 11 Brigade was ordered to make firm the general area of the village. At the same time, arrangements were made for necessary vehicles and, in particular, anti tank guns, to be passed over a bridge in the New Zealanders’ sector and to join 11 Brigade’s troops in Cotignola.
While these operations were in progress and the flanking divisions were pushing rapidly on, the Divisional Engineers were hard at work. As soon as 11 Brigade had crossed the river and occupied the far bank, a sapper recce party had gone forward and made a search for a suitable bridging place. By 1100 hours, a site was chosen and work began at once.
At this time, all indications pointed to a speedy sweep forward by the Indians and New Zealanders and it was thought that the Division might be called upon to move up any time. Once the two leading formations linked up to the west of the little town of Lugo, there would be nothing, except the problems of movement, to prevent the Division from concentrating between the Senio and the Santerno. That this should be done as soon as possible was vital to the maintenance of momentum in the whole offensive.
In preparation for this expected move, a preliminary concentration of the Division was effected during the day in the wake of 11 Brigade’s movements.
36 and 38 Brigades moved, during the early part of the day, to areas south and east of Bagnacavallo and those units off 11 Brigade, which were not engaged in occupation of ground to the west of the river concentrated in the Brigade’s original sector.
2 Armoured Brigade remained in area further to the north east.
The Divisional Artillery moved forward during the morning to positions just short of the Senio, the better thus to support the New Zealanders.
By midday, much “teeing up” has been done: the ‘Wasps’ and heavy mortar platoons, which had been lent to the flanks, had been returned to their parent units; an officer from the “Flail” Squadron of 51 RTR had visited Divisional Headquarters during the morning and made arrangements to link his squadron to the Division, when across the river: in the north, 5 Northamptons were beginning to concentrate in preparation for rejoining 11 Brigade; in every quarter, planning and reconnaissance were in progress and all awaited the signal to move.
In the afternoon, the Divisional Commander attended a conference held by the Corps Commander and returned to hold his own at the headquarters off 11 Brigade. The plan had been somewhat changed. Originally, it had been the intention that 38 (Irish) Brigade should be passed over the Santerno river into the bridgehead of either the New Zealand or Indian Divisions and that it should north along the eastern bank of the Santerno, providing protection to the right flank of the Irish Brigade and directing itself on the bridges over the Reno, south of Bastia.
As result of developments which were taking place in the advance of the 8th Indian Division, this plan was altered. The armour of 21 Tank Brigade, under command of the Indian Division, was to penetrate deeply into the enemy’s territory between the Senio and Santerno during the night of April 10th and it was anticipated that the right flank operation, which was to have been the role of 36 Brigade, would be largely unnecessary. Accordingly, the Divisional Commander decided to pass 36 Brigade foremost into the Santerno bridgehead and to employ it as an offensive force to operate on the left flank of the Irish Brigade. It was certain by this time that the effort of the Corps would be directed northward, in a push aimed directly at Argenta, the hinge of the enemy’s line of defence.
As a necessary preliminary to these future operations, the Division was to be concentrated between the Santerno and Senio in an area where a successful “marriage” of infantry and armour could take place. Great care had been taken in the planning stage that there should be no hitches I this “marriage”. Provisional areas near Lugo, which had been nicknamed “Wedding areas”, had been allotted to each of the two forward brigades. Here, infantry and armour were to form up in their battle order, with assault engineer troops and every supporting element. Thither, they were to come fro their non operational concentrations east of the Senio and, thence, they were to depart, battle array, to cross into the Santerno bridgehead and break out into the enemy’s deeper defence.
By evening on the 10th April, the leading divisions had made strides between the two rivers and had passed the town of Lugo. Orders were received at Divisional headquarters to move across the Senio early on 11th April and be ready for a move forward from the “Wedding areas” on the same afternoon – a formidable movement problem. Therefore, it was planned that the bulk of the transport should be passed over the Senio bridges in the Indian Division’s sector, while fullest possible use was to be made of the bridge, which was being constructed by the Division’s own engineers near Cotignola.
At 1900 hours on 10th April, the CRE reported that this bridge would be capable of passing traffic from 2030 hours onwards in case of emergency, but that it would not be completed to the best advantage until midnight. It was estimated that its capacity would be limited to 150 vehicles per hour, due to difficult approaches. The bridge was to be known as “Felix”.
Later in the evening, plans were changed in detail and it was decided that tanks would be passed across a bridge in the New Zealand Division’s sector, whilst those wheeled vehicles, which could not be sent over ‘Felix’ bridge would make use of one being built by 5th Corps Engineers on the main road from Bagnacavallo to Lugo.
In the early hours of the morning of April 11th, the plans for operations were confirmed in a message from 5th Corps, which read as follows:
One – 78 Div will be prepared to pass through 8 Indian Div pm 11 April. Div will have leading bridge group concentrated in Lugo at two hours notice to move wef 1100 hrs 11 Apr. Codeword for passing though – Milner.
Two – Axes beyond R Santerno.
A) 78 Div west of R Santerno to Bastia.
B) 2 NZ Div Massa Lombara – T Sillaro 2145 – Scolo Sillaro 1849 – T Quaderna 1253 – Torrente Idice at 0957 – Moilnella 1561 – cross roads 073750.
Three – Body beyond R Santerno wef Milner 303417 – all incl 78 Div road junction 285444 – Scolo Zaniolo 264470 north down Scolo to R Reno thence R Reno to 19 Easting. Divs will arrange mutually if 2 NZ Div require crossings over Scolo Zaniolo in S Patrizio area.
Four – Bdys for concentration of 78 Div effective from 0600 hrs 11 Apr.
A) Bdy between 8 Ind Div and 78 Div as at present to railway at 386378, thence all incl 78 Div road junction 386379, thence rd to rd junction 361385, thence R Senio to 358396, thence excluding 78 Division cross roads 323406.
B) Bdy between 78 Div and 2 NZ Div as at present to R Senio, thence rly to all incl 78 Div rd at 359360 – rd junc 349367, thence at present right bdy 2 NZ Div.
Five – 78 Div will control all routes and allotment of areas within bdys as in para Four but will not displace operational units without permission divs concerned.
Six – Tank mov. 2 NZ Div will a lot tank route to 78 Div to enable tks to move from present 78 Div area to Lugo wef 0900 hrs 11 Apr. This route suitable tks only. 78 Division will liaise closely with 8 Ind Div also in case necessary to use another tk route.
Seven – Artillery. RA 78 Div incll 11 RHA will revert to command 78 Div at 0800 hrs 11 Apr. On completion of moves to area as required by 78 Div, this artillery will continue to sp 2 NZ Div until 78 Div is operationally committed. Orders re med regts follow.
Eight – 5 Northamptons will revert to comd 78 Div at 1800 hrs 11 Apr from which time 5 Northamptons will be prepared to move to 78 Div area on orders that div.
Nine – Cremona ICG will take over responsibility of 5 Northamptons front by 1800 hrs 11 Apr. Ack all informed.
By dawn on April 11th, everything was ready, ‘Felix’ bridge, which had been constructed by 237 Field Company RE, was open for traffic up to class 40 and exceeded all expectations in its ability to clear traffic. As a result, the guns of 138 Field Regiment were able to be fed into the stream of traffic and crossed the river well ahead of schedule.
A traffic control organisation, in touch by wireless with Divisional Headquarters, regulated the movement at crucial points and paid a high dividend on the outlay of energy and resources.
The provost, as usual, were the salt of the earth and quietly worked their customary miracles whenever there was a block or a muddle.
The Division moved forward.
With the leading divisions, the fighting had progressed swiftly during the past 12 hours. By 0700 hrs on the 11th, forward troops of the New Zealand Division were barely short of the Santerno and it was expected that they would cross it during the next few hours. On the right, the Indians were also approaching the river and it seemed probable that during the day the whole Corps front would roll forward and close upon the Santerno line.
By nightfall, this had, in fact, happened and more also. The Indians, having assaulted the river with the 17th Indian Infantry Brigade leading, had succeeded in establishing a foothold on the western bank by 1400 hours, just to the south of San Lorenzo. Earlier in the day, the New Zealanders, as have been anticipated, had forced a crossing south of Lugo – Massa Lombarda railway and had expanded this bridgehead steadily during the day.
78th Division was, by this time, concentrated around the town of Lugo, less 11 Brigade Group and Buffs, which were still east of the Senio.
This was an important time: it was vital that everything should be in readiness to press on. The leading troops of the Corps had already broken, the enemy’s hold on what might have been his most formidable line of natural defence – the Santerno river – and the success of the whole offensive depended upon one factor – momentum.
The intention of 15th Army Group in launching the offensive was to “destroy the enemy south of the Po”. So far, he had been driven back and had suffered a hard knock but his positions on the Santerno were a fine cushion on which to fall back. Hinged, as they were, on the river Reno in the north and following the line of the Santerno southwards into the mountains, these natural positions were all that the enemy desired as a backbone for his defences.
Here, however, he reaped the harvest of his tenacious stand on the untenable banks of the Senio. The Santerno, like the Senio, had been subjected to “carpet” bombing to an extent rightly called “saturation” and all this just at the time when it was necessary to muster every man to hold the line. Struck at from the air and harried between the two rivers by the relentless and brilliant progress of New Zealanders and the Indians, he has failed to keep the front intact: there was a crack; the Indians and the New Zealanders were forcing it slowly open; the momentum of attack must be kept up at all costs.
In order that he might be able, at just such a moment as this, to unleash new pressure, the Corps Commander had held in his reserve until this time a formidable striking force. The moment was nearing when this force, this new sharp weapon, was to be pushed through and thrust about into the enemy’s vitals: it is suitable at this juncture to examine its composition.
Composition of 78th Division.
On the evening of April 11th, 78th Division had under its command, the following additional troops:
2 Armoured Brigade less 10 Hussars.
4 Hussars less ‘C’ Squadron.
48 Royal Tanks.
‘B’ Squadron 51 Royal Tanks (‘Flails’).
