Irish Brigade

The story of the 38th (Irish) Brigade in the Second World War

Royal Engineers, 78 Division


The Advance from the Senio to the Po.

March had been a month of preparation. Days were spent in experiment, demolition of floodbanks, use of assault equipment, rapid bridging methods – all presented problems that were studied and re-studied until the questions they posed were answered and the answers proved. Early April saw the tension increase. There were speculations about the weather, about the enemy’s morale, about his intentions. One thing alone was sure, this was to be the last offensive.

78th Division did not take part in the attack that breached the Senio line. Their role was to be the classic one of exploitation.

On April 10th – the day after the attack began, 237 (H) Field Company built a 60 foot Bailey bridge across the Senio. That day and the next, the Division poured across the river into the concentration areas around Lugo. For the sappers, there were craters to be repaired and mines to be lifted. At this time was instituted a custom by which a Sapper officer each day made an air reconnaissance of the ground to be covered by the day’s advance. Extremely valuable information on demolitions and obstacles was obtained in this way and enabled a comprehensive plan to be made for the day’s work.

On the night of 11th April, the Santerno was crossed and 78th Division passed through the bridgehead established by Indian and New Zealander troops. The breakout was made by two brigades – 36 Brigade attacking westwards towards the Torrento Sillaro, while covering the flank of 38 (Irish) Brigade’s main drive north along the line of Fiume Santerno. Good progress was made by the infantry and tanks and the sapper companies supporting them repaired craters and established the brigade axis. The situation was frequently confused. One sergeant from 256 Field Company, removing charges from a captured bridge was justifiably surprised when a bridge was blown up only 50 yards away and far behind the leading troops.  

On the 13th April, 214 Field Company – with ‘E’ Assault Squadron of ‘A’ Assault Regiment attached to them – made an ‘Ark’ Crossing of the Scolo Fossatone. Maintenance of roads – for Up traffic, Down traffic and tanks – became as it was to remain – the main problem. Several occasions saw sapper units being shelled, casualties fortunately were light but they included a hit on a bulldozer that wounded two operators and immobilised the machine.

On the 14th, 36 Brigade was on the Sillaro and 38 Brigade was on the Reno, 214 Field Company spanned the partly demolished bridge over the Scolo Conselice with two 50 foot Bailey bridges, after an ‘Ark’ had enabled the leading tanks to cross before it slipped askew. A reconnaissance of the Reno was attempted but was prevented by enemy machine gun fire.

The advance had been so rapid that many minefields were overrun, still with their marking signs on and wire around them. In one case, ‘Flails’ were used to make a track to the river’s edge but this track was not developed.

The following evening, after several other sites had been closed and then cancelled, bridging began alongside the railway bridge and, by afternoon off the 16th, a 110 foot bridge with its long and difficult approaches was opened to traffic. 

Meanwhile, the 11 Brigade had crossed the Reno lower down in the 56th Division area and had begun to attack on their left. The reconnaissance flight, these days, looked down on an area that was bounded on the west by the Reno and its swamps, on the east by Lake Comacchio and the marshes that fringed it. Across the narrow strip of land of land between them – some four miles wide – in the ruins of Argenta and along the tank proof Fossa Marina, the enemy had prepared his major line of resistance. By the 17th, against fierce and determined opposition, this line was broken and Argenta was ours. ‘Flail’ tanks had made a gap in the minefields, enabling an ‘Ark’ crossing of the Fossa to be made. The next day, 237 Field Company replaced this ‘Ark’ by a small Bailey bridge. 

236 Field Company were also supporting 11 Brigade in their attack. The truck, in which their OC and another officer were travelling, was blown up on a mine but neither were wounded and each insisted on remaining at his post. This company began to open the roads through the much damaged Argenta.

These were hectic days, the situation changed so rapidly that it was seldom possible to plan in advance with any certainty. Plans were formulated, effected and countermanded (Didn’t you know? It’s all been changed). For the sappers particularly, the administration problems raised were vast and never ending. Simple matters, like marrying a bulldozer to its transporter of getting diesel to some mechanical equipment that was far from its parent unit – all such things had to be foreseen and catered for. If, perhaps, these problems fell particularly hard on 281 Field Park Company, there could have been no unit more competent to cope with them.

By the 19th, our troops were meeting strong resistance along the line of the Fossa di Porto. The enemy had committed the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division in a last effort to stabilise a line somewhere, somehow. But by nightfall, infantry were across and still advancing. 214 Field Company bulldozed the crossing of the twin canals – during which operation, the officer in charge was wounded.

In the night, bombs were dropped on the area HQ RE and 281 Field Park Company.

A great amount of work was still being done by the RE to open up roads and keep them operating. On the 20th, 256 Field Company built a 70 foot bridge south of Portomaggiore and the next day – after having been held up by a most insistent pocket of enemy – built a 100 foot bridge in that town. 237 Field Company bulldozed a crossing of the San Nicolo Canal, enabling 38 Brigade to take up the chase. 214 Field Company, supporting 2nd Armoured Brigade, built an 80 foot bridge at Runco after they too had been held up a pocket of enemy near the inter divisional boundary. This company also filled in several craters in Quartesana during the night.

The 22nd saw the Division established on the Po di Volano. A few infantry crossed the river in assault boats and, behind this very slender bridgehead, the sappers began to build a large bridge, which was necessary. Work was begun by 256 Field Company shortly before dawn on the 23rd and the bridge – a 130 foot Double/double Bailey – was completed by 237 Field Company by nightfall. For reasons that must remain forever untold, it was christened “Lucky Diver” bridge. Despite the nearness to the enemy positions, there was relatively little shelling and no casualties.

The next day saw and Indian summer of German resistance as they tried vainly to get their troops back behind the Po. By dawn on the 25th, all resistance had been smashed, the Po reached all along the Divisional front and the area thoroughly swept for the last enemy in hiding. Companies opened the axes and the tank track up to the Po. 256 Field Company constructed a Down route over the Po di Volano, building for this purpose a 120 foot bridge, the central 80 feet being Double/Double with 20 foot at each end Double/Single. As a corollary to the “Lucky Diver“ bridge, this was christened  “Happy Mermaid”.      

78th Division now passed into 5 Corps reserve.

On the afternoon of the 25th, a company passed beneath the command of each neighbouring Division; 237 Field Company going to 8th Indian and 214 Field Company to 56th Division. Their specific job was to help in the assault crossing of the Po; but since this was unopposed, 214th Field Company found their primary task was road maintenance. Subsequently, both they and 237 Field Company operated rafts across the Po.

256 Field Company, meanwhile, began to collect together all the enemy bridging equipment left by the river side. Later, an improvised bridge – Bailey on German pontoons – was to be built. On the 29th, both 214 and 237 Field Companies returned to the Divisional area and the CRE’s command.

Thus, three weeks after the opening of the offensive, the Division was encamped in an area that was strewn with destroyed enemy tanks, guns and transport. This was a sight to which our troops had looked forward throughout the long winter in the Apennines and the early spring in Romagna; for this were the destruction of the enemy’s force.

This was Victory. 



 

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