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 the 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, the 2nd 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. The 2nd 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.
From Brigadier Pat Scott’s narrative:
“On the 15th, the Faughs sent patrols to clear up the marsh lands up to the Sillaro river. The enemy was holding the far bank in some places and had strong points in houses. That evening, this clearing up job was taken over by 36 Brigade and the Faughs concentrated.
56th Division, in the meanwhile, had come up level with us on the north of the Reno and had passed across our front towards Bastia and Argenta so were able to start bridging operations across the River Reno. It was estimated that the bridge would be ready for our further advance by midday the following day and we were accordingly placed at four hours notice to continue the advance the next morning. Not only had our part of the battle gone according to plan – which is a very rare thing to happen – but the whole of the Army Group was moving according to schedule too. Everything was looking very promising, but the big battle of the Argenta Gap, on which the whole success of the 5 Corps advance depended, still lay above us. Some regrouping took place at this stage and we lost a good deal of our force. The Bays were to join 11 Brigade and 9 Lancers were to be with us. The 2nd Armoured Brigade from now on remained directly under Division. The ‘Crocodiles’, ‘Flails’ and Assault REs also left us as all those sort of things would be playing a big part in the dense minefields of the Argenta Gap.”
From the War Diaries of 15th April 1945.
1) Irish Brigade HQ.
Slight mortaring and shelling 2 LIR area during the night.
0600 2 LIR reverting to command 38 Brigade.
B Coy 1 RIrF commenced operation to clear marshland up to River Sillaro on brigade left flank. A strong point was established at 282548 and patrols were sent out east and west along the river bank. The enemy was holding the far bank of the river and had made strong points in the houses round about. A plan was tentatively discussed for a possible advance to clear. This task was eventually taken on by 36 Brigade and the 1 RIrF were given orders to concentrate as soon as possible around this HQ. Squadron 56 Recce will relieve B Coy 1 RIrF at first dark.
2300 1 RIrF report B Coy relieved and back in concentration area. All information concerning the sector was passed to Squadron 56 Recce. They reported about 60 shells in the coy area during the day and that they would never have got into position on the bank of the Sillaro had it not been for the early morning mist.
2330 OC 214 Field Company reports that the Bailey Bridge erected at 317563 over the River Reno should be ready by about midday tomorrow.
Message received from 78 Division placing the brigade at four hours notice to move as from 0600 hrs. 9 Lancers to be at 2 hours notice. The Bays had been posted to under command 11 Brigade at short notice this evening and the 9 Lancers were to cooperate with the brigade for future ops.
2) 1 Royal Irish Fusiliers.
B Coy (Major Phelan MC) with one section, 3” Mortars and 1 section MGs to area 281548 and 303565. Operation cancelled to move forward. 36 Brigade to continue mopping up. 2 casualties.
3) 2 Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers.
Another quiet day with no activity. B Squadron Bays passed from our command to take part in somebody else’s battle. Information was received that the bttn would be moving off into battle again on the 16th and that our tanks would be B Squadron of the 9th Lancers, when we were to contact at 0800 hrs on 16th April before moving off. The necessary preparations for the move were made and then everybody rested as much as possible in readiness.
4) 2 London Irish Rifles.
0900 Locations – Bttn HQ in Lavezzola village. F coy in area from road bridge 314564 to rail bridge 317563, with G Coy on the right in area 322562. The remaining platoon of E Coy in reserve behind F Coy. H Coy and A Echelon in village with Bttn HQ
1200 H Coy platoon with Pioneers and Partisan guides to patrol and mine sweep the road from the village to Case della Bisa 303505 on the bttn left flank.
1230 Sgt Vance of F Coy, puzzled by sudden quiet on the enemy side of the Reno, crossed over by the railway bridge and established contact with D Coy, 9 RF, 56 Division, who had advancing from the east. F Coy, thereupon, sent contact standing patrols to keep liaison with the 9 RF.
1400 Enemy machine gunner began to concentrate his fire on the rising piece of road from 31255605 to the road bridge.
L/Cpl Webb, who drive his carrier up this piece of road in the evening, received a burst of MG fire in the stomach and died later in the MDS.
1430 Allied fighter bomber activity to the north of F Coy.
1700 G Coy brought back from their positions to the village as territory to their front now held by 56 Division.
1800 Sitrep: 20 mortar bombs landed in Lavezzola in H Coy’s area during early afternoon. Sporadic mortar fire on FDLs during morning.
1830 Patrol to houses 311565 found them clear.
2000 Intentions night 15/16 – H Coy sniping patrol, consisting of 1 Bren gunner, 1 SMG and 1 sniper, to area houses 311565. Time out – 0500 hrs. In – 0900 hrs.