‘C’ Squadron 51 Royal Tanks (‘Crocodiles’).
24 Army Field Regiment RA (self propelled guns).
Half ‘E’ Assault Squadron RE.
Detachment of ‘H’ Assault Squadron RE.
The outline grouping of the Division’s fighting forces was as follows:
11 British Infantry Brigade (Commander – Brigadier GE Thubron DSO OBE).
2 Lancashire Fusiliers
1 East Surreys
255 Anti Tank Battery (64 Anti Tank Regiment).
‘B’ Support Group (1 Kensingtons).
152 Field Regiment RA (on and after 13 April).
237 (Highland) Field Company RE.
36 British Infantry Brigade (Commander – Brigadier GRD Musson DSO).
‘C’ Squadron 56 Recce Regiment.
256 Anti Tank Battery (64 Anti Tank Regiment).
One troop (SP guns) 209 Anti Tank (64 Anti Tank Regiment).
‘C’ Support Group (1 Kensingtons).
138 Field Regiment RA
256 Field Company RE.
38 (Irish) Infantry Brigade (Commander – Brigadier TPD Scott DSO).
2 Armoured Brigade (Commander – Brigadier JFB Combe DSO).
4 Hussars (‘Kangaroos’) less ‘C’ Squadron.
‘A’ Squadron 56 Recce Regiment.
‘B’ Squadron 51 Royal Tanks (‘Flails’).
‘C’ Squadron 51 Royal Tanks (‘Crocodiles’).
254 Anti Tank Battery (64 Anti Tank Regiment).
One SP Troop 209 Anti Tank Battery (64 Anti Tank Regiment).
Half ‘E’ Assault Squadron RE.
Detachment of ‘H’ Assault Squadron RE.
‘D’ Support Group (1 Kensingtons).
214 Field Company RE.
17 Field Regiment RA.
Under direct command 78th Division.
56 Recce Regiment (Commander – Lt Col RMW Hartland-Mahon MC) less ‘A’ and ‘C’ Sqaudrons.
1 Kensingtons (Commander – Lt Col BL Bryar) less ‘B’, ‘C’ and ‘D’ Support Groups.
In Support 78th Division.
2 AGRA (of which 73rd Medium Regiment RA – one battery 4.5”, one battery 5.5”) was in direct support divisional artillery and under command for movement.
214/57 HAA Regiment RA (under command for movement).
155/52 LAA Regiment RA (under command for movement).
‘Y’ Survey Troop, 5 Survey Regiment RA.
‘A’ Flight, 654 Air Op Squadron.
8th Indian Divisional Artillery (in direct support for break out and again 15th – 20th April).
The Breakout from the Santerno bridgehead.
During the night 11/12 April, the “form” on the Corps front was beginning to crystallise. 8th Indian Division had elements of five battalions of the 17 and 21 Indian Infantry Brigades over the Santerno and the bridgehead could be said to be firm, although small. No bridges were yet in operation due to trouble, which had been encountered in bringing equipment up to the water’s edge. The proposed bridging area was still under fire from enemy machine guns and mortars but the Indians were confident that during the early morning hours, they would be able to establish a foothold in depth and bridge the river with an ‘Ark’, The confidence provided itself to be well founded: the ‘Ark’ was in position by 0530 hours and less than an hour later, a troop of tanks, having crossed the bridge, had penetrated a thousand yards beyond the river without meeting any really serious resistance. The infantry was engaged in wide and solid expansion of their gains and the enemy’s movements indicated that he was trying to carry out a general withdrawal.
On the left, the New Zealanders’ bridgehead was also firm, although, as light first dawned, there were still many enemy in positions close around it. In bridging, they had been more fortunate than their neighbours. They had one ‘Class 40’ bridge working before darkness began to lift and, by first light, tanks were already across together with anti tanks and carriers.
During the morning, a steady extension of the gains developed, while the enemy withdrew his armour and infantry as best he could from what had been a decisive failure. At midday, the two bridgeheads linked up and 8th Indian Division’s area beyond the river grew rapidly thereafter.
Just before two o’clock in the afternoon, the order was received from Corps Headquarters that 78th Division would pass into the bridgehead of 8th Indian Division at once. The Divisional Commander ordered 36 Brigade Group to begin its move forward.
The plan was as follows: 36 Brigade, with 48 Royal Tanks from 21 Tank Brigade (under command 8th Indian Division) and one squadron of 56 Recce Regiment, was to cross the river and extend the Indians’ bridgehead to the west. This done, 38 (Irish) Brigade Group, with the main weight of the Division’s armour under its command, was to pass over and form up facing northwards. The remainder of 56 Recce Regiment was to operate in conformity with any advance of the Irish Brigade but, on the east side of the river, in the role, which had initially been envisaged for 36 Brigade.
From the time that the word “go” was given at 1400 hrs, events moved rapidly forward. The Commander of 36 Brigade made his plan and ordered 8 A&SH to cross the river forthwith, supported by ‘B’ Squadron of 48 Royal Tanks. This force, together with ‘C’ Squadron, 56 Recce Regiment, was to capture the group of houses known as ‘Tre Case’, 1,000 yards beyond the most forward troops of the Indian Division. Having reached this objective, it was to push on to the Scolo Fossatone and, thence, if possible, northwards towards the village of Conselice.
With great speed, considering the congestion of the traffic, the battalion group succeeded in reaching its forming up area on the west bank of the river by mid afternoon. The squadron of tanks had difficulty on the road and arrangements for artillery support of the attack were also a cause of anxiety at one time, due to the speed with which everything had had to be done. Despite all, the attack was launched at 1730 hours and the infantry, with two companies up, moved steadily forward behind a barrage, supported by their tanks. Little opposition was met and, at 1855 hours, ‘Tre Case’ was reached and passed. By 1940 hours, the leading infantry were on the line of the Scolo Fossatone and every indivication pointed to a general withdrawal of the enemy.
As soon as 8 A&SH, with their supporting troops, had crossed the river, 38 Brigade, with the armoured ‘Kangaroo’ carriers and tanks, began to follow on. 1 RIrF, with the Queen’s Bays, crossed soon after six o’clock in the evening and formed up in the northern part of the bridgehead. 2 Innisks, the next to cross, were delayed by shelling on the bridge and a general congestion of traffic. They finally arrived just as it was getting dark and the Divisional Commander decided that it was too late to launch the general attack northwards that night. The battalions went into harbour areas around Mondaniga and fighting patrols were planned for the night to probe the enemy defences in preparation for an armoured advance in the morning.
36 Division’s operation, meanwhile, was developing successfully against light and scattered opposition. The Argylls were still fresh and it was decided that the advantage would be pressed on through the night independent of the Irish Brigade. This was “offensive flank protection” indeed!
The Brigade Commander ordered the battalion to strike out north westwards from its position on the line of the Fossatone dyke and seize the village of San Patrizio, on the road to Conselice. Little opposition had been met so far in the advance but the operation was hazardous nevertheless, as the left flank was widely exposed. The New Zealanders had made great steps forward from their bridgehead and were, in fact, attacking the town of Massa Lombarda at this time but they had not extended their front far to the north and a gap of nearly five thousand yards lay on the left flank of the Brigade’s proposed line of advance.
A salient factor in the appreciation, however, was the enemy’s state of disorganisation. The rapid advance from the Senio to the Santerno had thrown him from his poise and the shattering “carpet” bombing of the whole Santerno line had served to destroy his balance altogether. He had had no time to regain his grip before the ground forces were assaulting across the river and making firm their bridgeheads. At this point, he might well have expected that we should pause to draw up our tails, consolidate the bridgeheads deliberately ad launch a further punch with carefully prepared plans. Had this been done, it seems most likely that success would have been more costly; the precious momentum would have been lost and equally precious time would have been given to the enemy to organise his resources and to mount a counter attack.
As it was, this was the moment when the fresh weapon was unsheathed and, by the rapid expansion of the Indian Division’s bridgehead, it was possible to penetrate deeply into his zone of defence and yet meet only scattered and harassed element of his forces.
By 2020 hours, the Argylls had crossed the Scolo Fossatone, working in close cooperation with their squadron of Churchill tanks and reached new objectives at Zeppa Nuova and Zeppa Superiore nearly one thousand yards west of the dyke. There was fighting before these two objectives were taken and, before the end, both were burning fiercely in the night.
The advance was pressed on and, after some further sharp encounters with enemy infantry and some tanks, San Patrizio was reached by 2130 hours. During the advance, the Argylls made the most of the armour fighting with them, both as vehicles and as guns. Travelling on the tanks, they fired their automatic weapons on the enemy positions, all the while moving forward and finally overrunning what little organised resistance was met.
The benefit of the rapid three mile thrust was evident at once. The enemy was patently in a state of disruption. Trees all along the route, which had been prepared for felling and would have showed our rate of advance had they been turned into obstacles, were left standing. Shortly after arriving in San Patrizio, a ‘Rhinoceros’ self propelled gun rumbled into the village; the German crew climbed out and came over to speak to men of one of one of the Churchill tanks which, in the half darkness, they took to be one of their own. The surprise, on being taken prisoner, was typical of the general state of the enemy’s defence.
The success of this small operation was not to be allowed to prove barren. The Divisional Commander ordered 36 Brigade to press on and take the important village of Conselice at the earliest possible time. 6 RWK, who had originally been warned for a move forward from their concentration area near Lugo at 0400 hours, were alerted at midnight and ordered to move at once. They started at 0200 hours (April 13th) with ‘C’ Squadron of 48 Royal Tanks and passed over the river and on to San Patrizio, where they arrived in their vehicles shortly before dawn.
By this time, the Argylls had made firm the whole area of the village and had secured the two bridges over the Canale del Molini further west. Little difficulty had been encountered in securing these points, although there was activity at the southern bridge in the early hours of the morning when a party of six enemy approached, presumably with the intention of demolition. The party was accounted for before it could do any damage and, likewise, two enemy armoured cars, which drove up shortly afterwards, but reversed in haste. Further attempts were discouraged by the brens of the Argylls, which continued to sweep the area of the road until daylight.
