By the evening of 16th April, 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 East Surreys leading on the right and 5 Northamptons on the left. 2 Lancashire Fusiliers followed in Brigade reserve. The advance had been made astride the railway and positions had been reached just short of the Fossa 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, 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 Fossa 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 that evolved was that, after dark, the East Surreys would move forward on the right and secure a firm base from which the Lancashire Fusiliers 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.
From 11 Brigade’s narrative.
“By last light on the 16th, the stiffening of the front was obvious.
The Northamptons on the left were right up to Argenta cemetery on the southern outskirts of the town with patrols probing forward to test the enemy defences – which were proved to be especially strong at the station and surrounding building. On the right, the Surreys were beginning to outflank the town from the north and were moving up to Fossa Marina, the 12 foot high tranverse tank proof obstacle, which the enemy had chosen for his all out stand.
This was the last and most difficult natural obstacle in the Gap itself, nearly everywhere, we were now through the worst mined areas and, if our advance was not stopped here, it would be the beginning of the end for the enemy. At dusk, forward movement was temporarily halted, as the Brigade Commander made his plan for the attack over the Fossa Marina. That this attack would have to be carried out by fresh troops on a battalion scale was a foregone conclusion and the Lancashire Fusiliers, until then in Brigade reserve, were quickly moved up and concentrated just behind the leading companies of the Surreys from, which position, they would be favourably situated to spring off and penetrate the Marina line.
The attack over the Fossa Marina and the final stages.
The line of the canal was held by II and III battalions of 71 Panzer Grenadier Regiment of 29th Panzer Grenadier Division – two of the hardest fighting units then at the disposal of the German Commander in Italy. For support, they had approximately twenty to thirty self propelled and tank destroyer equipments and the usual artillery and mortar sub units from Regiment and Divisional resources.To attack them was the single infantry battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers, backed up by the supporting arms already enumerated.
2100 hours was set as ‘H’ Hour and, exactly on the dot, the barrage opened with a soul shattering roar that seemed to shake the very atmosphere itself and lit up the flat surrounding farmland as if it were day. The vital consequences of the barrage were only discovered after the battle, when it was proved that the enemy had been surprised in the middle of a relief and many troops, who were moving up to the trenches, were caught in the open without cover and, as a result, suffered disastrous casualties, which affected subsequent operations.
As the barrage opened, the Surreys’ leading companies moved nearer to the canal banks and, from their firmly established bases, the Lancashire Fusiliers sprang forward at the main defence. Within twenty minutes, the Fusiliers were engaged in fierce hand to hand fighting with the fanatically resisting enemy – the fury of the struggle continued unabated for nearly forty minutes.
By 2200 hours, however, it became evident that the terrific vigour of the attack was beginning to take effect and, shortly after, the news came through that one infantry company was across complete and in the process of beating off a series of hastily organised counter attacks. A second company forced its way over the waterway within another hour and soon the familiar signs of disintegration among the enemy ranks began to show themselves. Over forty PW had been taken and more coming in every minute – hundreds of dead were counted on the far banks and floating in the blood soaked waters of the canal itself.
Three of the Bays tanks had, by this time, also succeeded in crossing the canal by means of superhuman efforts on the part of an ‘Ark’ tank and the supporting Royal Engineers, who had established a serviceable bridge immediately behind the first infantry company to cross the canal, approximately 2 km north east of Argenta town.
The bridgehead won by midnight, then, was two companies strong and, in depth, measured nearly three hundred yards constituting a menacing salient right into the crust of the enemy fortress. Three strong counter attacks had been successfully beaten off and not an inch ceded to the enemy.
At this stage, however, the bridgehead troops were pinned to the ground by an accurate and devastating counter barrage, which the enemy kept up for the remainder of that night. The Battalion Commander, Lt Col MC Pulford MC had, unfortunately, been wounded in the initial stages of the attack and Major JAH Saunders 2.i.c. took over for the rest of the battle – fighting the battalion with great courage and skill, which later won for him the award of the DSO.”
Brigadier Pat Scott’s narrative from 16th April.
“On the morning of the 16th, 11 Brigade passed through 56th Division towards Argenta, having made a detour to the east and passed over 56th Division’s bridges. At 1400 hours, we got a telephone message to say that we were to move at 1700 hours and pass through 11 Brigade after they had made a bridgehead over the Fossa Marina. The Bays were to cross back under our command on our arrival and the ‘Kangaroo Army’ of 9 Lancers, 4 Hussars and London Irish were to be reformed under command 2 Armoured Brigade. This sudden change in the armour caused some confusion, as preparations had already been made with 9 Lancers with regard to carrying ammunition in their tanks, netting their wireless sets and fixing in additional sets.
Our bridge was ready and we duly started off but there was the most terrible congestion on the road and bridge over the Reno. Something had gone a bit funny with the bridge at the last moment – it was a very long one. The London Irish were to go over at 0400 hrs the next morning in their ‘Kangaroos’ and “marry up” with 9 Lancers on the north of the Reno. Brigade Headquarters opened up that evening about 3,000 yards east of Bastia. The Brigade, less the London Irish, concentrated just to the north.
The plan was for us to pass through the Lancashire Fusiliers, as soon as they had secured their bridgehead over the Fosso Marina. These obstacles were the largest canal that ran from Argenta in a north westerly direction across our front. It was the main obstacle in the area. The Faughs were to go first and advance in a north westerly direction; the Skins were to follow them and swing west.
Zero hour was to be first light on the 17th. Each battalion had its squadron of tanks and normal supporting arms. The whole move was designed to outflank the town of Argenta on the east and then cut Route 16 north of it. The plan, if successful, would seal off the town and open a way through the gap.”