The Breakout from the Santerno bridgehead.
During the night of 11/12 April, the “form” on the Corps front was beginning to crystallise. The 8th Indian Division had elements of five battalions of 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 were 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 the 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 the 78th Division would pass into the bridgehead of the 8th Indian Division at once. The Divisional Commander ordered the 36th 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 was on the line of the Scolo Fossatone and every indication 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, was 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 and 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, was 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.
From Brigadier Pat Scott’s narrative:
“About half past eleven on the 12th, the Santerno bridgehead was beginning to look pretty good and bridges were expected to be ready sometime during the afternoon. The general advance on our northern flank was such that a variation to the original Divisional plan could be made. In the original plan, 36 Brigade were to sweep north along the east of the Santerno while we were on the West. It seemed unlikely that organised resistance east of the river would amount to anything very much and the wise alternative of switching 36 Brigade on to our left and merely using some of the Reconnaissance Regiment on the east of the river was decided upon. 36 Brigade was to strike out in a westerly direction towards San Patrizio and Conselice and so give us more elbow room to jump off and cover our flank. To be of most value in this role, it was clearly necessary that 36 Brigade should move first and fortunately the lay out in the “wedding area” permitted this to be done without any difficulty.
They started off at about 4 o’clock and were able to begin their attack that evening. We had also hoped to start that evening but congestion on the tracks and bridges and the shelling of our bridge delayed matters so much that we could not manage it. The attack was therefore postponed until dawn and the Faughs were told to maintain contact that night by patrolling. The Indians kept contact on the Skins’ front.”
War Diary Entries for 12th April 1945.
1) Irish Brigade HQ.
1130 The bridgehead over the Santerno formed by 8 Indian Division is now as follows – 320453 – 312450 – 309439 – 312427.
Plan now slightly adjusted. 36 Brigade will break out of the bridgehead first and attack west in the direction of San Patrizio 2746 and Conselice 2749.
When they were clear, 38 Brigade will attack north.
36 Brigade moved into the bridgehead and started their attack at 1800 hrs. 1 RIrF and Bays managed to get across the river in tome to take up positions but 2 Innisks were delayed due to shelling of the bridge and the congestion on the roads and did not arrive over the river till 1912 hrs. They concentrated around their Bttn HQ at 321447. Due to this delay, all attacks were postponed till dawn and 1 RIrF told to maintain contact by patrolling. Their locations were as follows:
HQ 313446 and coys at 315444, 312444, 316443, 317444.
Patrols during the night from 1 RIrF made contact with the enemy at several points.
2) 1 Royal Irish Fusiliers.
Start delayed for bridge repair. Late afternoon move HQ and four Rifle Coys plus 2 Squadrons (‘A’ and ‘C’) into bridgehead. Bttn HQ 313446. Tac recce party caught in sharp stonk. No casualties.
2100 Sharp stonk area in 313447. ‘A’ Squadron Queens’ Bays 2 casualties. ‘B’ Coy (Major Phelan MC) one casualty
3) 2 Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers.
A quiet day in which all Coys tied up every detail with their respective troops of tanks and then rested, waiting until the Santerno bridgehead had been made large enough to allow us to get in and then break out for our own part in the battle.
1100 The CO spoke to the whole Bttn on the “form” in which we would be fighting, namely the break out from a bridgehead and then the pursuit. After the CO’s talk, the Squadron Commander working with us, Major C Rich, and his troop commanders were introduced to the Bttn to make sure that everybody knew who was who; then the Coys went back to Coy areas and Troop Commanders discussed tank tactics with the Coys.
1300 Bttn placed at 3 hours notice to move. Information was received that the Gurkhas of 8th Indian Division had formed a bridgehead but that it was not yet big enough for us to get in.
2100 The CO attended an ‘O’ Group at Brigade HQ and learned that the Bttn was to move at 0600 hrs on 12th April, the plan being to break out of the Indian Division bridgehead and then advance up the west side of the Santerno on a two Bttn front. Innisks right, RIrF left. When the CO returned from Brigade HQ, he held his own ‘O’ Group conference at which he passed on all information learned at the Brigade HQ and gave his order of attack, which was A Coy right, B Coy left, each with a troop of tanks. These would be followed by Squadron HQ and the CO’s Tac HQ, which consisted of CO, IO and Battery Commanders with two signals for the three sets. All of Tac HQ travelled in one tank.
C Coy followed A and D Coy followed B with Main HQ, S Coy ‘Crocodiles’ assault section of REs in the centre. Reserve Coys and tanks had orders not to come close enough to become involved in the battle as this would hinder their deployment. Timings would have to be given out in the bridgehead after a recce had been made.
4) 2 London Irish Rifles.
0830 Kangaroos move into Bttn area. Bttn in state of readiness all day but no move was made.