Despite the lack of coherent enemy activity in this area, it was thought that Conselice would be a tougher nut to crack. Just to the west of the town lay the last bridge over the Molini canal before this waterway joined the Reno river five miles further north. For all the enemy troops south of the Reno and still east of the canal, this was the last way out to the west. How many enemy there were in this pocket, it was hard to estimate, but it was certain that he would keep his way out open until the last possible moment.
This thought in mind, 6 RWK set out from San Patrizio in the lifting darkness at 0520 hours – the battalion was supported by a squadron of 48 Royal Tanks. An hour later, two companies were 500 yards short of Conselice and encountering bitter opposition. One troop of the tanks succeeded in knocking out two enemy self propelled guns but, itself, sustained a casualty, the troop leader being killed and his tank receiving a direct hit on the turret. The encounter was at close range; immediately the enemy saw his success, a small party dashed forward and boarded the tank. A moment later, it was driven away complete with the remainder of its crew, if these survived and carrying code documents and equipment. It was found later, abandoned north of the village.
As always in his rearguard actions, the enemy made great and effective use of his self propelled guns. Throughout the morning of the 13th, scattered pockets of infantry, fighting with the support of these guns, engaged our own forces in a fierce struggle for the approaches to the town. Some 20 or more prisoners were taken but no decision was reached in the fighting and it was impossible to push on. At 0945 hours, the Air Force had been called upon and engaged, with gratifying effect, some guns in the eastern outskirts of the town. The nut, however, remained uncracked.
Turning now to the Irish Brigade’s sector, the main axis of advance for the Division, the fight had begun in earnest. In the early hours of the 13th, the brigade launched its long planned attack with two battalions up; on the right 2 Innisks., on the left 1 RIrF. Each battalion was supported by a squadron of the Queen’s Bays (Sherman Tanks) and a troop of ‘Crocodiles’ (Flame throwing Churchills) from C Squadron, 51 Royal Tanks. In addition, engineer assault equipment was available to assist the movement of the armour.
The start line running west from the San Lorenzo was bounded on the right by the river Santerno, with its high floodbank and, on the left, by the Fossatone canal. The plan was as follows. The two infantry battalions, each with its armoured squadron, were to force a passage northwards between the two waterways as far as the Scolo di Conselice, which crossed the line of advance some 7,500 yards to the north. Having reached this point which was, in fact, almost at the apex of a narrow triangle, whose base was the start line, the bridge giving access northwards was to be seized and the ‘Kangaroo Force’ passed through. It was a straight forward plan, bold and simple and in perfect unison with the higher plan to strike swiftly at the pivot of the enemy’s defence, Argenta.
The initial frontage of the attack was little over 2,000 yards and both battalions were engaged in stubborn fighting, pushing the enemy back in a slow drive lasting two and a half hours. By mid morning, approximately half the distance to the Conselice Canal had been covered and the frontage between the two waterways had shrunk to 1,000 yards. Numerous enemy strong points were encountered and these appeared to be getting harder to overcome as the front narrowed.
With the Inniskillings just short of San Bernardino and engaged in liquidating a very troublesome enemy post on the riverside, the Irish Fusiliers were directed westwards and crossed the Fossatone canal shortly before 1100 hours. The advance was then continued on a broader front as the Innsikillings approached closer to San Bernardino and the Fusiliers came up level with them on the left.
The village itself proved troublesome. 8th Indian Division attacked it on the east of the Santerno and the Inniskillings fought for the western portion but the enemy’s 362nd Infantry Division, although tired, disorganised and short of everything it required, was putting up a stout defence. The village was finally overrun, both to the east and the west of the river and it was reported clear at 1300 hours.
By this time, the leading troops of the two Irish battalions had made further progress on the left and reached the village of La Giovecca. This was occupied by 2 Innisks and theroad thence to the east was cleared for a short distance. 1 RIrF was level with their sister battalion on the left of the Fossatone canal and was facing west to protect a flank which had, by now, become exposed as 36 Brigade fought for Conselice. On the right, east of the Santerno, A Squadron of the Recce Regiment pressed northwards in conformity with the Irish Brigade, under whose command it had been placed at 0730 hours that morning.
While these events were taking place, many moves had been made further back in preparation for the future. 5 Buffs and 56 Recce Regiment, less A Squadron, had been moved up to join 36 Brigade in the area of San Patrizio, the Regiment passing to under command of this Brigade on its arrival at approximately 1120 hours. At the same time, 11 Brigade was being moved up from the back areas, where it had been held since the first assault and was concentrating in the area of Lugo.
To return to the Irish Brigade, however, at 1300 hours, the Innskillings and Royal Irish Fusiliers, although they had reached the apex of their triangle, were ordered to consolidate positions in preparation for the ‘Kangaroo Force’ to pass through.
Soon afterwards, this move began. Under command of 2 Armoured Brigade, the force of armour and infantry, composed of 9 Lancers and 2 London Irish Rifles in the ‘Kangaroo’ carriers of A Squadron of 4 Hussars debouched from their positions held by the Inniskillings and advanced towards the bridge at Cavamento, the apex of the original triangle. The ponderous mass of vehicles took some time to manoeuvre through La Giovecca and the afternoon was drawing on before the force was in full cry.
Resistance at first was patchy and undecided. Here and there, parties of enemy with Bazookas caused trouble and one tank was lost by fire from an anti tank gun early in the battle. On the whole, however, it appeared that the enemy was shaken; his grip everywhere was loosening.
By mid afternoon, the leading elements of the force were approaching the canal. The right flank was no longer limited by the Santerno river and this gave more room for manoeuvre. H Company came up on the left of G Company, together with C Squadron 9 Lancers.
Determined resistance was met in the village of La Giovecca just before the canal but G Company dealt with this and H Company was able to drive straight through in its Kangaroos. Reaching the canal bank, the leading tanks were dismounted at once from their Kangaroos and, under cover of fire from their supporting tanks, crossed the canal on the remains of the road and railway bridges and rushed the bridges on the north side. More prisoners were taken and a surprised and shaken enemy was hunted down in areas, which had been by-passed by the swift thrust.
H Company was ordered to hold the bridgehead over the canal with assistance from E Company, which was also engaged in clearing La Frascata. G Company was clearing the area up to the canal bank on the right.
At 1830 hours, 2 Armoured Brigade reported two troops of 9 Lancers across the canal where the bridge, although badly damaged, had not been utterly destroyed and was just passable for tracks. Mopping up and consolidation was in progress and the Engineers were at work making a new road bridge under cover of the infantry and tanks.
On the left, 36 Brigade was still engaged in stiff fighting. Little material progress had been made in Conselice during the day, where the enemy was firmly ensconced. As a result of the rapid advance of the Irish Brigade on the right, a gap had appeared in the Division’s front between the two brigades, 6 RWK were fully deployed in the area of Conselice and one company of the 5th Buffs was, therefore, brought up to fill the gap. This was complete by 1630 hours.
At about this time, the enemy mounted a strong counter attack upon 6 RWK from out of Conselice and fierce fighting raged for an hour or more. The headquarter buildings of two forward platoons were hit by enemy shells and set on fire but the attack was eventually beaten off just before sundown.
The general indications on this left flank seemed to show the enemy was determined to hold his ground: a firmness of intention in his defence was apparent for the first time. It was therefore decided that a coordinated attack by the whole Brigade would be necessary and the remainder of 5 Buffs was ordered to move to San Patrizio at once.
As final light fell, there was a temporary halt on the whole of the Divisional front; the day’s gains were being consolidated on the right, whilst 36 Brigade prepared to clear up Conselice and the surrounding area on the left by a deliberate attack.
The plan of the 36th Brigade Commander was to push north-westwards to cut the road from Conselice to Chiesanova and, subsequently, to clear the town of Conselice itself. To this end, the Argylls were to attack in a preliminary operation and clear the area to the south west of Conselice; 5 Buffs were then to pass through and cut the Conselice – Chiesanova road; finally, at first light, 6 RWK were to clear the town.
By 2245 hours, the Argylls reached their objectives with little difficulty, taking seven prisoners and losing only one man wounded. The Buffs passed through at once and met no opposition to their thrust across the road. At the same time, information was received from civilians that the enemy had departed from the town, although he had probably not gone far back. 5 Buffs was ordered to push onto Chiesanova and 6 RWK was to confirm that Conselice was clear.
By 0330 hours, the Buffs had reached Chiesanova and the RWK were moving into Conselice without opposition. Civilians confirmed that the enemy had withdrawn during the early hours of the morning. Half an hour later, the leading company of the Buffs was 1,000 yards beyond Chiesanova moving north westwards and it looked as if the whole of the western portion of the Division’s sector would shortly be clear as far as the river Sillaro, with the exception of pockets and isolated posts still to be mopped up.
Accordingly, at first light next morning, the Commander of 36 Brigade ordered 56 Recce Regiment, which had been placed under his command on the previous day, to pass through the positions of 8 A&SH and 5 Buffs and exploit westwards up to the Sillaro on the whole Brigade front.
Taking stock on the morning of April 14th, there was good ground for solid satisfaction. To the right, north of the Reno, 56th (London) Division was coming into view moving due westwards towards Bastia and Argenta. Between this thrust and the northward drive of the Irish ‘Cremona’ Combat Group had crossed the Santerno without opposition and was moving forward on Route 16, also towards Bastia. 8th Indian Division, across whose front the Irish Brigade had moved, was now out of the fighting and being concentrated in the Corps reserve.
On the left, the New Zealanders were still pressing vigorously forward and had established a small bridgehead over the Sillaro. Between them and 36 Brigade was a wide expanse of marshy land where minor operation by 56 Recce Regiment and other troops of both divisions continued until the whole area was clear.
The 13th had indeed been an unlucky day – for the enemy.
