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.
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. The 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 the road 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 the 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 o 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 was fully deployed in the area of Conselice and one company of 5 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 as 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 13th had indeed been an unlucky day – for the enemy.
From Brigadier Scott’s narrative:
“0630 hrs on the 13th was the zero hour for our ‘Breaking Out’ force.
36 Brigade, in the meanwhile, had done well and gave us considerable elbow room on our left flank. The Germans must have been a bit foxed when we turned north that morning, as 36 Brigade’s advance would have made them expect the main thrust to be in a westerly direction.
I left Main Brigade in the “wedding area” and established a Tactical HQ just east of Mondinaga with John Coombe, Margot Asquith commanding the Bays, Rupert Lecky commanding the 17th Field Regiment and with John McClinton as assistant.
I was very keen for the Faughs to get some elements of infantry and tanks across the Scolo Fossatone to cover the left flank. This was more easily said than done but, fortunately, with the assistance of the Assault REs, we got them across. As the advance went northwards to the bottle neck of La Giovecca, the frontage between the Santerno and the Fossatone narrowed down to less than a thousand yards. I felt it was important that we should be on a rather broader front than this if we were to have room to get the ponderous ‘Kangaroo Army’ through the Gap.
The nature of the country was true to the form that I had previously described. Although not yet in leaf, the vines and trees restricted visibility to about 100 yards and provided excellent cover for small determined parties on both sides. Especially did it help the Bosche bazooka men. Enemy strong points were continually being met but, by the speedy and determined efforts of the tank-cum-infantry packets, they were soon dealt with.
The strongest resistance was probably met about the line running east and west through San Bernadino. Elements of the 8th Indian Division were advancing on this place from the east but, even so, the Skins had a tough time in this sector. The Bosche were sitting tight in their holes and it took quite a lot of determined work to kill or capture them.
By about midday, both battalions were approaching the La Giovecca bottleneck and the moment seemed ripe to unleash John Coombe and his Kangaroo Army.
It was a difficult job getting so many armoured vehicles through this thick country and to pass them through our foremost troops. I had arranged for recognition signals to be fired by verey pistol to indicate our forward positions to the approaching tanks but, even with this aid, they found great difficulty in determining friend from foe. Leading elements of the mobile force was beginning to take on the enemy by about 1330.
I include here the London Irish account of this phase of the battle:
“The object of the Kangaroo Army was to secure crossings over the Conselice Canal and, if possible, exploit to the River Reno, several thousands of yards ahead.
At first, little resistance was encountered. The Skins and the Faughs had given the enemy a good shaking and he was on the move back. Scattered enemy Bazooka men were met and one tank was lost through the fire of an anti tank gun but a number of prisoners were taken by G Company.
As the Conselice Canal was approached, the rivers opened out and H Company, with C Squadron of the 9th Lancers, came up on the left. Resistance was encountered in the village of La Frascata. This was immediately by passed but, as the leading tanks arrived at the canal, the bridge was blown up immediately in front of them. H Company, who had driven past La Frascata in their Kangaroos, speedily de bussed on the banks of the canal and, covered by the tanks, forced a crossing over the remains of the road and railway bridges, getting into the houses on the far bank so rapidly that few of the defenders managed to escape.
Meanwhile, G Company was clearing the area up to the canal bank on the right and E Company was ordered to clear La Frascata and assist H Company in holding and enlarging the bridgehead. The enemy had been surprised by the speed and weight of the attack. Few of them, not more than ten, had been killed but all three forward companies had taken numbers of prisoners. By 1830 hours, the total was eighty.
The bridgehead was firmly established by 2200 hours and Companies were dug in for the night. Sappers were building a bridge over the canal, the armour was in leaguers and plans for the following day were being made. A large increase in the number of wrist watches possessed by H Company was noticed…”
Citation for the award of the Military Medal to RIFLEMAN HJ THRUSH, 2 LIR.
“During the attack over the Conselice Canal, south of Lavenzola, on 13 Apr ’45, Rfn Thrush’s Platoon came under heavy small arms fire before crossing the canal. Spotting an enemy machine gun which covered the canal crossings from the other bank he doubled to a fire position engaging it with such accuracy that the Platoon was able to cross on their second attempt.
He was wounded in the buttock, whilst the butt of his Bren Gun was also hit by a bullet. He remained in action for over an hour after his incident before reporting to the RAP. He refused to be evacuated and was eventually sent to ‘A’ Echelon. He returned repeatedly with the ration truck trying to obtain permission to rejoin his Platoon. This was granted after his third request and he was very soon in action again. This rifleman’s courage and determination has set a magnificent example to his Platoon.”