Before first light on the 14th, patrols of 2 LIR, under 2 Armoured Brigade’s command, were feeling their way forward towards Lavezzola and the Reno. At dawn, they were followed by the armour in two columns, one working due north on the axis of the main road, the other sweeping round to the right of Lavezzola, which was known to be heavily mined. Both columns were directed on the approaches to the Bastia bridges. The column, moving through Lavezzola, found mines in profusion and houses in the northern part of the village booby trapped. Fortunately, he enemy’s departure had been so hasty that he had been unable to remove the warning notices from the danger areas and not a single casualty was caused either to armour or to infantry. The ‘Flail’ tanks of 51 Royal Tanks had a great morning exploding everything they could find. In addition to mines and booby traps, the sweep yielded about 30 prisoners, 8 of whom were taken in the act of mine laying.
At 0940 hours, the Reno was reached. Both road and railway bridges were found demolished but sufficient rubble remained at the site of the latter to enable the infantry to get across dryshod. Reconnaissance was carried out and a plan evolved for two platoons of 2 LIR to cross the river and form a small bridgehead. This was later to be increased in strength to the extent of two companies.
At 1230 hours, the operation began and the two platoons crossed under cover of smoke without difficulty. Advancing north from the far bank, however, the leading platoon was counter attacked strongly by the enemy and most of it was overrun. No assistance could be given to this party by the tanks on the south bank of the river owing to the height of the floodbanks and, until a bridge was built, it was impossible to move the armour across. The two platoons were, therefore, withdrawn across the river, positions were taken up on the ‘near’ bank, patrols were sent out east and west, and reconnaissance was carried out with a view to making a deliberate assault.
In addition to reaching the Reno, 9 Lancers had patrolled early in the morning towards Route 16, where it approached the Bastia area from the south east. Here, they had made contact with the Cremoma Group at 0930 hours, thus filling in a piece of the wider picture.
A similar move was made by 48 Royal Tanks with 36 Brigade, a patrol of Honey tanks being sent north from Conselice along the road to Lavezzola. This, they found heavily mined but it was cleared during the day with Engineer assistance and contact was made with the Irish Brigade in Lavezzola at 1730 hours.
Further to the left, 56 Recce Regiment fanned out during the day to close with the enemy all along the front on the line of the Sillaro. Contact was made in the area of the river, where the enemy infantry was established in well dug in positions and a great number of mines were encountered. B and C Squadrons were ordered to establish defensive positions to cover this river flank during the afternoon and, shortly afterwards, A Squadron reverted to command from 38 Brigade and moved to rejoin the Regiment.
By nightfall, “tidying up”, “mopping up” and consolidation were the orders of the day. The Santerno was far behind and had ceased to have a “bridgehead”. All along the front, there was a general loosening of the enemy’s resistance, as he readjusted his positions and fell back on his main line of defence based on Argenta. Again, therefore, there was that urgent need for maintenance of the impetus; somehow, the whole weight of the Corps had to be brought to bear without delay on the defences before Argenta and, to do this, there must be a bridge and the Reno must be crossed.
It was now exactly five days since the offensive began. The operations had progressed with a steady tenor of success and very largely on lines, which had been foreseen; in short, everything was going “according to plan”. The sum of the achievement was that the enemy had been forced back from his winter line on the Senio with such weight and drive in the attack that he had never been in a position to reform a second line. The whole area had been cleared from the Senio to the Santerno and from the Santerno to the Reno and Sillaro. Argenta was but a mile or two ahead and already one foot of the attack was well established north of the Reno where the 56th Division was on the point of linking up with the leading elements of the Irish Brigade at Bastia. Away, on the left, the Fifth Army’s offensive was just beginning and Bologna was almost in sight.
Another phase was ended and it was hard to foresee the form that subsequent operations would take.
The breaking of the Argenta Gap.
The focal point of interest was now the narrow strip of land known as the Argenta Gap. Its tactical importance can be seen from a glance at the map. Briefly, it was as follows:
The enemy’s defence south of the Po ran from the coast into the mountains, south of Bologna. Initially, they had been secured on his left by the Comacchio Lake, but the operations of the 56th Division and 2 Commando Brigade had forced him to pull back in this sector and his line was thus cut adrift at one end. The advance from the Senio and across the Santerno had caused the wholesale withdrawal of his front and, in order to stave off a major and strategic disaster, it was essential for him to find a firm pivot on which his whole line In the eastern sector of the plain could turn. This was the most urgent at this time, as the forces of the Polish Corps, south of Bologna and of the Fifth Army further to the west, were loosening his hold on the mountains. Even if the whole front around Bologna should start to crumble, as indeed he felt it might, he still required that firmness between the mountains and the Adriatic so that an escape route might be kept open.
The main threat of the Eighth Army from the opening of the offensive onwards was directed on Ferrara and the crossings of the Po to the north of this town. Once these were lost, there was great likelihood that all the enemy forces in the plain south of the river would be lost. Where, then, was he to halt our thrust on Ferrara?
The threat was developing from the south east. Route 16, or subsidiary roads in alignment with it, was the likely axis and, on this line, an ideal piece of country had been selected for defensive works. To the east was flooded land stretching away to the northern part of the Comacchio Lake, with no main roads and few minor ones that were passable for heavy traffic. To the south west, a further tract of flooded waste stretched almost to Bologna. The natural obstacles in both areas had been increased by artificial flooding and demolitions. All this had been done by the enemy months before, causing no inconvenience to his lines of communication and requiring little labour.
The stretch of land, which remained, was between two and three miles wide and four miles in depth: a narrow funnel between the marshes. Careful thought was put into the organisation of defences for this strip of land, the Argenta Gap. Mines were laid thickly and in depth: houses were fortified, every bridge was prepared for demolition: an extensive network of trenches and wire linked together the native dykes, canals and ditches, to make a corrugated passageway incapable of being rushed by tanks or infantry.
Given the men to occupy the defences and the time to get them there, the enemy was confident that the block would hold and, in the worst possible case, a temporary halt would be achieved before we could turn his flanks with a ponderous semi amphibious plunge on either side.
His appreciation was a fair one; the position was strong: there was only one “but”, could he organise his forces in time? On the evening of April 14th, the matter was about to be put to the test.
It had been evident to the Corps Commander earlier in the day that to wait for a bridge to be built over the Reno, before 78th Division could add its weight to that of the 56th in assaulting the gap, would create a danger of losing the speed and momentum, which was so vital. Accordingly, orders had been issued for one brigade of the 78th Division to move at once through Alfonsine to the north side of the Reno and take over the left sector of the 56th Division’s front.
Later in the evening, 11 Brigade moved north. That night, it concentrated north west of Alfonsine with one battalion over the Reno.
In order further to liberate the Division in the sector between Bastia and the New Zealand Division’s right flank, 2 Commando Brigade was placed under command and began to take over the commitments of 36 Brigade, which was still on the left flank.
In the Irish Brigade’s sector, there was little activity, save for patrolling and an historic event, when the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the London Irish Rifles met, side by side, for the first time on a common battleground. This was occasioned by the approach of 167 Brigade on the north bank of the Reno, with the 1st Battalion leading on the left.
The 15th and 16th were days of vast activity in regrouping and movement. 11 Brigade was moving through 167 Brigade in the area north of the Reno, remote from the rest of the Division by reason of the lack of a bridge. 167 Brigade, less two battalions, came under temporary command of 78th Division on the 15th and reverted to command of the 56th Division the next morning. 2 Commando Brigade completed the relief of 36 Brigade but remained under command of 78th Division. The Recce Regiment passed to under direct command of 5 Corps and returned again to the Division’s command soon afterwards.
By the evening of the 16th, solid achievements emerged.
11 Brigade, with the Queen’s Bays and ‘Crocodiles and ‘Flails’ from 51 Royal Tanks under command, had passed through 167 Brigade, with 1 Surreys leading on the right and 5 Northamptons on the left. 2 LF followed in Brigade reserve. The advance had been made astride the railway and positions had been reached just short of the Fosso Marina, a canal, which ran across the full width of the gap and was considered as a likely main line of the enemy’s resistance.
Meanwhile, the 214 Field Company had succeeded in the not inconsiderable task of bridging the Reno; 38 Brigade had crossed to concentrate south east of the gap; 2 Armoured Brigade had also crossed and Divisional Headquarters followed.
11 Brigade’s advance had been rapid and only lightly opposed but extensive minefields had been encountered throughout, gradually thickening as the Fosso Marina was approached. On reaching the outskirts of Argenta and the line of this canal, enemy resistance became firm and a full scale assault was going to be required.
The plan evolved was that, after dark, 1 Surreys would move forward on the right and secure a firm base from which 2 LF would assault the canal and press through to outflank the town.
The preliminary advance was successful and the Fusiliers began their assault on the strongly held enemy line. Fierce resistance was encountered at once and a long and bitter struggle ensued before any concrete gain was made. By midnight, however, the Battalion had succeeded in gaining a hold on the far bank of the canal with forward positions up to 200 yards beyond it.
No sooner was the bridgehead established than the enemy began to pound it with all that he had. Heavy shell and mortar fire came down on the area of the crossing and along the banks of the canal. Several counter attacks were thrown in, but all to no avail. The Lancashire Fusiliers stood their ground and the bridgehead, still only a tiny one, remained firm. The achievement was the first decisive step in the breaking of the gap.
Throughout the fighting, the Divisional Artillery and the heavy mortars of the Kensingtons had been laying down a heavy programme of support. By some chance, a relief was in progress on the enemy’s side just as the fire plan opened and large numbers of Germans were caught in the open. Only later, as the bridgehead began to expand, did the remarkable results of the fire become apparent. Both from the barrage and, from defensive fire, the enemy’s casualties were exceptionally heavy and this, at a time when he could ill afford to lose a single man unnecessarily.
As the night wore on, the sappers worked continuously on the crossing of the canal and, just before dawn, an ‘Ark’ bridge was established. One troop of the Bays’ tanks managed to cross but the strain proved too much for the ‘Ark’ and it collapsed before more armour could cross. Later in the morning, however, the crossing was repaired and a satisfactory route established.
From the outset, this attack had been a plain infantry slogging match. Its success was one of those achievements that can only be accomplished by the infantry; a bitter, painful struggle and a solid, valuable prize though small when measured in yards.
At first light on the morning of the 17th, the Surreys were ordered to move one company to protect the left flank of the Lancashire Fusiliers bridgehead. After some determined resistance had been overcome, this company succeeded in establishing itself in the north east outskirts of Argenta.
5 Northamptons, meanwhile, was holding a line on the edge of the town and acting as a pivot for the main weight of the division’s attack on the right.
The enemy’s position was beginning to look poor. He had failed to hold us on ground on his own choosing and he had every reason to believe that the main weight of the thrust was still to come. His forces consisted of elements of the battered 42nd Jager and 362nd Infantry Divisions, bolstered up at the last moment by 29th Panzer Grenadier Division, which had been rushed down from the north. The arrival of this formation was greeted by our own intelligence staff as a good omen. Evidently, the enemy was feeling the draught in a big way. Not only at Argenta, nor merely in the eastern sector of the front, were things beginning to crumble away but, in the whole Italian theatre, the entire floor of the German military machine, cracks were beginning to appear, which could not be plugged up. 29th Panzer Grenadier Division was the last major field formation in the Army Group reserve.
At Argenta then, as had been expected, the enemy was going to make a desperate stand. The crust of his defence had been cracked by the Lancashire Fusiliers and now, on the morning of April 17th, no time was to be lost in pressing the advantage, which that crack had given us.
The subsequent operations were of the highest consequence.
Firstly, the Irish Brigade was passed through. With 1 RIrF leading and 2 Innisks following, they passed into the bridgehead of 11 Brigade shortly before dawn and pressed determinedly on throughout the day gaining, by nightfall, about 1,000 yards to the north and west respectively. In the area of Scolo Arenare, the Irish Fusiliers met exceptionally strong resistance and this was not finally cleared until later. Towards evening, 11 Brigade began to set about clearing the town of Argenta itself. For this purpose, 5 Northamptons were employed, with the assistance of ‘Crocodile’ flamethrowers of 51 Royal Tanks. The operation was successfully completed by 2030 hours, at which time it was reported that the town was clear.
In the early hours of the morning on the 18th, however, a strong counter attack was put in by the enemy from the area of San Antonio, north west of the town. This counter attack appeared to be in company strength, with tank support. Eventually it was beaten off and the enemy retreated northwards, a number of prisoners being taken by the Irish Brigade, elements of which had worked round the north edge of the town.
Further to the left of the Division’s sector and south of the Reno, 2 Commando Brigade, which was trying to push up the river bank past Argenta, had encountered vigorous opposition all day on the 17th from buildings near San Antonio. By evening, no material progress had been made in this extremely difficult area.
The counter attack in Argenta was not, however, the be-all and end-all of the night’s activities. Quite on the contrary, the early hours of the 18th were chosen for the launching of the next punch to widen the crack.
11 Brigade had borne the main weight of the fighting north of the Reno and had done well: the infantry were tired. 38 Brigade, with its two battalions had been committed, had fought on, had gained a further thousand yards and was also tired. This was no time to try levering the gap open with chisels, which were already blunted with the contact; new sharp instruments were required and two were at hand.
By the arrival of the Commando Brigade, 36 Brigade had been freed of all its commitments south of the Reno and was ready to fight again as soon as it was needed. 2 Armoured Brigade’s ‘Kangaroo’ force, too, was ready to take the field again.
The Divisional Commander decided on series of rapid punches, each to follow the other in quick succession, from the right of the town, by passing the enemy, who were still holding on near San Antonio.
At 0215 hours, 6 RWK passed through the lines of the Royal Irish Fusiliers and struck straight across country for the village of Boccaleone, lying on the main road through the gap and some three thousand yards past Argenta. No sooner were the infantry through the Irish Brigade’s lines than a confusion of fighting began. It was difficult in the dark to know exactly where the rest of the Irishmen were and even more difficult to keep direction, whilst moving across the cultivated country, everywhere intersected with ditches, fences, wire and minefields. Some enemy tanks were about and, further south, the Northamptons were being counter attacked in the town.
After one and a half hours had passed and, with the fog of war particularly dense that morning, the Argylls launched out in the wake of 6 RWK and set their course for Consandalo, the next village beyond Boccaleone. This was the second thrust of the round.
If our picture was somewhat obscure at that time, one can only imagine what the enemy’s maps must have shown. At dusk on the 17th, he had been holding the whole of Route 16 down to the outskirts of Argenta and, around the town, his line had curved north west towards the railway. The situation had looked sticky for him, but not stuck. Now, at four o’clock in the morning, when he was concentrating on a counter attack to regain the town and keep control of the main road, he suddenly found two spearheads in his side, driving in from the east and directed on his main road in the back areas. There must have been discomfort in the caravans of the 29 Panzer Grenadier Division’s Headquarters at that drab hour in the morning.
Above all this confusion, the sun began to rise on the 18th morning and dawn revealed remarkable achievements. 6 RWK were entering Boccaleone from the east. 8 A&SH were well on their way to Consandolo, a mile or more beyond and the enemy was in confusion; 40 or so prisoners had been brought in and many more were on their way.
Not all the enemy was fleeing, however. In addition to isolated men in scattered houses, who decided to fight it out, there was a solid pocket of enemy still firmly ensconced in San Antonio. With the river to the west of them, and their enemies on the other three sides, their chances looked dim but they fought on.
In order to clear this blockage from Route 16, which was to be the main line of communication for the whole Corps later on, 56 Recce Regiment was placed under command 36 Brigade and ordered to pass through Argenta and clear from San Antonio, which was now on the brigade’s left flank. Unfortunately, the move proved hopeless and the regiment was unable to make any progress astride the road by reason of demolitions and impossible going for vehicles.
By half past nine in the morning, 6 RWK had done much mopping up in and around Boccaleone, having taken 38 more prisoners and a self propelled gun complete. The Argylls, however, were running into rougher water; having initially turned in towards Route 16 too early, thus nearly clashing with their neighbours, they had been redirected northwards and soon met the fiercest resistance they had so far encountered in the offensive. Four of their supporting tanks were knocked out in quick succession. The enemy infantry were daring to come to close quarters and bayonets were used. The whole battalion area was subjected to heavy fire from artillery and mortars. Due to the closeness of the fighting, it was impossible for our own guns to bring any weight of fire to bear on the enemy without danger to our own troops.
36 Brigade was not, however, alone in its own offensive that morning. Following in the wake of the Argylls, the ‘Kangaroo’ Force of 2 Armoured Brigade had set out at dawn. By 1000 hours, this fantastic private army was out in the open engaging enemy tanks and SP guns beyond the Irish Fusiliers and on the right of the Argylls.
By 1100 hours, the whole front was ablaze with activity. The Armoured Brigade, aiming at the twin canals Fossa di Porto and Scolo Bologonese, was forcing its way out into the open with the railway on the right and an unprotected flank on the left. Further west, the Argylls were held up just short of Consandolo by determined enemy in strong points and, to the left again, was an open flank down Route 16, until 6 RWK were met in Boccaleone, mopping up some difficult enemy pockets. Further south, the RAF, at the request of 36 Brigade, was attacking San Antonio and, shortly afterwards, 56 Recce Regiment made a little progress up Route 16 towards this troublesome block.
Soon after midday, the Argylls, still stuck short of Consandolo, called for assistance from the air and this was laid on in a big way. Most of the village was razed to the ground and, beneath the piles of dust and rubbish, many bodies of Germans soldiers and Italian citizens were buried. Still, however, Consandolo held out; the Brigade Commander ordered a halt ad a planned assault. A quick barrage was laid down and carried the infantry in astride the road; at 1600 hours, Consandolo was almost ours.
As evening came, it was possible to sum up the day’s achievements. Boccaleone and the ruined Consandolo were in our hands, although there was still some clearing up to be done. These two small villages on Route 16, well up the neck of the gap, were prizes well worth having and formed the substance of the day’s achievement; the capture of Consandolo had, particular, been a fine performance. To the right, the ground had been invested up as far as the Fossa Benvignante and, on the left, all the area of Argenta had been cleared except for the San Antonio pocket.
The evening’s work, then, fell into two parts: first, the exploitation of the advance beyond the Benvignante canal; second, the clearance of the pocket, which still remained on Route 16.
At about 1530 hours, 2 Armoured Brigade had reported finding the railway bridge over the Benvignante canal and due north of Consandolo intact, but very heavy anti tank fire had been met in the area from self propelled guns of all calibres and little real progress had been made for two hours. As darkness drew near, however, a break out was achieved past enemy guns firing over open sights and through a maze of canals and ditches. By the light of numerous burning houses and, with a sense of complete victory, the Lancers and the London Irish fanned out to cover Coltra and Palazzo, taking intact three bridges over the next canal. Te enemy, having hung on in an attempt to stop the rot was now in a state of utter confusion; an officers’ mess, a battery of 88 mm guns, numbers of individual pieces of all calibres and over 200 prisoners, were taken that evening by the ‘Kangaroo’ Army. During this day, remarkable captures of prisoners were made by the Divisional Artillery. The reconnaissance parties of 17 Field Regiment arrived in an area very well forward, some 1,500 yards to the north east of Consandolo during the night and, at dawn, had to clear the area of some 70 Germans; 132 Field Regiment going into action a little further east a couple of hours later took 5 officers and 53 other ranks prisoners; all these turned out to be from the artillery of the 42nd Jager Division; an unusual form of counter battery achievement.
On the left, the time had come for final clearance of the enemy from Route 16. It was imperative that this road should be cleared for the following day, so that the 6th Armoured Division could be passed right through our left flank, to strike directly at Ferrara.
The task of coordinating the clearance of the enemy from a pocket south of Boccaleone was given to the Irish Brigade and involved much detailed consideration. Almost everyone in the neighbourhood was involved – 5 Northamptons of 11 Brigade, 6 RWK from 36 Brigade, the Inniskillings, 56 Recce Regiment with 36 Brigade and 2 Commando Brigade on the far side of the river – a thorough hotch potch.
No matter how, an attack was planned and begun at midnight. The Commando Brigade went in from the south under a heavy barrage and was followed an hour and half later by 2 Innisks. In vicious fighting which lasted until dawn, the houses and floodbank were cleared and, by the arrival a little later of 6 RWK from the north, the operations were eventually completed. This was a vital step achieved and a surprisingly difficult one it had proved.
At the same time in 36 Brigade’s sector, another plot was afoot. 5 Buffs, having followed up behind the Argylls as far as Consandolo, were launched out just after dark and began a memorable night’s march to the north west. They met only slight resistance and, by dawn, had pressed on a distance of 8 miles to the village of Benvignante, away and beyond the leading elements of the armoured forces. This substantial advance, the longest on foot that was done by any battalion of the brigade in the entire operation, brought the division right out into the open and decisively through the gap.
In the space of approximately 60 hours, by operations involving every battalion and armoured regiment of the division, on ground of the enemy’s own choosing and, with the invaluable support of the air forces throughout, 29th Panzer Grenadier Division, together with elements from four other enemy divisions (26th Panzer, 42nd Jager, 98th Infantry and 362nd Infantry), had been driven from their positions and thrown back into the plain before the Po. 78th Division was out in the open and 6th Armoured Division was about to strike out to the west; the Argenta Gap was broken and the enemy lay, straggled out along the southern bank of the Po, vulnerable at a hundred points.
The advance to the Po di Volano.
The Po di Volano is a large river, not comparable, of course, with the Po itself but nevertheless more than a fair sized ditch. It runs due east from Ferrara and, in conjunction with its help mate canal, the Diversivo di Volano, it constitutes a major obstacle five miles or so short of the Po proper. It was to this water jump that the Division now turned; once over it, we should be in the enemy’s entrails; south of it we were but on the fringe.
During the night 18/19 April, general activity continued over the whole front. On the extreme right, 1 RIrF moved forward on the east side of the railway and occupied the triangle of ground, bounded by waterways around Casa Biscie. This move secured for the Division a firm right flank beyond the railway.
Further west, at 0400 hours, the London Irish patrolled forward from the Foss Sabbiosolla, on the west of the railway, and reached the twin canals Bolognese and di Porto, just to the west of Portomaggiore. Here, a mile or so from the town, they found both bridges blown. In conjunction with the 9th Lancers’ tanks, which joined the infantry at first light, positions were established on the near bank of the double canal.
Between the London Irish and the Royal Irish Fusiliers, B Squadron of 56 Recce Regiment, with some of the Sherman tanks of the 4th Hussars, was having a confused struggle to cross the two canals in the village of Portomaggiore itself. One of these canals was at the entry to, and the other at the exit from, the town. The crux of the position was an enemy strong point at Croatia, just north of and overlooking the town, which was holding out with such obstinacy that no progress was possible beyond the second canal and the squadron was confined to the difficult, rubble strewn area of the town’s western outskirts.
In 36 Brigade’s sector, all-round advances had been made overnight. 56 Recce Regiment, less B Squadron, was still under command and had passed through the Argylls, only a short time behind the Buffs. From Consandolo, the regiment had swung to the west and, at first, had met little enemy resistance in a rapid advance. A Squadron patrolled westwards during the early morning towards the Po Morto di Primaro and the Fossa Molino (two waterways, which run south from San Nicolo Ferarese towards the flooded lands by Budrio). These patrols met firm enemy resistance on a line approximately 2 miles east of the canals but it seemed certain that the enemy forces there were merely intended to cover the road northwards on the west side of Route 16 and were not, therefore, a direct menace to the Division’s main line of advance, which ran north from Consandolo.
On the extreme left flank, Route 16 had been opened for normal traffic and interest in the area west and south of the road waned into obscurity.
During the course of the day, repeated attempts were made by B Squadron of the Recce Regiment, assisted for a time by F Company of 2 LIR, to clear a way through Portomaggiore, but these were of no avail. In the afternoon, 2 Armoured Brigade was ordered to establish a small infantry bridgehead in the area west of the town, where it had originally hoped to seize the two bridges.
The London Irish Rifles, to whom F Company was, by this time, returning, succeeded in establishing two small bridgeheads over the canals by 1530 hours, to a great accompaniment of smoke, high explosive and flame from ‘Wasps’.
As a result of this successful small operation, it was decided that the main axis of the Division would follow through the bridgehead and would not be led round through Portomaggiore.
This decision taken, it was essential to exploit the foothold rapidly and get some bridging work in progress. Accordingly, 11 Brigade, which was entirely in Divisional reserve near Argenta, was ordered to pass into the bridgehead, enlarge it to cover bridging operations and press on astride the railway to cross the next canal, the Nicolo. For the purpose of this operation, the London Irish Rifles, already in the bridgehead, were placed under command of 11 Brigade and the Bays passed, at the same time, to 11 Brigade’s command.
By 2300 hours on the 19th, 2 LIR, with great assistance from the Divisional Artillery, had successfully enlarged the two small bridgeheads and merged them into one, which covered the whole triangular area between the canals Belriguardo and Bolognese and a line north east from Porto Rotta. The sappers started work at once on a crossing of the two canals to enable tanks to get over and 11 Brigade prepared to cross with the Lancashire Fusiliers leading, followed by the Surreys. Each battalion was accompanied by a squadron of tanks from the Bays.
At 0145 hours, 2 LF began to move across and very soon afterwards, whilst the area was still under fire from enemy mortars, the sappers completed a bulldozed crossing of the twin canals and tanks began to pass across. The operation of moving into and through this small bridgehead proved more complicated than had been expected. Trouble was experienced in getting the wheeled vehicles over the crossing and, due to this and various other causes, the advance astride the railway with two battalions up (the Surreys on the right and the Lancashire Fusiliers on the left) did not get going until approximately 0900 hours. When it did begin, opposition proved to be stiff and the going was slow. By nightfall, positions were reached astride the railway on the general line of the road running south from Runco to the railway, thence westwards on the road to Montesanto as far as the Fossa Rivalda and thence south westwards to the twin canals di Porto and Bolognese. At the left extremity, the line now joined up with the positions of 5 Buffs, who had pushed on during the day, in the general direction of San Nicolo Ferarese and had thus confirmed with the main thrust beyond the twin canals.
While the main operation of 11 Brigade was going on, 5 Northamptons, who were in Brigade reserve, detached one company to join 2 Armoured Brigade. This company, together with the Sherman tank squadron of the 4th Hussars, set out at 1200 hours to assist B Squadron of the Recce Regiment and achieve what the squadron alone had so far been unable to do in dislodging the enemy from Portomaggiore and Croatia on the extreme right flank. This proved a very sticky operation. In Croatia, the enemy had two SP guns and plenty of ammunition; in the general area of the town, he had enough men; by nightfall, it looked as if progress had ceased and the enemy was still in occupation. As a result of this situation, 256 Field Company was prevented from getting to work on the north west exit from Portomaggiore and it was here that it was essential that a bridge be soon established in order to open up the main road north to Voghenza.
Meanwhile, away on the left, a great change had taken place. Between the Division’s left flank (at that time 56 Recce Regiment) and the marshy waste to the west of Route 16, the Armoured Division had begun to filter through on the evening of the 19th April. By early morning on the 20th, while 11 Brigade was beginning its advance north west of Porto Rotta, 2 Lothians reached San Nicolo Ferarese and the general situation on the left flank looked good and likely to get even better.
Progress on our front during the 20th had been slow and, by late afternoon, the Divisional Commander decided that, in spite of the fact that the forward troops of 11 Brigade were still short of Nicolo Canal, an attack must be made that night, so that the canal might be bridged before the enemy could fully regain his balance.
38 Brigade, now in reserve, was detailed for the operation and a conference was called at 11 Brigade Headquarters. There, on the side of his Dingo, the Brigadier gave out his orders.
The plan was to cross the Nicolo Canal between the railway and the twin canals in the region forward of the Fossa Rivaldo over which 2 LF had already secured an intact crossing. It was known that all bridges across the Nicolo Canal were destroyed but it was thought that, as they had been demolished cleanly at each end, it would be possible for infantry to cross by the rubble and demolished spans.
Zero hour for the attack was fixed for 0130 hours on April 21st.
The attack went in as planned, with 1 RIrF on the left and 2 Innisks on the right. On the north side of the railway, 5 Northamptons gave protection to the right flank and, beyond the twin canals in the south, 5 Buffs conformed with the advance. Both Irish battalions moved forward quickly behind the gunners’ barrage and, by 0220 hours, two companies from each were across the canal, having used the rubble of the demolished bridge as stepping stones.
Opposition was far lighter than had been expected, many enemy having probably withdrawn as the barrage approached. By 0500 hours, the bridgehead was 800 yards deep, taking in the village of Montesanto and 30 prisoners had been taken, mostly from the 26th Panzer Division. Under cover of the bridgehead, 237 Field Company of the Divisional engineers succeeded in bulldozing a crossing of the canal, which allowed the 10th Hussars to begin moving across at about 0800 hours. This regiment of 2 Armoured Brigade had been under the 56th Division’s command until a few days previously and had only just returned to its parent formation. The Bays, having already been deployed with 11 Brigade and 9 Lancers, being held on the leash to go through with the ‘KangarooForce’, 10 Hussars were now allotted the role of armoured support for the Irish Brigade. By mid morning, most of the two squadrons had joined the infantry around Montesanto.
Meanwhile, B Squadron of the Recce Regiment, with the tanks of 4 Hussars and the company of Northamptons, succeeded in clearing Croatia and so removed a constricting pressure from the right flank. The Surreys, at about the same time, occupied Runco, to the north of the railway and almost up to the Nicolo canal.
In order to obtain a major breakthrough, however, it was necessary to unleash the ‘Kangaroo Force’ as soon as possible. Before this could be done, a larger bridgehead over the Nicolo canal was essential and 38 Brigade was ordered, therefore, to exploits gains with all speed.
In spite of continuing opposition and some very heavy shelling, the two Irish battalions succeeded in making a considerable enlargement of the whole bridgehead area by midday, and there was room, at last, for the ‘Kangaroo’ forced to form up over the canal.
This time, the orders to the Armoured Brigade were to seize Quartesana and Cona and the bridges over the canals at these two places. The distance involved was about 5 miles from the bridgehead and it was getting late.
After an unpleasant spell in an assembly area, the force began to rattle on its way at about 1500 hrs, creeping out in the open through the positions of the Inniskillings. As usual, difficulty was experienced in getting clear of our own forward positions and before the force was finally out in the open, it was late in afternoon.
As they tried to push on, both tanks and infantry came under intense fire from self propelled guns and enemy tanks. Frequently, these were sited in and around the farm buildings, which dotted the whole area and every house was a potential strong point. Several times, the infantry were compelled to de-buss and mop up enemy points of this kind as well as individual enemy with Bazookas, who were troublesome over the entire area.
Invaluable assistance to the armour was given by the RAF, whose cab ranks were at immediate call to the Brigade. A number of enemy strong points, tanks and guns were destroyed by this means.
As time wore on, resistance began to stiffen more and more. Despite all that had been done by the RAF and the infantry in ‘Kangaroos’, fire from enemy tanks and self propelled guns increased. The gunners were trying to give their maximum support and several ‘Uncle Targets’ were engaged with good effect. It was, however, just beginning to be difficult for the main weight of the divisional artillery to cover the ground ahead of this highly mobile force. It was the first and only occasion during the whole operation when the full weight of the divisional artillery was not available for each portion of the front. Eve at this time, the armoured force was able to call on the fire of 11 RHA, which was moving with the armour on 17 Field Regiment RA (two batteries using supercharge) and on tow medium regiments, which were able to give full support.
As darkness began to fall there, there was a growing atmosphere of suspense. The force, with its tanks and infantry and ‘Kangaroos’, was out on its own; no friendly troops were on either flank; close air support was over for the day and gunner support was limited; despite his disorganisation, the enemy had plenty of men and guns in the neighbourhood.
Reports kept coming in over the wireless of “Many Krauts on our right”. And “Ted transport coming out of range on the left”.
A quick conference was held by 2 Armoured Brigade’s commander: he confirmed that the bridges at Cona and Quartesana were to be seized that night.
The battle, which followed, was unorthodox, thrilling and magnificently fruitful. By the light of a bright moon and burning tanks and farm house, the force approached the bridges simultaneously in two columns. E Company made for Quartesana and F Company for Cona. Chaotic fighting ensued with tracer flying in every direction.
Quartesana, the approaches of which were continuously under mortar fire, contained three enemy tanks, several strong points of ‘Bazooka-men’ and a number of machine posts. The village, and the bridge beyond it, were rushed by the tanks and ‘Kangaroos’ and, after knocking out two of the 9th Lancers’ tanks, the enemy withdrew in confusion into the darkness. The bridge was taken intact.
In Cona, a more complex battle developed. An enemy 15 cm gun was sited 100 yards beyond the river and was being used to fire over open sights into the area of the bridge and the village. It was backed up by strong points into the area of the bridge and the village. It was backed up strong groups of machine gunners and ‘Bazooka-men’. Two attempts were made by F Company, with the tanks, to rush the bridge and the second shot was successful; a firm bridgehead was seized shortly after 2300 hours and H Company was rushed up to reinforce F Company in holding the ground.
At 0100 hours on the 22nd, both bridges were securely in our hands, nearly 10,000 yards beyond the Nicolo Canal, which had been the front line at midday. A number of enemy had been killed and nearly 60 prisoners taken. Several trucks and a 15 centimetre gun had been captured: a heavily laden lorry, trying to escape, was hit at close range at close range by a shot from one of our tanks: the cargo was, or had been, artillery ammunition.
Meanwhile, other elements of the Division had not been idle. Operating o the right flank of the Armoured Brigade and under its command, 56 Recce Regiment (less B Squadron), advanced during the late advance during the late afternoon to occupy the general line of the Condito Belriguardo from Voghenza northwards to just short of Quartesana. In the course of this operation, many mines and demolitions were encountered and numerous pockets of enemy were eliminated. Voghenza was seized and 19 prisoners were taken.
At the same time, on the left of the Armoured Brigade, 36 Brigade, with 48 RTR, was again doing great things. During the morning of the 21st, while the Irish Brigade was extending its bridgehead over the Nicolo Canal, the Buffs crossed the Fossa di Porto and came up on left. At 1330 hours, the Argylls were put at half hour’s notice to move and, at 1530 hours, they, too, were off.
These last few miles before Ferrara covered flat and very open country which, despite the multitude of canals and dykes, proved to be favourable ground for the tanks. The regiment made the most of it; by 1900 hours, with the Argylls, the armour reached Possessione San Antonio, after encountering resistance similar to that in the Armoured Brigade’s sector. Being without ‘Kangaroo’ Carriers, however, the infantry in this spearhead were less fortunate and suffered a number of casualties (about 25 wounded) between mid afternoon and sunset. A number of prisoners was taken, including some ill mannered Nazis of the 26th Recce Unit.
After nightfall, the Argylls, followed now by 6 RWK, continued to push on rapidly and, by 0100 hours, had reached the line of the Po di Volano to the west of Cona. That this was achieved so close on the heels of the Armoured Brigade was a grand success of the pedestrian infantry.
The Argylls were anxious, having com so far and so rapidly, to push on over the Po di Volano without delay. This request, however, was refused as there were no bridges intact across the river in the sector and tanks would not have been able to follow.
During the small hours of the morning of 22nd April, 6 RWK moved round behind the Argylls and began to clear up all the country south of the Po di Volano and as far west as the Divisional boundary, just short of Route 16. Just before dawn, the peace of Battalion Headquarters in Palmirano was disturbed by the arrival of a German Mark IV tank. Evidently, having called on the wrong day, it made off in the darkness to try its luck elsewhere. 6 RWK continued clearing up towards the west.
During the same period, further moves were taking place in the wake of the 2nd Armoured Brigade’s advance. 5 Northamptons were moved up during the night behind the Recce Regiment and took over Voghenza and the line of the Condito Belriguardo. The Recce Regiment, thus relieved, was able to concentrate, by first light in Gualdo and the division’s right flank was, at the same time, made firm for the following day. In addition, to this relief, 2 LF moved up in the middle of the night and took over Cona from the Armoured Brigade.
During the morning of 22nd April, 56 Recce Regiment, still under command of the Armoured Brigade, pushed on towards the Po di Volano in a north westerly sweep on a broad front from Cona and Quartesana. Enemy infantry were by-passed and useful information was obtained on the state of the roads and bridges
At 1230 hours, the Regiment passed to under command of 11 Brigade which had, by this time, taken up the lead through the Armoured Brigade’s bridgehead.
During the afternoon, a good deal of enemy resistance was encountered in the area of Contrapo and thence northwards and eastwards. The Lancashire Fusiliers were directed through the Recce Regiment’s positions to try and deal with some of this and, on the right, the Northamptons were passed through and directed on the river to the east of the bridge by Fossalta. As evening drew on, however, resistance stiffened all along the front and it seemed that a considerable pocket of enemy as contained south of the river between Cona on the left and the Diversivo di Volano, south of Fisalta, on the right.
At the east end of the Diversivo di Volano, which at the time was beyond the Divisional boundary, 167 Brigade of 56th Division had had a battle in the middle of the day and little progress had been made from there to the north. Further east, however, in Sabbioncello, 1 Buffs from 24 Guards Brigade had crossed the river and found the bridge in an easily reparable state. The main effort of the 56th Division was, therefore, directed on this route.
As a result of this fortunate find, the inter-divisional boundary was changed by 5 Corps late on the evening of the 22nd and the main axis of 78th Division was turned north east. 11 Brigade was ordered to take advantage of the presence of 56th Division on the far side of the river and to establish a bridgehead in the area south of Fossalta. A considerable enemy pocket still remained south of the river but it had, by evening, been almost entirely compressed into the river bend or ‘bulge’.
During the night, the Northamptons crossed the river against negligible opposition but ran into strong enemy posts almost immediately as they began to extend the bridgehead. There was, however, a firm footing on the far side and bridging operations began.
With the exception of the enemy left in the Fossalta bulge, the ground was now clear up to the Po di Volano. From the time at which 2 Armoured Brigade and 36 Infantry Brigade had broken out from the Argenta position until 11 Brigade reached and crossed the Po di Volano, was a period of just three days. In this time, the enemy had been relentlessly hustled along every inch of his many routes of withdrawal. In the minds of his commanders, there must have been a rising panic as the whole force became compressed against the Po’s south bank as the Air Force continued to pound and slash at the crossings of this great river and, as the queues of men and transport, guns, tanks, horses, mules and all the cumbersome paraphernalia of war, grew larger and thicker in the fields of the plain and along the floodbanks of the river. So long, however, as the line of the Po di Volano held, there was always a chance that another “Dunkirk” might be achieved.
But the line of the Po di Volano had not held, someone had made a tragic bloomer and failed effectively to blow the Sabbioncello bridge; even the limited hope of achieving a “Dunkirk” faded in that second of time.
Destruction of the enemy south of the River Po.
The morning of April 23rd showed us little major change on our own front, with the Division now closed up to the line of the Po di Valano and the Diversivo di Volano round the Fossalto pocket. 5 Northamptons had a firm bridgehead over the river and the sappers began work on the bridge site at first light.
During the day, the Northamptons carried out operations to extend their bridgeheads and were supported in this by tanks of the Bays, which were passed round through the 56th Division’s bridgehead in Sabbioncello and thence west along the north bank of the river. At the same time, the Lancashire Fusiliers were engaged in trying to wipe out the enemy pocket south of the river by Baura.
By mid morning, the Northamptons succeeded in clearing the Fossalta and 11 Brigade was in the process of passing the Surreys across the river by boat and raft. Progress everywhere was slow due to the very open country where wide fields of fire were available to the enemy from any of the innumerable little groups of farm buildings dotted over the plain.
On the right, meanwhile, 56th Division had made great strides forward and had cleared Copparo by first light. On the left, 8th Indian Division was pushing northwards from the area of Ferrara and, further west, a race to the river was in progress. Tanks of the North Irish Horse (21 Tank Brigade), with the infantry of 8th Indian Division started to advance at 0600 hours with the intention of reaching the banks of the river. At 1045 hours, they arrived, having taken large numbers of prisoners and by-passed the town of Ferrara altogether. At 1055 hours, 6 Armoured Division’s leading tanks reached the Po further to the west and, very shortly afterwards, troops of 5th Army were reported as being on the each bank at San Benedetto.
On our own front, the enemy continued to hold out stubbornly and, at the time, it was hard to understand why so little progress was being made towards the river crossings near Polesella.
By evening, 1 Surreys were across the river and had joined 5 Northamptons, whilst 56 Recce Regiment with 2 LF were trying to make progress into the area of the “bulge” and to the west of it.
At last light, the Northamptons reached Giacomo at the head of the bulge and the Surreys were beginning to pass through. The bridge was expected to be complete at any time and the Irish Brigade, with 10 Hussars, was ready to cross over and push on.
At 2300 hours, the bridge was ready and 2 Innisks started to cross. The Royal Irish Fusiliers were to follow and each battalion was supported by tanks of 10 Hussars.
The plan was as follows. The Brigade would pass through the bridgehead with as little delay as possible and, with the Inniskillings leading, would seize the village of Saletta. This was chosen as the first Brigade objective because the small village of Tamara between Fossalta and Saletta, had been occupied during the day by 1 London Irish Rifles of 56th Division. Once in Saletta, the Inniskillings were to press north directed on the river crossings at Zocca and Ro, whilst the Royal Irish Fusiliers were to strike to north westwards towards Ruina and the banks of the river west of Zocca.
Having crossed the river, the Inniskillings moved north as planned and all went well until they began to approach Saletta at about 0200 hours. Here, in the narrow approaches to the village, they began to run into serious trouble. The enemy’s determination to stand was not one atom diminished from its earlier intensity and a fierce battle at close quarters ensued.
At this stage, it became glaringly apparent why the approaches to the Po just east of Ferrara were proving so troublesome. 76th Panzer Corps, containing 26th Panzer and 29th Panzer-Grenadier Divisions, which had been given the task of covering the withdrawal of all the other forces, had chosen as its own line of withdrawal the crossings over the Po in the area of Polesella. Thanks to the work of the RAF, the bulk of this Corps was still waiting to cross.
At 0500 hours on the 24th, the fighting in Saletta was over and the Inniskillings were breaking through the town and pushing north. As soon as they were clear of the village, the Irish Fusiliers followed and turned towards Ruina. As morning broke, both battalions were pushing on slowly, but surely, towards the Po.
On the left, 11 Brigade, with the Bays, had also made progress. The Northamptons, advancing north west from Giacomo, were nearing Correggio at dawn, and the Surreys on the right, were preparing to attack a strong enemy position at Corlo, covering the bridge over the canal north west of the village.
During the evening, a break began to appear. The Northamptons attacked and captured Corregio, the Surreys forced their way through Corlo and seized the bridge intact – a notable achievement and one of the first importance at this stage: the RAF struck at very strong enemy positions on the line of the Canale Fossetta in front of which the Irish Brigade was held up; the ‘Kangaroo Force’ was passed over the river and prepared to strike out on its last taste of destruction.
Amidst all this activity, a further great work was in hand; plans were being made for crossing the Po and the next stage of the pursuit. In this connection, 78th Division had been ordered to cross the river with one Brigade Group as soon as could be done after reaching the south bank. At the same time, a Brigade of 56th Division was to assault on the right.
The Divisional Commander had chosen 36 Brigade to lead the Division over the river and, accordingly, operations were in progress during the evening of the 23rd and the morning of the 24th to relieve the Brigade of its existing commitments south east of Ferrara. By 1045 hours on the 24th, this relief was complete and 56 Recce Regiment had taken over the Brigade’s positions.
At midday, a big planning conference was in progress at Brigade Headquarters: ‘Fantails’ and amphibious tanks were being discussed; the launching and landing beaches were being chosen; a thousand questions, not previously thought of, were popping up to puzzle; and at 1300 hours, the operation was cancelled. 6th Armoured, 2nd New Zealand and 8th Indian Divisions were all up to the Po farther to the west and were meeting no opposition on the banks; it was obviously a waste of time for building operations to be delayed until the 78th Division reached the river through an area still strongly held by the enemy.
Soon after midday, 2 Armoured Brigade’s private army was launched. It was ordered to pass between the two infantry brigades and sweep westwards towards the Ferrara – Pontelagoscuro canal moving between the Canale Fossetta and the Fossa Lavezoola.At the same time, 11 Brigade was to do a similar sweep westwards and clear the ground between the Canale Fossetta and the Po di Volano. The Irish Brigade was to continue on its original axis, directed on Zocca and Ruina.
“Mobile battle” and “fluid situations” reigned during the afternoon but, as evening approached, a distinct stiffening of resistance was noticeable on the Armoured Brigade’s front. At 1800 hours, there were reports of many enemy tanks in the area just north of Ferrara and, shortly afterwards, as the light was failing, 9 Lancers fought an exciting action in which 7 enemy Mark IV tanks, moving north east towards the ferries, were knocked out for the loss of only one of their own.
By this time, a peculiar state of affairs had been reached. Having swept right across 11 Brigade’s front, the ‘Kangaroo Force’ was strung out for some 4,000 yards with an open right flank and, with tank actions in progress over the whole area; night was drawing on; the infantry, in their ‘Kangaroos’, were a wonderful target for lurking enemy tanks in the general confusion and semi darkness. To exploit the enemy’s distress, however, it was decided that the battle would be pressed on by moonlight. The landscape was ablaze with burning houses and vehicles: further north, the RAF was dropping flares and bombing the roads and railways beyond the Po: in addition to the fires caused by bombing, shelling and mortaring, a new destruction had begun – the enemy was setting light to everything he had.
At 2030 hours, 5 Corps telephoned to say there were strong indications that the enemy had lost control of the situation. Intelligence channels had intercepted messages from the German command, that the situation was desperate and that each man must fend for himself. It was believed that the chief confusion was centred round the river crossings north of Pescara and Francolino.
As a result of this information, the Divisional Commander ordered 2 Armoured Brigade to swing round the north, cross the Fossa Lavezzola and make for the “disorderly enemy”. This was not, however, to be done before the engagement already in progress was brought to an end.
At 2235 hours, the Armoured Brigade, having had some four hours of intense and swift fighting, reported that things were beginning to quieten down. There had been a great deal of hostile fire from enemy tanks and self propelled guns throughout the Brigade battle zone and the force had become widely dispersed, each portion, including Brigade Headquarters, having had its own battle to fight. The intention was now to collect the bits and pieces together and move on towards the river, as soon as possible.
In order to carry out this new task and switch the axis through more than ninety degrees, a deliberate advance was decided upon and a fire plan was arranged. By 0130 hours, the infantry, with F and G Companies up, began to feel their way north, the tanks following some distance behind, ready to press through if opposition was met.
In the past few hours, however, the whole complexion of the front had changed. At sunset on the 24th, there had been strong groups of enemy tanks and self propelled guns mingled with numerous small detachments of infantry equipped with machine guns and bazookas. These forces – although scattered and disorganised, had known their job and were determined to do it. They were to delay our advances by every means at their disposals and, especially in front of the crossings at Polesella, Zocca and Francolino. They were to fight until all their main elements had crossed the river.
As dawn approached on the 25th, this was no longer the case. Organised resistance was at an end.
A plan made overnight for the swift and thorough clearance of the whole divisional area was put into effect at first light. One squadron of the Recce Regiment passed to under command of each of 11, 38 and 2 Armoured Brigades and these three formations were each given an area stretching south from a sector of the river bank.
On the right, the Irish Brigade entered Zocca and Ruina to find an incredible scene of devastation. Packed in the fields, queued up in lanes, cast in ditches, in farmyards and woods, everywhere – even to the river itself – lay the remains of the transport and equipment of 76 Panzer Corps. Practically everything was destroyed: anything that had not been riddled with cannon – shell or torn by bomb splinters from the air forces, had been burnt by the enemy as he fled. The only large quantity of serviceable things seemed to be the horse, these, abandoned, roamed everywhere amongst the devastation.
To the west of Ruina, 11 Brigade was given a sector up to the river and, here, similar conditions prevailed, although there was less equipment than in the Irish Brigade’s area. Having cleared up to the bank by midday, the task of watching the river was handed over the Recce Squadron and the battalions concentrated in Baura (2 LF), Corlo (1 Surreys) and Correggio (5 Northamptons).
On the left of the divisional sector, 2 Armoured Brigade did similar sweeping up and also handed over the river line to the Recce Squadron by evening.
The story is over: the intention of the Allied Armies in Italy was carried through to the end; on the ground before us was evidence enough of how much our enemy had lost. Despite all, however, few realised how near this was to the end, not of a phase in the war but of the whole odious epoch. One of those, who knew, was General Graf von Schwerin, commander of 76 Panzer Corps who, with his personal staff, surrendered to 27 Lancers on the morning of April 25th. On being asked the disposition of his Corps at that time, he is said to have replied – “You will find it south of the River Po”.
No small part of this vast achievement was due to the Air Forces; the accuracy of their bombing and fire, the promptness of their action on receiving a request and, best of all, their constant presence in the air above our heads – all these things hastened victory more than any can tell. No small part was played by each of the other divisions, which fought in the fight.
In this report, however, we set out to describe the actions of our own division; its part was not a small one either.